Iceland has been in the news this week with consistent earthquake tremors that have led some to believe a volcanic eruption in the populated southwestern peninsula is imminent. No need to worry, however; both Reykjavík and Keflavík Airport are deemed to be out of the way of potential lava flow. While 2/3 of the Icelandic population live near the capital, the island nation offers so much more and a lot of that is in the north, where you can create a base in Akureyri – the country’s “northern capital.”
How To Get There
Traversing Iceland is relatively simple – you follow Highway 1 or the Ring Road in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Leaving the capital region and its sea of countless roundabouts, you’ll be rewarded pleasantly by heading either way, but for the sake of this post, we’re heading north. Cross under the Hvalfjörður tunnel, bypassing the fjord’s vistas and about 45km, and continue along the Ring Road which will take you about 5 hours over mountains, one-lane bridges, and beautiful landscapes. There are several gas station stops along the way to fill up on fuel or grub. You’ll be coming down a mountain as you enter the city of 18,000.
*Big Tip* Please do not try to drive between the two cities during white-out conditions. The risk is not worth it.
Where To Stay
We stayed in a super cool tiny house that we found through Airbnb. It sat across the bridge overlooking the fjord and Akureyri from the eastern side. The place had a loft-style design and the side of the building that faced the water was almost entirely window, letting you wake up to an absolutely perfect view. The homeowner even left a pair of binoculars for you to try to catch some whales that swim up the fjord during certain times of the year.
Back down in the city, you can find a few more homestays as well as hostels such as Akureyri Backpackers, which offers quality rooms and a decent food menu. I recommend the potato wedges and a beer then take a walk over to grab some icecream from Brynja or Isbuden Akureyri.
*Tip* Use this link to save up to $65 off your first Airbnb stay.
What To Do
In order to get the most out of a trip to the north of the island, it’s a good idea to take a tour of the Diamond Circle – a lesser known but, in my opinion, better version of the famous Golden Circle that is right outside of Reykjavík. This was our route:
⭐️Goðafoss is your first stop, a powerful waterfall surrounded by a legend that a lawspeaker transitioned Iceland into the Christian religion when he threw pagan idols into the water.
🔥 Dimmuborgir is a lava field covered by large lava tubes and several trails for you to explore around. It was used as a shooting location in a few Game of Thrones episodes, too. Unfortunately, the trails were heavily iced over, so we only took a few steps before deciding to skip this stop.
💧 Grjótagjá is a small lava cave with a thermal pool inside. It has two entrances where people can battle back and forth between which the correct in-and-out direction is. It’s pretty icy, has steep climbs to crawl up and down, and lacks any safety parameters, so be careful. This was also used in GoT, specifically the scene where Jon Snow and Ygritte finally share an intimate moment. The steam from the water is so hot that any picture I tried to take was immediately fogged up.
🥚 Námaskarð is a geothermal area covered in volcanic mud pools that you’ll smell before you see. Once you catch the scent of rotten eggs lingering in the sulfuric mist, you’ll know your close. The high winds will make it all the more intense. You can follow the trails around, catching photos of what I’d say is closer to a Martian landscape than that of Iceland.
🌋 Krafla is a place to stop for a hike that will take you to the caldera of a volcano and a picturesque lake sitting in the middle. We were pressed for time, so didn’t get to stop, but from what I’ve seen, it would be worth it. Make sure to look out for the toilet along the road.
💦 Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall (a statement disputed by Rhine Falls in Switzerland and dependent upon ice melt from the Vatnajökull glacier.) We made the nearly hour drive from our last stop up to Dettifoss after a snowfall. Once we arrived, the road to the falls was open so we continued forth at an incredibly slow pace traversing over rocky roads to preserve our rented car’s exterior. After what seemed like an eternity of bumpy driving, we arrived at the gates that said the falls were closed due to inclement weather. Sigh. About 100m ahead, we saw a truck that had attempted to make the drive in spite of the warning and was stuck in snow and ice. We didn’t want to chance it and turned around.
🛀 Mývatn Nature Baths make for a pleasant stop along the Diamond Circle. A less expensive option to the popular Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik, the Mývatn Nature Baths offer a chance to relax. The quick sprint from the locker room to the pool is cold and windy (trust me, you’re going to run, not walk), but once you get in the water, it is nice and warm. A nearby hot tub and sauna room make for cozy places to meet other travelers.
If you don’t want to spend a day driving from place to place, you can stick to the nearby community in Akureyri. Whale watching companies offer tours that will give you free replacement tickets if you don’t have any luck spotting one the day you go. We opted to have an experience with a different type of animal – we rode Icelandic horses. Although they are a bit smaller, near pony-sized, they have two unique gaits and a heavy coat. A young German girl was staying in Iceland to help tend to the farm and took us on a tour on our two horses – Gelding and Jolly. Every once in a while, our guide’s horse would stop because “he saw ghosts” and mine just decided to wander into the grass randomly before I got him turned back around.
Akureyri is a great town and if you have more than two or three days in the country, I highly recommend checking out the capital of the north.