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Are you brave enough to jump into a freezing Norwegian fjord?

Swanky new saunas are bringing skin-tingling heat (followed by revitalising icy dips) to Oslo’s once unloved harbourside. But which is the hottest of them all? Jessica Vincent takes the plunge


01/01/2023

In September 2011, after several cold months at sea, Martin Lundberg sailed his boat into Oslo’s harbour hoping for a sweat and a shower. Unlike at the ports in his native Sweden, he was shocked to find that there wasn’t a single public sauna on the waterfront. With the help of a cold water swimming group, in 2016 Lundberg registered a driftwood, makeshift sauna – called Måken – as the first legal public sauna in Oslo’s marina.

What followed was a sweat box boom – and a long-awaited revival of Oslo’s waterfront. Once a polluted, industrial harbour, today the Norwegian capital’s harbourside has become its cultural and social hub – partly thanks to a wave of pop-up saunas. City workers plunge into the fjord from dozens of floating saunas on their lunch break, while venues such as SALT offer fjordside DJ sessions, film screenings and art exhibitions (with a sweat session on the side). Around the water’s edge, the new 140,000sqft Public Library and the aluminium-plated Munch Museum (home to one of the two painted versions of The Scream) have transformed Oslo’s harbour into the life and soul of the city.

“Before saunas, people weren’t swimming in the Oslofjord,” says Ragna Marie Fjeld, one of the swimmers who helped Lundberg legalise his sauna and is now director of the Oslo Sauna Association. “But now there’s an incentive to keep our fjord clean and spend time outside, even in winter. The city is finally reconnecting with nature.”

Live jazz at 80°C at SALT

What’s so special about it?
In the heart of Oslo’s marina is Árdna, a glass-fronted, pyramid-shaped sauna large enough to seat 80 people. Inspired by the wooden racks used to dry cod in Scandinavia, Norway’s largest sauna began its life at SALT as an events space. But as the city’s sweat box scene took off, owner Erlend Mogård Larsen turned up the heat inside Árdna to combine SALT’s TedX talks and live music shows with the sauna experience. Called a ‘cultural village’ by Mogård Larsen, SALT now has six saunas hosting a daily events programme of guided sauna rituals and live performances, plus street food stands overlooking the fjord.

What’s it like?
Inside Árdna, the temperature is 60°C and the view of Oslo’s opera house – its yellow lights reflecting off the fjord like a watercolour painting – is best from the top of the pyramid of wooden seats. Looking down on the rows of 20-somethings chatting below, it’s like being at university waiting for a lecture to start… if someone had whacked the heating up and all the students had turned up in their swimsuits. There’s soft Malian drum music playing – chosen by Zimbabwean sauna master, MonaLisa Magoche – and the air is scented with orange and eucalyptus. At the weekend, there’d be a DJ session or a film screening starting now, but on a Monday, the five-piece jazz band is playing in Naustet, a former boat house turned cosy cocktail bar opposite Árdna. Listening from a smaller, adjoining sauna, which is 20° hotter, the low hum of a bass solo distracts from the intense heat. A smooth sax line seeping through the wood – plus the thought of a wild berry gin cocktail waiting at the bar – keeps me calm enough to sweat out the rest of the set.

The details
Shared saunas are open from 16.00 to 21:30 Monday-Friday and 10.00 to 21.30 Saturday-Sunday. Individual tickets from NOK 195 (£16). Private sauna hire from NOK 1,495 (£122.50).

Wellbeing score
The live music and essential oils are relaxing in the heat, and it’s great to be able to share a drink afterwards with other sauna-goers. 4/5


Oslo’s first sauna cruise, KOK

What’s so special about it?
Founded in 2017 by former pilot Kristin Lorange, KOK was Oslo’s first sauna boat. Inspired by the floating saunas of the Stockholm Archipelago, KOK’s two-hour sauna cruises sail private groups to the island of Hovedøya, where guests can combine sauna time with sightseeing and cold water dips in the freshest and deepest parts of the Oslo fjord.

What’s it like?
On a foggy morning, KOK sets sail from Aker Brygge, a promenaded marina lined with seafood restaurants and gastro pubs. The wood-fired sauna begins to heat up as the captain Johan Pedersen sails silently through the Oslo fjord, the panoramic windows showing silver water lapping at Hovedøya’s sandy coves. The first time I jump into the fjord I try to keep my head above water, but it’s useless: my whole body goes under with a freezing splash and a high-pitched scream. When I resurface, I gasp for air, feeling as if I’ve been kicked in the gut. But back in the warm of the sauna, something magical happens: a rush of endorphins and a serious natural high. I go through the same addictive cycle again and again, jumping from the sauna roof as a black seal pops its head above the water to watch.

The details
Private cruises start at NOK 3,400 (£278.57) for up to ten people.

Wellbeing score
Getting away from the city and the chance to get close to Oslo’s wildlife is priceless. A little extra to help you relax on board – a face mask, body scrub or guided ritual, perhaps – was all that was missing. 4.5/5


Ancient rituals at Oslo Sauna Association, Bademaschinen

What’s so special about it?
Just along from SALT, on Bjørvika’s pedestrianised Langkaia promenade, is Bademaschinen: two 16-person floating saunas with slanted roofs and yellow wood doors, centred on a communal fire pit. Built opposite the Opera House, Bademaschinen – named after the first sea swimming club in Bjørvika in 1820 – has one of the most privileged locations in the Oslo marina, with both saunas offering front-seat views of the city’s most famous landmark.

What’s it like?
Originating from Germany, Aufguss is a multisensory sauna ritual that combines infused water and the movement of hot air using a towel or fan. In Baumaschinen, Aufguss master Edwin Cabascango prepares infusions inspired by his home in Ecuador – honey tea, mint, cloves and thyme – before handing out felt hats that makes everybody look like walking tea cosies (“To protect your hair from the heat,” he says). With Oslo’s Opera House in view, Cabascango fans the air around the room, sending intense waves of hot air into my face. He then asks us to lie face down on the benches before whacking our arms and legs with a tree branch between cold splashes of water. I wince at the hard whip on my skin – it feels like tiny needles are piercing my calves and forearms. “For good circulation,” he says, motioning us back into the fjord. I wait for my turn at the ladder, dreading the cold. But the expected rush of endorphins spurs me on, and I take the plunge, this time staying a little longer in the water. Skin still blotchy from the whipping, we finish with a Himalayan salt scrub and ginger and lime tea around the outdoor fire.

The details
Drop-in sessions cost NOK 175 (£14.50) for non-members. Private sauna bookings from NOK 1,500 (£123).

Wellbeing score
While the Aufguss ritual isn’t for the faint-hearted, I felt energised and my skin felt baby-soft after the session. The views here can’t be beaten, but the central location also comes with onlookers. 4/5


Guided meditation at Oslo Sauna Association, Sukkerbiten

What’s so special about it?
Next to the Munch Museum, Oslo Sauna Association’s central Sukkerbiten location has eight saunas with direct access to the fjord, including Måken, the city’s first public sauna. On selected evenings, guided meditation sessions are held inside Albatrossen, a 25-person sauna with a rooftop and bathing platform with views of Hovedøya island.

What’s it like?
My meditation session is led by former dancer and singer Marie Kaada Hovden under twinkling star lights inside Albatrossen. To heat the room and sharpen our senses, Hovden pours buckets of green tea and mint-infused water on the electric coals. As she does this, she sings the words ‘in’ and ‘out’ in Norwegian, her beautiful voice having a trance-like effect. This is the hottest sauna I’ve ever experienced. “Try to lean into the heat,” she says, blowing oven-hot air into our faces with a giant fan. “Just like when you jump into cold water, breathe through it and resist the urge to panic.” She guides our breathing and asks us to focus on the sounds and smells of the sauna – the hiss of the coals, the hint of fresh mint – to anchor us in the present moment. The session ends with a welcome blast of fresh air as Marie opens the door and invites us to jump into a pitch-black fjord.

The details
Drop-in sessions cost NOK 175 (£14.50) for non-members. Private sauna bookings from NOK 1,500 (£123).

Wellbeing score
I don’t always find it easy to switch off, so the guided meditation gave me a rare moment of focus without distractions. Unlike other sauna experiences, I felt this session targeted my mental as well as my physical wellbeing. 5/5


Californian beach club at Kongen Marina

What’s so special about it?
A 20-minute walk north of Aker Brygge, where KOK sauna cruises depart from, is Kongen Marina. The petrol station-turned-beach club is a slice of California in the heart of Oslo: palm trees are wrapped in neon fairy lights, a vintage silver airstream trailer serves ice cream by the water’s edge, menu specials and welcome signs are painted on technicolour surf boards. In the summer, Osloites come for the outdoor DJ sets, but winter is the perfect time to enjoy Kongen Marina’s new floating sauna, where guests can combine fjordside sweat sessions with a range of watersports.

What’s it like?
I’m paddleboarding past an Oslo-bound ferry, being careful not to slip into the icy waters in my woolly hat and leggings. Ahead of me is Bygdøy peninsula, home to Oslo’s best beaches and seafaring museums. Feeling the cold, I moor up on my private sauna deck at Kongen Marina, where I strip down to my swimming costume and lie back in a toasty 75° dome that’s lit up in pink. The all-glass ceiling and walls make me feel as if I’m melting into the fjord, the rattling of sails and the cry of seagulls the only sounds I can hear. A raspberry Bellini is served inside the sauna, the sharpness of the berries shaking me out of my slumber and into the fjord. After a cold plunge in the clearest water I’ve seen since arriving in Oslo, I warm up with fish soup and spicy mussels, cross-legged on a sheepskin rug while looking out over a still marina.  

The details
Private hire costs NOK 1,950 (£160) and is available Monday-Sunday 10:00-23:00. Drop-in sessions are available on Wednesdays from 08.30-09.50 for NOK 250 (£20.50).

Wellbeing score
The neon lights and surf memorabilia don’t scream relaxation, but the sauna at Kongen Marina works. The see-through dome, as well as the paddleboards and kayaks on offer, engender a sense of wellbeing just by getting you closer to nature. 4/5


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