Visiting Akureyri: 3 Days in Northern Iceland

Most visitors to the awe-inspiring island of Iceland typically don’t venture too far away from the capital city, Reykjavík, and the beautiful sights along the Golden Circle, in and around the southern coast cities of Vík and Höfn. During our 8 day trip, we spent about half our time on this tried and true tourist route, and were treated to non-stop incredible views, towering waterfalls, and black sand beaches.

For the second half of our trip, we decided to venture 5-ish hours up the Ring Road (Route 1 circles the entire country) to Iceland’s “Capital of the North” and second biggest city, Akureyri. I would highly recommend scheduling more time than we did when visiting Akureyri, but if you’re on as tight a schedule as we were, this guide will help you get the most out of your time if you only have 3 days to explore northern Iceland, and avoid a few big mistakes as well.

A Night in Reykjavík

After dropping our traveling partner off at Keflavík Airport on a Sunday (read about the first half of our trip here), it was too late to get back on the road so we spent the remainder of the day exploring Reykjavík. It’s an easy city to find your way around, and very walkable, as long as you’re dressed warm enough.

We visited Hallgrimskirkja Church, where you’ll see the Leif Erikson statue, walked along the main shopping streets full of Icelandic sweaters I sadly couldn’t afford, before finally popping into Café Loki to try rye bread ice cream. As far as traditional Icelandic food goes, this was one of the few dishes I was really excited to try and it didn’t disappoint.

If you’re not concerned with a budget, there’s plenty of restaurants in the downtown area to try hákarl (fermented shark), or maybe just some less adventurous seafood. To save some money, after a few too many expensive gas station veggie burgers during the first part of our trip, we opted for cooking dinner at our Airbnb.

After a fairly disastrous attempt at using a washing machine I couldn’t read, we went to bed early, excited to start our drive to Akureyri early in the morning. If foreign appliances scare you, too, here’s my easy way to do laundry while traveling.

Day 1: Driving from Reykjavík to Akureyri

During the relatively straightforward drive from Reykjavík to Akureyri, you’ll most likely just be staring out the window, open-mouthed, at the ever-changing sky and landscape. You’ll see huge herds of Icelandic ponies, possibly reindeer, and depending on the season, lots of sheep.

Every now and then, there will be a house nestled up against the base of a mountain, and you’ll wonder how they get food, gas, or supplies when the last gas station you saw was over an hour ago, much less a grocery store. I also found myself contemplating if any kids live out in the remote parts of Iceland, and where they go to school. Or how people get to the hospital if there’s an emergency. Or if the random little churches scattered throughout the drive have more than a handful of attendees.

Since we only had a few days, and venturing to northern Iceland was already pushing our time limitations, we drove straight through. If I could plan the trip again, and the weather was agreeable, I would definitely make sure we had time to stop at the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, if for no other reason than to see the famous black church…

Really though, there are numerous reasons to stop here including Kirkjufell mountain, Djúpalónssandur black sand beach, and Gerðuberg Basalt Cliffs.

For context, we visited in mid-March and while it was cold, the weather was largely cooperative. Weather conditions are quite capricious in Iceland, especially during the winter months, so the most important piece of advice I can give you, especially when driving long distances, is to always check the weather first! Lazy on our luck, we confidently neglected to do this near the end of our trip and I’ll explain later why it’s so important to stay on top of this when visiting Akureyri.

It was mid afternoon by the time we made it to the northern city of 18,000, and after checking into our Airbnb (a cute tiny house with an amazing view of the fjord), we drove back into town to walk along the main streets and take in the charming, and often colorful, buildings.

I highly recommend staying here. The view of the fjord is beautiful and if it’s the right time of year, you may see the Northern Lights or whales from your window.

After grabbing a quick bite at Akureyri Backpackers, a hostel with a reasonably priced restaurant (for Iceland at least), we treated ourselves to Brynja ice cream. Known for being the most popular and best Icelandic ice cream, I have to say, it wasn’t anything to write home about. After our car trip diet of Doritos though, we had no complaints.

Your next day is going to be jam packed if you’re trying to do this in 2-3 days like we were, so make sure to end the day early…

Day 2: What to Do When Visiting Akureyri

Ride an Icelandic Horse

We woke up bright and early on Tuesday morning and drove to Pólar Hestar, a family owned farm, to finally get up close and personal with the cute Icelandic horses we’d been seeing throughout our trip. Students from various countries come here on work study programs for a few months at a time. Our tour guide was from Germany and she helped us get suited up in ridiculous looking, but very warm, bright orange jumpsuits. I initially tried to decline it, because I thought the clothes I was wearing were already pretty warm, but trust me, you want the neon suit.

Our ride was 1-2 hours through the surrounding countryside, and about halfway, you stop to take in a beautiful view of Eyjafjörður, and give your sturdy little horse some love. Upon arriving back at the farm, you’re treated with a selection of homemade cookies, cakes, tea, and coffee. While we were enjoying our time in the cozy farm house, we had a full day ahead of us, so said our goodbyes and got back on the road.

The Diamond Circle: Winter Edition

Keep in mind, normally you’d need at least a full day to visit all the sights along the Diamond Circle. It includes 5 key stops, with a smattering of other highlights in between.

The 5 Points of the Diamond Circle

  1. Húsavík – the whale watching capital of Iceland
  2. Ásbyrgi canyon
  3. Dettifoss
  4. Lake Mývatn
  5. Goðafoss or “Waterfall of the Gods”

However, since we were visiting in March, only part of the Diamond Circle was actually accessible as several F-roads (mountain passes) were still closed due to winter conditions. Because of this, we had to skip the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss, as well as Ásbyrgi Canyon and Húsavík.

Unfortunately for us, we didn’t know this until we had already gone an hour past the Lake Mývatn area to get to the start of the F-road which led to Dettifoss, and then driven very slowly down that rocky road for quite awhile, before finally seeing a sign advising us to turn around.

Lesson learned – make sure to check road closures before venturing out.

map of Diamond Circle in Northern Iceland showing 5 main locations and smaller stops in between
Map from northiceland.iswe only drove along the southern portion between Akureyri and Dettifoss

Fear not though, there are still plenty of amazing things to see along the southern section of this route if you run into the same roadblocks that we did.

After leaving Akureyri, our first stop was Goðafoss, which you’ll hear roaring from the road long before you actually see the falls. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, and while it was bitterly cold and icy with some deep snow, it was majestic to see.

woman standing with her arms up and smiling in front of Godafoss waterfall in Northern Iceland

Our next stop after getting back on the Ring Road was Dimmuborgir lava fields, where we hoped to take in the unique, towering rock formations, but a few steps past the car park we realized all the paths were heavily iced over and almost impossible to walk on.

Just a short way down the road, we stopped at Grjótagjá, a small lava cave and pool made famous by a well-loved Game of Thrones scene between Jon Snow and Ygritte. The water temperature is now too unpredictable for bathing because of the geothermal activity, and crawling into the cave was a slightly nerve-wracking experience as the ceilings are quite low and it’s very steamy and dark inside. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get any usable photos and the cave has since been closed several times due to poor behavior from visitors.

Next up was Námaskarð Pass, a geothermal area on Námafjall mountain. With its barren alien landscape, bubbling hot springs, and the intense smell of sulfur wafting on the strong winds, it’s truly a powerful sight to behold.

We also pulled into Krafla, the site of a volcanic caldera and geothermal power plant (which is closed in winter). While online advice suggested it wasn’t smart to hike the trail around the caldera in winter conditions, you will catch a glimpse of an oddly located, but functioning, geothermal shower and sink in what is essentially the middle of a field.

After the aforementioned disappointment of driving an hour past Krafla to get to Dettifoss, we backtracked the way we came and made our final stop at the Mývatn Nature Baths, a more affordable alternative to the well known Blue Lagoon in Reykjavík. They offered us a discount, since strong winds made the water less hot and more choppy than normal, but it was still warm enough to submerge ourselves for awhile as we watched the sunset.

After retreating into the nearby hot tub and then sauna to really warm up, we headed back after a long, full day to grab some fish and chips from the aptly named Akureyri Fish and Chips. Even though we didn’t get to see as many sights as we hoped, and already had to check out the next day to head back to Reykjavík for our flight home, the shortened version worked out perfectly for us. Just driving around Iceland and taking in the views is an experience within itself and you definitely won’t regret spending 3 days exploring Northern Iceland.

Oh yeah, speaking of driving…

Day 3: A Word of Warning

The next morning, after slowly waking up and carefully descending the stairs of our loft (you will hurt the day after horse riding let me tell you), we made our way into town for some breakfast before starting what we knew was a beautiful, but long, drive back to Reykjavík. As I mentioned earlier, we had grown comfortable with our driving abilities at this point, and while we took a quick look at the weather, we didn’t give it much thought.

As we made our way to the Ring Road and started driving up into the mountains and out of Akureyri, we quickly learned a very valuable lesson. For the next hour, we were driving in whiteout conditions, not due to snowfall, but simply from strong wind blowing existing snow all over the road. We knew we couldn’t turn around, as the winds were forecast to go on for quite some time, and we were too nervous to pull over onto the side of the road because honestly, we couldn’t see if there was even a shoulder. We were also afraid to stop and risk it getting even worse, leaving us stranded and potentially running out of gas.

Since most parts of northern Iceland are extremely remote, we knew if we got in an accident, we might not be found for some time. The only positive of being so isolated was that we were pretty confident no one was going to slam into us from behind. If you look on the right hand side of the video below, you’ll see yellow poles every few feet. These were our only guides to be able to stay on the road. Once we finally made our way through the worst of it, we did our best to stay ahead of the bad weather, but at some point during the five hour drive, we had another stretch of white knuckle driving.

view of snow covered road and completely cloudy sky with the sun trying to peek through dense clouds on Ring Road in Akureyri Iceland
We were relieved for a break between zero visibility stretches of road

This situation, and Iceland’s notoriously unpredictable weather, is the main reason I would really advise leaving yourself more time to visit Akureyri than we did. To make our flight home, we had no choice but to continue driving, but this was one of our scariest travel experiences to date.

Would you be up for tackling a visit to Akureyri and the Diamond Circle during the winter or do you think it’s too ambitious? Let me know in the comments!

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