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Löyly sauna, Helsinki
Löyly | Photograph: Helsinki Partners

Cold and miserable? This is how the Finns stay happy in winter

Winter temperatures in Finland, the world’s happiest country, rarely nudge above freezing. Writer Laura Hall discovers the secrets to winter happiness in a cold Helsinki

Written by
Laura Hall

Mini mountains of snow have formed at the corners of the streets in Helsinki, where January temperatures dropped to as low as -19C, and a daytime temperature of -2C is the norm. Cold weather usually has me hibernating under a warm blanket, thick woolly socks and a cup of tea, but not today: I’m in the freezing city to figure out how to keep spirits high when the temperature is low.

According to local expert Heidi Johansson, this is something of a specialist subject for Finns, who after all live in the world’s happiest country. As the darkness of the winter afternoon sets in, we trudge off through the snow on a tour of Helsinki’s happiness hotspots. Our mission? Discovering the secret to winter happiness.

Happiness tip #1: Eat well

The first stop on our happiness tour is Hakaniemi Market Hall, a renovated two-floor former department store that reopened last May. Who doesn’t comfort eat in winter? We browse the independent market stalls selling everything from colourful licorice cables coiled up in jars to pastries named after poets, fresh fruits and vegetables and great slabs of glistening salmon. 

I try handmade Karelian pastries, sauna-smoked ham, and dried reindeer – all delicious – as we go. On the fish stall, a box of herring is smoked to a golden sheen, while just down the hall, a local cheese stall sells varieties from Helsinki’s cows. There’s a good reason why herring is one of the most popular flavours of the Nordic region: not only have they been historically easy to fish, but they’re also full of vitamin D, handy for combating the winter blues. Cheese too is full of tryptophan, which helps produce serotonin, making it another mood-booster. A shot of sharp yet earthy sea buckthorn juice full of vitamin C, ready to fight off any winter bugs, rounds off the tour. 

Baltic herring in Helsinki
Photograph: Laura Hall for Time Out

Helsinki has another reason to celebrate its food this year: in May, it hosts the Michelin star ceremony for the Nordic region. Inside Helsinki’s cheery restaurants, it’s easy to forget how dreary it is outside – the city’s dining scene is diverse, lively and full of hidden gems. On the top floor of the market hall, Restaurant Kirsikka is a fun place to eat, with local food and a bright Italian Riviera in the 1950s feel; elsewhere, Natura serves modern Finnish food with a signature frozen yoghurt dessert that looks like a snowball, and The Room, a newcomer this year, serves Finnish-Kurdish food in an immersive feast for the senses, helmed by a showman, star-in-the-making chef. 

Happiness tip #2: Find green space wherever possible

In summer, Helsinki’s parks are full of people – right now though, not so much. As we walk to our next stop, Helsinki’s Design Museum, we pass a park that has been turned into an ice rink. I'm left wondering if green spaces make you happy, what happens when they all turn white? 

In a small way, that question is answered in the Design Museum’s current exhibition ’Garden Futures: Designing with Nature’, which runs until 31 March. It’s a celebration of gardens and gardening, from the beauty and functionality of tools and workwear to the design of gardens and the joy we find in them. 

A joint exhibition of the Museum of Finnish Architecture and Design Museum Helsinki
A joint exhibition of the Museum of Finnish Architecture and Design Museum Helsinki | Photograph: Anni Koponen

You can even take off your shoes, like former Prime Minister Sanna Marin and walk on Alexandra Kehayoglou’s large embroidered carpet, bringing back memories of being barefoot on grass in the summer. It’s arty, avant-garde, delightful and unexpected – exactly what you need on a snowy city. 

Happiness tip #3: Go big on colour

That white backdrop is the perfect foil for Helsinki’s take on fashion. This is a city where quiet luxury – muted beiges and browns – is in hibernation and colour has taken over. We stroll the compact Design District and discover an extraordinary sense of fun, notably at Vimma, where racks are full of glitzy, textured, brightly-coloured and patterned clothes ready for an extrovert’s night out. At House of Wilow, orange and pinks fuse with gold in unisex kimonos and wraps, while at Marimekko, bright poppies sprawl across everything from placemats to slippers. 

Fashion at Vimma, Helsinki
Photograph: Laura Hall for Time Out

I wander into designer shopping centre Kämp Galleria to discover Klaus Haapaniemi, whose designs feature in Kate Winslet’s upcoming drama ‘The Regime’. His lavishly patterned silks and interior furnishings evoke dark fairytales, where amid the trees, foxes and owls, there’s always a deadly-looking spider to watch out for. 

Fashion in Helsinki is full of delight: my eye was also caught by the extravagant earring selection in Kiasma art gallery, and the world’s first second-hand store in an airport, Relove.

Happiness tip #4: Embrace activity

Back outside I’m wondering about how people get around in the snow. In places it’s hard to see where the pavement ends and the road begins. I spy some people on fat-tyred bikes – according to Heidi, the trend of ‘winter biking’ has taken over the snowy streets of the city – while some bike lanes have been transformed into cross-country ski tracks when it snows.

Colourful sleds in Helsinki
Photograph: Leena Karppinen

There are also deep grooves in the snow where parents have swapped their pushchairs for plastic sleds for the school run. Here in Helsinki, a dump of snow turns even the most ordinary of things, commuting, into something fun. And it’s been a while since I’ve put the words ‘commuting’ and ‘fun’ in the same sentence.

Happiness tip #5: Sweat it out in a sauna

Finally, what could be more classic in wintry Helsinki than a sauna and a little ice swimming? The sky is dark when I reach Löyly, a sleek modernist sauna-spa owned by ‘Vikings’ actor Jasper Pääkkönen, at the end of the day. 

Löyly sauna, Helsinki
Löyly | Photograph: Helsinki Partners

Candles flicker as we walk the hallway towards the hottest sauna and afterwards nervously head for the steps and the icy sea. It’s my first time ice swimming – the first few seconds in the freezing water are terrifying, but I soon feel a burst of energy and pride that I’ve conquered my fear. My cosy cup of tea, blanket and warm socks are a distant memory as I head back to the sauna to warm up before going out to the ice for another dip. It’s a sensation that wakes you up and makes you happy to be alive, rather than half asleep as I usually am in winter, and I’m here for it. I’d do it again.

So there you have it: five secrets to happiness this winter. If they can keep the Finns happy in extreme zero-degree conditions, what could they do for you?

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