We head the Arctic Circle to find out why this Nordic nation tops the World Happiness Report.
The outer townships of Helsinki on a chilly Juhannus night in June. The midsummer revelries are in full swing – the grills are smoking, the drink is flowing and the food is plentiful. It’s 11:00 p.m. and the sun is still shining in this land of the Midnight Sun, on the eve of Finland’s most celebrated festival. Tonight, the light won’t leave us on the longest day of the year. Instead, she’ll keep her face above the horizon in what can only be described as a dim perma-dawn.
Summer is the season – for obvious reasons – to visit this ‘Land of a Thousand Lakes’. With more nature than people, Finland clocked in at the top of the World Happiness Report last year. And with more space per person than any other country on Earth, 188,000 lakes, 70 per cent of its landmass forested, and the cleanest natural water sources in the world, Finns have mastered the art of clean living amid a time-honoured connection to the wild.
While the capital, Helsinki, is a bustling seaside city with a vibrant foodie scene, ample culture, nightlife, and proximity to nature, its essence isn’t that of an overwhelming metropolis. With sprawling green spaces, no skyscrapers, and more than 300 islands dotting its coastal archipelago, it’s the best of both worlds – urban, yet idyllic.
You can easily spend an afternoon on its waterfront taking in the shoreside farmer’s markets, the art galleries and boutiques and, farmed or foraged, some of the best local cuisine you’ll find in Europe. Be sure to stop for some snacks and sips at Löyly along the harbourfront – this restaurant with built-in sauna boasts one of the most gorgeous waterfront terraces in the capital (be sure to try the reindeer tartare!)
While it has an excellent public transport system Helsinki is, ultimately, a walking city. Wander through its downtown core and take in the unique mélange of architecture from the Neoclassic and the Art Nouveau – to the contemporary modernism of Alvar Aalto, Finland’s prodigal architectural son.
Notable must-sees include the National Museum of Helsinki, and Temppeliaukio Church – better known as the Church of the Rock, a living monument hewn directly into the stone edifice. Or, with hundreds of islands to explore by boat, hop a quick ferry ride over to the largest and spend an afternoon exploring the 18th-century Suomenlinna Sea Fortress that served as the epicentre of the city’s military and maritime heritage – and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My favourite place The Lakeland region north of Helsinki, at a summer cottage that’s the hallmark of family life for every Finn. It’s all about connecting with nature in the silent cathedral forest, sampling the freshest vegetables and pickled herring, and finding self-renewal in the cleansing embrace of the iconic Finnish sauna – a true way of life.
Highlights Finland is one of only a few countries left on Earth to fully experience the four seasons, but heading there for Midsummer – or Juhannus, is a rite of passage. Head up to Lapland to witness the year-round eldritch glow of the Northern Lights, or take a tour of Santa’s Village at the North Pole – yes, it exists.
Lowlights Even if you go in the height of summer, dress in layers and expect chilly temperatures at night – it’s not uncommon to still be able to see your breath in the air on a cool Midsummer’s eve.
Souvenirs Reindeer jerky (trust us – delicious), stationary or anything Moomins – the beloved troll characters that are the hallmark of Finnish children’s lit, a scarf or print from Marimekko, salted ‘salmiakki’ black liquorice.
Getting there OmanAir flies daily to Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport in conjunction with Lufthansa via Munich starting from RO594 round-trip.
Where to stay This is the city for Airbnb adventurers, with hundreds of quirky lofts and flats to be found throughout Helsinki. For those with more budget to blow there’s the Hilton Helsinki Strand – or, the Hotel Kämp which is just a five-minute walk from the Market Square shopping district.
1. Experience traditional Finnish sauna as a way of life
2. Go on a mushroom or berry-picking excursion at Teijo National Park
3. Take in the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Lapland
4. Wander through the Helsinki Zoo
5. Take a day-trip picnic to Lake Tuusula