Nordic Countries Once Again Named “World’s Happiest”

By Madigan Talmage-Bowers, TCS World Travel 

As in past years, Nordic and northern European countries have claimed the top spots on the list of “world’s happiest countries” in the 2023 World Happiness Report, an annual ranking that aims to quantify the aspirational concept of happiness around the globe based on six measures of life evaluation: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, generosity, social support, the freedom to make life choices, and the presence or absence of corruption. For travelers wanting to explore these happiness hotspots, here are ways to engage with local culture and natural attractions for a well-being boost.  

Finland’s Midnight Sun

Finland (Happiness Rank: #1) 

Despite notoriously harsh winters, the reigning happiness champion draws visitors to its vast, pristine wilderness—about 75% of the country is forested—and distinct regional culture. In the south, the welcoming seaside capital of Helsinki offers cutting-edge Finnish architecture and design, with easy day trips to the charming artistic villages of Porvoo and Fiskars. Further north, the Sápmi area (also known as Lapland) brushes the Arctic Circle, offering extra hours to explore during summer’s “midnight sun.” In the winter, intrepid travelers willing to bundle up can experience ideal northern lights viewing opportunities and connection with the indigenous Sámi culture, known for the semi-nomadic practice of reindeer herding.  

Copenhagen, Denmark

Denmark (#2) 

Graceful Renaissance architecture paired with modern Danish design and a world-class culinary scene makes Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen one of the rising stars of European tourism. Gourmands are spoiled for choice among the city’s roster of Michelin-starred restaurants showcasing nouveau Nordic cuisine, while visitors interested in Danish arts and crafts can browse the showrooms of local designers, watch master glassblowers at work, or admire delicate porcelain creations at the Royal Copenhagen factory. Part of the Kingdom of Denmark (though about 700 miles offshore), the autonomous archipelago of the Faroe Islands offers untouched landscapes of wind-swept emerald heaths and stunning sea cliffs, alongside a distinct culture that includes a rich musical heritage and time-honored crafts such as Faroese wool knitting.  

Gullfoss Waterfall, Iceland

Iceland (#3) 

Much more than an appealing stopover on transatlantic flights, Iceland is gaining traction as a destination in its own right, with easy connections from many European cities and a wealth of natural attractions. One of the continent’s smallest capitals, easy-going Reykjavik also ranks among the world’s most sustainable cities, thanks to an abundance of renewable geothermal energy and an ambitious goal to be carbon neutral by 2040. After a restorative soak and mud bath in the naturally heated Blue Lagoon, visitors often head to Southern Iceland’s popular Golden Circle touring route—showcasing otherworldly landscapes of waterfalls, bubbling geothermal fields, lava tubes, and glaciers that invite ice trekking or thrilling snowmobile tours.

Stockholm Archipelago, Sweden

Sweden (#6) 

Most visitors to Sweden start at the enchanting capital of Stockholm, where the ochre-hued townhomes and Royal Palace of the Gamla Stan (Old Town) preside over a lacy network of canals and bridges connecting medieval and modern Stockholm. A cruise through the Stockholm Archipelago offers easy access to a network of nearly 30,000 islands—some with remnants of quaint fishing villages, while others are uninhabited landscapes of woodland and rocky cliffs. Over on Sweden’s North Sea coast, the riverside city of Gothenburg has earned the title of the “world’s most sustainable city” every year since the ranking was debuted by the Global Destination Sustainability Movement in 2016. Here, nearly 90% of hotels are eco-certified and an excellent dining scene showcases sustainable, locally sourced seafood.  

Lofoten, Norway

Norway (#7) 

Boasting the second-longest coastline in the world (after Canada), Norway offers spectacular natural landscapes alongside contemporary Scandinavian culture. In the vibrant capital of Oslo, travelers can admire groundbreaking Norwegian architecture on a tour of the iceberg-inspired Oslo Opera House or discover Norway’s seafaring heritage at the Viking Ship Museum, featuring magnificent longboats from the ninth century. On the southwestern coast, the city of Bergen is known for both its cultural cache (it’s home to one of the world’s oldest symphony orchestras) and as the gateway to Norway’s famous fjords. Further north, the majestic, snow-capped Sunnmøre Alps tower over the UNESCO-listed Geirangerfjord and offer a year-round playground, with alpine hiking in summer and snowshoeing or ski touring during snow season.  

Lavaux Terraces, Switzerland

Switzerland (#8) 

Switzerland packs a wealth of inviting destinations into its relatively small size. In the shadow of the towering Swiss Alps, mountain-chic resort towns like Zermatt, St. Moritz, and Gstaad boast some of Europe’s best ski terrain with world-class amenities to match. In French-speaking Lausanne, the Olympic Museum traces the history of the games through sculptural interpretations of the Olympic spirit along with a robust collection of sporting memorabilia. Nearby, the fertile Lavaux Valley is lined with UNESCO-listed vineyard terraces that have been producing wine for nearly a millennium. At one of many hillside wineries, oenophiles can savor a glass of wine paired with Swiss fondue and spectacular views over Lake Geneva.  

About TCS World Travel 

TCS World Travel has been dedicated to enriching lives through travel since its founding in 1991. As a pioneer in the private jet expeditions industry, TCS has developed and operated nearly 300 luxury jet tours to more than 200 destinations. To commemorate its legacy of travel, the company recently launched a brand-new expedition across Scandinavia and northern Europe aboard a customized A321 private jet. Travelers will be joined by TCS President Shelley Cline on the inaugural itinerary, departing in July 2024. 

 


By Lisa Young, Product Manager with Authentic Vacations

Lisa Young is a product manager and writer for Authentic Vacations. Travel experiences involving food, wine, art, live music, wellness and engaging with locals make her heart sing.

 

Remember The Partridge Family, an American sitcom from the early 1970s?  The show’s theme song was, “Come On, Get Happy!”  Perhaps the Partridges were secretly Icelandic.  Iceland consistently ranks near the top of the annual “World Happiness Report”.  Let’s explore five potential reasons why:

1. Stunning and Stimulating Scenery.

Often referred to as the “Land of Fire and Ice” due to its unique dichotomy of active volcanoes and massive glaciers, Iceland’s otherworldly landscape is a mesmerizing fusion of scenic glory.

Most Icelanders maintain sunny dispositions despite the lack of winter daylight hours.

Being surrounded by magical skies, spectacular mountains, magnificent waterfalls, peaceful fjords, dramatic geysers, tranquil rivers, calming lakes, black sand beaches, geothermal pools and mossy lava fields – how could these environs promote anything other than an enduring sense of wonder and happiness?

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Photo of Seljalandsfoss waterfall courtesy of David-Mark from Pixabay

2. Culture of Creativity.

Literature.  For years, Iceland held the position of publishing most book titles per capita than any other country.  Iceland claims that one in ten of its citizens will publish a book during his or her lifetime.  Reykjavik (literally “smoky bay”) was the fifth city in the world to receive the UNESCO City of Literature title.  Storytelling is apparently in the blood, dating back to the Viking sagas.  Expand your literary horizons and crack open a contemporary Icelandic novel.

Music.  For music as otherworldly as the performers’ native land, enjoy the sounds of Björk, whose career has spanned four decades, and the “avant-rock” band Sigur Rós.

Visual Art.  Iceland’s notable visual art production does not date back as far as other countries, though some incredible works of art are being produced by the country’s contemporary visual artists.

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Photo of Björk courtesy of Raph_PH-Flickr

3. You Are What You Eat.

Taking a cue from the famous movie line in When Harry Met Sally and adopting an “I’ll have what she’s having” attitude when it comes to the traditional Icelandic diet could be a healthy choice.  Big homemade breakfasts, fresh seafood, and quality meat and dairy are the mainstays of a typical diet in Iceland.

Lysi (aka cod liver oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids) is regularly consumed, even given to children at preschools and daycare.  Skyr, a popular dairy product akin to yogurt, is low in fat yet high in protein and calcium.  The focus on clean, renewable, and sustainable energy results in healthier, fresher and more delicious food.

Even the famous Icelandic hot dog is, debatably, a healthy option since it is lamb-based, supplying iron and those beneficial omega-3s.

Restaurants and food shops in Iceland are increasingly catering to vegetarians and vegans, including Gló, the country’s first raw food restaurant.

Fun fact:  Icelanders have been growing vegetables in greenhouses heated by geothermal energy since 1924!

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Photo courtesy of Marco Verch

4. The Active Lifestyle.

Icelandic people enjoy being active outdoors, exploring the country’s three national parks, numerous nature reserves, and hiking trails.  They place a high degree of importance on nature, treating the vast and unspoiled landscape with deep reverence and care.  Efforts are continuously made to preserve the unique flora and fauna. 

Furthermore, they remain active in other ways, often holding more than one job.  Rather than earning extra money for survival, this is primarily to keep themselves engaged and purposeful, warding off any threats of depression during the months of limited light.

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Photo of Blue Lagoon courtesy of Chris Lawton from Unsplash

5. SSS.

Stable.  Iceland is an island, but its inhabitants feel anything but isolated.  The way Icelanders band together in times of crisis is truly inspirational.  Two powerful, overarching characteristics are embedded in Icelanders—optimism and resilience.

Safe.  The least populated country in Europe, Iceland claimed just under 340,000 people in 2018.  The country maintains an impressively low crime rate with only five prisons in Iceland housing less than 200 prisoners among them!

Socially Progressive.  Iceland is consistently ranked number one by the World Economic Forum in gender equality.  Proof exists in the form of a female Prime Minister and more women currently enrolled in university than men.

Let’s make like the Partridges, book a trip to Iceland, and soak up the happiness!

 

For over two decades, Authentic Vacations has been crafting highly personalized, unique, and immersive experiences that connect travelers with locals.  Destinations include Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand.  Our passionate Destination Experts are ready to help you plan your next trip – perhaps to happy Iceland! Visit www.authenticvacations.com today.

 

 


 

By Colu Henry, AFAR Ambassador

 

Raudholar Rocks

I had always yearned to visit Iceland and finally this summer I was able to make the trip. I longed for lava fields and moon-like landscapes and the trip didn’t disappoint. We landed in Reykjavík, the countries capital and largest city, and upon arrival Lindblad Expeditions, whom I was traveling with, whisked us off to a small restaurant situated by the sea to start the day.

Cod

The flight to Iceland from New York is a hop, skip, and a jump (or a mere 5 hours), so quick enough to return frequently, but not quite long enough to get a good night’s sleep. Luckily, our first, well-planned stop was to visit the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon was formed in 1976 during an operation at a nearby geothermal plant. It’s said that people began to bathe in the water and apply the mud to their skin and noticed huge improvements to skin disease such as psoriasis. It’s now considered one of the 25 Wonders of the World. I get why.

Blue Lagoon

We soaked in the thermal baths and enjoyed their restorative, warm waters and it nearly kicked my jet-lagged. I highly recommend this plan of action for anyone taking an overnight flight to Iceland; it works. In general, I’m a firm believer that wherever you travel, if you keep your sleeping schedule to rise and set with the sun where you are, by the next day you’ll be nearly back to normal.

With the tour’s generous allotted time to explore, true to my word, and a lover of straying off path, I connected with my friend Margret Eir –  who happens to be famous Icelandic pop star – to take me around town that night. I love exploring new cities on foot; it gives you a real understanding of how a place is laid out and a chance to meet the locals, so we did just that. Margret and I wandered downtown, where immediately I was captivated by the city’s warm people and charming shops. She also took me to her partner JJ’s barber shop, named Common Joes, which in addition to cutting hair, also acts as a visually impressive storefront where he beautifully restores antique furniture and electronics to make them compatible for present day.

Dinner at Messin

Reykjavík’s restaurant scene is also having a moment and Margret took me to a new, very cool and charming restaurant called Messin. The menu, like most places in Iceland (no complaints here), is very fish-driven. Everything is served in copper pots, family-style upon the table. We feasted on shrimp, gravlax and curried cod and sipped on white wine; it was delicious and exactly what I needed. After a few stops at some local bars (a favorite activity on any trip), I was almost on Icelandic time, and finally ready for bed.

Icelandic Horses

The next venture on my journey was the gift of being able to ride Icelandic horses through a lava field. The farm is situated right outside of town. These gentle beings are smaller than regular horses and the loveliest of creatures. After our ride, we headed in town for a beautiful lunch and were then treated to a nature walk just a short drive from town. Our guide brought us up to speed on the incredible eco-system of the country. Did you know that they have no mosquitoes, snakes or really other prey in Iceland?

VioeyIsland

That evening, after a ferry ride to Viðey Island for dinner with a beautiful music performance by locals, I slept soundly and woke ready for the next piece of our adventure to begin. We were Greenland bound.

Interested in learning more about Colu’s journey? Read more about it on AFAR.com and check out Lindblad Expeditions’ Hot Springs and Icebergs: Iceland to West Greenland tour. 

Colu is a food and lifestyle expert, native New Yorker, and avid home cook. Most recently, she worked as Director of Special Projects at Bon Appetit. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Refinery29, Cherry Bombe, and Wine Enthusiast. Her cookbook Back Pocket Pasta will be released by Clarkson Pottering in February 2017.