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In the Nordic countries, midsummer is a big deal. It’s similar to a national day, like the Fourth of July or Australia Day, but without the nationalistic overtones; simply put, it’s a huge party that celebrates the never-ending light of summer and the fact that there is no snow anywhere to be seen.
This past summer, I spent my first midsummer in the capital of Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi. Even though I was in the city — a place that many Finns vacate at that time of year to head to their lakeside summer cottages — there was no disputing that midsummer, or Juhannus, is obviously a holiday that the Finns take very seriously.
Even though I was warned beforehand about the mass exodus to the country, I found that there were more than enough ways to kick back, relax, and enjoy the summertime right in the middle of the city. So, if you find yourself in Rovaniemi for the holiday, what should you know first, and where should you go to celebrate?
The midsummer holiday isn’t always on June 21 — the summer solstice — as I would have expected. Instead, midsummer itself is always on a Saturday, so it floats between June 20-26 each year. The major public holiday is actually midsummer’s eve, which is on a Friday.
It’s important to know that some countries may celebrate midsummer on different days. For instance, in 2015, the Danish celebrations were four days after Finland’s, as their celebrations always happen on St John’s Eve. So, if you’re travelling between multiple countries, you may be lucky enough to take part in two separate midsummer celebrations!
As you would expect on major public holidays like your country’s national day or Christmas, all retail outlets are closed on midsummer’s eve and midsummer. I made the major mistake of arriving in Rovaniemi on the Thursday evening before midsummer and departing on the Sunday morning, so most shops were closed for the entirety of my visit.
I also found out that it was very difficult to find food on the Friday. If I went back again, I would make sure to do a big grocery shop the day before midsummer’s eve so I could use the kitchen in my cottage (at Ounasvaaran Lakituvat) rather than having to eat at McDonald’s, which was the only place that I could find that was serving food. Subway wasn’t even open! And, to add salt to the wound, the McDonald’s in Rovaniemi no longer holds the special status of “the northernmost McDonald’s in the world” after one opened in Murmansk, Russia.
Sitting in a sauna is one of the most Finnish ways that you can spend midsummer. As I mentioned previously when I wrote about the SaunaTour in Ruka, saunas are a way of life in Finland.
Many important moments are spent in the sauna, and people are even known to have business meetings there! Of course, there won’t be any business meetings happening on midsummer, but it’s an important day nonetheless, so you’ll find that many of the estimated 2 million saunas around the country will be in use.
In most hotels and holiday cottages around the country, you’ll find that you have access to a sauna, whether it is a communal sauna or one for your own personal use. While my cottage at Lakituvat had a sauna that I made use of on other days, on midsummer’s eve, I went a little further afield to the riverfront sauna at the Chalet Hotel.
This sauna is located just outside the centre of Rovaniemi, just across from the Ounasvaara ski area. Its appeal over my personal sauna was the location; jutting out over the river, it couldn’t have been better placed for a relaxing summer evening under the midnight sun. Plus, they served light meals that were more traditional — and more flavourful – than the fast food I’d had earlier in the day!
The sauna itself is open to anyone that would like to visit, regardless of whether they are staying at the hotel or not. It is divided into women’s and men’s changing areas, but the sauna itself is for both sexes; therefore, while I would usually recommend that you enjoy single-sex saunas in the Finnish way (naked), it will probably be more comfortable if you bring a swimsuit or underwear so you don’t have to wrap yourself in a towel.
It was interesting sharing this sauna with other Finns, since I usually share with other tourists in hotels. The temperature difference was marked; as soon as I felt like I was comfortable, someone would pick up a ladle and toss more water on the big pit of coals in the centre of the room, filling it with steam once more. It definitely helped me to push my boundaries, although I was very thankful for the deck with a cool breeze where I took many much-needed breaks!
I highly recommend sticking around for a little while once you’ve finished with the sauna. I thoroughly enjoyed just sitting on the deck and taking in the scene; the quiet and the glassy calm of the Kemijoki River were mesmerising.
I know why the local Finns escape to their lakeside cottages — who wouldn’t take a chance to get out of the city they live in on a weekend with beautiful, summery weather? — but when I stood on the banks of the Kemijoki at midnight, I still wondered why they would want to leave. In front of me, the sun was dipping down, attempting to touch the horizon but failing; behind me, music rang out of dance halls and was almost drowned out by the buzz of people.
While I can highly recommend the banks of the Ounasjoki in front of the Arktikum Museum as a midnight sun watching location, I think the best spot in Rovaniemi to see it on midsummer is the iconic Jätkänkynttilä Bridge — or just underneath it on the banks of the river, where I was. That’s because you can watch the midnight sun just before it dips behind the hills on the horizon and then head to the biggest party in town.
That party takes place on Ounaskoski Beach, which is just to the south of the Jätkänkynttilä Bridge. I saw more people at this beach than I saw in the very dead city the whole day before. Everyone packed in to watch as a traditional bonfire (kokko) was lit on the beach, and a few minutes later, to watch as it toppled over, a burning pile of logs trying to stay alight as the river lapped at them. Hopefully the bonfire had done its job of keeping away all the evil spirits before it toppled over!
Another popular location in Rovaniemi during the midnight sun period is the top of Ounasvaara hill, which offers one of the highest vantage points in the city for watching the sun as it circles around the sky.
Even without the midnight sun, Ounasvaara is one of my favourite locations in Rovaniemi. It’s barely a five minute drive from central Rovaniemi, yet it feels so much further away. You can stand in the forest at the top and hear nary a whisper while looking down on a city of 60,000 people. It’s not often you can do that!
A number of people choose to go to the Lapland Hotel Sky Ounasvaara, which is located right at the top of the hill next to the ski lift. That’s because its roof is open to both guests and visitors alike; however, while access used to be free, now non-guests have to pay a fee to be admitted.
Personally, I prefer to stay at Ounasvaaran Lakituvat, located near the top of Ounasvaara on the other side of the hill from the ski runs. My summer visit to Rovaniemi marked my second stay at Lakituvat, and I enjoyed it just as much the second time (possibly even more, since this time I had a car for transport to and from the city).
While there were a number of things to like about the accommodation itself — the cute red cabins nestled in amongst the trees, the full kitchen, the expansive living areas, and the sauna just to name a few — my favourite part was how easy it made it to get a scenic view of the midnight sun. In other places in Lapland, it’s a challenging hike to the top of a fell to get a sweeping view stretching out below you; here, it was a five minute walk.
Since my days in Rovaniemi were quite packed, I was often very tired by the late evening when the colours of the midnight sun were at their best. That meant that I really appreciated being able to take the easy option!
I’m sure these are but a few of the options that will help you to enjoy the holiday to its fullest, but they were what made my first midsummer a memorable one. Happy midsummer, and I hope you have a relaxing, fun day on this most Finnish of holidays.
Have you ever celebrated midsummer in Finland (or any of the other Nordic countries)? What was your experience?
I stayed in Rovaniemi on midsummer courtesy of Visit Rovaniemi and Safartica, but all opinions stated in this piece are my own. Cabins at Ounasvaaran Lakituvat start at €190 during the summer season and easily fit a family of six.