In Scandinavia, the upside of the long, dark winters is the summer inversion of them: long, light nights when the sky never truly darkens and twilight stretches until almost midnight.
A June 11pm sunset (taken in the Scottish highlands)
In this northerly part of the world, the solstice feels more meaningful than it does in places further south with more equitable hours or darkness throughout the year. While solstice celebrations may hark back to ancient civilisations and pagan practices, the Danes do a pretty good job of reinventing the oldest of cultural traditions in a modern, inclusive style. And why wouldn’t they? Danes like to do things well, and are impressively accomplished: they are the world’s second best non-native English speakers, the world’s happiest nation and the EU’s most digitally advanced country. But they also like to wear flower headdresses, drink beer, and sing songs around a bonfire, and aren’t deterred by unpromising Scandi summer season temperatures.
Cloudy daytime scenes in Nyhavn
Always a fan of a fiesta, I spent the summer solstice in Copenhagen in 2014. I didn’t write about it at the time, but with the summer solstice once again just days away – and having just got back from the Scottish highlands, where I watched a glorious full-colour sunset at 11pm -it seemed to make sense to find my old photos and turn my experience into something to share more widely.
The best place to watch the celebrations in the Danish capital is in Nyhavn, the charming, picture-postcard perfect harbour filled with colourful houses and little fishing boats. The bars have plenty of outdoor seating, along with heat lamps and cosy blankets – they are under no illusions about the weather – if you can, get there early, buy your pricey pint and settle down for a bit. Soon, groups of impressively tall and good-looking blondes will begin to gather by the waterfront with cans of beer and picnic blankets, and by 10pm there’ll be a bonfire on the water and rousing singing.
The bonfire for the solstice in Nyhavn
Midsummer in Denmark is celebrated on 23 June, St John’s Eve – known locally as Sankt Hans Aften, although the astronomical solstice is usually considered to be 21 June. As in the UK, the bonfires lit burn an effigy, although here it’s a witch that gets the fire treatment, rather than an early modern terrorist. They say that the witches on the Danish bonfires are burnt to symbolically send them, and evil generally, to a town in Germany. The celebrations are held throughout Denmark – beaches are a popular location – although the festivities at Nyhavn is one of the biggest and most well known.
My experience of the summer solstice in Copenhagen was very mellow. Children, families, and couples all attend, and locals mix with the tourists. As a city it’s a great place to visit outside of the midsummer season too – just make sure you take a jacket.
Sunshine on the town hall.