Move over, Disney, there’s a new happy destination, and it contains trolls, not mice. Finland was recently ranked the happiest spot in the world by a United Nations report—and a recent trip to this Nordic destination proved to us that it’s also an ideal vacation spot for families. Here are your seven steps to happy.
First step: The flight
Follow our footsteps Finnair recently extended its seasonal non-stop service between Chicago and Finland (they also have a free stopover plan, so you can hop over to other European countries if you have the time), and we finally found our unicorn airline. In the Finnair lounge, there’s a separate kids’ lounge, with video games and toys. On board, we stopped counting the number of times they offered us ice cream.
We couldn’t love this airline more.
Second step: Saunas
Follow our footsteps In Finland, the word “sauna” is a verb: Did you sauna today yet? There are 5 million people in Finland, and there are more than 2 million saunas. Stay in them until you can’t bare it any longer (we lasted about eight minutes) and then run outside and into the sea. Yes, that would be the frozen, icy Baltic Sea. Our guide told us that the first time, we’d be too scared to enjoy it. By the third time, we’d love it. She was right. It’s an experience you need to try. There’s no age limit to sauna, and they actually embrace children in there.
Third step: Moomin trolls
Follow our footsteps Ask any kid in Finland and they’ll explain the story of the troll family from the comic series by artist Tove Jansson. Why these adorable, progressive trolls never became popular in the U.S. is beyond me. But a visit to the Moomin museum is a must—and when you’re done, you, too, will be part of the Moomin cult following.
Fourth step: Museums
Follow our footsteps Museums aren’t always first on a child’s vacation wishlist, but in Finland, the curators make them incredibly kid-friendly and accessible. At the Timo Sarpaneva exhibit at the Helsinki Design museum, for example, below every glass-blown sculpture is a video of how that structure was created. Throughout the museum, there are video rooms so you can sit and watch the glass blowing techniques. We were just as transfixed as the kids.
Fifth step: Iittala design center
Follow our footsteps A design center doesn’t scream “This is the best vacation ever,” to my kids. But a design center where one-third of the designs are for kids? They’re hooked. Iittala is a Scandinavian design from Finland, and the philosophy is similar to the mindset of Finland in general: it should be beautiful yet functional and something that everyone can afford. So even though the Ittalia brand is exquisite, most people use their dishes as their everyday dishes. The kids’ cups have Moomins on them doing all sorts of silly things.
Sixth step: Salmiakki
Follow our footsteps Every country has its must-try foods, and in Finland, it’s salmiakki. They describe it as “salty licorice,” but it tasted like regular black licorice to us. You can find it in so many forms: regular black licorice, chocolate-covered black licorice, licorice creme brûlée, licorice tea… You can bet we tried them all, and used them as bribes.
Seventh step: Amusement park and a visit to Doghill
Follow our footsteps A 1 1/2-hour train trip from Helsinki lands you in Tampere (totally worth a day trip or an overnight stay), where there’s an entire children’s area (open seasonally). First, stop at Särkänniemi. It has roller coasters, a zoo and an observation tower with a restaurant on top that has some of the best food we tried in Finland. But our favorite part: Doghill, an entire fairytale town based on the children’s book stories by Mauri Kunnas.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Chicago Parent’s Going Places. Read the rest of the issue.