For the past three years in a row, Finland has elbowed out the competition to nab the title of world's happiest country, according to the U.N.'s World Happiness Report (yes, there really is such a thing).
Criteria include income per capita, health and life expectancy and social support, among others, but the last time I was in Helsinki with my family, before the pandemic, I had an aha moment about why the Finns keep nailing that elusive award.
The city, while lovely, seems to me to be designed for its residents rather than to impress tourists. For example, our local walking-tour guide wanted to take us to the new Central Library, known as the Oodi, which opened in late 2018, even though we only had a few hours with her.
"Um, sure?" we said uncertainly, expecting something a little more blockbuster-y for our tour.
An hour later, she had trouble dragging us away from the venue, which was, in addition to being cool to look at, crammed with Finns of all ages playing and recording music -- instruments are free to borrow -- playing video games and virtual reality games -- ditto -- and even creating objects with 3D printers. Oh, and there are books.
Helsinki’s mermaid watches over the city’s waterfront. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Situated in the Toolonlahti neighborhood, the Oodi is also a perfect jumping-off spot to take in the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (currently closed until spring 2022), considered to be an architectural marvel in its own right.
After visits to the Kamppi Chapel, or Chapel of Silence, a nondenominational church that's also an award-winning architectural highlight thanks to its curved wooden walls and ultramodern aesthetic, and the Sibelius Monument and Park, our guide took us to the revitalized waterfront, where we bought regional specialties at the food markets and visited the outdoor Allas Sea Pool on the harbor, complete with heated and seawater swimming pools and, of course, Finnish saunas.
"We like swim there at sunset," she said, adding, "I'll probably go today after we're finished."
Chalk one up for work-life balance.
Finally, as is increasingly the case with Nordic countries, Helsinki is a foodie paradise.
One night, for example, we scored reservations at the Restaurant Savotta, a much-written-about eatery that lived up to its hype thanks to its menu of Finnish nostalgia -- reindeer and bear meat, anyone? -- reimagined for today's diners.
The hipster cafe culture is also big here, and we hit a sampling of espresso bars, including the barista creations at Andante, just one of many options in the city.
With the notion that Finland's much-vaunted happiness quotient is in short supply in the world these days, this year, Visit Finland, Business Finland, the Finnish Embassy and consulates in the U.S. recently announced the Happiness From Finland initiative, designed to share the wealth.
The idea, of course, is to also put Finland top of mind for future travelers by touting the country's brands and attractions in the U.S.
Highlights in Finland
Among the highlights are a new MyStar ferry under construction by Tallink Silja, set to ply the popular Helsinki-Tallin, Estonia, route in early 2022.
Meanwhile, Visit Rovaniemi, known as the home of Santa Claus, is looking to get families excited about the winter holidays with virtual experiences, such as a husky tour and a 360 Experience across the Arctic Circle.
In real life, visitors will be able to choose from such unique accommodations as the Arctic SnowHotel, carved out of the ice every year, and the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, which is already offering a spring break 2022 special with a fifth night free and complimentary experiences like snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, tobogganing and fat-tire biking.
In western Lakeland, Visit Lahti, the European Green Capital 2021, and Visit Jyvaskyla launched a city ski-sharing system this year -- think city bikes and you get the idea.
In Lahti, the Lehmonkarki Resort is building a new Haasi Mirror House by Lake Paijanne, set to open by this May.
More Happiness From Finland innovations are in the works to be unveiled as the year goes on, and with any luck, we'll be able to visit them in person, instead of just reading about them, before too long.
As always when planning travel these days, stay on top of restrictions and protocols by going to Visit Finland's Covid information site.