A Guide to Akureyri: the Capital of North Iceland

If you were waiting for the boom in Iceland tourism to slow down before planning a trip to the Land of Fire and Ice, now’s your chance. For the first time in ten years, tourist numbers to this gorgeous destination are down.

This is great news for those who’d love to experience the country at it’s best, free from hordes of other travelers. One of the best places to start is in the northern reaches of Iceland at Akureyri.

Here’s your guide to exploring the capital of the Great North. 

Akureyri bay

Akureyri for Beginners

Although Akureyri was first established as a settlement in 1602, the first house was only constructed in 1778.

Today, Akureyri is the second-largest city in Iceland, although it’s still small by modern standards, boasting just 20,000 inhabitants. 

It’s also home to two of the country’s biggest fisheries, is the hub of culture and trade in the north, and close to Iceland’s longest glacial fjord, Eyjafjörður.

The city is close to many spots of astonishing natural beauty. Within the town, you’ll find plenty of museums, art galleries, and green spaces to enjoy. 

Here’s a snapshot of Akureyri’s best attractions.

1. Kjarnaskógur 

Kjarnaskogur is one of Iceland’s largest forests and located on the outskirts of the city. It’s a wonderland of hiking trails and playgrounds and great for a family day out.

There are 7 km of lighted trails as well as various backcountry trails to choose from, and a 10km mountain bike trail. There are also two playgrounds, picnic areas with barbecue facilities, and a volleyball court on site. 

It’s hard to believe that these 800 hectares were once a barren wasteland. In 1952, the municipality of Akureyri and Eyjafjordur Forestry Commission started an extensive reforestation process and today the area is a lush woodland filled with life and beauty.

Most of the vegetation consists of birch and larch trees, as well as 210 different kinds of wild trees. Keep a lookout for the rare strict primrose and bluebell. 

A bird hide near the Hundatjorn marsh allows you to view many types of local birds too.  

2. Híðarfjall

Located on a mountain overlooking the town, Híðarfjall is the main ski area near Akureyri.

From December to April, the slopes come alive with skiers from all over the country and the world. High-quality snow, excellent cross country tracks and breathtaking views from the slopes are the trademarks of this top ski destination. 

If you’re a first-timer, there’s a ski school with great instructors on-site and there are slopes to suit every level of skier. Snowboarding is another popular activity on these slopes and you’ll have the opportunity to try heliskiing too. 

This is the scene of the country’s major winter sports festivals like the Iceland Winter Games and the AK Extreme. 

3. Jaðar Golf Course

Fancy a round of golf in the middle of the night? Jaðar Golf Course is happy to oblige during the Icelandic summer.

Every year, the course hosts a nighttime tournament during the summer. Although, playing on the world’s northernmost golf course is surely one for your bucket list at any time of year.

The course has a par-71 layout meandering among clusters of trees, rocky outcrops, and broad ridges. There’s a golf shop, restaurant, and PGA pro golfer on site.

Akureyri

4. Akureyri Botanic Garden

Considering the cold climate of Iceland, the 3.6 hectare Akureyri Botanic Garden is a marvel of modern horticulture. Here you can walk among a huge variety of plants and flowers within its confines.

The garden was first opened in 1912 as a public park and earned botanic-garden-status in 1957. There are 6,600 non-native plants thriving here as well as 430 indigenous species.

There’s a casual bistro on-site as well as several fountains and little lakes for children to splash in.

5. Krossanesborgir Bird Sanctuary

This small nature reserve boasts a diversity of birdlife and vegetation as well as fascinating basalt rock formations. Some of the latter are up to 10 million years old. 

Marked paths are ideal for hiking among this natural abundance and a bird hide offers opportunities for admiring the avian species up close. 

6. Akureyri Museum of Industry

The Industrial Museum celebrates Akureyri’s position as one of Iceland’s major industrial centers. Here you’ll find machinery, examples of manufactured products, and industrial artifacts from the last century.

Some of the displays include sewing and knitting machines, printing presses, and watchmakers tools.

blue house in Akureyri

7. The Old Toy Display

This collection contains dozens of historic dolls and toy cars as well as a few more modern-day toys. These items were once part of an extensive private collection but now they’re available for everyone to enjoy.

Children love to see how their peers of yesteryear spent their time and even adults will enjoy the nostalgia of this small museum.

8. The Motorcycle Museum

This museum opened in 2011 but it’s filled with treasures that go much further back than that. This 800 square meter building overflows with items related to motorbikes and biking in Iceland.

Expect to see classic European and British bikes as well as Japanese classics. Cheap admission, free coffee, and helpful knowledgeable staff make the experience even more enjoyable.

9. The Aviation Museum 

Iceland relies heavily on air transportation, so it’s no surprise to find a museum dedicated to all things airplane-related here. The museum opened in 1999 and traces the history of aviation in Iceland right back to the start.

You’ll also find information on the important role of the airplane pilot in Iceland here. 

There are several aircraft on display here including the first Loftleioir airplane as well as the country’s oldest ambulance airplane and a glider constructed in 1937.

view over Akureyri

10. The Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum

This large art museum showcases works by major Icelandic folk artists as well as lesser-known talents.

There are about 6,000 artworks on display in these two adjoining historic buildings, dating from way back in the 19th century until modern times.

11. The Skate Rink

Catch a game at the local ice-skating rink to see one of Iceland’s best ice hockey teams, who regularly defeat the top teams from Reykjavik.

You’re assured of a fun and festive atmosphere whenever the home team plays, and going for a spin on the ice is a fun diversion on a warm summer’s day when there isn’t a game in progress.  

12. Græni Hatturinn

This concert venue located just outside the town center may be small but it’s alive with activity most days of the week. It’s one of the best concert venues in North Iceland and the many genres of music you can enjoy here will amaze and delight you.

A great vibe, cheap drinks, and warm hospitality make this one of Akureyri’s top nightspots. 

13. The Christmas Garden

If you love the spirit of Christmas, you’ll revel in this Akureyri attraction, located 10 minutes’ drive out of town. The bright red building is a celebration of the festive season and a great place to pick up handcrafted Icelandic goods and Christmas baubles from around the world. 

A walk around the gardens reveals the hideout of the Christmas ogre, who boils naughty children into a stew. You’ll also find out more about Iceland’s interesting Christmas traditions which are far-removed from the over-commercialized western version. 

14. Whale Watching Expeditions

While you’re in town, don’t miss the chance to head out on a charter boat onto the Eyjafjörður to visit Iceland’s largest inhabitants. You can view the humpback whales from April to October, but the peak season is July and August.

You could also see mink whales and white-beaked dolphins during your trip. Orcas, blue whales, and fin whales are rare but do occur in the area from time to time.  

During your trip, you could get to see a wealth of birdlife like gannets, puffins, gulls, seals, and arctic terns. Apart from the whales, the views of the Troll peninsula from out on the water are breathtaking. 

15. Súlur Mountain 

Take a long walk up Sulur Mountain for stunning views over the town and the fjord.

This hike is about 6 hours long but stopping off for a picnic to admire the view makes it all worthwhile. Along the way, you could also see some of the 87 species of Alpine plants recorded here. 

The route is clearly marked with yellow stakes but these can vanish after a heavy snowfall.

Always check the weather conditions before you set off on outdoor activities.  There are better things to do in Iceland during a snowstorm and heavy snow makes the hike a lot more challenging. 

The trail is well-marked and it’s an easy climb until just before you reach the summit. You’ll find the starting point at the parking lot just south of town.

16. Go Diving in Eyjafjörður

A dive in the oceans around Akureyri rewards with abundant marine life and unusual sightings. The Strýtan dive site in the middle of Eyjafjörður is one of the best.

Here you’ll discover a huge hydrothermal chimney spouting almost boiling hot water. It’s the only one in the world accessible to divers. These cone-shaped formations are the result of thousands of years of mineral deposition and are usually concealed beneath the ocean floor.

The one at Strýtan is an incredible example of its kind, over 50m tall and pumping 100 liters of water a second. It’s over 11,000 years old but was only discovered about 20 years ago.

You’ll also see most of Iceland’s marine species in this area and it’s interesting to watch the schools of cod swimming up and down this natural feature. 

Be advised that Strytan is not for novice divers as it’s tricky to avoid bumping into things unless you can control your buoyancy accurately.

lake Mývatn

17. Lake Mývatn

This volcanic lake is one of Iceland’s largest bodies of water. It’s also a beautiful destination and a rewarding place for birdwatchers to spend some time. 

Most people travel to Lake Mývatn to soak in the geothermally heatedNature Baths or to admire the dramatic rock formations at Dimmuborgir nearby. 

The lake is about an hour’s drive from Akureyri and is part of Iceland’s Diamond Circle. Other attractions along this route include Dettifoss waterfall, Húsavik, Ásbyrgi, the Hljóðaklettar rocks, and Goðafoss waterfall. 

northern lights Iceland

18. See the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are a top attraction for anyone visiting Iceland and Akureyri will not disappoint. All you need is a hire car so you can head out when the sky is darkest, some snacks and hot tea for the occasion, and clear skies.

These are the best places to see this iconic attraction near Akureyri.

Gásir

The old trading port is one of the best places to see the Aurora and is close to town, about 8 miles north of the city center. Keep your eyes peeled for the directional road signs though, the second one is a little difficult to spot in the dark.

The Valley

You’ll find this viewing spot below the city limits. Drive beyond the Christmas Garden until you get to the pull-outs on the side of the road.  

Ljósavatn

About 35 minutes’ drive out of town toward Lake Myvatn, you’ll come across a pretty little lake with a spacious parking lot. Its remote location makes Ljósavatn an area with minimal light pollution and perfect for seeing the lights in all their glory. 

Grenivík Village Hill

about 30 minutes’ drive from Akuryeyi, along the east side of the fjord, you’ll find the hamlet of Grenivivk. The little hill in town is perfect for seeing the Northern Lights over the fjord.

Park your car at the small parking lot, and take a romantic stroll to the summit for a superbly remote and peaceful evening admiring the sights. 

Other top spots for seeing the northern lights are Krossanesborgir and Híðarfjall.

Make the Most of Your Trip to Iceland

When visiting Iceland, it’s important to go with an open mind. Exploring areas a little outside of the normal tourist spots can reap wonderful rewards. 

Wherever you decide to spend time in Iceland, a rental car gives you the freedom to make the most of your trip. Get in touch to discuss your travel needs. We have vehicles to suit every kind of adventurer. 

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