Helsinki is of course similar to other cities in this respect – you arrive in the city and meeting a few people from Helsinki would be a reasonable enough expectation, no? Of course, but arrive at the height of midsummer during the Juhannus celebrations and you also get to see Finns enjoying one of the most important and sociable holidays in the Finnish calendar.
On first arriving in Helsinki you are confronted with the sleek, elegant lines of Scandinavian design which are proudly on show as soon as you step into the airport. Modern interiors and polished pine floors like mirrors announce that this is a thoroughly modern country with ample style; but this is also a nation that is proud of its heritage and traditions too that the people here are equally proud to be the guardians of.
I have timed my trip to coincide with the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice which is celebrated in many European countries and with special enthusiasm in the northern climes of Finland. The summer is also the best time to meet people, as absolutely everyone flocks to the outdoor parks, cafes and islands to make the most of the long summers days.
Actually this is one of the most amazing things about Helsinki during the summer, it almost never gets dark! At the height of summer the night winks briefly sandwiched between two sets of twilight. It takes a little getting used to as it’s hard to guess what time of day it really is. Don’t be surprised if you don’t actually see a minute of darkness when you are here at all during the summer.
Helsinki is easy to get around, walking is a great option and there is also clean and efficient metro system too. If you want to meet the locals though – and I do – then the best way is to act like one and that means getting on your bike. Cycling is by far the most popular means of transport in Helsinki. You can either hire a bike but also ask at your hotel as many have bikes that they will rent, and at very reasonable prices too. As with many European countries cycling is a way of life, so don’t be daunted as cyclists are very well provided for with excellent cycles ways.
If you want to head out further of the city for the day hire a bike for the day and head off to the Nuuksio National Park, or the Luukki recreation area for beautiful scenery and crystal clear lakes to swim in. You can find some great cycling routes on the map available from the tourist office or online at Helsinki’s cycling routes. I decided to stay a little closer to the city though and head for the market square.My fellow cyclists (there are loads of them) are more than happy to tell me the way – and in English too which is widely spoken. Although everyone is more than happy to help me with directions I can’t help but notice that Finns like to keep their distance, not in an unfriendly sense though. Finns personal space is large so you don’t have to get too cosy! Perhaps this is because of the amount of space that Finns have geographically, don’t expect your personal space to be invaded though, and bear this in mind when talking to the locals.
Before long I park my bike at an available stand at the main market square. The stalls are selling all manner of food and local specialities; I get a lesson in berries from one stall holder whose stall is groaning under the weight of ligonberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries and blueberries, which are all used in a variety of Finnish dishes and the berry business is brisk.
The Old Market Hall holds similar delights and the smell of dill is heavy in the air – it’s used in many dishes here. The locals are snapping up salmon tarts and reindeer sausages like they are going out of fashion. Pickles, pies and pastries also seem to be very much in demand too – all of this food is making me hungry.
Outside on the harbour there are plenty of cafes, a great place to people watch as the ruddy-faced fisherman do a steady trade in an amazing assortment of freshly caught fresh fish and crustaceans. I am recommended by my cheerful waitress the dill cured salmon on rye bread and of course a coffee, it’s a national obsession here much like tea to us Brits. Both are excellent, as is the apple and cinnamon ice-cream from a stall on the quay side.
Although midsummer is when many Finns head to the countryside to their summer houses, there’s still plenty of action to be had in Helsinki itself. Traditionally bonfires will be lit – it all feels very pagan and earthy – and there is lots of singing and dancing, as well as drinking too!
There are plenty of charter boats that leave the harbour on summer nights and during midsummer bonfires can be seen all around the city from the water, certainly an impressive site. I decided though to take a boat to the island of Seurasaari for one of the largest Juhannus celebrations of the year.
The island is actually an open air museum that preserves Finnish traditional architecture and folk-lore. It’s the perfect setting for this traditional celebration, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you have slipped back in time a couple of hundred years with the amount of people in traditional dress.
Everyone certainly joins in and if, like me you mention that you are from out of town expect to be dragged up for a lesson in traditional Finnish dancing too. The evening finally builds to a crescendo with music and dancing, and finally the bonfires are lit which only adds to the excitement.
By the time the sun comes up, (which doesn’t take long and is met with rapturous applause) I’ve not only made some great new Finnish friends, but also experienced a little of what makes these people who they are. I wonder if visitors to my country get the same warm welcome and friendly smiles that I received? I certainly hope so!
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