With apologies to the theme parks featuring that character with the mouse ears, Finland is the happiest place on earth. This is the sixth year the UN World Happiness report has given the country top marks for health, income and social support. The country, famous for reindeer, saunas, licorice (yes, really!), Santa and Northern Lights has low income inequality, low levels of corruption, great public transit and publicly funded health care. So ditch the mouse ears for now, and let GetAway Travel plan you an adventure in happy Finland.
Unique history, architecture in Helsinki
Finland’s capital is on a peninsula and it boasts one of the world’s largest sea fortresses as well as, museums, a fashionable design district and the Helsinki churches. Turku, the oldest city in Finland, is near Helsinki. The Turku Archipelago (archipelago — a string of islands in the sea or a stretch of water) is nearly 155 miles long and you can travel from island to island with the help of bridges, ferries and cable ferries.
The city of Helsinki is surrounded by lovely wooden-house neighborhoods like Provoo, Rauma, Loviisa and Naantali. Walk down gravel or cobblestone thoroughfares and marvel at the quaint homes as well as small shops and museums that feature unique products.
A short trip from Helsinki, either by ferry or by water bus in the summer, takes visitors to Suomenlinna, one of the world’s largest sea fortresses. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was built in the 18th century. It’s built on eight islands and there’s a total of 290 buildings including six museums at the fortress.
The Suomenlinna Museum showcases the history of the 270-year-old fortress. Ehrensvärd chronicles the history of the Swedish control of the fortress. One hundred years of war and peace is detailed in exhibits in the Military Museum’s Menege. There are two buildings in this museum because Finland fought for independence in four wars. A WWII restored Russian submarine, the Vesikko, is in one museum and visitors can see where the 20-member crew lived and worked.
The history of customs and smuggling is on view in the Customs Museum on the fortress’s Susisaari Island.
Young at heart, or a youngster, there’s something for everyone at the Toy Museum. Browse collections of old dolls, antique teddy bears and toys from the 19th century to the 1960s. There are special collections of wartime toys and games.
You can shop for nostalgic souvenirs and have a pastry with a cup of coffee or tea at the Café Samovarbar.
Speaking of shopping, Market Square, also known as Kauppatori in Helsinki has a huge range of products from produce, flowers, baked good and there’s also an arts and crafts market. It is one of the most popular markets in northern Europe.
The Helsinki Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the world and there are more than 150 different animal species and 1,000 different kinds of plants on the zoo’s 52 acres.
Uspensky Orthodox Cathedral is on the East side of the harbor and you can’t miss the 13 green-topped spires. It is western Europe’s largest Orthodox Church and the interior is a marvel of gold icons, crosses, altars and lavishly decorated arches. Temppeliaukio Church is an architectural marvel. It is carved into solid rock.
Visit the Turku Castle in nearby Turku. Also known as Turun Linna, it is famous for its ornate banquet halls and two dungeons.
Santa, a snow castle and glass igloos
Don’t leave Finland without taking a trip to the Lapland/Arctic Circle area. If you can’t visit the North Pole, Rovaniemi in northern Finland is the next best thing. Meet Mr. and Mrs. Claus at Santa Park and they will give you tips on how to make the best gingerbread treats You ca check out Elf School or hang out at Calligraphy School, write a letter to Santa and then mail it at the post office. The elves will graciously show you how much mail goes through the post office. There’s an underground tunnel that takes you across the Arctic Circle. You get a certificate to commemorate your crossing
At the Reindeer Resort you can indeed go dashing through the snow in an open sleigh or take a sled ride with huskies at Husky Park.
There’s an amethyst mine near Fyhä-Luosto National Park which is close by. You can learn all about the history of amethyst mining and how it relates to Finland and dig some for yourself. Bonus! You can keep what you dig as long as it’s smaller than your fist.
The world’s largest snow castle is located in Kemi. Each spring it melts and it is replaced each year with a slightly different architectural design complete with towers, walls and a drawbridge. There’s a hotel, restaurant, art gallery and even a chapel. You can get up close and personal with the Northern Lights at the Arctic Resort in Kakslauttanen. There are glass igloos available for you to lay in bed and watch what the Finns call revontulet or fox fires. In ancient times they believed the Northern Lights were caused by a magical fox sweeping its tail through the snow.
A word about the cuisine
Yes, you, can get sautéed or roasted reindeer, but you can also get fabulous creamed salmon soup, korvapuusti which are cinnamon rolls and lihapiirakka. Pick up lihapiirakka at small street kiosks, they are savory doughnut-shaped meat pies stuffed with minced meat, pickles, perhaps Finnish sausage and served with garlic sauce, mayonnaise and ketchup. You can also pick up paistettu muikku at street kiosks. That’s freshwater white fish coated with rye flour and fried in butter. They come topped with aioli.
Leipäjuusto ja lakkahillloa is warm bread cheese topped with cloudberry jam. Bread cheese is similar to a firm cottage cheese.
Salmiakki is salty broth black licorice. It’s a traditional favorite in Finland and lemon licorice ice cream is popular, too.
There are two types of salmon soup — one with clear broth, chunks of potatoes and fresh dill and lohikeitto with is a creamy salmon soup. Ruisleipä is the classic Finnish rye bread. If you see poronkäristys on the menu, it’s reindeer. Thinly sliced pieces of reindeer meat are sautéed in water, beer or cream and served with mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers and cranberry sauce. Runeberg cake is a tasty concoction of bread crumbs flavored with almonds, rum and cardamon topped with a generous dollop of icing and raspberry jam.