Nobody does midsummer like the Swedes. They down tools and head for their summer houses on the coast for a family gathering lubricated by beer, herring and shots of the local firewater. Whether you’re a builder or a banker, it’s the one day of the year that everyone casts aside their daily routine and goes back to the land.
So if you want to party like a Swede, then head west. The best place to join the midsummer festivities is around Gothenburg and the Bohuslan coast, the archipelago of some 8000 midnight-sun islands.
Swedish Midsummer’s Eve falls on Friday, June 19 this year but how best to join in the fun? Here is an essential guide to surviving midsummer in Sweden.
Step 1: escape to the country
Most Gothenburgers escape the city for their midsummer fun, heading to the family summer house on one of the islands or staying in a cottage by a lake to get close to nature.
If you hire a car, it’s a ninety-minute drive north from Gothenburg through a bucolic landscape of grazing pasture and produce-yielding farmland to reach the central-archipelago island of Tjorn.
Alternatively, you can hire a bike and ride out of Gothenburg along the harbour, picking up a ferry at the terminal at Saltholmen to island hop around the nearer southern archipelago. It’s a two-hour jaunt through some of Gothenburg’s most interesting districts, such as historic Haga and bohemian Majorna to reach the coast. Download a map of the cycle route here.
Image by Emil Fagander
Step 2: make your own Krans
The symbol of midsummer is the krans, a headband of summer flowers entwined around soft birch branches. Children head out to the fields in the morning to gather fresh flowers and no midsummer outfit is complete without your very own personalised crown.
Villa Sjotorp, a romantic, lakeside estate turned chic country hotel in the village of Ljungskile, hosts an annual midsummer banquet. The festivities begin with a class in making your own krans, followed by a traditional Swedish fika, an afternoon snack of fresh coffee and pastries.
According to popular Swedish folklore, you should place the headband under your pillow that night to dream of your future lover.
Step 3: learn the frog dance
By mid afternoon crowds are gathering in parks and on village greens around West Sweden to watch the annual midsummer dance around the maypole.
The spectacle blends elements of ancient German and British folklore but, while the phallic maypole and spiritual embracing of warming rays both feature heavily, you’ll be relieved to hear the event is a strictly Morris Dancing-free zone.
Children in traditional dresses clutch their parents’ hands while local teenagers, resplendent in their finest summer garb, exchange flirtatious glances as the accordion player strikes up a rousing chorus of folk tunes.
But beware: casual bystanders may be dragged into the ensuing series of line-dancing style displays, culminating with the quintessential midsummer routine — the squatting frog dance.
Step 4: eat a fish supper
After the build up of the afternoon, it’s time get down to the serious business that evening of celebrating with traditional food and drink.
The essential three-course supper includes a starter of three types of herring, served with crème fraîche and new potatoes, followed by cuts of beef, chicken and lamb, served with tomato salad and a deliciously tangy smoked mayonnaise. There are fresh strawberries to finish.
Most dinners are small family occasions but you can get a flavour of the festivities at Gabriel, the seafood restaurant located in Gothenburg ‘Fish Church’ seafood market, or at Villa Sjotorp.
Traditionally, the first tasty new potatoes and strawberries of the season are used to prepare the extensive spread.
Step 5: take a midnight swim
Midsummer is also about being together with families or friends reuniting for one weekend of the year. And, by the time the lights softens and the fresh breeze of summer blows across the al-fresco gathering, the schnapps will be in full flow.
By this point expect dancing on the jetty by the lakeside or on the ocean-washed beach and hearty singalongs to traditional folk tunes played on the accordion. It’s a rare moment in time when nobody has a care in the world and all feels right in life.
“For me, midsummer has elements of light, nature, family and nostalgia. It’s a special night,” explains Bibban Ryden, of Gothenburg-based tour company Kulturbåtarna, who organise island-hopping cruises around the archipelago.
“I may no longer be young but, come midnight,” she smiles cheekily, “I’m still ready for skinny dipping.”
Featured image by Midsummer at Öland via photopin (license). Explore more of Sweden with the Rough Guide to Sweden. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.