The 10 Happiest Places on Earth
If we asked you to close your eyes and conjure up your happy place, odds are you'd see your toes in the sand of some hidden-away beach, or your ski tips pointed down a freshly powdered slope—or maybe your favorite sundowner in hand on the twilit savanna. For some lucky folks though, their happy place is right outside their front door—at least according to the United Nations.
Every year since 2012, the organization's Sustainable Development Solutions Network has produced the World Happiness Report, a survey-based ranking of more than 150 countries. Factoring in six key contributors to wellbeing—income, freedom, trust, generosity, healthy life expectancy and social support—a team of economists, psychologists, statisticians and other experts creates the list, the latest version of which was just released.
Though the report itself is dense and academic (if you’re a wonk, dig right in!), the ranking portion works nicely as a traveler's road map—because who doesn’t want to go commune with locals who are just as happy to be there as you are? So without further ado, we give you the year's 10 happiest countries, plus a few of our favorite ways to experience a bit of that bliss for yourself.
Topping the list for the second year in a row is Finland, where gorgeous nature abounds, humans do not—and peacefulness factors into the chemical composition of the air. (Or seems to.) Nodding to studies that have shown the stress-reducing, happiness-boosting powers of nature—and playing on everyone's surging desire to travel like a local—the Finnish tourism board has joined forces with a coaching company to launch the free Rent a Finn initiative for 2019. Seriously. You're welcome to apply and be matched with one of eight hand-picked locals—regular people turned “Happiness Guides”—who'll share their favorite spots for truly Finnish experiences, authentic connections, and nature appreciation (just know that you might wind up working in a vegetable patch or foraging for berries).
DO: Finns swear by their traditional saunas, a wellness ritual that helps them connect with themselves, nature and each other. Try one for yourself at Herrankukkaro, a former fisherman’s village. Among the attractions are warm soaking tubs and four distinct sauna experiences, one of which is a super-communal underground version that can accommodate more than 120 schvitzers at a time.
EAT: The truest example of the nation's egalitarian spirit—and celebration of food—is Restaurant Day. Born in Helsinki and originally a quarterly event, Restaurant Day is now officially every day, so pop-up restaurants, food fairs and any other foodie experience can happen anywhere (from a street corner to a public beach) at any time. Check listings for whatever's on when you're in town, then seriously eat like a local—maybe in someone's back yard.
STAY: Recharge in a remote spot that serves up some of the best views of both the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun (that is, if you're not hidden away in the private sauna that likely came with your suite). Blending the traditions of Lapland with modern Scandinavian design, the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel also serves up renowned, Arctic-sourced meals at the onsite restaurant.
Last year’s number 3 moves up a spot in 2019, and here's one (okay, unverified) explanation: the food. Sure, exemplary social services, paid family leave policies, and other quality-of-life programs add to the happiness factor, but the stellar and sustainable cuisine has to play a huge role. And we don’t mean just the critical darlings (think: the renowned and recently reopened Noma). With nearly all supermarkets now featuring a local section and many restaurants—even urban ones—boasting onsite farms, the Danish dedication to eating and living well is no joke. Add to that the ancient castles, covet-worthy design, and yes, the hygge, and you'll want to cozy up here asap.
DO: The following is not a typo. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is a Danish don't-miss. One of Scandinavia's best collections of contemporary works, it'll see exhibits by everyone from Lauren Greenfield to Marsden Hartley this year, but what you see from this museum 25 miles outside of Copenhagen is just as noteworthy: the seventh-happiest country on earth (aka Sweden).
EAT: Yes, Noma, Relae and Amass should be on any serious eater's hit list (good luck with those reservations, though!), but local insiders swear that some of the most rewarding foodie pilgrimages happen outside of Copenhagen. Set in a former 1677 inn north of the the city, Søllerød Kro blows diners away with its ambience, hospitality and Danish-inflected French fare.
STAY: Stay like an adult but play like a kid at Nimb, the boutique hotel set inside the famed Tivoli Gardens amusement park. With new suites, a rooftop bar and heated pool—and sweeping views out onto the Gardens—this small retreat punches above its weight with all manner of perks, from VIP Tivoli access to a Food Concierge who can set up exclusive tastings and experiences around town.
Always at or near the top of this list, Norway is also repeatedly declared Europe's most beautiful country, so the scenery can't help but—with thanks to Marie Kondo—spark joy. Then again, local academics and experts have attributed Norwegians' happiness to social equality, a strong welfare safety net, and other social programs.
DO: The fjords are spectacular any time, but visit in warm weather to catch them in all their unexpectedly colorful glory. From spring to summer, the ones in the southwest are topped with tens of thousands of blooming fruit trees (an extra-striking picture framed by snowy peaks). Bonus points for going when the midnight sun casts a surreal glow over all of the above.
EAT: Once you’ve given the waterways their due at sea level, go below the surface—to Europe’s first underwater restaurant. Opened this month off the coast of Norway’s southern tip, Under is equal parts architectural marvel (picture a stone sculpture rising from the sea) and buried culinary treasure, where multi-course menus are served against a backdrop of sea life.
STAY: Taking inspiration from its setting—the former historic headquarters of the Norwegian America Line—the recently opened Amerikalinjen hotel invites you to hang with others in a multitude of public spaces. Arguably the best is Haven—a glass-ceilinged indoor garden with a waffle trolley and gourmet coffee.
The sheer otherworldliness of its landscapes—which include craggy lava fields, crystalline ice caves and all manner of cascading water—is worth a visit, to say nothing of the night sky (one of the best places to spot the aurora borealis). But more and more, Iceland is a pilgrimage site for foodies, culture vultures and Game of Throne devotees. And yes—if you've ever heard anything about Reykjavík's...shall we say convivial bar scene—the local nightlife is still going strong. A cross-country sampling of favorites:
DO: On the remote and stunning Snæfellsnes Peninsula, you can howl at the wind from atop a dramatic North Atlantic-battered cliff, get lost in the fog, and say halló to a GOT star: Kirkjufell mountain (aka Arrowhead Mountain), which shared the screen with Jon Snow and his men as they ventured north in seasons 6 and 7. Also stop into the fishing village of Stykkisholmur, if only to see the Library of Water.
EAT: Traditional Icelandic specialties do tend to raise eyebrows among the uninitiated (think fermented shark, horse filet and or reindeer steak). But with New Nordic cooking boom, the country’s rich, seasonal bounty has taken center stage (the Michelin inspectors agree, and will include Reykjavík in The Michelin Guide to the Main Cities of Europe for the first time next week). Check out Skál—a Michelin Bib Gourmand honoree—for the chefs’ fresh twists on tradition (think charred char tartar).
STAY: The Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik celebrates the destination in many ways, from locally-sourced art to the complimentary bikes to get you out and exploring. The place also encourages those all-important social connections (as per the UN report) over evening beer and spirit tastings in the courtyard.
5. The Netherlands
Up a spot from last year, Holland seems a shoo-in for a high happiness ranking. Whether that stems from the open, vibrant cities, the bike-everywhere culture—or the long-time legality of marijuana—we’ll leave to the experts to sort out. For our part, we love riding houseboats through the canals, sipping cocktails at the new ginever bars, feasting at rijsttafel joints (the rice-based meal born of Indonesia's days as a Dutch colony)—plus the items below:
DO: Of course, you're not going to skip the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. But for its love of color and rebel soul, we heart the Moco Museum, a temple to contemporary artists (like Kusama), modern icons (think Warhol and Basquiat), and street artists (check out one of the largest collections of verified Banksys around). For Lichtenstein-esque selfies, which may or may not have Roy rolling in his grave, head to the lower level's 3D pop-art room.
EAT: Conventional wisdom holds that pancakes make people happy, so when in Holland to get happy, you've got to try the Dutch versions. Options include pofferjtes, puffy mini-cakes made of buckwheat flower and topped with powdered sugar, and the more substantial pannekoek—something between a crepe and American pancake, stuffed with sweet or savory fillings. The Pancake Bakery, set in a 17th-century, former Dutch East India Company canal house in Amsterdam, is a great starting point. But the more immersive experience is the all-you-can-eat pancake cruise aboard the Pancake Boat.
STAY: The Pulitzer Amsterdam, a boutique hotel set in a collection of 25 restored 17th- and 18th-century houses, makes you feel like you're staying at the home of a long lost (and well heeled) great aunt, who offers you bountiful sweet and savory treats, canal sails on her old-time-y boat, and even some quiet moments to yourself in the central garden.
Is it the fresh alpine air and drop-dead gorgeous hikes? Or all that cheese and chocolate? Or—who knows—maybe the super-efficient lifestyle (which operates like, well, clockwork)? Whatever the local happiness alchemy, we'll take it. With three official languages (French, Swiss German, and Italian), plus a mix of cultural and culinary influences, the country is infinitely more than cowbells and cuckoo clocks—though the latter are still good for some LOLs.
DO: This is a country that loves its wellness-y water circuits—many of which are fed by thermal hot springs. Soak up some of that mineralized goodness in the pools at Bad Ragaz, or venture to the tiny village of Vals to experience the relaxation temple that is 7132 Therme, where the pools are fed by warm waters from the Valser Valley.
EAT: In this Michelin star-spangled nation, one Gstaad hotel has a double portion. The Alpina Gstaad is home to two Michelin-starred restaurants: the seasonal, Swiss-accented Sommet, and the always buzzing Japanese Megu.
STAY: Though the hotel above is the obvious choice for foodies (hey, you can even order Michelin-starred food in bed, if that's your happy place), there's another spot we love for anyone whose sense of happiness requires a healthy dose of playfulness. The rooms and suites at Zurich's Kameha Grand come with everything from chocolate bar-inspired walls to en-suite foosball and roulette tables.
If islands are your happy places, this one's for you. Made up of thousands of coastal islands (the Stockholm archipelago alone has just about 30,000 of them), Sweden lets you island-hop by ferry, cruise boat or even kayak, if you’re game. Back on terra firma, the nation's renowned museums that celebrate everything from Baroque art to pop supergroup ABBA.
DO: Stroll the cobblestoned streets of Stockholm's medieval Gamla stan (Old Town), which are lined with candy-colored facades, many now housing cafes and New Nordic eateries. Pop in to the Royal Palace (don’t miss the royal costume room) and the Nobel Museum, and get Insta-happy in Mårten Trotzigs alley, the narrowest street in the Old Town (just don't get stuck; you've got all of 35 inches to work with at the tightest point).
EAT: Head to the culinary capital of Gothenburg, where you should take a food tour—or craft your own (in which case, consider carbo-loading at the artisan Cum Pane bakery before wandering through the Feskekorka market hall and hopping a lobster safari to pull up your own catch).
STAY: In keeping with the island theme, check into Salt & Sill—Sweden’s first floating hotel—a pontoon-top spread that overlooks Bohuslän's outer archipelago. Or if you can wait til fall, book a room at the much-anticipated Arctic Bath Hotel & Coldbath—a log-jam-inspired complex afloat in Swedish Lapland.
8. New Zealand
Yes, New Zealand has most recently made headlines for the worst possible reason, but the local response exemplifies community, compassion, and resilience—all contributors to the nation's regular appearance near the top of the World Happiness List. Even in non-crisis times (i.e., the vast majority of life here), that spirit prevails, with travelers routinely shouting out to the country's friendliness (and, yes, epic natural beauty).
Also dubbed the Adventure Capital of the World, New Zealand is thought to be the birthplace of bungy jumping, zorbing and commercial jet boating, so if you're an adrenaline junkie, meet your new happy place. Then again, if your tastes lean more...down to earth, the local winemaking scene is a happy place unto itself. And if they lean more Middle-earth, you'll want to see first-hand why Peter Jackson has spent so much time here.
DO: In a variation on a theme, one of the nation's newest outdoor adventures is the advanced Lord of the Rungs Climb to the top of the Twin Falls Waterfalls (from which you return by helicopter). If you'd rather a heli-tour that doesn't involve hours of hiking, do the flyover of the Milford Sound and the Franz Josef Glacier.
EAT: Though you can’t go wrong with the nation's grilled meats, fresh seafood, handcrafted cheeses and local wines, pure foodie joy comes in another form here, too: a scoop (or several) of Hokey Pokey ice cream, a Kiwi specialty. Traditionally made with vanilla ice cream and chunks of honeycomb toffee, the beloved treat can be found at ice cream shops around the country. In Auckland, artisan gelato favorite Giapo adds a twist by using a milk chocolate base instead of vanilla; try a scoop in the Maori fry bread cone.
STAY: The North Island's Helena Bay is a particular favorite for its secluded cove setting and private beach surroundings (in fact, there are four private beaches here). Spend days biking, clay shooting, kayaking, or touring the neighborhood farms, then retreat to your luxe room—from which you may well spot whales.
The only North American country to make the top 10, Canada is one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth, so wide-open (and drop-dead gorgeous) wilderness is a huge draw. If really getting away from it all is your idea of happiness, head up to Nunavut (which has the distinction of being both the largest territory and the least inhabited). But then again, even a day hike through the foothills of the Canadian Rockies is magic. If you're more of a city person, explore Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto, whose ethnic diversity (particularly Toronto's, said to be more than 230 nationalities strong) makes for supremely rich arts and foodie scenes. A few favorites across the country:
SEE: A quick seaplane or ferry ride off the mainland, Vancouver Island is home to everything from surfer-chic towns to old-growth forests—and seasonal orcas and black bears for good measure. Whatever you do there—exploring the hiking trails or beaches, or maybe skiing or salmon fishing—don't miss afternoon Tea at the Empress.
EAT: Opened in 1933, Montreal's Jean Talon Market is the perfect nexus of schmoozing and noshing. Chat with the artisans, growers, fishmongers and cheesemakers who preside over the stalls—where the samples are très généreux—then head to one of the onsite restaurants to continue your feast. There's also an events calendar that includes workshops, culinary walkabouts, spring horticulture showcases and more.
STAY: The Kimpton Saint George in Toronto’s quirky Annex neighborhood is a cushy and convenient base (several museums are within walking distance). Decorated with artwork and furnishings by local makers, the only Kimpton outpost in Canada hosts complimentary wine hours for guests and—adding to the communal fun—the onsite Fortunate Fox gastro-pub hosts trivia nights, live music and retro video game competitions.
The hills must be alive with the sound of music: Austria jumped two slots to claim the number 10 spot, where the country has just deposed Australia (guess staring with “Aus” is a plus). For travelers, the high ranking is easy to understand: This is, after all, the place that gave the world Mozart, apple strudel and heurigen. Go for some combination of the above—and the below:
DO: Set in two Baroque palaces on sprawling grounds, Vienna's Belvedere Museum is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But you could just as easily get lost among the pieces inside—the largest existing collection of Austrian art, which spans Middle Ages to the present day. The most iconic is Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” in all its golden glory—basically, happiness in a frame.
EAT: The only European capital city with its own wine region (no doubt, a happiness contributor), Vienna is home to about 1,730 acres of vineyards, most of which grow Riseling, Sauvignon Blanc and other white varietals. Follow the Vienna Wine Trail to visit some of the most beloved heurige taverns, which make their own wine and pair these (often young) vintages with home-style cooking. Favorites include Jutta Ambrositsch, a graphic designer-turned-winemaker who pairs her bottles with artisan meat-and-cheese plates; and the hilltop H.P. Gobel, where the chef uses fresh seasonal ingredients sourced from local farmers.
STAY: A self-proclaimed “playground for adults,” the five-star Posthotel Achenkirch in the Austrian Alps offers trail walks, skiing, horseback riding and water sports. And wellness is taken so seriously here that you can proceed directly from the whirlpools to the Bistro for a healthy feast in spa-casual attire. (Read: your bathrobe.)