Updated on October 18th, 2021
When I visited the North of Iceland for a yoga retreat, I arrived slightly unprepared & under researched. What I discovered was the perfect base to explore the area around Akureyri. A stay here offers the best of Iceland in an accessible package. If you are looking for natural volcanic wonders, epic waterfalls, relaxing lagoons, wildlife watching or the legendary Northern Lights, then this could be your ideal location. To ensure you don’t miss anything, here is my list of the 20 best things to do in Akureyri.”
Akureyri, North Iceland
I had booked to attend a yoga retreat in the North of Iceland with my friend at The Santosha Life, back before the world changed. Of course, it had to be postponed. When I finally arrived, it was a transformational experience for me.
Iceland marked my 74th country & Akureyri (pronounced ah-koo-rare-ee), where the retreat was based, was the most northerly point I had ever visited. It felt like a small town but is actually the 2nd largest city in Iceland. I wasn’t completely sure what the area had to offer. If I’m honest, between my anxiety for leaving home, making sure I had all the tests & forms completed, & struggling to book my subsequent road trip, I hadn’t really researched the area. What I discovered over the week, opened my eyes to a magical place that felt relatively undiscovered in comparison to Reykjavik. If you are coming to Iceland, my conclusion is, do not miss a chance to sample the extraordinary sights, sounds & feelings of Akureyri.
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Akureyri is nicknamed the “Capital of the North” & sits just 100km away from the Arctic Circle. It is located at the base of the Eyjafjörður Fjord, the longest fjord in Iceland. Being so close to the Arctic Circle meant the one thing I prepared for was the cold. However, this area has the advantage of the Gulf Stream, making it one of the warmest climates in Iceland.
The summer months are mild, with the warmest time being August when temperatures can average 12oC (53oF). The coldest is March where it can get as cold as -1oC (30oF).
January is the wettest month, however, generally it rains a lot more in the south than the north of Iceland. If you are looking for snow, then plan to be here from October & April but be aware that between November & February there is virtually no sunlight.”
In my opinion, this is the perfect base to explore the north of Iceland. To prove it, here is my list of the 20 best things to do in Akureyri.
20 Best Things to Do in Akureyri, North Iceland
If you are staying in Akureyri, don’t miss a walk up to the most northerly botanical gardens in the world. It’s a peaceful place to stroll & beautifully maintained. The gardens contain every species native to Iceland, as well as many from around the world which thrive in areas of high latitude & altitude. The café here is also the perfect place to relax & unwind.
2. Head to church at Akureyrakirkja
Dominating the skyline is the impressive landmark church. It was designed by the same architect as the stunning Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik. Inside is a 3200-pipe organ & stunning stained-glass window which originally came from Coventry Cathedral in the UK.
3. Educate yourself at a museum
Akureyri has several museums which are worth exploring but apparently, the best is the Art Museum which features an eclectic display from local artists. There is also plenty of public art to discover around the city & you can pick up your copy of the Akureyri Art Trail brochure from the tourist office to guide you in your exploration. If art isn’t your thing, then maybe check out Into the Arctic or the Aviation Museum.
4. Feel festive at the Christmas House
Just outside the main town, it is Christmas every day! If you feel like getting in the festive mood or are a keen collector of Christmas decorations from your travels, then this is the place to go. It’s hard not to have a smile on your face when you leave.
You can also find a local food store & a small art exhibit (check out the post box decorated in a pair of knitted breasts!). And don’t miss relieving yourself in the toilet for a little surprise along the way.”
5. Step back in time at Laufás Turf House
Across the water from Akureyri is the Laufás Turf House & church which give a fantastic insight into Iceland’s past. The house here is mentioned in historical records dating back to the first Icelandic settlers (874 – 930) & was a renowned chieftain’s residence. It was classed as a manor & housed between 20-30 people. The current buildings date back to the 19th century, as does the furniture displayed inside.
Once you have explored the town & its history, then how about a bit of wildlife?
6. Go birdwatching on Hrísey Island
A short, 20-minute ferry ride into the fjord, brings you to peaceful Hrísey Island. In summer its population swells to a tiny 150 but this is the perfect place to indulge your passion for nature. The island is only 8 km2 in size but is home to more than 40 species of birds. The most common is the ptarmigan but it also lays claim to the largest breeding colony of arctic terns in Europe. It is situated on a lay line which makes it one of the most powerful places in Iceland & a fantastic destination for short hikes. After exploring, don’t miss the chance for a meal at Verbúðin 66 for a warm welcome & some delicious food.
7. Climb into the saddle
Icelandic horses are special for many reasons. They arrived with the very first settlers & although just the size of ponies, they are said to be more curious, intelligent & independent than most other horse breeds. A ride on one of these beautiful creatures is a uniquely Icelandic experience. They possess a couple of special gaits & whereas other horses have walk, trot & gallop, Icelandic horses add tölt & skeið to their repertoire.
Tölt is known for its speed & riding comfort. They say you can hold a pint of beer in one hand & not spill a drop while riding. Skeið on the other hand is a rhythmic gallop which makes you feel like you’re flying & can reach speeds up to 48km/h (30m/h).”
8. Take a boat in search of humpbacks
Another of the best things to do in Akureyri is to head out into the Eyjafjörður Fjord in search of humpback whales. Obviously, nothing is guaranteed, but the fjord apparently has the highest success rates for sightings in Iceland. The trip takes 3 hours with excellent guides & spectacular views. You may even be lucky enough to spot a Blue Whale too.
9. Hunt for puffins
In the summer months (June – August), you can also take an excursion to see the puffins. Iceland is home to 60% of the worlds Atlantic Puffin population, which adds up to 6 million of these colourful beaked creatures. Puffins live on the surface of the ocean but venture onto land to breed. Most importantly, they only nest where they were born & exclusively when there are other puffins around. Therefore, if you head to the right place at the right time, you stand a very good chance of a sighting.
From Akureyri, there are 2 options to see puffins. From the town itself, you can cross your fingers & opt for a whale watching tour with a focus on seabirds as well. Alternatively, take a trip over to Húsavík (more on that later) where you can board a boat to Flatey Island.
And how about a couple of epic waterfalls…?
10. Feel the power at Dettifoss Waterfall
Dettifoss waterfall is located in the Vatnajökull National Park & lays claim to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It creates an epic thunder & spray as it falls 44m to continue its path along the river. At its widest point, Dettifoss is an incredible 100m. The waterfall is over 150km from Akureyri, but there are a plethora of natural wonders to see in the vicinity. Such as…
Fifty kilometres from Akureyri lies Goðafoss waterfall, one of the most spectacular in Iceland, a land of spectacular waterfalls! The legend is that during “negotiations” with the persuasive Christians, one of the Viking leaders threw statues of their pagan gods over the waterfall to prevent a religious war, hence the name.
The waterfall is fed from the Skjálfandafljót River, originating from the largest glacier in Iceland. It cascades in a horseshoe shape over the volcanic rock, dropping 17m at its highest point.”
For more natural wonders how about a road trip?
You may have heard of the Golden Circle tour in the South of Iceland? In the north, there is the Diamond Circle, a route of 260km which snakes through several of the natural wonders of this fascinating part of the country. The route starts just 30km east of Akureyri. It is advisable to take at least 2 days to cover all this ground, as there will be plenty of places to stop along the way. You will also get more from the experience in the summer months when the roads are more passable & the days longer. The route includes both Goðafoss & Dettifoss, as well as Lake Mývatn, Ásbyrgi Canyon & Húsavík – see below.
Here’s why you will want to add these other epic destinations to your itinerary…
Lake Mývatn lies 90km (55 miles) from Akureyri & is an incredibly active geothermal area that has created otherworldly & unique geology to explore. From pseudo craters to bubbling earth, volcanoes, a lava labyrinth & a fissure where you can stand with one foot in North America & the other in Europe. If you’re a history buff, this is where the Americans practised for the moon landings & for film fans, it has been used for Fast & Furious 9 & Game of Thrones. I found it so fascinating, I’ve got a whole blog post on the area coming up in the next few weeks.
While you’re here head to Kaffi Borgi to sample their amazing bread – cooked in a geyser for 24 hours!”
14. Take a hike at Ásbyrgi Canyon
Ásbyrgi is also called the “Shelter of the Gods”, so it would be difficult to miss off your itinerary of the best things to do in Akureyri. The canyon is 3.5km long & over 1km wide, surrounded by 100m high cliffs. It will take around 2 hours to drive the 140km from Akureyri to Ásbyrgi Canyon but once you are there, it is an excellent place for a hike.
While exploring the Diamond Circle, why not indulge in one of the geothermal spas?
Mývatn Nature Bath is known as the “Blue Lagoon of the North” & in a stunning setting overlooking the lake. Head here for your fix of the rejuvenating power of Iceland’s geothermal waters. The water here is bright blue, opaque & full of healing minerals piped straight from the borehole nearby. It arrives at a scorching 130oC before being cooled to between 36-40oC for the lagoon. It is the perfect place to chill out for a few hours or take in the sunset with a drink in hand.
16. Heal body & soul at Húsavík Geosea
Húsavík has already been mentioned a couple of times & is a fantastic place to come for either whale watching (they use old fashioned wooden boats), or for the puffins at Flatey Island. However, if you enjoy relaxation then it is also home to the gorgeous Húsavík Geosea spa.
Imagine an infinity pool full of mineral-rich seawater, heated from the Earth’s core, with spectacular views across the sea & out to the mountains beyond. Believe me, it’s well worth grabbing your swimsuit for!”
17. Hang out with the locals
The people of Iceland will regularly visit their local thermal baths to relax & socialise. I was told some go every day…sometimes twice! If you want to get your fix of this healing water without the price tag of visiting a lagoon filled with tourists, then when in Akureyri, go to Sundlaug Akureyrar. It is said to be one of the best public baths in Iceland with heated pools, water slides, saunas & steam rooms.
18. The healing power of beer
Healing water, not your thing? How about beer? For an alternative to relaxing in the water, then check out the Beer Spa at nearby Árskógssandi!
19. Hit the slopes
Akureyri is also home to the best ski field in Iceland at Mt Hlíðarfjall. Here you can ski from the end of November until June, depending on your preferences, the type of skier you are & which area you choose.
20. Chase the Northern Lights
No guide to the best things to do in Akureyri would be complete without a mention of the legendary Aurora Borealis. If you’re lucky & have a clear night, you may be able to spot them dancing in the skies between September & April. I was lucky & will never forget the thrill of my night on the hunt for Aurora!
Where to stay
For accommodation in Akureyri, make sure you book ahead, especially in the summer months & weekends during winter. Consider centrally located Hótel Kea, Icelandair Hotel Akureyri or for a budget option, Akureyri Backpackers. Alternatively use the search box below.
Where to eat
Over the course of 5 days, I discovered several gems in Akureyri that I would recommend. For a coffee shop with amazing looking cakes, try Kaffi Ilmur. There is excellent food with a view from the 4th floor Strikið & the Arctic Char at Greifinn was delicious!
I loved Akureyri & already can’t wait to go back. I hope through sharing this guide on the best things to do in Akureyri, I have whetted your appetite to visit this stunning part of Iceland too.
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