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Wellness Rituals: Across Northern Europe

From Finland’s sauna culture to Germany’s natural thermal baths, we dive into northern European wellness traditions to see how these cultures have mastered the art of wellbeing over the centuries.

By Fabienne Lang
August 11, 2021

Humans around the world and across centuries have strived for good health. From this quest, wellness traditions and health rituals have been passed along from generation to generation, adapting to modern times while retaining their significance. Northern Europe is no exception, and its long-standing wellness rituals have now spread across the world. Each country has its unique set of techniques, but the principles remain the same: Mastering balance and wellbeing in everyday life.


Finnish sauna | Photo: Hotel Arthur/Flickr

Perhaps the most famous wellness tradition to come out of Northern Europe is its sauna culture. The sauna may be synonymous with Scandinavia, but interestingly, Denmark and Norway’s sauna tradition is not as deeply embedded as Sweden or Finland’s. It’s also extremely popular in Germany, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Russia, and its tradition is laced with folklore.

According to folk tales, saunas in Estonia, Russia, and Finland were homes to the sauna elf. In the past, bathers had to greet the easily angered elf, and appease him by throwing water on the hot stones. Otherwise, he might have thrown them out of the sauna.

Another sauna tradition involves beating your body with special birch branch bundles. These are whisked across the body to raise its temperature and promote circulation. They’re not so common today, but it’s still possible to find these branch bunches in very traditional saunas.

With cold, long, and dark winters, it’s easy to assume northern Europeans head to the sweltering heat of a hot wooden cabin to warm up their cold extremities, but warming up isn’t the main reason for the seasonal visit. The intense heat makes the heart beat faster, which increases circulation and metabolism, it also increases sweating to release toxins, and more. Typically, sauna goers in Europe walk out of the sauna and jump into freezing cold water or snow, which offers a variety of health benefits.


Schloss Elmau luxury resort in Germany | Photo: Pixelteufel/Flickr

When you think of Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland you might not imagine their rolling green hills and calm lakes as the place to go to for a soothing thermal bath cure. However, these Central European nations have some of the most comprehensive spa cultures in Europe. Dating back to Roman antiquity, these Central and Eastern European countries take their mineral springs seriously. The countries are dotted with numerous bath spa towns, where people have been using their restorative hydrotherapy methods to relax and heal for centuries.

These thermal bath towns are so popular for wellness and healing, in fact, that they’re known as “cure places” and usually have the prefix “Bath” before their town name. In Germany, these baths are so highly regarded that certain medical insurance companies even cover up to three weeks of restorative leave every three years.

Once there, people can enjoy a number of different spa types, including Kneipp spas, named after the famous German priest Sebastian Kneipp who forged hydrotherapy healing methods in the late 1840s.


Another wellness tradition deeply embedded in German culture is naturopathy—a form of alternative medicine that uses semi-scientific practices branded as natural and promotes self-healing. Many of the principles and philosophies of naturopathy originated in Germany and Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and were spread around the world by German teachers in the 1900s. These still live strong today.

Naturopathy’s pillars are based around the five Kneipp therapies: hydrotherapy, exercise, nutrition, phytotherapy (plants), and lifestyle management. Another form of well-known naturopathy works around the Emanuel Felke method of nutrition, nature, and clay. Among many things, in the late 19th century Felke pioneered sitting in a clay bath or enjoying a clay wrap to naturally boost your immune system, and to relieve pain—a method still widely used today.


Forest Bathing | Photo: Joshua Mayer/Flickr

Known as Shinrin Yoku in Japan, where the method originated, forest bathing has been gathering speed and popularity in Northern Europe over the past 15 years.

Essentially, you “bathe” in a forest’s natural environment, slowing down your breath to match the movement of the rustling leaves, grounding yourself by embracing a tree’s bark, and more. Among other things, studies show that it lowers blood pres­sure, boosts memo­ry, strengthens immune systems, and renders us less prone to stress and depres­sion.

Germans have fully incorporated forest bathing into their wellness rituals, and in 2016 the country opened Europe’s first official “Cure and Healing Forest”. In Sweden and Finland, getaways and specific retreats centre their curative methods around forest bathing, with guided walks in nature.

Accompanied by healthy eating, a strong exercise culture, and many weekends spent walking along forest paths in nature, these wellness methods have kept Northern Europeans feeling balanced and healthy for centuries. A number of incredible luxury retreats offer these healing and wellness therapies, including Germany’s Schloss Elmau, nestled in the Bavarian Alps since 1916. In Finland, getaways such as the Shinrin-Yoga retreat combine forest bathing and gentle yoga to soothe your mind and body.