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Akureyrarkirkja church in the evening.
Photo: Photo: Golli. Akureyrarkirkja church in the evening..

Attractions of North Iceland

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While North Iceland is a region less visited than the south, it holds many of the greatest attractions of Iceland. It’s a place of stark opposites, with dramatic and barren landscapes, lush farmlands, and charming villages. It’s fantastic for both outdoor activities and cultural exploration and suitable for any kind of trip, be it family, romance, solo travel or something else. To help you get the lay of the land, here is a guide to some of our favourite attractions in North Iceland and how to get to them.

How to get around in North Iceland

Before we dive into the attractions, let’s take a look at the options you have in terms of actually getting to them.

Firstly, there’s public transport. Frankly, it’s not a great option in terms of sightseeing in Iceland, especially outside the capital area. Trips in the countryside are not frequent, and the timing might not always suit your needs. Additionally, unless your goal is to walk and hike a lot, you‘ll miss out on some fabulous places, as public transport is geared towards the day-to-day needs of locals. This means that if you want to use public transport to get to the attractions of North Iceland, it will require some hard-core planning and a lot of time.

The most convenient way to explore North Iceland is by having a rental car or camper. This allows you to go everywhere you want to and at your own pace. If you don’t have time to plan, can’t drive or want to have a fuss-free vacation, you can opt for planned tours. You’ll have to pick and choose in terms of what to see, but you get the added benefit of a tour guide and the ability to just kick back and relax while on the tour. Alternatively, if you don’t have a car but want to see more than what’s available through your average tour, you can book a private tour tailor-made to your taste.

A car driving in the North Icelandic countryside.
Photo: Golli. A car driving in the North Icelandic countryside.

Towns and villages of North Iceland

Akureyri

There are numerous picturesque towns and villages worth visiting in the North. Akureyri, the biggest one, is a place full of life, culture and history. Full to the brim of iconic places that suit practically any occasion and vacation, you can’t go wrong with Akureyri. 

For a day of cultural exploration, visit Akureyrarkirkja church, Hof cultural centre, or the Christmas House. There’s also Græni Hatturinn, a pub that practically every Icelander knows and a place where leading musicians of Iceland have performed for decades. If you like the electrifying atmosphere of live music, don’t miss out on Græni Hatturinn!

The Christmas House in Akureyri.
The Christmas House in Akureyri.

If you want a culinary adventure, start with breakfast at Berlín (​​$$ – $$$), go to Greifinn ($$ – $$$) or Bautinn ($$ – $$$) for lunch, Brynja ice cream shop ($) for a classic Icelandic afternoon delight, and Rub23 ($$$$) or Strikið (​​$$ – $$$) for dinner. All are well known and popular among Icelanders and will have something fo everyone. 

For the outdoorsy people and families with children, Kjarnaskógur forest, with its many amenities, is bound to give you a delightful day. Walk or bike around the forest, play in one or all of the three playgrounds, bring something to barbeque, or have a game of volleyball or disc golf. Note that you have to bring your own ball and discs. You can end the day at the Akureyri swimming pool, home to the famous ‘toilet bowl’ waterslide. 

Siglufjörður

Siglufjörður, with its colourful houses, flourishing cultural life and striking natural beauty, is a popular stop with tourists and Icelanders alike. It’s a historic town with a rich connection to Iceland’s fishing industry and is known as the centre of the herring adventure, which took place in the early 20th century. You can visit the immensely popular Herring Era Museum while you’re there, which will take you through five different exhibitions and give you an in-depth look into the herring industry in Iceland. A museum about herring might not sound particularly grand, but visitors tend to be pleasantly surprised by it, even those not interested in fishing. With a hands-on approach to a large part of the exhibitions, the museum is also well-received by families. 

The hot tub of Sigló Hotel and the Herring Era Museum houses on a snowy winter day.
Photo: Golli. The hot tub of Sigló Hotel and the Herring Era Museum houses on a snowy winter day.

For a piece of the multicultural Icelandic food environment, book a table at Hótel Siglunes in Siglufjörður, where there is a renowned Moroccan restaurant. Several Tripadvisor reviewers have named it the best dining experience they had in Iceland, with the tajines getting particularly many mentions. 

Húsavík

Húsavík, often called The Whale Capital of Iceland, is known for its peaceful atmosphere and charming buildings. It’s also where the first house in Iceland was built and the setting of the Netflix film Eurovision. 

Being the Whale Capital, Húsavík is the place to go if you’re interested in whale watching. The nickname stems from the fact that over the summer months, spotting whales in the Húsavík area is so common that many tour operators have been able to report a 100% sighting rate. Additionally, they offer a range of different twists to the journeys. Experience a taste of the past on a wooden sailboat, do some marine research with a marine biologist, or opt for a two-in-one that includes sailing around Puffin island to observe puffins in their natural habitat. For the eco-conscious, there’s even a carbon-neutral whale-watching option.

For those wanting a more laid-back day, you can track down a relaxing atmosphere in the Geosea sea baths. In 2019, they were named one of Time magazine’s 100 “World’s Greatest Places”. The baths have geothermally heated salt water, a spectacular view of Skjálfandaflói Bay and a pool bar where you can fetch beverages to enjoy while you’re in the water. 

 

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Alternatively, if you’re there with children or are on a budget, you might prefer the local swimming pool. It doesn’t have the great views or spa-like feel of Geosea, but it is considerably cheaper, offers two hot tubs and a children’s pool, and has two water slides that are open during the summer.

Natural attractions

If you’re going to Iceland to experience the country’s wonderful natural attractions, there’s a whole treasure trove of them in the North.

Hvítserkur

Starting our list in the northwest, Hvítserkur is a peculiar-looking 15 m [49 ft] rock sticking up from Húnaflói Bay. The name translates into ‘white shirt’, presumably because of the bird droppings covering the rock. With its distinct look, which reminds some of a sea monster or dragon, Hvítserkur is particularly popular with landscape photographers.

Grímsey

Grímsey Island is the northernmost lived-in place in Iceland. With a population of 55, it’s one of Iceland’s smallest inhabited communities. It’s a fantastic place to spot some puffins and have a romantic evening watching the sunset or northern lights, and it’s the only place in Iceland where you can step into the Arctic Circle. Explore the island on foot or order a ride with the sightseeing train. 

A puffin resting on a grassy cliff.
Photo: Golli. A puffin resting on a grassy cliff.

Goðafoss and Dettifoss

Goðafoss waterfall, or Waterfall of the Gods, is part of the fourth largest river in Iceland and a spectacular place to visit. Not only is it a beautiful sight, but it’s also deeply connected to Iceland’s religious history. In the year 1000, Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, one of the country’s law speakers, decided that Christianity should replace the Old Norse religion as Iceland’s official religion. Following this decision, he threw his Old Norse religious idols into the waterfall.

There’s also Dettifoss waterfall, thought to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. If you place your palm on the surrounding rocks, you can feel them vibrate with the immense power of the waterfall. Both waterfalls are easily accessible by well-kept trails and require only about 10 minutes walking from the parking lot. 

Dettifoss waterfall.
Photo: Páll Kjartansson. Dettifoss waterfall.

Mývatn

Mývatn Lake and its surrounding area, situated midway between the two waterfalls, offer a range of attractions. Besides the lake and its many small islands, there is, for example, Krafla caldera, Grjótagjá underground lava cave, and Námaskarð geothermal area. For those travelling with children, a walk through Dimmuborgir lava field, also known as the Black Fortress due to its resemblance to a medieval castle, is a fun activity that provides an otherworldly experience full of fairy tales and folklore. This is particularly fun at Christmas time when the Icelandic Yulelads, who reside in Dimmuborgir, awaken. With a vibrant birdlife, Mývatn is also ideal for birdwatching, and if you’re in need of rejuvenation, Mývatn Nature Baths are right around the corner with its naturally warm and mineral-rich milky blue water. 

Dimmuborgir on a summer evening.
Photo: Morgunblaðið/Golli. Dimmuborgir on a summer evening.

Jökulsárgljúfur

Jökulsárgljúfur, a protected national park since 1973, is a paradise for hikers. With countless options of trails to follow, you could spend days exploring the area. Within the park is Ásbyrgi, a curiously shaped glacier valley. Like most places in Iceland, it has an alternative explanation for its existence. This one is tied to Old Norse Mythology, stating that the horseshoe-shaped canyon was formed by Sleipnir, Óðin‘s eight-legged horse. If you don’t have the ability or desire to walk around the area, you can drop by Gljúfrastofa Visitor Centre, where there’s an exhibition about Jökulsárgljúfur. 

Culture

Grettislaug

As most Icelanders, northerners love a hot bath. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture and has been for a long time. Among the many swimming pools and lagoons located across the north, there’s one in particular that bears witness to this: Grettislaug.

Although it’s been rebuilt at least once, its history goes all the way back to the Icelandic Sagas. Written in the medieval times and set in the 11th century, Grettis Saga tells the story of Grettir the Strong, an outlaw who spent his last years on Drangey island just off the coast of Grettislaug. In the story, he bathes in a pool in the same area where Grettislaug is located, hence the name.

The Arctic Henge

Then there’s the Arctic Henge in Raufarhöfn, which might be of special interest to artists and art enthusiasts. It’s the largest outdoor artwork in Iceland—a fusion of Icelandic culture, literary history, and science that offers a unique experience of the sun and the expansive area surrounding Raufarhöfn. 

Museums

If you want to explore Icelandic history and culture in depth or need something to do on a rainy day, there are a myriad of niche museums to choose from. You could, for example, step into the Museum of Prophecies for a taste of fortune telling and palm reading. Although a bit off the beaten path, visitors love it, with one Tripadvisor reviewer naming it her “favourite thing in Iceland”. You could also visit the Icelandic Aviation Museum, a very family-friendly option that allows visitors to enter some of the planes and interact with them. Then there’s a blast from the past at Grenjaðarstaður Turf House, a traditional Icelandic house built in the late 19th century, and The Great White Plague Center, where you can discover the livelihood of those who battled tuberculosis in the 20th century. Make sure to look up the opening times of the museums, as some of them are closed or open by appointment only during winter. 

Inside the Icelandic Aviation Museum.
Photo: Golli. Inside the Icelandic Aviation Museum.

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