Travel the World's Happiest Countries

Learn why Finland, Denmark and Iceland are places where smiles are the norm.

Two smiling women in hats and coats walk down a city street iStock

For the sixth year in a row, Finland has been crowned the happiest country in the world according to the “World Happiness Report.” Right behind Finland is Denmark, and in the third spot is Iceland.

But what makes them the happiest countries in the world? The “World Happiness Report” reveals that things like life expectancy, social support and strong communities all play a role. (Awe-inspiring natural wonders and exciting hot spots certainly help, too.)

We’ve put together a list of essential sights and experiences that are sure to boost your serotonin levels and sense of well-being.

A banner that reads "Finland"

Finland can teach an expert class in happiness after being named the happiest country in the world for six years in a row. While that’s no small feat, Finland is known for a 500-year-old philosophy called sisu. When directly translated from Finnish to English, the word sisu means grit or spunk, but the meaning of the concept is a strength of will.

It’s believed that sisu is the root of Finnish citizens’ happiness—encouraging them to have bravery, resilience and stoic determination through tough times.

A banner that reads: Finalnd is known for a 500 year old philosophy called sisu, which directly translates to grit or spunk.
Port with boats docked in Helsinki at sunset iStock

Experience the seaside city of Helsinki. 

When traveling to Finland, you must visit the capital city of Helsinki. This Nordic seaside city is known for its unique mix of urban culture and diverse outdoor activities, delicious cuisine, public saunas (more on that later), and incredibly honest citizens.

Reader’s Digest conducted a worldwide study in which wallets containing contact information were left in public places to see if they would be returned intact. Eleven out of the 12 wallets left in Helsinki were returned, contributing to the notion that it is the most honest city in the world. Here are some of the incredible spots you shouldn’t miss.

Catch a concert at Musiikkitalo.

This music venue with stunning modern architecture is the home of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy. Prefer Metallica to Mozart? This one-of-a-kind venue hosts an array of musical acts from rock and pop to jazz and classical.

Intersection of Aleksanterinkatu Street and Iso Roobertinkatu at night with lights reflecting on street iStock

Stroll the Design District in the Punavuori and Ullanlinna neighborhoods. 

Act like the local Finns and roam the charming streets of the Helsinki Design District, known for shops filled with furniture, art, fashion and homewares from iconic Finnish designers. This area is also known for beautiful architecture, charming sidewalk cafés and the famous 500-meter-long pedestrian street Iso Roobertinkatu. 

 If you’re still craving culture after an afternoon of shopping, head to the Mikael Agricola church. The 318-foot-high tower of the church reaches 338 feet above sea level, making it visible from the shoreline. Architect Lars Sonck built the church so that the 98-foot tower spike could be retracted into the church so it couldn’t be used as a visual landmark for enemy bombers during the Winter War and Continuation War. After your visit there, head to the waterfront to Cafe Carusel, where you can grab a cocktail and view the sunset.

Aerial view of Helsinki with Helsinki Cathedral in the center. Cathedral is white with green roof. iStock

Take in the awesome Helsinki Cathedral. 

Arguably the most famous structure in Helsinki with its large green dome, the Helsinki Cathedral is located in the center of the city, in Helsinki’s Old Town, which is easily reachable by public transportation. This beautiful church was built in the neoclassical style and is open daily to the public.

Enjoy the Fortress of Suomenlinna.  

Be sure to take a day trip to the Fortress of Suomenlinna, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Suomenlinna is part of a group of car-free islands that are connected by bridges. The fortress can be reached by the Helsinki Region Transport Authority Ferry, a quick 15-minute ride that leaves from the Market Square.

When you arrive at the fortress, you will find an island brimming with history. The fortress houses over 200 buildings including museums, bunkers, restaurants and shops. Make sure you stop by the military museum to see Finland’s only remaining World War II submarine, Vesikko.

Aerial view of people swimming in the Allas Sea Pool in Helsinki iStock

Take a dip in the Allas Sea Pool.  

You can’t go to Finland without experiencing its unique sauna culture. Originally designed and used as a form of bath, the sauna was invented by the Finnish over 2,000 years ago. Today, saunas are a place for the Finnish to relax and fully disconnect from the world, to cleanse their bodies and minds.

There are many public saunas all over Helsinki, including the Allas Sea Pool in the heart of the city. It has five saunas with beautiful views of the sea, two warm water pools and one sea water pool. This unique location also houses a restaurant, a terrace and a rooftop bar overlooking the Baltic Sea.

See the northern lights in Rovaniemi.

Located in northernmost region of Finland, Rovaniemi is 542 miles from Helsinki and just 5 miles (or 8 kilometers) from the Arctic Circle. From Helsinki, the best way to get here is by train or plane. This small town of just over 63,000 residents is known for its incredible views of the northern lights and is considered the official hometown of Santa Claus.

Ride a reindeer at Santa Claus Village. 

Located right on the Arctic Circle, Santa Claus Village can be visited year-round. Beyond featuring Santa in his element, Santa Claus Village offers husky and reindeer rides, snowmobile tours, and a post office for the many letters Santa receives every year (18 million since 1985, to be exact).

If you’re visiting around Christmas, be sure to catch Santa on Dec. 23 as he leaves to deliver presents to children around the world.

Purple and green night sky featuring the northern lights with snow and trees in foreground iStock

Experience the northern lights. 

From August to April, the northern lights can be seen for approximately 150 nights per year from Rovaniemi. These glittering green skies can be best experienced on dark, clear nights from several spots around the city.

The Arctic garden, a beautiful park on the shore of the Ounasjoki River, is a 10-minute walk from the center of town. You can also take guided northern lights tours via everything from snowmobiles to reindeer sleighs.

Stay at the Arctic SnowHotel.

The Arctic SnowHotel is one of the biggest in the world, created entirely of ice and rebuilt each year. This incredible 30-room hotel stands from Dec. 15 to April 1 and has an ice chapel, an ice bar and an ice restaurant. Rooms are kept between 23 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit to preserve the structures, so guests sleep on frozen beds layered with reindeer hides and sleeping bags to keep warm. If you missed the northern lights before arriving at the hotel, you’re covered: There is a northern lights watcher who will alert guests as soon as the lights appear in the sky.

A banner that reads "Denmark"

According to the Danish, a big contributor to their overall happiness and life satisfaction is something you might have heard of: hygge (pronounced hoo-gah). Hygge means creating cozy social gatherings and intimate get-togethers with family and friends. It’s this feeling of warmth and intimacy that makes the Danes feel so connected to one another, and, well, happy.

Banner that reads: Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) means creating cozy social gatherings and intimate get-togethers with family and friends.
Young woman in hat with bike walks by colorful homes along water in Copenhagen iStock

Visit the capital city of Copenhagen. 

A visit to Copenhagen is essential to any trip to Denmark and the Nordic countries. This super-clean, colorful city is known for its gorgeous Danish design, Michelin star-rated restaurants and being bicycle friendly, with its abundant bicycle lanes and even bicycle streets. Want to save money while seeing Copenhagen’s best sites? Be sure to grab a Copenhagen City Card, which will get you into many of the sites listed here, plus access to city transportation for a low flat fee.

Colorful houses and bright blue sky along Nyhavn harbor with boats parked at dock iStock

See the colorful harbor.  

If you’ve ever seen a picture of Copenhagen, you’ve probably seen a picture of its multicolored Nyhavn harbor. Once a commercial port, this unique destination is now brimming with restaurants, canal tours and historical sites, such as the place where writer Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Princess and the Pea” as well as several other fairy tales.

Enjoy The Little Mermaid statue. 

Inspired by another one of Andersen’s famous tales, The Little Mermaid statue on the Langelinie pier is a top spot for visitors. Given as a gift to the city of Finland by Danish brewer Carl Jacobsen, the statue depicts a mermaid becoming a human. This mermaid is considered an iconic statue, joining the ranks of others that have come to symbolize certain cities, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and Manneken-Pis in Brussels.

The renaissance spires of Rosenborg Castle overlooking the tranquil green oasis of Kongens Have, The King's Garden, with vibrant red tulips blooming in the spring sunshine iStock

See the crown jewels at Rosenborg Castle. 

The renaissance Rosenborg Castle was originally built as the country summer home of King Christian IV. The castle is located in a large park in central Copenhagen, and it contains incredible historical items, including the crown jewels, a huge collection of paintings and the Knights’ Hall’s display of coronation thrones.

While you can peruse the gorgeous grounds yourself, consider the one-hour guided tour, which provides unique information about the castle’s fascinating history. 

Exterior of CopenHill against bright blue sky with water in foreground iStock

Ski the slopes at CopenHill. 

Skiing or snowboarding might not be on your radar when visiting Copenhagen, but CopenHill is here to change that. This one-of-a-kind recreation site allows visitors to hike, ski, rock climb or relax with gorgeous views of the city skyline. This unique concept is one of the many innovations launched to meet Copenhagen’s goal of becoming to the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city.

Exterior of the Palm House surrounded by green hedges iStock

Stroll the Botanical Garden at the Natural History Museum. 

The Botanical Garden at the Natural History Museum is the perfect place to take in over 13,000 beautiful plant species. Be sure to see the Palm House, with its bounty of tropical and subtropical plants, as well as the Butterfly House (open April to October), where you can watch thousands of butterflies flutter among orchids and vanilla plants.

Red historic buildings in Old town Aarhus iStock

Check out the old town known as Den Gamle By. 

Den Gamle By is an open-air museum whose name means the old town. You’ll find over 75 historic buildings, museum curators dressed in period clothing, and many interesting exhibits that take you through everything from how food was made 400 years ago to collections of historic silver jewelry and toys.

Discover modern art at the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum. 

Known to house largest art collection outside of Copenhagen, the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum is an incredible display of modern architecture, as well as a repository of beautiful Danish art. The most popular attraction is Your rainbow panorama by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.

Eliasson created a nearly 500-foot-long and 10-foot-wide circular walkway made of glass and displaying the spectrum of the rainbow. This immersive art installation also lends itself to gorgeous views of Aarhus from its walkway, making this a perfect spot for viewing the sunset.

Banner that reads "Iceland"

Iceland is known for its vibrant green landscape, friendly citizens with a strong sense of community and the abundant health of its inhabitants. Iceland has the lowest infant mortality rate in the world and the seventh-highest life expectancy, according to the 2022 CIA’s World Factbook.

Since Iceland is a small country (about the size of the state of Virginia) that’s easily navigable, consider renting a car to experience the gorgeous landscape at your own pace on the famous Ring Road that circles the entire island. You can purchase driving agendas that will ensure that you maximize your time exploring the country and its culture.

Banner that reads: "Iceland is known for its vibrant green landscape, friendly citizens with a strong sense of community."
Aerial view of downtown Reykjavik with sea and mountain in background iStock

Soak in the hot springs of Reykjavík. 

When flying to Iceland from the U.S., you’ll head to the Reykjavík airport located in the country’s capital city. The name Reykjavík means Bay of Smokes, and the city is indeed surrounded by several large hot springs. This young Nordic city is known for its gorgeous architecture and thriving night life and, of course, the beautiful landscape. Here are some spots in Reykjavík that you can’t miss.

Exterior of the Perlan Museum, white exterior with entrance in center iStock

Step inside an ice cave at Perlan. 

At the Perlan museum, you can experience a real indoor ice cave, a state-of-the-art high-res (8K) northern lights show in the planetarium, an observation deck with beautiful 360-degree views of Reykjavík, and several other exhibits depicting the unique landscapes of Iceland.

View of Reykjavik with Hallgrímskirkja church and tower in foreground iStock

Marvel at the stunning Hallgrímskirkja church. 

Voted the No. 1 attraction in Reykjavík by Tripadvisor, Hallgrímskirkja church is at the center of city and is a beautiful ode to modern architecture. The exterior is famous for the 240-foot-high tower that provides panoramic 360-degree views.

The interior of the church is just as breathtaking, with the sleek modern design continuing throughout—a beautiful and serene place to visit.

Vibrant blue water and cloudy sky at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland iStock

Feel the healing waters of the Blue Lagoon. 

The Blue Lagoon is just 50 minutes from Reykjavík, making it easy to visit on your way to neighboring locations. The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa known for its cloudy blue waters that are rich in minerals that are said to help skin conditions.

Known originally for its healing waters, the Blue Lagoon now has two hotels; a full spa with a variety of treatments and massages; and four restaurants, including Moss Restaurant, which has a Michelin star rating. Named one of the 25 wonders of the world by National Geographic, this iconic location is popular with visitors. As such, prebooking is required, and it’s recommended that you arrive as soon as it opens (7 a.m. or 8 a.m., depending on the season).

Man exploring Blue Ice cave at Vatnajökull National Park Juan Maria Coy Vergara/Getty Images

Embrace the beauty of Vatnajökull National Park. 

The 5,460-square-mile Vatnajökull National Park was created by volcanic activity and is a protected wilderness area covering nearly 14% of Iceland. This picturesque park is dominated by the massive Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest outside of the Arctic.

Full of superlatives, this park also contains Iceland’s highest mountain (Öræfajökull) and its deepest lake (Jökulsárlón). This UNESCO World Heritage Site is full of beautiful sights, such as the Dettifoss waterfall, which is said to be the most powerful in Europe. With its massive landscape, the park offers a range of activities, from hiking, camping, bird watching, and driving, for exploring the diverse terrain.

Aerial view of Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland iStock

Don’t miss the Seljalandsfoss waterfall.  

Located about 2.5 hours from Reykjavík, the Seljalandsfoss waterfall is worth the trip. While Iceland is known for its many beautiful waterfalls, this 200-foot cascade is unique because you can walk behind it to truly experience its magnificent power (be sure to wear waterproof clothing and bring a change of clothes,—you’re guaranteed to get drenched). 

While you’re visiting, be sure to follow the trail 1.2 miles north to a narrow canyon where you’ll find the Gljúfrabúi waterfall. This hidden gem is often overlooked by its towering neighbor, but that makes it the perfect spot to get a secluded view of an amazing waterfall. 

These impressive falls are popular for good reason, so plan to arrive early in the morning or just before sunset to avoid large crowds.

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