An important thing to know in Sweden is that the Swedish word for sauna is not sauna, which is an old Finnish word meaning “earth pit”. The sauna dates back thousands of years in Finland, but has in modern times developed into the log cabin steam bath that we recognise today.
In Swedish, it’s instead referred to as a bastu, which is short for badstuga, a word that literally means “bath cottage” or “bathing room”. The word stuga also appears in words such as tvättstuga (“laundry room/building”), förstuga (“porch”, often shortened to farstu) and simply stuga (“cottage”).
While not as massively popular as in neighbouring Finland, Sweden also has a strong sauna tradition.
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Sweden was for centuries a relatively poor country, so at first, it was mainly used around special occasions such as Christmas. But it really gained ground in the first half of the 20th century when around 10,000 public saunas were built across the country – partly as a drive to organise school bathing sessions, to make sure that all schoolchildren no matter their social class could tend to their personal hygiene.
Today, most Swedish swimming pools will have a sauna. They’re especially popular after cold winter dips in icy lakes.
You’re usually stark naked in the sauna, but you’re expected to bring a towel to sit on. In fact, swimsuits are often completely banned from public saunas – this is because the chlorine used in the water at swimming pools can cause health and breathing issues when it vaporises.
It is usually OK to wrap the towel around you if you’re uncomfortable with nudity. Few people will be truly offended.
If you’re picturing naked people happily running around outside in the snow after their sauna session, hitting each other with birch twigs, stop it immediately. That’s Finland, not Sweden (and even Finnish people may argue that it’s a bit too stereotypical an image of their country).
Åh, vad varmt och skönt det är i bastun
Oh, it’s so nice and warm in the sauna
Ska vi basta?
Let’s use the sauna! (or “shall we use the sauna?”)
Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris.