Look out, hygge, there’s a new Nordic buzzword to live by. Sisu is a Finnish way of being defined as “stoic determination, tenacity of purpose and hardiness”. I try my best to channel it one February morning in Helsinki as, teeth chattering, I shed my towel and climb down a ladder into the frozen Baltic Sea, the surface crusted over with a slush of ice that bobs with the tide.
Cold water swimming may be having a prolonged moment in the UK, but the Finns have known about the mental and physical benefits of talviuinti (ice swimming) for centuries. In a country where lakes are frozen over from October until May each year, many Finns think nothing of starting the day by drilling their own ice hole for a dip in -20C water. Assuming there’s something to this uplifting ritual, championed by global names such as Dutch motivational speaker Wim Hof, could this extreme bathing be one of the reasons Finland is officially the happiest nation on the planet? I’m determined to brave the cold and find out.
At Rauhaniemi Public Baths in the city of Tampere – Finland’s “sauna capital” – I wade into the pitch-black water one snowy night, ice threatening to close in around the edges of the aavanto (the hole drilled into the frozen surface). Breathing deep, I tread the inky water. Staying still in this cold brings a strange rush of pain and pleasure. My toes ache, but the rest of me feels incredibly alive, my skin tingling and my head clear.
Niina Kärkkäinen is bobbing next to me in the water. A guide for Adventure Apes, which runs sustainable sauna and swim tours across Finland, she encourages me to stick it out by telling me that ice swimming will boost my endorphin levels, stimulate blood circulation and relieve pain. The benefits of cold water immersion seem a small price to pay for chilly toes, and the sting of the ice dip is soon softened by the prospect of another local tradition – the sauna.
Wood-fired bathhouses are an ancient part of Finnish culture, believed to date back to 7,000 BC. Originally the only space for washing one’s body in a Finnish house (you will still meet Finns who were born in one), the sauna has evolved into a communal ritual. There are still more saunas than cars in the country, and every Finnish embassy in the world has a bathhouse, where international diplomats are sometimes invited for casual meetings in the nude.
Saunas may have their roots in the Stone Age, but new bathing trends are still emerging in Finland. At Rauhaniemi, three local students have built an innovative “ice sauna” with walls cut from the frozen surface of Lake Näsijärvi. It’s here for a good time, not a long time – each winter it’s open to the public until its edges start to melt from the heat of the fire, usually a couple of months at least. It’s the perfect place to hop, as the Finns do, from hot steam to ice hole and back again. As we thaw out in the welcome heat of the wood fire, I look around in vain for the birch twigs I’ve been told Finns like to “gently flagellate” themselves with during a sauna session. “You can only whip yourself at this sauna on Fridays,” Niina tells me, straight-faced.
The twin pursuits of sauna and ice swimming have a spiritual side, too, as explained by our Saunakonkeli guides, two “sauna shamans” who believe that sauna rituals restore inner cosmic balance. Dressed in felt hats and gentlemanly striped bathing costumes, Matti and Juha explain that löyly (the hot steam that rises from a sauna stove), has a mystical quality linked to ancient animistic beliefs. In Finnish lore, löyly was the “breath of the sauna”, considered a guardian in itself – almost a living entity.
With the shamans I get to try a traditional “whisk” – the aforementioned bunch of birch leaves used to slap the skin and promote blood circulation. Juha, whose grandmother was born in a sauna, shows me how to breathe in the silver birch’s earthy aroma before whisking my skin, which turns out to be less S&M and more “spa treatment” than I’d expected.
One of the new guard of communal swim spots in Finland is Löyly, an eco-friendly building on the waterfront in capital Helsinki, where an old-fashioned smokehouse, walls caked in black soot, sits next to a jetty nudging out into the frozen Baltic Sea. Fellow ice-dipper Leena Karppinen and I head outside, fat flakes of snow melting on our hot skin, to clamber down the ladder into the ocean. It’s in a strange state between solid and liquid, the surface of the water an ever-moving slushie of ice crystals that packs around our bodies in a weirdly comforting, if cold, embrace. Leena dunks in up to her neck, grinning – clearly born with a hefty dose of sisu that I try to emulate. After a minute or two, I can’t feel my toes and an ice cream headache is forming around my temples. So we leg it back to the smoke sauna, steam rising from our skin as we discover stray ice shards down our swimsuits.
The best thing about talviuinti, the locals tell me, is that it’s completely free. Finns simply head outdoors and slice a circle in the ice whenever they need a bit of head space, while winter swimming groups get together daily for communal dips before work. I meet Renata Heimberg on a Helsinki tram one frosty February evening, and she invites me to join her swimming group the next morning at Eiranranta, a city beach.
When I arrive, the sea is one huge carpet of undulating ice chips, but the scene couldn’t be further from the hardcore, spartan, grin-and-bear-it dip I’m expecting. Instead, the swim club is throwing a beach party, complete with floral leis and mimosas. The water temperature is a single paltry degree, but these hardy Helsinkians don’t care. Ricky Martin is blaring from someone’s phone, advising us to live la vida loca, and one swimmer has an inflatable swan under her arm. It’s easy to see that this is indeed a very happy, if slightly bonkers, nation.
Club member Maari Fabritius wades into the sea with me and we lie back and relax, floating under the blanket of soft ice and focusing on breathing slowly. I ask Maari if she has any advice for would-be cold water swimmers like me. “Start in the nice warm summer water, and then just keep going. You’ll love it so much you won’t even notice that winter has arrived.” She glances over at me, submerged in a bikini and beanie hat, my skin a bright salmon pink, steam rising from my hair, and cracks a smile. “You’ve definitely got some sisu now!”
Where to try swimming and sauna culture in Finland
This old-fashioned mixed sauna in Tampere, Finland’s “sauna capital”, is a favourite spot with locals, and includes a tar sauna, peat sauna, pop-up ice sauna and a swimming hole. Entry €8 per person.
An “urban oasis” on the Helsinki waterfront, the Löyly Sauna Complex is home to a modern sauna with picture windows looking out to sea as well as an old-fashioned smoke sauna. Outside, a pontoon lets swimmers try dipping in the frozen Baltic Sea. €21 per person.
Juha and Matti are roving “sauna shamans” based in the city of Tampere who offer a “deep dive into the mystical aspects of the sauna”, including traditional whisking techniques. €350 per group.
Float away on this dinky little sauna on a raft, which drifts down the Oulujoki river in the summer and is moored up next to an ice hole in the winter months. €11 per person.
For a more intimate swimming experience, book a sauna session for up to 10 people at Kuuma, which also has a private pop-up restaurant and sea swimming hole at Jollas Manor on the outskirts of Helsinki. From €15 per person.
Kuurakaltio, Kiilopää (Lapland)
Try this traditional smoke sauna followed by a swim in the frozen River Kiilopuro in the heart of Finnish Lapland – on a winter’s night you might even catch a glimpse of the northern lights as you bathe. €15 per person.
To bikini or not to bikini?
Ice bathing in just a swimsuit – or nude, if you’re brave enough – is what the locals do. Most winter swimmers believe that swimming in “skins” or nude gives a closer connection to the water and to nature. As a general rule of thumb, go nude at female-only (or male-only) saunas, and bring a swimsuit for mixed bathing spots.
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