This year, Finland topped the World Happiness Report, a survey that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be.
Finns enjoy a safe, stable, well-governed country with a high quality of life, so it’s understandable that they are content to live there. But, is Finland also a happy place to visit? I headed to Helsinki and Lapland this fall to find out.
Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is a beautiful city along the Gulf of Finland. Down by the water, you can watch locals swimming in the 44-degree Allas Sea Pool, shop for fresh cloudberries in Market Square, and take a ride on SkyWheel Helsinki, the only Ferris wheel in the world with a sauna car. It’s also nice to head into the Old Market Hall, dating back to 1889, and savor a bowl of creamy salmon soup.
I loved that Helsinki was so easy to navigate. From my home base at Hotel Katajanokka, a quirky boutique hotel housed in the former Helsinki Prison, I could easily stroll to shops and restaurants. I recommend ordering a cappuccino and quiche from the adorable Moomin Café, shopping for black licorice—a Finnish favorite—at Stockmann department store, and browsing books at the modern Oodi public library. City bikes, scooters, Uber, and punctual public transportation make sightseeing a breeze.
To explore beyond the city, catch a public ferry to nearby islands. My favorite was Suomenlinna, an 18th-century sea fortress spread across six linked islands. Here, you can purchase food for lunch and walk around the World Heritage site and surrounding nature trails in search of the perfect picnic spot. Another nice day trip from Helsinki is Korkeasaari Island, where you’ll discover one of the world’s oldest zoos. You can reach Korkeasaari Zoo by boat or bus.
After a few days of city life in Helsinki, I took a quick flight to the more remote Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland in northern Finland. If you love the great outdoors, Lapland is a breath of fresh air—literally. Both the air and water here are among the cleanest in Europe.
Rovaniemi is considered the gateway to the Arctic Circle, and also the official hometown of Santa Claus. The town is a mix of fun, folklore and awe-inspiring nature. Here, I tried dog sledding at Bearhill Husky Tours, hand-fed reindeer, and met the “real” Santa in Santa Claus Village. If you want to experience the midnight sun in summer, or see the aurora borealis in winter, Lapland is a fascinating place to spend some time.
In Rovaniemi, I stayed in the festive Santa hotel group’s Hotel Santa Claus, in a room with its own private sauna (one of nearly three million in the country). For an even more unique experience, consider staying at Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle or Arctic Fox Igloos. These luxury glass accommodations provide a window to the sky for guests to watch the northern lights from bed.
Or, forget luxury and head into the Finnish forest to pitch a tent. Thanks to Finland’s freedom to roam rights, all are welcome to hike, bike, boat, ski and camp wherever they’d like, even on private land. To unwind like a Finn, wander the wilderness, forage for berries and mushrooms, pick flowers, and fish in some of Finland’s 188,000 lakes. Just be sure to bundle up. Temperatures dip down to -31 in winter!
Despite the cold in the chilly north, I did indeed feel happy to be in Finland. I saw the northern lights for the first time, played with husky pups, and visited the Arctic Circle to pet the soft antlers of Santa’s reindeer. It was a pretty amazing week. If you’d like to visit, check out Finnair’s free stopover program, which allows you to add up to five days in Finland to your trip at no additional charge. It’s a great way to sneak in a Nordic holiday, and get your own dose of Finnish happiness!
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Cover photo courtesy Santa Claus Village
Heidi Gollub travels the world with five kids in tow. The founder of Free Fun in Austin, Heidi believes you can find adventure everywhere, even in your own backyard. Follow her on Instagram at @heidi.go.