Midsummer in Stockholm

Midsummer in Stockholm collage

For most Brits Midsummer is an ordinary day, almost oblivious to British minds. Midsummer in Sweden though is really special, the biggest holiday of the year after Christmas.

Midsummarafton

Midsummarafton (Midsummer's Eve) is a public holiday, called a Red Day in Sweden. Swedes have a very generous allocation of Red Days, enough to make the average American green with envy, and, of all their Red Days, Midsummer is the one closest to Swedish hearts.

Midsommarafton is celebrated on the Friday nearest the longest day of the year which is on:

• 19th June in 2015,
• 24th June in 2016,
• 23rd June in 2017.

The biggest celebrations usually occur on Midsommarafton, with Midsummardagen (Midsummer's Day) normally just a day for recovering! Traditionally the celebrations go on right through the night, especially in the north of Sweden where the sun doesn't set.

Skansen

Skansen is a large open-air museum and zoo near Stockholm city centre, on Djurgården, an island a twenty minute walk from the Gamla Stan (the old town) or a short ferry ride. It is the place where most visitors to Stockholm, and any Swedes left in Stockholm, go to celebrate Midsummer.

There can be long queues to get in to Skansen on Midsommarafton, especially between 11am and 1pm as this is when most people arrive to see the raising of the Maypole. The queues tend to be slightly shorter at the entrance opposite Nordiska Museet (The Nordic Museum) and longest at the main entrance, but expect to queue for around 30 minutes.

Flower crowns

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Don't forget to take your own crown of flowers! However, if you haven't got one don't worry as you can make your own on Orsa Hill, in the centre of Skansen. Skansen staff helpfully provide plenty of twigs and you can then go and pick some elderflowers, daisies or even grass to decorate your crown.

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Of course, for a more stylish flower crown you need to take some flowers with you. Many Swedes like to choose flowers in yellow and blue, the Swedish colours, but any pretty flowers will do!

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The raising of the grand Maypole

Allow plenty of time to get a good place to watch the raising of the grand Maypole, which is normally at 2pm on Tingsvallen. It gets extremely crowded so take a rug and have a picnic on the grass whilst you wait.

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If you can't face sitting on the grass there are tables scattered around Skansen for your picnic. It is traditional to take plenty of little Swedish flags to decorate your picnic, presumably to prevent you from forgetting than you are in Sweden.

The procession into Tingsvallen

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The procession into the ring is led by flag-carrying Swedes and a group of very good musicians, all in traditional dress.

Decorating the Maypole

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The grand Maypole is decorated with lots of flowers to the accompaniment of much cheering and a commentary in five languages, but predominantly in Swedish and English.

The Maypole is not as colourfully decorated as in some parts of Sweden, but raising it is more fun because it is done by hand, whereas in some places they use a crane. The crowd obviously enjoy shouting out words of encouragement to the heave-hoers.

Dancing round the Maypole

Once the Maypole is erected everyone flocks into the ring to dance round the Maypole. This is pretty difficult to do because it is so crowded, but it is an essential part of Swedish Midsummer experience.

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Whether you are shy and bemused by the whole thing or a confident extrovert dancer you can be sure of a fantastic time. The dances are really simple and whether you have to pretend to be a frog or a rocket, the caller makes everything clear.

Skansen guides are top notch and enjoy joining in, so if you are lucky you will be asked to dance by one of the guides.

The BIG shut down

Unless you are going to Stockholm to see the Midsummer celebrations, Midsommarafton and Midsommardagen is NOT a good time to visit the city. Stockholmers flock out of the city at Midsummer to their summer houses to eat lots of herring, drink snaps well into the night and pretend to be frogs round a Maypole. As a result nearly all shops are closed on Friday and Saturday and most of my favourite Stockholm restaurants are shut for the whole of the long weekend. Most museums and art galleries are also shut on Friday and Saturday.

The boats to the archipelago still run!

Fortunately the boats out to the archipelago all run over Midsummer. Stockholm looks at its most impressive when seen from the water, so it is well worth finding time for a boat trip.

There are three main companies: Cinderellabåtarna and Strömma Kanalbolagtet (both from Strandvägen, opposite the Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern) and Waxholmsbolaget (opposite the Grand Hotel).

Subject to good weather and having sufficient time, I recommend visiting one of the more distant islands that can't also be reached by car such as Grinda, Gällno, Karlö or, even though it is over 3 hours from Stockholm, Utö.

Cycling

Stockholm is a cycle-friendly city with many excellent cycle paths, some of which have very beautiful stretches. The island of Djurgården is excellent for cycling with lots of green space and tracks near the water.

If you stroll down to Strandvägen, where there many boats tied up, you will find a couple of companies happy to rent you a bike for around 250 SEK (£22, €28, $38) per day.

Restaurants and clubs

As many of most popular restaurants in Stockholm close for midsummer it is worth booking a table in advance. Fem Små Hus is one of my favourite Stockholm restaurants and is the only one in my personal top ten that stays open for Midsummer. It is in Gamla Stan (the old town) and although fairly expensive (main courses are around 300 SEK) it is highly rated.

Wine in Sweden is expensive but don't feel obliged to order a bottle. It is fine to order just one glass. Expect to pay between 100-150 SEK for a glass of wine at Fem Små Hus.

Most clubs are also closed for Midsummer, but if you like jazz and blues I recommend visiting Stampen in Gamla Stan. Admission is normally free, the drinks are reasonably priced and the quality of music is good. An appreciative mixed-aged crowd enjoy the pub-like atmosphere.

If you can get yourself to Stockholm for Midsummer I am sure you will have an enjoyable time and a memorable experience. For more information about Sweden at Midsummer click here.

John Duxbury

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