This year, and for the sixth consecutive year, the annual World Happiness Report ranked Finland number one. On a journey through the Finnish Lapland and capital city of Helsinki, Travel + Leisure India & South Asia discovers the secret to this happiness and much more.
My eyes are constantly shifting focus—from the tree-lined road to the digital clock, then to a complex map of sorts on a phone set atop the dashboard. We’re cruising at nearly 110 km/hr, and are now somewhere close to the Swedish border, the surrounding dense forest and dark roads indicating our distance from the city. My companion and expert guide for the evening, Ryan Olivera, continues to take a look at the sky through the windshield and then at the map on his phone. A few more serpentine curves later, we arrive at Lake Vietonen, and a short walk through the wilderness leads us to its banks.
“Look up. Quick! Right above your ahead,” says Olivera with a renewed energy; he is determined to make this expedition successful. As I wiggle out of my winter layers and crane my neck, the Rovaniemi sky slowly begins to light up, small streaks of green now appearing against its dark grey canvas. And in the next couple of minutes, the Aurora Borealis puts on a cinematic show—hues of green, pink, and purple dance above us, and on the ground, excited squeals take over. Later that night, we celebrate the spotting with a cosy bonfire and toasty marshmallows.
Earlier that afternoon, I had taken a short flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi and spent the whole day diving in and out of the region’s history, culture, traditions, art, and more. And to get a lay of the land, our first stop, naturally, was the science centre and museum, Arktikum. The visit turned out to be a well-rounded history and science lesson, tracing the Finnish culture’s evolvement and decoding the science and traditional beliefs behind Aurora Borealis. “During summers, the sun doesn’t set till midnight but winters come with almost zero sunlight. We are prepping for them now,” Salla Tauriainen, media visit & PR coordinator of Visit Rovaniemi explained Rovaniemi’s unique geographical positioning.
The Arctic Circle winds rarely leave your side in Rovaniemi. But the warmth of the people here is what keeps one going. It is the morning after the great show of northern lights; we are at Irene Kangasniemi’s home and workshop to experience this warmth and hospitality. Irene, along with her husband Ari, exemplifies the Finnish lifestyle—simple, warm and in the lap of nature. And if you’ve ever carried a handcrafted souvenir back from the area, it is highly likely that the Kangasniemis have crafted it for you. The couple runs an artisan workshop, Hornwork and puts together masterpieces made from local materials such as wood and reindeer antlers. Fascinated by similarities between Finnish figurines and India’s Warli art, Irene opens up her workshop for us to create our own masterpieces. As I indulge my artistic side to make a Finnish souvenir, Irene, with wide eyes, asks if I’ve ever gotten my hands in the game before. And I can’t help but wonder if hours of watching Nifty craft videos have finally paid off.
In the days leading up to my trip, I tried to understand I thought and waiting for me in Helsinki, the capital city of Finland. The Finnish people firmly believe in “everyman’s right”, and to familiarise myself with this concept further, I visit Helsinki Central Park, a forest in the middle of the city. A few steps along a bushy landscape, we are handed small bowls by Karri Korppi, founder and CEO of Happy Guide Helsinki, a responsible travel company. He is prepping us for an experience that the Finns have enjoyed for years now—foraging in the forest. “The forest and its produce are for everyone. This is what we call ‘everyman’s right’ here in Finland,” says Korppi as he points towards the bushes.
And since it is autumn, it’s the perfect season to pick berries. It takes me a few attempts to learn the technique, but by the end of the walk, the bowl has a sizeable number and a good mix of lingonberries, raspberries, and blueberries. On our way back, Korppi further talks about Helsinki’s rich natural bounty. “This forest extends all the way till Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport,” he shares, and my Delhi-oriented lungs urge me to take a deep breath to get a substantial dose of the oxygen rich air.
The country’s ethos of sharing resources can be further admired at Oodi Central Library , which is rightly called Helsinki’s living room. “Oodi is a birthday gift that the Finnish gave to themselves a few years ago. During the evening, everyone is here and that is why we call it Helsinki’s living room,” says my guide Heidi Johansson who takes me through its hallways. The three-storeyed building boasts a fast-paced ground floor, a work-dedicated first floor, and a glass-facade library on the top floor. Exemplifying Finnish architecture on one hand and sustainability on the other, this urban public space, right opposite the Parliament Building, is much more than what its name suggests, I realise.
Over the next few days, I realise the country’s deep-seated commitment to sustainability as well as towards preserving green spaces. Nature in Helsinki is always a short walk away, and the city as a whole encourages environment-friendly lifestyles. For starters, the residential units are surrounded by either parks, forest, or the sea. The extensive and functional network of trams and trains, and streamlined mobility of pedestrians and cyclists, are all efforts being made towards a more sustainable future. In fact, the Finns also diligently work towards reducing overconsumption of resources and believe that not everything needs to be newly bought or owned. It is here that Oodi’s incredible offerings— right from toolkits to 3D printers—come handy. One of Helsinki’s goals is to become carbon-neutral by 2035, and one can track this progress with an online tool named ‘Climate Watch’ that gives information about traffic, construction, and consumption amidst other categories.
The Finns not only care for their environment and surroundings seriously, but also their own mental and physical well-being. And to make sure that everyone has access to resources for the same, there is Kamppi Chapel, the quietest corner in all of Helsinki, ironically located at the busiest area, Narinkkatori Square. “We often come here to just sit in silence, probably after a bad day. There are professionals inside the premises as well, in case someone needs professional help,” explains Johansson. While there is the nest-like Kamppi Chapel to take care of mental wellbeing, the locals ensure their physical wellbeing through the age-old tradition of sauna. In fact, my guide for the evening, Ulla-Maija Rouhiainen shares how there are more saunas in Finland than cars— nearly three million saunas for over five million people!
“It is an expression of Finnish lifestyle,” she adds. And to get a taste of this unique way to unwind, we stop by Allas Sea Pool. I put my initial reluctance aside and step into the steamy room; the locals did not shy away from adding more water to the hot stones. But the best is yet to come, I’m told. A sauna is almost incomplete without a dip in the cold water. “A dip in the pool,” I thought out loud. But I could not have been any more wrong, I realise, as I stood in front of the Baltic Sea with almost numb limbs.
My fitness tracker is on a roll, all thanks to the European walking culture. The walks in Helsinki introduce me to Finland’s myriad offerings, especially the art nouveau architecture that is represented in the historical structures and colourful buildings. And it is on one of these walks that I discover Helsinki’s famed Market Square at the South Harbour, on one end of the Esplanade Park; The Cathedral, located on the northern side of the Senate Square and part of Helsinki’s Empire era that has now become an iconic location in the capital; The Lundqvist, a landmark commercial building; and the National Library of Finland, which is not only a cultural-heritage organisation open to all, but also a noteworthy architectural marvel.
As I board my flight back to New Delhi, I realise that I’ve found not one but plenty of reasons that could be responsible for the happiness of Finland and the Finns. Months later, as I write this on a particularly chaotic and chilly winter evening in Delhi, I reminisce the silence at Oodi, the warmth of the sauna, the beeping of my overworked fitness tracker. I wonder what berries are ready to be foraged at Helsinki Central Park, how the Lapland would look like without the sun, if the Aurora is any brighter this time of the year, what new handicrafts the Kangasniemis are working on—all while being cocooned in a blanket on my bed. For that brief moment, it feels like I brought back a slice of Finnish happiness with me.
Finding Happiness in Finland
Getting to Finland
Finnair operates direct and regular flights from New Delhi and Mumbai to Helsinki.
Where to stay
St George Hotel, Helsinki Situated by the Old Church Park in the heart of Helsinki, the property has 148 rooms and five suites and is at a convenient distance from all major attractions. Doubles from INR 21,113
Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, Rovaniemi With a modern Scandinavian design, panoramic views of the Arctic skies and the surrounding forest, Arctic TreeHouse Hotel has various accommodation units, each with their own distinct offerings. Doubles from INR 64,229
Where to eat
With a relaxed atmosphere and an outstanding view of Helsinki’s landscape, this cafe serves authentic flavours of Finland, with greens, soups, and cheeses. Meal for two from INR 2,288 (without alcohol)
Helmed by chef Ari Ruoho, it follows the philosophy of ‘the best from Finland’s forests and waters’, and serves the season’s best produce, and uses sustainably grown, organic local produce. Meal for two from INR 13,130 (without alcohol)
Located in Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, Rakas has a unique ambience and serves meals prepared from local ingredients with a modern twist. Entrées from INR 1,686
Strongly inspired by the United States, Italy, and Finnish Lapland, Roka is an intimate 25-seater restaurant and serves bistro-style and street food with authentic flavours. Entrées from INR 444
Located in Rovaniemi City Centre, Gustav Kitchen and Bar boasts a limited menu with finest offerings and delicious cocktails in an intimate setting. Entrées from INR 532
What to do
Explore the treasures of the Finnish forest with a guided tour at Helsinki Central Park.
Experience Finland’s long-standing culture of sauna at Allas Sea Pool, which is inspired by the spa heritage of the Baltic Sea.
Dive deeper into Finnish Lapland’s history and understand the country’s unique geographical position here.
Witnessing Aurora Borealis is one of the most thrilling experiences in the Finnish Lapland.
Bearhill Husky Tours provides adrenaline-fuelled husky adventures, and insight into the world of sled dogs and their culture.
Located on the Arctic Circle, Santa Claus Village is the official hometown of Santa Claus in Lapland.
Related: How To Plan The Perfect Trip To Finnish Lapland — Northern Lights And Midnight Sun Included