A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Midsummer ( Juhannus ) is one of the biggest events on the Finnish calendar and is celebrated on the Saturday after June 19. With the biggest events happening on Midsummer’s Eve, we set off to the island of Seurasaari for some traditional Finnish celebrations.

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We’ve had a lot of rain this week, but the sun was out and the island is looking beautiful, covered in wildflowers and green.

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We love how the landscape here is left untamed and unshaped over summer, just left free to do its own thing.

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There was quite an extensive program on, with traditional crafts, singing, storytellers and puppet shows set up around the island.

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At one place you could make your own head wreath, choosing flowers from baskets of wildflowers.

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We stopped for a while in a clearing and the boys had turns on stilts while I went for a ride on a horse-drawn cart.

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Next we went down to the main events area and had our picnic dinner and wine. There was a flag procession and singing and Jonathan got drawn into dancing a Finnish folk dance, much to his discomfort and our immense delight.

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We soon followed Jonathan and his band of merry dancers down to the beach for the lighting of the first of the bonfires.

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Midsummer bonfires are called kokko, which is also the name of a mythical bird of iron and fire from Finnish folklore, similar to a phoenix.

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Despite the appearance that the sun was still rising in the sky, it was soon time for us to head off and get Miko to bed.

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For those who stayed there was music and dancing until 1 am and more bonfires lit beneath the midnight sun.

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Seurasaari is an open air museum and home to examples of Finnish architecture from across the ages and country. My parents are visiting from New Zealand and enjoyed checking out the different buildings on our way back to the bus.

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You can tell by our clothing that it wasn’t a particularly warm night on Friday, with the temperature hitting a high of just 14 degrees. That was 14 degrees warmer than last year however, so in comparison it really was a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Save it for a rainy day

Sorry Helsinki – I seem to have made it rain. My parents are visiting and asked yesterday if it rains very often here. I laughed and said ‘No! Hardly at all,’ and it hasn’t stopped raining since. Luckily Helsinki is not only set up for outdoor fun but inside adventures too.

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There are a few indoor playgrounds in the city but the one we’ve been to the most is Snadi Stadi. Based five floors underground in the suburb of Ruoholahti, it boasts 3000 square metres of games and activities for children.

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There’s an area for children under 3 and the rest of the place is for kids of all ages to basically go nuts.

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We first went with Miko’s paternal grandmother who kept accidentally beating him very convincingly at air hockey, no matter how hard she tried to lose.

Miko can't understand why his grandmother keeps beating him at air hockey

As well as arcade games and floor hockey, there’s also a big bike path that runs around the centre of the arena. Some of the bikes have room for two kids, which is great for the little ones who want to hitch a ride.

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Miko’s favourite thing is the skate ramp which has scooters and skateboards and basketballs to shoot hoops.

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There are also these crazy horses that you ride by pushing down on the stirrups with your feet, which propels them around the room.

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There’s even a place for children’s hair cuts, complete with distractions for the wriggliest child.

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To be honest the worst thing about Snadi Stadi is that it’s a bit boring for adults as your child will just run off and play for four hours and leave you sitting to the side. Take a friend or take a book and take some money for coffee (although your first is free with entry).

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Perhaps my favourite thing about the place is this crazy picture near the ball pit of a child, dressed as a bear, walking an inflatable whale on a lead.

Hopefully we won’t be seeing too much of it over the next few months as I have realised the power of my words and their direct impact on meteorological events….*

Snadi Stadi – summer tickets are now 32€, which will get you entry throughout June & July

* I don’t actually believe I made it rain **

** well, maybe a little bit

A great new way to see old things

I went to Taidehalli (art gallery) for the first time recently. Yes, I had heard their cafe was housed in my favourite restaurant Farang, but I am interested in other things too, like you know, art.

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I had a nice time looking around but was a bit rushed to ensure I had enough time left to visit the gift shop before I had to pick up Miko.

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I was a bit puffed as I left, but happy that I’d managed some shop time as well as seeing everything on exhibition, leaving me feeling I had achieved value for money from the price of the entry fee.

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Many of Helsinki’s museums have a day a month where entry is free. It’s such a good offer and yet when I took Miko along yesterday with his grandparents to the Natural History Museum, it turns out lots of other people think so too. It was super busy.

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Which is why the new Museum Card ( museokortti ) launched by the Finnish Museums Association is such a great idea. For €54 you get entry into nearly 200 museums in Finland for an entire year, meaning you can pop into your favourites again and again without feeling you should stay all day.

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I’m not sure I’ll get to all 200 this year but there are loads I’d like to visit and I’m grateful to have been given a Museum Card to see as many as I can. Which ironically will allow me to turn my free time into more time by spending less time on each visit – while still having time to visit each museum’s gift shop and cafe.

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Special thanks to The Finnish Museums Association for my museokortti and also to regular reader Urmas who leaves great comments and brought the Museum Card to my attention in the first place. 

Museum Card (Finnish) – You can buy your museokortti here or at participating museums. Use the details on your temporary card to register online and a plastic card with your name on it will be sent to your address. Registration of your card happens from your first visit, not just when you buy online, and is valid for 12 months. It would make a great gift for someone, including those who visit Finland regularly.

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Face painting for beginners

I really like Lokal and was happy to see recently they were having an artist in to paint pictures of the public.

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I booked a time for Miko and told him that a man was going to paint his portrait. ‘My what?’ he asked. ‘Your portrait,’ I said. ‘You know, paint your face.’

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When we arrived another family were just finishing their sitting, so Miko explored the joy of infinity in the mirrors while we waited.

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When it was his turn to sit, Miko wriggled around until I told him he had to sit as still as he did last week when the doctor was trying to pull a piece of lego out of his nose. ‘Out of your nose?’ asked the artist. ‘How did it get up there?’

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‘Oh,’ explained Miko patiently. ‘It was Star Wars lego and it jumped up there.’

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Matti Pikkujämsä is a Finnish artist who does a lot of illustration in Japan. He also made the wooden animals featured in Lokal’s Wild Animals Helsinki exhibition.

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Finished and pleased with the result, Matti and Miko posed for a photo before we headed home.

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‘Do you like it?’ I asked Miko. ‘Yes,’ he said, smiling. ‘But Mummy, I thought you said he was going to paint my face.’

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A Weekend of Festivals in Helsinki

With spring finally making itself felt around the city, Helsinki’s festival season now kicks off. There is so much on tomorrow, the hardest thing will be knowing what to do first.

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Ravintolapäivä (Restaurant Day) – the city becomes a food festival as anyone can open a cafe or restaurant for the day. Download the app to plan your route or just head somewhere like Ruttopuisto (Vanha kirkkopuisto) for a great selection of food.

Cafe Tivoli

Cafe Tivoli

Cat Video Cafe – and if it rains you can always duck indoors and watch funny videos of cats while you eat cupcakes.

Photo credit: Helsinki Think Company

Photo credit: Helsinki Think Company

Teurastamo (The Abbatoir) – this redeveloped area comes alive in the warmer months and tomorrow marks the opening of the summer season. There will be music, seedlings for your garden, events for cyclists and of course, lots of food.

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Arabian Street Festival – in Helsinki you can catch a tram to such exotic places as Arabia without leaving the country. Home to artists and other creative people, the Arabia Street Festival will also host 17,000 visitors according to its Facebook page.

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Photo credit: arabiahelsinki.fi

Puu-Vallilan Yard Sale – the suburb of Puu-Vallila is unique in Helsinki as it is full of wooden houses. (Puu means tree or wood in Finnish). Wander around the markets and enjoy the neighbourhood, only a short ride from the city centre.

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Photo credit: osuma.fi

Whatever you do this weekend, try not to eat too much before you leave home and take some cash with you. Seems it will be a weekend of food, fun and hopefully more sunshine. Hyvää Viikonloppua!

A Quick Guide to Helsinki

I get lots of emails from people visiting Helsinki, asking what to do while they are here. So here’s a list of ideas to get you started, which I will add to and update. You can also check out my City Guide to Helsinki, which I wrote for Design*Sponge.

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Many museums in Helsinki have one day a month where entry is free. Many places also have different opening hours during summer and winter, so always visit the relevant website before you head out.

City walks

Katajanokka – a suburb of beautiful architecture and great coffee

Töölönlahti – frozen in winter and beautiful in summer, this bay has coffee shops dotted around it’s edge. More photos here.

Uunisaari – an island connected by bridge during winter

Lauttasaari – lovely coastal walk and summer cabins

Baana – a converted freight line is now a cycle and walking path

Five things to do on Fredrikinkatu

Five things to do on Korkeavuorenkatu

Places to visit – outdoors

Linnanmäki – amusement park, free entry, open during summer

Korkeasaari – Helsinki’s island zoo, ferry runs only in summer, bus access otherwise

Seurasaari – outdoor museum on an island, bus access

Pihlajasaari – summer island for swimming

Suomenlinna – fortress island and UNESCO World Heritage Site

Places to visit – indoors

Sea Life – great option for a rainy or cold day in Helsinki

Annantalo – arts centre with exhibitions for children with family friendly book cafe

Yrjönkatu Uimahalli – swimming hall with sauna, men & women separate, only open during winter

Natural History Museum – displays of Nordic and other animals over a few floors

Botanical Gardens – beautiful gardens in glasshouses, good option for a rainy day

Cultural

The Rock Church

Chapel of Silence

Lokal – art gallery & cafe

Kiasma – Museum of Contemporary Art

Alvar Aalto House

Markets

Hietalahti Market Square – summer time flea market & antiques

Old Market Hall – Vanhakauppahalli is a great place for lunch

Christmas Markets

Market Square

Day Trips

Tallinn, Estonia

Porvoo, Finland

Tips for Visiting in Winter & Getting Around

How to walk on ice without dying

How to walk under ice without dying

How to dress a child for Finnish winter

Using Helsinki’s Metro

Cultural Events

Saint Lucia – December

Christmas Path – December

Vappu – May

Samba Carnival – June

Baltic Herring Festival – October

All Saint’s Day – November

Cleaning Day – a giant yard sale throughout the city, held various times a year

Restaurant Day – a street food carnival where anyone can open a restaurant for the day, held four times a year

Places to eat & drink

Cafe Regatta – traditional Finnish cafe by the water, for coffee and cinnamon buns

Mockbar – Soviet style bar specialising in vodka and bad service

Moko Market & Kaffa Roastery – cafe and homewares, great for buying gifts and very family friendly.

Freese – owned by Finnish barista champion Kalle Freese, check Facebook for opening times as can be closed if busy elsewhere

Good Life Coffee – great coffee and delicious almond croissants

Skiffer – pizza bar on an island, only open during summer months. City venue during winter

Fafa’s – good falafel and vegetarian takeaway

Dancing in the Shadows – at Annantalo

I’ve walked past Annantalo so many times and never stopped to wonder what it is. Turns out – it’s great is what it is!

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Annantalo is an arts centre for children and young people, housed in a beautiful old school that was built in 1886. Miko and I recently visited with friends on a rainy afternoon after daycare.

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On the ground floor is the large Kirja Kahvila (book cafe) with loads of space for families and smaller tables set up with paper and colouring pencils. There’s also shelves full of childrens’ books, printed in Finnish and Swedish.

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The cafe is also home to Tutti-tukaani (Pacifier Toucan) who sits atop a large bottle where children put their pacifiers when the time comes to give them up. The idea is based loosely on similar traditions in Finland and was dreamed up by the Office Manager.

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The cafe is run by a lovely woman called Krista, who told me she loves all the handmade touches around Annantalo.

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This includes the warm korvapuustit (cinammon buns) and the woollen covers on the tea glasses.

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Upstairs in the building, there are art classes, as well as dance and theatre for young people. Miko’s daycare has visited in the past to watch a puppet show, which he still talks about.

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There are also exhibitions for children, which are really creative and interactive. Miko loved going inside a big teepee and looking at tiny worlds inside boxes with a torch during the last one.

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Although the cafe is family focussed it can be very quiet at times and there’s lots of space to spread out if you need to work. With wheelchair access it’s a great place for anyone to visit, young and old alike.

Annantalo – events and courses

Annankatu 30, Helsinki

Due to a bad dose of the flu there were no Vappu celebrations for me this year. The spring carnival on May Day is one of the biggest events on the Finnish calendar. You can read my post from last year here

Sandwiches in the Snow

A few weeks ago after Finnish class I decided to walk to Töölö where I was headed to interview a young cobbler. It started to snow so intensely it was like being stuck inside a snow dome someone had just shaken up.

With an hour to go until the interview I was relieved to spy this cafe and ducked inside, out of the cold.

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Stepping inside I was taken back by the size. It was tiny! The floor space was about 2m wide by 10m long.

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No one was around but I could understand the sign: ‘Ring bell. We are in the kitchen. Thanks!’

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A young guy came out and took my order from the menu on the wall. He said the store had been open since the 1960’s and his family had bought it fairly recently.

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Most people, he said, phone ahead and take-away. He went back to the kitchen so I took a seat, admiring the retro Danish posters.

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It was great, as though the cafe had been decorated in the 1960’s and hadn’t been updated since.

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My lunch soon arrived – a delicious open sandwich with fresh salmon and cottage cheese.

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Soon another customer stepped in out of the snow and when his order arrived he made as though to eat it standing up. I invited him to share my table – the only table – and we chatted about a trip he’d made with his wife to Australia a few years before.

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Sated and satisfied I headed back out into the snow, watched by a drummer boy pinned by the front door.

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I felt a bit like him as I tightened my coat and set off once more into the swirling snow, my hat and hood piled high upon my head.

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Dansk Smørrebrød – Cygnaeuksenkatu 5, Helsinki

Creating Helsinki – interview with cobbler, Juho Erving

The Horse and the Beaver

Most of our holidays are centred around walking and eating and walking some more so we are hungry again. Riga was no exception. Not knowing what to expect we were really pleased to get off to a good start by visiting Garage, a tapas bar where I had a delicious ceviche salad and Jonny had a small platter of local cheese.

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On the prowl that night for some vegetarian fast food we went to Street Burgers, open on Good Friday and serving a hearty portobello burger with a side order of fries.

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The next morning, in search of good coffee we headed for Innocent Cafe and found it was brunch time. The table was laden with strips of smoked cheese, pickled vegetables, potatoes, salads and fish.

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 To be honest my stomach was not ready for some of these savoury treats but I happily had a couple of rounds of olives, potatoes and cheese on toast.

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Later, in the Old Town, I popped into Black Magic cafe. They specialise in serving Riga Black Balsam, a herbal liqueur served in coffee or neat. It wasn’t quite balsam-o-clock yet so some more walking was called for before our next stop.

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Looking for lunch we were nearly invited into this den by the Latvian Russell Crowe but pushed on to find restaurant 1221 of which we’d read good things.

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1221 was as lovely as described with lots of people stopping to take photos of the painted exterior.

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Unfortunately however, the menu was not a good fit for a vegetarian and his vege-quarian companions.

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Although for the carnivores there was something for everyone.

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We dined that night at our hotel restaurant, which we never do but it was cold and raining so we allowed ourselves the luxury of going downstairs. The food was delicious and came with glasses of birch water, compliments of the chef.

So we managed to eat our way around Riga without resorting to pork knuckles and cabbage as some guide books would suggest. The euro goes a lot further outside of Finland too and we were very grateful to leave feeling so well fed.

Seems the only thing going hungry on our trip were these poor little guys at the airport.

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Riga’s Central Market

A review on Trip Advisor warned that Riga’s Central Market is good but only if you like the same old stuff. Ha! Depends where you come from really, because what’s same old stuff to you, may not be same old stuff to me.

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Housed in what were once Zeppelin hangars, Riga’s Central Market was opened in 1930 and covers 72,000 square metres.

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You can smell the first hangar before you even enter. Not in a bad way, but in a bustling, crowded, bouquets of dried fish on the counter kind of way.

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We stopped in the walkway to the next hangar to buy a couple of wooden spoons for our kitchen. Local honey and woollen socks were also on offer in this part of the market.

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The next hangar was full of sweets. Latvia seems to have a love affair with pastries and, surprisingly, halva, which we found was also included in our breakfast buffet in the city.

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Latvian’s are proud of their dairy production and rightly so. We saw beautiful piles of soft cheeses and curds but opted instead for some hard Dutch cheese we could bring home in our luggage.

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Then it was through to the produce market. If you love vinegar like I do, then this one’s for you.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Piles of colourful vegetables preserved in oil and vinegar were everywhere, many displayed in huge vases.

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Finally we walked past piles of dried goods: pasta, tea, ketchup and rice. Not terribly interesting products in themselves but still worth taking a photo of, because having never seen this packaging before, they are not the same old stuff to me!

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Riga Central Market

This post has been shared as part of the Show Your World feature on the Tiny Expats blog – you can find out more here.

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