The capital of Finland may be better known for efficient and eye-catching design, jovial saunas and superb produce, as opposed to Europe’s most quintessential tourist attractions, but the city also plays host to one of the continent’s most increasingly sought after annual music and arts festivals. The acclaim regularly surrounding Flow Festival speaks volumes for the three-day event’s place on the dizzyingly-overcrowded list of Europe’s must-attend events, since festivals in that part of the world regularly fill the rest of us (especially Aussies) with a profoundly upsetting sense of FOMO. The reasons are numerous, but we’ve picked out five of our main talking points for why we think “Flow” should be up there on your festival bucketlist, amidst mainstays like Iceland Airwaves, Glastonbury, Roskilde, Primavera Sound and Pukkelpop.
Let’s start with the destination first. Though Helsinki is a beautiful part of the world, the Finnish capital isn’t often found at the top of everyone’s list when it comes to Europe’s most exciting or eclectic cities, but there’s just no mistaking that the breezy Nordic destination is one of the most endearing. A relaxed, peaceful and socially-conscious lifestyle has come to define the way of life here, disturbed only be a penchant for hipster-friendly living.
The food and drink scene isn’t as rowdy as Eastern and Western Europe, instead focusing on clean-eating and creativity. One just needs to think of how famous Finns are for their design to get an idea of just how ingenious some of the spaces around the city are used, facilitating an enriched social life that is accepting and open. Finns are an especially friendly people, which probably has something to do with how communal their major hubs are.
By “major hubs” I of course refer to the unparalleled love of saunas around here. As any local will proudly tell you, the Finnish invented saunas and you’ll easily find various types of the steamy spaces dotted around the city. From Sompa Sauna FIX NAME, a volunteer-run 24-hour sauna, to the stunning Loyl FIX NAME, a curiously chic blend of sauna, restaurant and bar with some of the city’s most unique design, sauna-hopping is most certainly a thing in Helsinki and though it’s not at all the coldest time in Helsinki around Flow Festival, the often up-and-down climate should have you happily shuffling in and out of these throughout the weekend.
Funnily enough, even the festival has its own sauna of sorts. You’re likely to find a mobile sauna truck parked outside the entrance, just in case you and your crew feel like a quick sweat before dipping into all that food, music and art.
Cities with less things to see often have more things to do. If you’re headed off on a larger Eurotrip before or after Flow Festival, then you’re likely only spending 3-5 days in the capital city. The lack of tourist attractions means that you’re not running around ticking boxes, which instead leaves much more time for you to take it easy and enjoy the dynamic city from breakfast (coffee and cafe culture here is excellent) through to dinner.
Although, don’t count out to must-see slices of history like the wondrous sea fortress of Suomenlinna or Temppeliaukio, a Lutheran church built inside a large rock. If you’ve only got room for one tourist essential, then the former is the way to go. Head off on a short but scenic ferry trip from Market Square to the historic fortress and make a day of it. There’ll be a lot of walking around the island, but the views and sense of history are most certainly worth the throbbing feet. Locals frequent the island for picnics and barely-there beaches, so between admiring old cannons and reading about Finland’s seafaring strategies it’s a good idea to bring a blanket and picnic basket (stuffed full of local produce of course) along.
Before or after the ferry, make sure you spend some time shopping around Market Square. If the air is particularly chilly then you’ll definitely find some comfort in the many different things to eat here. Or you can take a short walk up to the main streets where even more restaurants are found, many cosy and full of beautiful local produce with quite a few shops, art galleries and museums nearby.
2. Food and Drink
Flow Festival procures some of the countries best chefs to make for one of the most vibrant and diverse foodie precincts at a music festival, period. You’ll end up eating and drinking some of the best the city has to offer, from burgers and brews to Asian street food and traditional Finnish favourites. There’s something for just about everyone – and vegans/vegetarians will have plenty of options too. The Finns sure love their progressive, clean eating so you’ll find delicious fare that won’t weigh you down all festival, giving you some proper fuel to head off and party to some of the best damn live music around. There’s even an entire (and very colourful) area dedicated to organic food, and lovers of craft drinks will definitely not be walking out of that festival disappointed.
3. Festival Site and Stage Design
Flow Festival takes place in the shadow of disused Suvilahti power plant, transforming the enormous industrial precinct with vibrant art installations, entertainment, and live music. Some of the indoor spaces have been used beautifully, like one of the longer buildings turned into a nightclub-esque space with lasers shooting straight down from the ceiling, or one of the smaller warehouse spaces turned into a hub for the more eclectic and experimental performances, ranging from classical to heady impossible-to-define brilliance.
There’s a good mix of indoor and outdoor venues, including the massive Lapin Kulta Red Arena, a 15,000 capacity tent with 100 glowing red acoustic panels on the ceiling. Guests will also find themselves ducking in and out of the awesome Resident Advisor Front Yard, one for the tech and electronica heads keen on partying in an outdoor garden surrounded by street art covered shipping containers; the large outdoor main stage with a no-fuss approach and an enormous capacity thanks to the surrounding space, sitting pretty next to the site’s most instagrammable structures; a cinema bar screening cult hits, serving as respite from the weather with plenty of deck chairs; a dedicated vinyl market; and perhaps the most unique of them all, the festival’s signature Balloon 360* stage: a circular, intimate open-air theatre that was birthed from an architectural competition six years ago and has since become the most referenced elements of Flow. The Balloon 360* stage – mostly seated – is the place where the most cerebral, legendary acts across jazz and funk call their home, which for 2017 was the likes of Roy Ayers, Joshua Redman, and BadBadNotGood – it’s like a small jazz circus with some of the most talented musicians in the world as ringleaders.
4. Curation (Music)
Contemporary and eclectic, dedicated to showcasing and highlighting local talent alongside international big-ticket names: the curation at Flow Festival is the number one reason for its success and why it remains distinguished on the festival circuit. For 2017, open-minded programming had big acts like Frank Ocean and Danny Brown sharing line ups with Joshua Redman and Goldfrapp; Flume and Aphex Twin; Helsinki pop hero Alma and The XX; Death Grips and Finnish rap pioneers Ceebrolistics; Vince Staples and Roy Ayers. Soul-stirring compositions are squeezed into small dark spaces, lively (and authentic) vinyl DJ sets spin 90’s R&B lovers into frenzy, heady tech bounces off shipping containers, and aggressive, hard-knuckle raps fill rowdy tents while complex free-jazz fills the air elsewhere.
The festival admirably aims to balance all the huge international acts with plenty of local favourites, so Flow Festival is just as much about discovery as it is watching industry dominators prove why they are at the top of their game.
They knock it out of the park every single time, and things clearly aren’t changing anytime soon with this year’s line up possibly one of their best yet: Kendrick Lamar, Arctic Monkeys, Patti Smith, Lykke Li, 6lack, Fleet Foxes, Bonobo, Alma, Grizzly Beat, Egyptian Lover, Brockhampton, Fever Ray, Jorja Smith, Kamasi Washington, Moodymann – the list goes on.
More so than just about any other festival in the world, Flow has managed to stick with the trends but maintain their own strong identity and culture, which is probably why they manage to climb to the top of the European festival list every year.
5. The Nordic Region, The Baltics and Eastern Europe
You’re not just going to Helsinki this trip, are you? Very rarely do Aussies visiting Europe take a one-and-done approach to travel, with the vast majority of travellers keen to make the most of their time on the continent. Besides, us Australians are so far away from everything that it’d be downright foolish not to explore far beyond Helsinki. Luckily, the city is a fantastic access point for some of Europe’s greatest, most underrated, and most inexpensive (save the Nordic region), experiences.
After Flow Festival is done and dusted, take a day to recover in Helsinki or book a ferry on over to Tallinn and make up for lost sleep on the way over. Estonia’s historic capital is one of a handful of European cities that have been heritage listed and it’s one of the most overlooked when it comes to your typical Eurotrip. Like the entirety of the Baltic states (which includes Latvia and Lithuania), Estonia’s independence is relatively recent, which means the cultural openness and willingness to truly grow into the destination it deserves to be can be felt all throughout. In Tallinn, much of this forward-thinking cultural scene is concentrated in Old Town, an area of uncommon beauty and history which is known as one of the best – if not the best – preserved medieval areas in the world. There’s very little that’s like it, and you’ll surely love walking in, around and through these cobblestone streets discovering all the hidden museums, medieval bars and restaurants (elk soup is a full-flavoured revelation), and hidden underground dancefloors itching for late-night revelry.
After a day or two in Tallinn, kick off a bus journey throughout the Baltics. If you’re short on time, just do the capital cities which are as diverse and enriching as any other in Europe. In this case, Riga in Latvia will be your next stop; try book a hotel or hostel in Old Town (for those with money to burn, Pullman LINK is an excellent choice) since the majority of your time will be spent there. Compared to Tallinn, Riga’s Old Town is much more romantic and family-friendly, closer to that pastel-coloured fairytale European dreams are made of. There’s plenty of interest here, especially for those seeking out unique architecture (Riga is famous for its art-noveau buildings – the majority of which are about a 10-20 minute walk from Old Town). Make sure you’re not missing Grand Central Market, built into several conjoined air hangers which have been gutted and replaced with rows upon rows of market stalls serving up all kinds of interesting treats, trinkets and.
Vilnius is perhaps the most interesting of the three cities, with street art (often sharply political) and murals aplenty amongst plenty of historic buildings and a sprawling Old Town. But if you’ve got the time, don’t limit your exploration of Lithuania to just Vilnius, there’s so much around the country that deserves discovering, including the artsy city of Kaunus, the gorgeous Trakai, and the eerie religious landmark that is Hill of Crosses.
The best part about the Baltics (aside from the beautiful story behind the “Baltic Way” – look it up) is how much room there is to grow, from refining the food and drink scenes to. In just a few years time I’m expecting these cities to be major destinations for Europe, especially given they have three of the most perfect and immersive Old Towns on the continent. Use Flow as a gateway to these and thank me later.
Of course, then you’ve got easy access to the Nordic region and wider eastern Europe, so hopping over to Sweden or Norway, or partying over in Vienna or Budapest, are simple ways to cap off your Flow Festival trip.
Convinced? You should be. It’s one hell of a good time. For more of a taste, you can check out our top 10 performances from last year’s festival HERE.
Flow Festival 2018
Dates: 10th, 11th and 12th August 2018
Website: Flow Festival
Anna of the North
Broken English Club
Kube x Eevil Stöö
3TM in 3D
Anna Puu: The Intergalatic Love Odyssey
Jukka Eskola & Umo
Onni Boi and Ibe
Olli Ahvenlahti New Quartet
Sammy Dee B2b Zip
Detroit in Effect
+ more acts to be announced
Feature image: Flow Festival / Anni Hartikainen