Europe’s happiest countries: Boost your serotonin and lower your emissions with a flight-free trip

North Karelia in Finland is one of the world's happiest country's highlights
North Karelia in Finland is one of the world's happiest country's highlights Copyright Anders Wideskott via Unsplash
Copyright Anders Wideskott via Unsplash
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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What is better for happiness than travelling? Travelling with sustainability in mind.


This year’s World Happiness Report has been released and in news that might not come as much of a surprise, Finland has topped the list of happiest countries for a seventh successive year.

In fact, Nordic countries make up the majority of the top 10, with Denmark, Iceland and Sweden at numbers two, three and four respectively and Norway in seventh place.

The report is put together by Gallup World Poll in conjunction with Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre and the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

The team behind it uses data from more than 140 countries for their annual findings. While those questioned rate their own lives in a subjective way, experts in psychology, economics and sociology make the whole process more scientific by making evaluations based on six key variables.

These are income (GDP per capita), healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption.

Travelling is known to increase happiness, especially in an increasingly unstable world. Plane travel is also infamous for being one the most stressful ways to travel. Taking that all into consideration, we suggest a visit to the top four happiest countries - Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden - without flying. Here’s how to do it.

Full of the joys of Finland: Snow sports in Helsinki
Full of the joys of Finland: Snow sports in HelsinkiEthan Hu via Unsplash

Lessen your carbon footprint by travelling via train, boat or road

A brief warning: this trip will take significantly longer than doing the same route via plane - but it gives travellers a real experience, opening up a slower and sustainable journey.

Starting in Iceland, you’ll set out on the longest leg of your journey.

All year round, the M/S Norröna sails weekly from Iceland to Denmark via the Faroe Islands. Between June and August, the ferry ride takes two days, rising to just over three when the weather turns more inclement.

Although you will spend an entire day at sea, the vessel stops for six hours in Tórshavn on the Faroe Islands, meaning you can pay a visit to an untrodden destination.

Marvel at the natural beauty of the Faroe Islands
Marvel at the natural beauty of the Faroe IslandsSebastian Boring via Unsplash

The boat allows passengers to bring their own vehicles, so luggage limits don’t apply.

It’s possible to treat the journey as a cruise ship experience too, as there are 366 cabins for a total of 1,482 passengers onboard.

They range from simple couchette rooms to luxurious sea-view suites, depending on budget.

The cheapest cabin doesn’t come particularly cheap, though. The lowest possible price for one adult is currently €565, which includes a basic cabin and one car parking space.

You’ll arrive at Hirtshals, a seaport at the top of the Jutland peninsula in northern Denmark. It’s worth spending a little time there as it does have attractive views and impressive lighthouses, but you’ll likely want to travel to the Danish capital of Copenhagen.

See striking Danish countryside by rail: Northern Denmark to Sweden

Although Hirtshals is 375 kilometres north of Copenhagen, the journey doesn’t have to be unpleasant.

It is possible to make the journey via car - or taxi, if you’re feeling flush - but going by train is straightforward and the most sustainable option.

You will need to take two trains, which run several times a day. The first from Hirtshals to Aalborg - which takes just over an hour - and a second from Aalborg to Copenhagen. That journey takes just under five hours and, on the way, you’ll be able to see some of Denmark’s picturesque countryside that is impossible to appreciate through a plane window.


There is also a three train option which stops off at Hjørring before Aalborg. It takes slightly less time but we’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the increased hassle of changing trains is worth it. For both variations, tickets are affordable, coming in at €72 for a one-way journey.

Nyhavn neighbourhood is one of Copenhagen's most picturesque must-sees
Nyhavn neighbourhood is one of Copenhagen's most picturesque must-seesNick Karvounis via Unsplash

Travel by train across an iconic bridge: Denmark to Sweden

After taking in some of Copenhagen’s most impressive sights - think the Little Mermaid, the Tivoli Gardens and the Nyhavn neighbourhood - get ready for the simplest part of your happiest countries tour.

From the Danish capital’s Central Station, you will find no shortage of trains crossing the border into Sweden.

In fact, trains to Malmö, an increasingly popular Swedish city, run every 20 minutes from Copenhagen, with a travel time of only 35 minutes.

While it doesn’t attract as many visitors as the capital Stockholm, it’s packed full of history and points of interest.


They include Lilla Torg, a cobblestone square with cafes, half-timbered houses and shops selling local handicrafts, Malmö Castle, a 16th-century fortress built by King Christian III of Denmark and some of the best food in all of Sweden.

Take a stroll through Malmö's quaint, historic streets
Take a stroll through Malmö's quaint, historic streetsJohn Flygare via Unsplash

If you’re interested in infrastructure, the journey from Copenhagen to Malmö is worth taking, too.

The Øresund Bridge, a combined railway and motorway cable-stayed structure, crosses the Øresund strait between Denmark and Sweden and is the second longest bridge in Europe at nearly eight kilometres. It’s also a cultural icon, having lent its name to the Nordic noir television series The Bridge, which is set in the surrounding region.

Tickets start from €18 one way.

Take in the Swedish countryside as you board a train - then a boat - to Finland

Once you’ve had your fill of Malmö’s quaint streets, it’s time for another long trip. Don’t despair, though, as the train journey from Malmö to the Swedish capital of Stockholm spans almost the entire south of the country.


One-way tickets from Malmö Central Station to Stockholm cost from €40. Running hourly, the journey takes just under four and a half hours and opens up Swedish landscapes which are best appreciated close-up.

Why not pay a visit to Stockholm's ABBA museum?
Why not pay a visit to Stockholm's ABBA museum?Jessica Gow/AP

Arriving in Stockholm, you can choose to immerse yourself in Swedish culture - we recommend a visit to the ABBA museum at the very least! - or continue eastwards on your journey to Finland.

Frequent travellers say there are two ways to approach the journey across the northern Baltic sea, which takes 16 hours on average.

While most plump for the relative luxury of a cabin for the overnight trip, others prefer to make the most of the rather unusual amenities onboard. To avoid spending any extra money on a bed, it’s possible to take advantage of a wide variety of evening entertainment onboard.

It ranges from live music, bars and themed parties to all-night dance clubs, which those with the most stamina can enjoy.

Off we go: A Viking Line ferry leaves Stockholm heading for Helsinki
Off we go: A Viking Line ferry leaves Stockholm heading for HelsinkiDerek Shingles via Unsplash

If you’re not into dancing but still want to make the most of your trip, the ferry briefly stops off in the Finnish autonomous region Åland.

It’s not particularly well-trodden, so you can opt to explore for a matter of minutes or days - or even extend your visit and see nearby Turku on Finland’s south west coast, or Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, which is easily accessible by boat.

Whichever kind of ferry experience speaks to you, it won’t break the bank - or damage the earth.

Tickets cost from €96 one way and you’ll eventually end up in the delightful Helsinki - a city with something to offer year-round, from world-class galleries to iconic saunas and the possibility to experience a restorative plunge into the chilly Baltic Sea. If that doesn’t make you happy, we don’t know what will!

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