The northern part of Iceland has a smaller population and significantly less tourists than you’ll find in the south. Nevertheless, the northern region of Iceland is blessed with beautiful nature and milder summer weather than in Reykjavik. Here’s the only guide you'll need if you're headed north!
The northern part of Iceland is home to just under 40,000 people, which is less than one sixth of the total population. The largest town is called Akureyri, which is the fourth largest town of Iceland. The northern part of Iceland is not as popular with tourists as the southern part, but I would argue that the reason for that is simply that there isn’t an international airport in the region (Keflavik Airport is the only international airport in Iceland).
There are in fact many gorgeous attractions scattered around the region and the town of Akureyri is definitely worthy of a visit. If you’re interested in seeing some whales while in Iceland, the northern region is a good place to be. Having said all that, I’ll now tell you the stuff you need to know before you head to the north.
The glorious Eyjafjordur Fjord. Travelade/Nína.
What I refer to as the “northern region” of Iceland is really two regions (Northwest region and Northeast region). So keep in mind that I’m talking about a large area, almost the entire northern part of Iceland.
What I refer to as the "northern region" are areas #5 and #6 combined. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
I mentioned before that the population of the northern part of Iceland is around 40,000. Half of these people live in the town of Akureyri, which is often called the “capital” of the north. The other 20,000 inhabitants live in smaller towns by the seaside or on farms.
Just like elsewhere in Iceland, the urban areas in the northern part are small and not very densely populated. While driving around the area, you will see much more of untouched nature than houses or other manmade structures.
Iceland started forming around 44–26 million years ago, more than 100 million years later than the continent of Europe. Iceland is located on a geological hotspot, and is thus characterized with volcanic activity and geothermal heat. The northern part of Iceland is no exception and as you can see, the tectonic boundaries between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate cross the northeastern region of Iceland.
The Víti crater lake in Krafla. Photo: Pixabay.
Located on these tectonic boundaries is Mývatn, one of the most famous geothermal areas in Iceland. Mývatn is a lake that is surrounded by all kinds of geological wonders, such as pseudo-craters, geysers and lava fields. There are several active volcanoes in the northern region, most notably Krafla, Kverkfjöll and Hverfjall.
You can’t find any active volcanoes or geysers in the western part of the region. However, there’s a great number of tall mountains, small glaciers and the incredibly beautiful rugged coastline of Tröllaskagi Peninsula.
If you’re eager to spot some whales during your stay in Iceland, the ideal place to try your luck is Húsavík, a small town just northeast of Akureyri. Admirers of birds are also in for a treat since the Lake Mývatn area has an incredibly rich birdlife.
The powerful Dettifoss Waterfall. Travelade/James Taylor.
The Diamond Circle is a scenic route in the northern part of Iceland that connects three of the most beautiful attractions in the region; Ásbyrgi Canyon, Dettifoss Waterfall and Lake Mývatn. You might have heard about the Golden Circle, which is a different sightseeing tour in the southwestern part of the country, in case you were wondering whether it was the same one. The Diamond Circle is definitely not as well known as the Golden Circle, probably because the latter one is closer to Reykjavik.
The Diamond Circle is around 190 miles (310 kilometers) long, so just driving the whole route takes you a little over four hours. Since you’ll be getting out of the car and exploring the main attractions on the route, the whole tour will take you around 10–12 hours.
If you like driving around fascinating landscapes and getting out of the car every now and then to see some gorgeous attractions, then I highly recommend the Diamond Circle. The route is pretty long, so I advise you to split it between two days if your travel style is slow-paced. Here’s a pretty comprehensive article I wrote about the Diamond Circle, if you are interested.
Reddish colours at Mývatn. Unsplash/Eleni Afiontzi.
Tjörnes is a hidden gem. Travelade/Nína.
Tjörnes is usually not considered as a part of the Diamond Circle but I think it’s definitely worth visiting, especially in good weather. Tjörnes is a small peninsula, located 9 miles (15 km) north of Húsavík. This little peninsula is in fact one of the most important places in Iceland in terms of geology. This is due to the fact that you can find fossils in abundance at Tjörnes and the strata of fossils are a testimony to the changes in climate for the past 4 million years.
It’s very nice to stop at Tjörnes, just for a little stroll at the beach and a quick gaze at the fossil layers. There’s also a very charming café/hostel by the harbour called Tungulending.
If you'd like to know more about Tjörnes, check out this article.
Although Mývatn is part of the Diamond Circle Route, I think it deserves to be discussed a little bit more.
Lake Mývatn is considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in Iceland and the area around it is full of geological wonders and impressive landscapes. You could easily spend a few days just exploring the area, but if you’re doing the Diamond Circle in one day, you will have to plan your time at Mývatn carefully.
The Grjótagjá Cave. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Many people actually choose to go to the Mývatn Nature Baths, which is a popular geothermal bathing spot. Others walk around the area, exploring interesting attractions such as the Skútustaðagígar Pseudo Craters or the Grjótagjá Thermal Pool (which might interest Game of Throne fans). If you want to find more about Mývatn, check out this article.
Must-see attractions in the Lake Mývatn Area:
Goðafoss is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. Travelade/Hlöðver.
Goðafoss, which translates into “The Waterfall of the Gods” is a gorgeous cascade around 21 miles (34 km) east of Akureyri. The cascade got its name from an important event in Iceland’s history, namely when Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði decided to take up Christianity and forsake the old pagan religion. This was in the year 1000 (or 999 according to some historians) and according to the legend, Þorgeir threw some statues and idols of Norse Gods into the waterfall when he had finally come to a conclusion in this complicated matter.
The ocean view from the swimming pool at Hofsós. Travelade/Hlöðver.
Hofsós is a tiny town on the Tröllaskagi Peninsula, inhabited by less than 200 people. The swimming pool of Hofsós opened in 2010 and it has attracted a number of visitors in the past few years. The swimming pool is located right by the seaside, which makes it quite unique. The beach just below the swimming pool also has some impressive basalt columns that you should definitely take a look at if you decide to visit the town.
The northern part of Grímsey is within the Arctic Circle. Travelade/Nína.
Grímsey is Iceland’s northernmost island, located around 25 mi (40 km) off the north coast of Iceland. The island is the only place in Iceland crossed by the Arctic Circle, aside from oceanic territories.
The island has been inhabited since the settlement of Iceland but for the past few years, the population has dropped to less than a 100. A large majority of the islanders work in the fishing industry, others work in agriculture or the tourist industry.
It’s possible to travel to Grímsey either by ferry or a small aircraft. It is a destination that is almost completely off the tourist-radar, which makes it even more exciting. If you’re not convinced, you should read this article I wrote about my day trip to Grímsey last summer.
The outdoor beer-tubs. Travelade/Nína.
The Beer Spa at the Kaldi brewery in Árskógasandur (not far from Akureyri) offers visitors an opportunity to bathe in tubs filled with beer, warm water, hops and yeast, while drinking cold Kaldi craft beer from tap.
The spa has become one of the most exciting destinations in the northern region since it opened last summer. If you’re a beer-enthusiast, you simply have no excuse to exclude this place from your itinerary.
Drangey in Skagafjörður. Flickr/Hans Birger Nielsen.
Drangey is an islet in Skagafjörður Fjord. Its steep walls are home to a plethora of birds, predominantly puffins and different types of guillemots. However, Drangey is perhaps best known for its part in Grettis Saga, which is one of the Sagas of Icelanders. The main protagonist of Grettis Saga, Grettir Ásmundarson, supposedly lived in Drangey during the last few years of his life, along with his brother Illugi and their slave Glaumur.
Since these three men were the only inhabitants of Drangey, they relied on others for provision of food and other necessities. Grettir used smoke signals to contact his patrons, but when the fire went out, he was forced to swim ashore to fetch a new torch. The distance from Drangey to the nearest shore is more than 4 miles and the ocean is freezing cold all year round, so this must have been a great effort for poor Grettir. 24 people have managed to swim this distance so far, so here’s a new challenge for you if you like sea swimming.
Drangey can be seen from the shore but it’s also possible to sail to the island and explore it on foot.
The café at the Botanical Gardens of Akureyri is one of my favourite spots in town. Travelade/Nína.
Akureyri is the biggest town in the northern part of Iceland, and therefore it has much more to offer than other towns in the region. I highly recommend staying for a few days in Akureyri if you’re going to spend some amount of time in the northern region. It’s also pretty centrally located, so it’s not a bad idea to be based there the whole time and go on excursions or day tours from there.
I could easily write a long article about what to do and where to go in Akureyri, but instead I’ll provide you with some excellent reading material:
The Great Fish Day 2017. Travelade/Nína.
Dalvík is a beautiful fishing village, located by the western shore of Eyjafjörður Fjord. The population of Dalvík is around 1,400, so it’s by no means a large town, but in my opinion it is well worthy of a visit. One of the largest summer festivals in the northern part of Iceland takes place in Dalvík, namely the Great Fish Day. If you like gourmet seafood and family-friendly events, I think you should definitely check the festival out. There are numerous other things to do in the Dalvík, in case you’d like to stay there for a few days. Here are some suggestions:
Húsavík is the "Whale watching capital" of Iceland. Unsplash/Davide Cantelli.
If you’re driving from Akureyri (which is the largest town in the northern part of Iceland), your first stop will probably be Húsavík. Húsavík is a charming town of roughly 2,000 inhabitants, often dubbed the “Whale watching capital” of Iceland. Since the Diamond Circle Route is pretty long, it’s up to you whether you make a pit stop at Húsavík or not. If you for instance decide to go on a whale watching tour from Húsavík, that would shorten the time you have for the other attractions.
Siglufjörður. Flickr/Markus Trienke.
Siglufjörður in the winter. Unsplash/Luciano Braga.
Siglufjörður is located on the rugged Tröllaskagi peninsula. It used to be an important hub for herring fishing during the 1930s to 1940s and during that time, Siglufjörður was the fifth largest town of Iceland. The population started to decline when the herring stocks vanished in 1964. Today, there’s an interesting museum in Siglufjörður, dedicated to the “golden herring age”.
The best travel recommendations come from locals. Check out these Wanderguides from Iceland by locals sharing their travel tips and hidden gems.