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Public Sweat: the fun new art sauna in Toronto

This review of Public Sweat sauna in Toronto is part of the series 100 Baths, my search for the world’s best spas and public bathing rituals. Read more and see the list here!

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Public Sweat combines two things I love: saunas and art.

I don’t usually write about temporary events on this blog. But this new project brings something to my city that has been sorely missing which I want to document and encourage: a Toronto sauna experience that is affordable, accessible and communal.

Sauna culture is about more than getting hot. Traditionally it’s also a gathering place, a shared sweat. But most saunas in Toronto are in spas, gyms or individual homes or backyards. I’m a big fan of them all—they’re excellent for occasional relaxation. They’re also quite private, and often expensive. The Public Sweat Toronto sauna comes from ArtSpin, a not-for-profit organization that brings art and culture to unexpected spaces, and is located at Harbourfront, a government-run cultural centre, so it’s something entirely different.

Public Sweat Toronto saunas at Harbourfront
A few of the artist-designed saunas in the Public Sweat circuit

What is Public Sweat?

Public Sweat is an outdoor circuit of four small saunas designed by different artists, each with its own style and features, and varying degrees of heat. There is also a chill-out installation and a Nordic-style indoor lounge with a small bar which occasionally features live ambient music.

I don’t want to give away all the surprises—discovering the art elements is part of the experience. (You should definitely go searching for the chandelier though.) But to give you an idea of what to expect, here are some of my favourites.

at Public Sweat sauna in Toronto
It’s getting hot in here.

The Art of Sauna

Mobile Sweat by Toronto’s Chris Foster looks like a sauna made out of a trailer—because it is. The ArtSpin organizers explained that Foster started a Sunday Sauna ritual for his own friend community in this mobile sauna. (A dream!) It was the hottest of the saunas I tried out, and I enjoyed the large screen inside showing video by Finnish artist Mari Keski-Korsu.

Garmabeh by SHEEEP looks like a modest clay hut from the outside but inside is covered in beautiful blue tiles—inspired by traditional Iranian bath houses. This sauna also has a skylight and I had a nice time as night fell stargazing and debating with other sweat bathers what we might be seeing. Without our phones to check, and just a small part of the sky visible, it was like a fun puzzle to figure out.

Geospheric Sweatbath by Christie Pearson was something quite new. Not a wood-burning sauna, but a dome made of felt with a heated ceramic floor which encourages you to lay down. Fun fact: a simple log makes a great neck pillow. It’s less hot than the other installations so my friend and I ended our circuit in here as a way to slowly come back to non-sauna life.

Geospheric Sweatbath by Christie Pearson.
Geospheric Sweatbath by Christie Pearson. Photo by Priam Thomas.

Do you really have to talk to strangers?

Yes and no. Nobody forces you to speak at Public Sweat. If you want to go alone and be quiet of course you are welcome to. They also have a clear code of conduct and anti-harassment policies to prevent untoward behaviour.

But the saunas are small – fitting between 4 and maybe 8 people. So it’s an intimate experience. And it’s also a joyous one. So I personally like to share that joy.

In one sauna, we met a guy named Adam who was ladling water onto the rocks and who taught me my new favourite expression: sauna master. (A person who controls the temperature and atmosphere.) There’s even a competitive sauna master scene with championships!

Another conversation with strangers revolved around the purchase of a mobile sauna—and how it would be an excellent way to get invited to anyone’s cottage. A wise investment!

We also had ongoing chats about whether or not to do the cold bucket. Which brings me to….

How do you cool off?

Public Sweat does not have a pool, or a cold plunge bath. But it’s important to regulate your temperature when enjoying sauna. So they do it old school – with a bucket.

There’s a bucket of ice-cold water affixed to a light installation and you pull the rope to unleash a shower of very cold water. Is this invigorating? Absolutely. Is it scary to try. Yes, yes it is.

You should do it though.

View of the CN Tower from a sauna at Public Sweat in Toronto

What else is there to do?

Besides the four saunas, outside there’s Rihab Essayh’s A Caress Before Dawn, a cool-down space that looks like a magical greenhouse. There’s also a fire pit area, and some single-sized hammocks.

Inside, there is a lounge designed by Thermêa spa, with a small bar. We sipped herbal teas and thumbed through books about sauna culture.

On Thursday nights, there will live ambient music in the lounge. And in April there are additional live performances in collaboration with The Music Gallery.

Accessibility matters

I recognize that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of being in their swimsuits in front of strangers. And that members of more marginalized communities have their own specific concerns about safety in public bathing environments.

Public Sweat has thought about this and implemented policies and programming to help facilitate accessibility.

First off, it’s a no photo zone. No cameras in the sauna circuit allowed. (My photos were taken as part of a private media event.)

They’ve also dedicated certain nights to specific guests: Queer and BIPOC, trans and non-binary, persons with disabilities, etc. Check their event page for details.

My visit was quite fun. I enjoyed the art but the best part is that I got really hot in the winter and sweat a lot! I left with my hair smelling of fresh cedar, my skin so soft, and hope that there will be more affordable and artistic sauna facilities in Toronto to come.

Public Sweat Toronto review

Know Before You Go

Where: You’ll find Public Sweat outside at Harbourfront Centre, 225 Queen’s Quay West. It’s accessible by public transit (Union subway station, Spadina streetcar), is right on the Martin Goodman Trail bike path, and there’s ample parking near by. (Not the cheapest though.)

When: March 15 to April 23, 2023. Open Tuesday to Sunday. 4pm to 9pm Tuesday to Thursday. 1:30pm to 9pm Friday. 11am to 9pm Saturday and Sunday.

What to Bring: A swimsuit or other suitable clothing and your own towel. A robe and sandals are recommended if you have them. A water bottle is handy but water is also available for purchase. There are simple change rooms and a locker is provided for your belongings.

How Much? Access to Public Sweat saunas and art is by paid ticket for a two-hour time slot. General public admission is $35 or reduced $25 for students, seniors, under 18 or arts workers. Tuesday nights are discounted, $28/$20 respectively.

Recommended Reading

The Architecture of Bathing: Body, Landscape, Art by Christie Pearson looks at swimming pools, saunas, beaches, ritual baths, sweat lodges, etc. through the lens of architecture and landscape. Pearson is a contributing artist to Public Sweat and her book was available on site — I loved the beautiful colour photos and appreciated the deeply thoughtful exploration about what makes public bathing such an important practise across so many cultures. 

One comment on “Public Sweat: the fun new art sauna in Toronto”

  1. Karen  on March 18, 2023

    So happy to know about this sauna art installation! Thank you! I’ll be checking it out!

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