Plus, why you need to add this Scandinavian country to your healthy travel bucket list immediately.
Photo: Visit Finland
It's official—Finland recently earned the distinction of happiest country on Earth, according to a United Nations report. The country jumped up from fifth place in 2017, knocking Norway out of the top spot.
So why are the Finnish people so happy? There are of course some major endemic factors embedded in how the country functions, such as a huge focus on equality, a free college education available to all, and an emphasis on female rights. While those may be hard to take advantage of unless you're a resident, the other defining elements of the happiest country in the world are all things that travelers can experience, too.
Here, more on what makes Finland so unique, plus some helpful travel tips—because you should most definitely book a trip there, ASAP. (Related: How to Spend a Healthy Weekend In Iceland)
Relaxation is a major priority.
Saunas are the name of the game in Finland; the word is used as both a noun and a verb—as in, "how often do you sauna?" Sauna culture originated here and is a non-negotiable part of life for everyone, no matter your age, social status, or gender. It can be a social or professional event (business meetings often take place in the sauna), though it's also a time that people set aside to relax and de-stress; most of the locals we spoke with sauna at least twice per week. This time spent taking care of yourself is simply a given, rather than a luxury or special treat (America, take a hint!).
With approximately 3 million saunas in the country compared to around 5 million inhabitants, the numbers speak for themselves. There are public saunas, private sauna clubs, saunas in apartment buildings, saunas in individual homes, you name it. The basic premise: Sit in the (very hot) sauna, then dip into the (very cold) Baltic sea or a lake (though cold showers offer a more modern substitute). Repeat. The extreme shock and contrast are said to be great for both your mind and body—you'll be left feeling relaxed, yet simultaneously energized and invigorated. (Related: Why You Should Keep Up Your Meditation Practice While Traveling)
Many public saunas are open to tourists (for a small fee). In Helsinki, visit Löyly, one of the newest saunas in the city. Perched on the edge of the Baltic, it features a modern aesthetic and full-service restaurant. You can also travel to Tampere, the sauna capital, where there are 20 public saunas. (The city is an easy 90-minute train ride from Helsinki, and is also home to the Moomin Museum, focused on the classic cartoons that have a cult-like following around the world.)
Nature is a big part of life.
Whether in the cities or in Lapland, Finns embrace nature in a big way. The winters may be cold and dark, but this is the ideal time to travel to Lapland in the northern part of the country, where any and every outdoor winter activity is at your fingertips. Snowshoeing? Yep. Dog sledding? Done. Throughout the country, there are lakes everywhere—we're talking around 187,000 spread throughout the country. Locals and tourists alike these utilize year-round, for ice skating and ice fishing in the winter, and swimming in the summer. (Related: Breckenridge Is the Winter Sports Vacation Destination You Need to Know About)
There are also plenty of parks for biking, hiking, and running. A third of Helsinki is covered in green space. The city's Central Park stretches throughout the entire city. Just over 6 miles in length, it's a great way to get in a good run and see most of the city. Or head to Nuuskio National Park, about 15 miles from Helsinki and easily accessible by public transit, perfect for a day trip. With plenty of lakes, hiking and nature trails (ranging from just under a mile to over 10), over 18 miles of bike trails, and almost 14 miles of horseback riding trails, it's a great option for a day trip. Take advantage of Finland's unique Everyman's Right (which allows you to forage and pick food growing on public land) to pick and snack on some wild blueberries as you explore.
The food scene is thriving.
Expect a dining scene that rivals that of any major international city, plus a focused attention and dedication to accommodating all kinds of dietary needs and restrictions. Prefer an oat milk latte in the morning? Ask and you shall receive. Gluten-free or vegan? No problem. (Vegetarians who find themselves in Helsinki should make a point to check out the veggie-centric restaurant Yes Yes Yes).
The food, in general, is fresh and healthy. Local seafood is plentiful, as are all kinds of fresh berries. Mixed-grain porridge is a breakfast staple; chase it down with a shot of tart sea buckthorn juice, to get your daily dose of vitamin C. And if you have a chance to try it, reindeer is surprisingly delicious. In Helsinki, the Old Market Food Hall offers plenty of delicious food shopping and dining opportunities.
Coffee is also a large part of the culture here. Rather than shooting small espressos, as they do elsewhere in Europe, locals tend to drink larger cups of coffee all day long. Coffee roasters abound, making a bag of beans the perfect souvenir to bring home.
Sold? Great. Here's some other helpful info if Finland has already jumped to the top spot on your travel bucket list.
One of the world's oldest operating airlines, Finnair flies to Helsinki from 24 different U.S. cities, including nonstop service from New York year-round, and seasonal nonstops during the summer and winter from Chicago, San Francisco, and Miami. Scandinavian hospitality is palpable on board, with nice touches that you wouldn't expect from many U.S. airlines: think two free checked bags, bottled water when you board, and plenty of Finnish touches, like Marimekko amenities and healthy, delicious Scandinavian-inspired food (yes, even in coach). Don't miss the blueberry juice, their signature drink. (Related: I Put These Healthy Travel Tips to the Test While Traveling Across the Globe)
The airline also offers a free stopover program, capitalizing on Finland's unique geography (more on that in a minute). When booking a Finnair flight to a different destination, you can add a free stopover in Finland on your way there or back—lasting anywhere from five hours to five days.
Where to Stay
There's no shortage of hotels in Helsinki, and many offer unique health and wellness opportunities. The Clarion Hotel Helsinki offers a unique indoor/outdoor pool, sauna, and fitness center, all on the rooftop with breathtaking views of the city. Or, if you want to stay outside the city, consider the Langivk Congress Wellness Hotel, 18 miles from the city center. With three types of sauna (traditional, infrared, and steam), plus a deep freeze chamber, it offers lots of unique spa options. The Cumulus Resort Siunto offers a Lapland-like experience without having to travel all the way to Lapland—camping huts, hiking trails—plus a wellness center with aromatherapy and hot stone treatments, Indian head massages, and herb salt and seaweed baths...all only an hour from Helsinki. (Related: What's the Deal with Infrared Sauna Treatments?)
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When to Go
Consider traveling in either the summer or winter, when you can truly experience the seasonal activities, and feel fairly certain about the type of weather you'll get. Keep in mind that for most of June and July it stays light out for 24 hours, a phenomenon known as the Midnight Sun (locals take full advantage, so expect people to be out and about late into the night). If you want to see the Northern Lights, your best bet is between September and March; odds are higher in the northern part of the country, where they can usually be seen every other clear night. In the southern part of the country, it's only about 10 to 20 nights per year. If this is a big draw for you, check out this helpful website from the Finnish Meteorological Institute where you can sign up for free email alerts letting you know whenever conditions make an Aurora Borealis spotting more likely.
Finland's unique proximity and placement between Eastern and Western Europe make it a great jumping off point for visiting many different countries. Estonia is just a few hours away by boat; many locals travel to the capital of Tallinn for weekend trips. St. Petersburg is three and half hours away by train, and you can also take luxury overnight cruises to Sweden (about a 16-hour trip).