/Suljettu/ Language: Finnish. Meaning: Closed. The only Finnish word I learned, because I saw it written fu*!ing everywhere.
“You’ve chosen the worst day of the year to visit Helsinki,” the receptionist cheerfully greeted me as she checked me into my hostel.
Such a warm welcome. Unfortunately, I later learned, she was right.
I arrived to Helsinki on Friday, June 19, Midsummer’s Eve. The Nordic countries go all out for Midsummer, or the celebration of light, falling around the summer solstice. And when I say all out, I mean it’s a downright exodus from city to countryside.
Most everyone in Finland owns a second home in the countryside. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a massive country with a minuscule population, and there is room for all those houses. Problem is, no one invited me to one.
Stupid me—I actually intentionally planned my visit to Finland and the Baltic States around Midsummer. I thought Midsummer in Helsinki would be one grand Pagan party in the streets, kind of like my UCSB college days but with more flower crowns, less flip cup. And the thing is, it would be a grand party, if you knew people who lived there and could partake in countryside celebrations with friends and family, dancing and roasting meat around a bonfire.
But no one sticks around the big city.
Shops in Helsinki close around noon on Midsummer’s Eve, and are closed all day long on Midsummer’s Day. I arrived at 7pm on Midsummer’s Eve, and searched for 45 minutes for a restaurant that would serve me dinner within my price range. For once in the eight years I’ve been traveling, I considered getting my meal at McDonald’s. But wouldn’t you know it? Even the McDonald’s closed at 6 p.m. on Midsummer’s Eve.
I eventually found an Asian restaurant that was open. I felt like a proud Jew on Christmas Day.
I had actually done research for my trip to Helsinki, which is rather rare for me. I knew I was going to have to keep myself well-entertained traveling solo, so I made plans. I looked up places to eat. I got excited about visiting the Design Museum, one of the two types of museums I can actually stomach (the other being WWII related). I wanted to taste local specialties at the Market Square.
None of that happened.
My hostel felt our pain. They put a list up of attractions and their opening times for the weekend. Friday and Saturday were the days I was there—please note the dashes.
It was the first time in my life while traveling that I didn’t actually know where my next meal was coming from. Supermarkets closed all weekend. There was not a single coffee shop open in the city when I first arrived. Vending machine peanuts were starting to look real good.
This might have been my biggest traveling fail on record: Booking a ticket to a country specifically for a huge festival, not realizing the implications of a 600,000 person exodus.
But travel’s all about adapting, right? All about seeing things from a new angle! So let me not wallow in my sorrows, and instead shine light on the silver linings of having a city virtually entirely to yourself.
Here are all the things you CAN do during Midsummer in Helsinki:
-Hear a pin drop.
-Cross the street without looking. There are no cars to run you over.
-Admire the Cathedral, inside and out. God closes for no one.
-Save money on everything. No shops are open.
-Stop feeling guilty about not wanting to visit museums. They’re not open anyway!
-Pay for a shared hostel dorm but end up with a private room. Because no one else is stupid enough to travel during this time, the place is yours!
-Break your coffee addiction. The cafés are shut.
-Lose a few pounds, cuz there’s nowhere that’ll serve you food (that you can afford, at least).
-Take a photo without someone else getting in the way of the shot.
-Shamelessly take selfies, because no one else is around to a) judge you and b) take your photo for you.
-Take a ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress Island, because apparently island life is still hopping during summer festivals.
-Get drenched, because it’s Finland so summer still means rain, except there’s nowhere open to duck into when it starts to pour.
-Examine Finnish food products at the supermarket in the bus station. IT STAYS OPEN FOR MIDSUMMER!!!!!!!!!!
You win some, you lose some. I thought Helsinki was a beautiful capital, but it probably won’t be a place I’ll be running back to, even during a time when it’s not a ghost town. I wish you better luck when planning your Finnish adventure!
P.S. Things you actually can do in Helsinki and the surrounding area during Midsummer, albeit with limited hours (I didn’t go to any of these and therefore can’t vouch for if they’re worth it and/or how easy they are to get to, so venture at your own risk):
Didrichsen Art Museum; Flamingo water park and spa; Heureka science center; Korkeasaari zoo; Linnanmaki amusement park (you’d probably have the place to yourself—no lines!); Sea Life aquarium; Tropicario tropical animal house (because you came to Finland for the tropical animals, right?); University botanical gardens; Helsinki cathedral (mentioned above); most attractions on Suomenlinna Fortress Island; bus sightseeing tours; sightseeing cruises around the islands; Kumpula outdoor swimming pool (on the off-chance it’s not raining).
(Crap. Now that I look at this list, seems there were at least a couple things to do. . . .)
P.P.S. For humorous effect I was clearly exaggerating. There were, like, 3 restaurants open during Midsummer in Helsinki that charged a billion euros per entree, and a couple cafés open charging more for a cup of coffee than you could get for one of your kidneys. But OK. If you’re that addicted to coffee, you make the call.
Have you ever been to Helsinki? What was your impression, assuming things were open?