Vappu, or the First of May celebration in Finland, is something to experience. Vappu in Helsinki kicks off on April 30 (also known as Vappuaatto, or Vappu Eve) with a raucous donning of a graduation cap on a statue that I think the entire country comes out to watch. The celebration continues the next day with a giant picnic in Kaivopuisto, a lovely park near where I stayed. Vappu remains one of my top travel memories. Now updated with tips for planning your trip!

Vappu: Celebrate the end of winter

Finland throws a mean party on the First of May, and in 2016, I got to go. Vappu, as the Finns call it, is something to see. You might even want to plan a trip to see it.

Vappu is a hoot.

Origins and how Vappu is celebrated today

Named for Saint Walburg (Valburg in Finnish), but with origins going back to pagan times, Vappu combines a few celebrations into one, with festivities spreading over two days. There is a focus on workers, as with much of the world for International Workers Day, but also on the end of the school term, and, I think especially, people really getting into marking end of the long, brutal Nordic winter. By May 1, the days have gotten long, with more daylight than I’ve ever personally experienced, and spring is in the air (if still chilly).

In Helskinki, Vappu kicks off on April 30 (also known as Vappuaatto, or Vappu Eve) by students from the University of Helsinki placing a ylioppilaslakki  (graduation cap) on the statue known as Havis Amanda (a rather coquettish nude) on the Esplanade. They do this by being lowered by a crane, to more fanfare than I thought possible. Vappu proper on  next day features a huge picnic in Kaivopuisto, one of the oldest parks on the tip of Helsinki’s peninsula.

Havis Amanda, a statue that gets fit with a graduation cap on Vappu in Helsinki, Finland
Havis Amanda in calmer times. Helsinki, Finland

I was a bit of a Vappu skeptic

I’d read about Vappu before my trip, but it did not really prepare me. I mean, being stereotypical here, when you think of Finland, you don’t exactly think of wild parties. The country has a word, kalsarikänni, for staying home, drinking wine in your underwear, without any intention of going out, for goodness’ sake. (The word translates to pantsdrunk. I’ve tried it and recommend.) They do have some fun festivals like Kaljakellunta (floating down the river in rafts in large groups, drinking beer), among others. And, they aren’t shy about their bodies, as anyone who has ever been to a Finnish sauna can attest. But they aren’t exactly a bunch that one associates with crowds.

A holiday with donuts

A few evenings before , the server at Spis (we’ll talk more about dining in Helsinki, but suffice it to say dine here), brought me little donuts. When I looked confused (the restaurant is known for exquisite treatment of vegetables), he smiled and said, “We have a tradition on the First of May. We eat donuts.” (They are known as munkki in Finnish.)

Well, any holiday that involves donuts is a good one in my book, and they are delicious in Finland, as are other sweets. Other places I went, I started hearing more about Vappu. I’d already planned on checking it out, but all the fuss piqued my interest.

Vappu celebration, Helskini
Following the crowd on Vappuaatto. Helsinki, Finland

Let the wild Vappu rumpus start!

Lucky me, I didn’t need to travel far to figure out what all the fuss was about, as I my flat on Kasarmikatu in Helsinki’s Ullanlinna neighborhood put me equidistant from Vappu’s two main locations: the Esplanadi in central Helsinki, where Havis Amanda resides, and Kaivopuisto, where the drunken picnicking would take place.

Havis Amanda, Vappu celebrations, Helskinki, Finland
I had a good view of this strange site! Vappuaatto celebration. Helsinki, Finland

Vappuaatto

On April 30, Vappuaatto, I walked from my flat, up the street, following the crowd, and somehow remembered a side street that allowed me to score an excellent view of Havis Amanda and the crane carrying a bunch of students in jumpsuits and crazy masks ready to declare Amanda a graduate.

The entire population of Finland shows up to watch this spectacle, waving their own caps, and singing.

Havis Amanda, Helsinki, Finland
Yep. This is what's happening. Those are a bunch of students being lowered by a crane to put a graduation cap on a statue. Helsinki, Finland
Havis Amanda, Helsinki. Finland
I was on a little side street. This doesn't even come close to showing just how many people came out to watch this. Helsinki Finland
Havis Amanda, Vappu. Helsinki, Finland
Almost there! Helsinki, Finland
Havis Amanda, Vappu. Helsinki, Finland
And behold, her cap. Havis Amanda on Vappu. Helsinki, Finland

As soon as the cap dons the dame, champagne corks start flying and the Finns get down to partying with champagne, Sima (a low-alcohol mead), and donuts. I’m telling you, it’s a good, if very strange for the foreigner, party. It went late, though I did not.

Vappu, Helsinki, Finland
Some people dress up in scary costumes. Others wear beanies?
Vappu, Helsinki, Finland
Most just wear their caps and drink

Vappu

The next day on May 1, Vappu proper, I followed the crowd yet again to Kaivopuisto, conveniently also located a hop, skip, and a jump away from where I stayed. I’d spent a lot of time in that park and found it a peaceful spot to sit and watch the water and read, and drink champagne at the little outdoor café.

Vappu, Helsinki, Finland
Vappu in Kaivopuisto. Early in the day. Helsinki, Finland
Vappu, Kaivopuisto
Tango on Vappu in Kaivopuisto. Helsinki, Finland

On Vappu, Kaivopuisto was not calm at all. There was tango. Students playing marching band instruments. Champagne everywhere. Donuts. Throngs of people in sailor caps and costumes partying with their friends and families. Balloons.

Vappu, Kaivopuisto
Vappu, Kaivopuisto. Students in their overalls, playing marching band instruments on Vappu in Kaivopuisto. Helsinki, Finland

It was loud.

And weird.

And absolutely fantastic.

Walking through the crowd, without a cap, and without a bottle of champagne (I did have a glass from the café in the park, along with a sweet), I definitely felt like an outsider. Almost a little bit lonely.

Vappu, Kaivopuisto
Wandering through the crowd, on Vappu in Kaivopuisto. Helsinki, Finland.
Vappu, Kaivopuisto
Looking out on the bay from Kaivopuisto on Vappu. Helsinki, Finland

Also, if I’m being honest, I felt exhausted. This was my second to last day in Helsinki, after a week’s work trip in Vienna (I know, rough, right?). I was probably the only reasonably sober person in Finland, too. But in that loneliness and exhaustion, I also felt oddly at peace, and incredibly happy to see something so utterly new and strange to me.

I took great delight in seeing a people with a reputation for being downright dour whoop it up like the beautiful oddballs they are.

Vappu, Helsinki, Finland
Even the older folks get in on the party. Gathered around a bar in their caps. Vappu. Helsinki, Finland
Aftermath. Helsinki, Finland

I hung out in the park most of the afternoon, wandered around the neighborhood a bit, and then headed back to my flat in the evening. The party continued on.

Kaivopuisto
Kaivopuisto, May 2. You'd never know that anything happened here. Helsinki, Finland

The next morning, I walked through Kaivopuisto early, just as the cleaning crews had arrived. By mid-morning, you would have never known that the park had been the site of a wild party just the day before. It was back to its calm, pristine self.

And, by early evening, I was back in Vienna, due to fly back home the next morning.

Vappu in Helsinki

Celebrate Vappu in Helsinki!

When

30 April–1 May

Vappuaatto

30 April. In Helsinki, graduating university students don a cap on the Havish Amanda statue on the Esplanade.

Vappu

1 May. Head over to Kaivopuisto park to join in the festivities!

Good to know

Vappu proper is a holiday in Finland, and many shops and restaurants will be closed. If you want sima or champagne and picnic supplies, stock up early. You can get some refreshments at Kaivopuisto.

If you want a good view of the Havish Amanda cap, get on a side street off the Esplanade

Safety and solo female travel

Overall, I found this to be a exceedingly safe event, especially for something that does get rather drunken. However, I’d use judgement walking around at night.

Map

What wonderful festivals have you experienced in your travels? Let me know in the comments!