The Ultimate Guide to North Iceland

Lake Myvatn, Akureyri, Dettifoss and more

|July 18, 2019
Emma is a writer & editor from the United States. She's currently living in Europe to learn and write about her favorite places full time.

North Iceland is becoming a go-to destination in the land of fire and ice. Although the North Coast is less known to tourists than the South, it has just as many vibrant places to explore. Look out for the colorful houses of Akureyri and the blue waters of Lake Mývatn.


North Iceland is home to remote hiking trails, rich marine life, and fishing villages. The region’s proximity to the Arctic Circle also makes it the best place to view the spectacular Northern Lights.

With the new coastal route known as the Arctic Coast Way opening up this summer, the North won’t remain under the radar for long. Don't miss your chance to see it without the crowds!

a view from high above myvatn lake in summer

The History of North Iceland

North Iceland’s early history is recorded in the Landnámabók Saga, a medieval text about the original settlement of Iceland. The Saga tells of the founding of Akureyri, the largest city in North Iceland, by Irish Viking Helgi Magri Eyvindarson. However, harsh weather conditions made life in the North difficult.

By the 1500s, villages and towns along the northern coast were dotted with warehouses and shops owned by Danish traders.  Large residential areas didn’t appear until the late 18th century, when Akureyri, the capital of North Iceland, was granted a royal charter.

cruise ship docked at akureyri in summer

The region began to develop more rapidly around a century later. Fishing, farming, and trading became the main industries.

North Iceland’s economy remained fairly small until World War II, when the Allies invaded Iceland to keep it out of German hands. The U.S. established an airbase in Keflavik and used North Iceland to protect crucial shipping routes between Europe and North America. This development caused the region to modernize and grow exponentially. Since then, North Iceland has continued to evolve.

Weather in North Iceland

The weather in North Iceland differs from conditions in the South. You can expect mild winters and short, cool summers. Temperatures hover between 20-35° F in the winter (November to April) and rise to highs between 55-60° F in the summer. 

Snowfall is common during the winter and the days are short, creating ideal conditions for snowmobiling and seeing the Northern Lights. Summer is usually dry and cool, allowing for outdoor activities like hiking and horse riding. 

The Seasons in North Iceland

Spring

North Iceland’s spring is slightly shorter than the South’s, running from mid-April through May.  In the spring, snow begins to thaw and vegetation flourishes. Migrating seabirds return to shore, while glacial rivers swell with fish. Spring is also quieter and generally cheaper than summer, making it a perfect time for anyone visiting Iceland on a budget.  

Summer

North Iceland comes alive between July and late August. Whale watching, hiking, fishing, river rafting, kayaking, and horse riding are all popular in the summer months. Best of all, these activities can be done late into the night under the Midnight Sun. Summer is the busiest tourist season in Iceland, so trails may be more crowded and hotels slightly more expensive.  

big volcanic crater hverfjall near myvatn

Fall

North Iceland’s autumn lasts from late August until late October. This is the most colorful time of year as the leaves turn various shades of yellow and red. The first snows usually haven’t arrived yet, so most outdoor activities are still available. Hiking trails are also quieter than in the summer. Lucky travelers may even spot the Northern Lights. 

Winter

Iceland’s long winter runs from early November to early April, and a chance to ski, snowmobile, and hike on a glacier. The ethereal Northern Lights often dance at night. On New Year’s Eve, the sky over Reykjavik erupts into fireworks. 

hverfjall crater view in winter near myvatn

Places to Stay in North Iceland

North Iceland offers a range of excellent hotel options throughout the region. Akureyri is the best option if you’re looking to stay in a built-up area. Other popular locations include the whale-watching hubs of Húsavík and Dalvík and the area around Lake Mývatn. You can also find plenty of remote hotels and cottages throughout the countryside.

  • Hotel Dalvík – A cozy hotel offering beautiful views in one of Iceland’s whale-watching hubs
  • Brimnes Hotel – An incredible lakeside hotel situated on the Tröllaskagi Peninsula
  • Fosshotel Mývatn – A 92-room hotel perched on the edge of idyllic Lake Myvatn
  • Hotel Akureyri – A luxury waterfront hotel offering gorgeous views and easy access to the capital of the North 

How to Get to North Iceland

By Plane

Air Iceland operates internal flights between Reykjavik and Akureyri. These flights run several times a day and last just 25 minutes. Eagle Air also operates domestic flights between Reykjavik and Húsavík, ideal for anyone planning a whale-watching tour. 

By Bus

Strætó operates direct buses between Reykjavik and Akureyri. They run 7 days a week and can be booked at www.straeto.is. The distance between Reykjavik and Akureyri is 236 mi (380 km) and the trip lasts around 6.5 hours, depending on the season.

woman in a straeto bus in reykjavik

By Car

You can drive to Akureyri either clockwise or counterclockwise around the Ring Road. Clockwise will be shorter, only about 4-5 hours. A drive counterclockwise from the South will take you around 6-7 hours without any stops. In the summertime, you can also drive Kjölur road (Route F35), which snakes through the middle of the country.

Notable Places in North Iceland

North Iceland is home to many incredible places just waiting to be explored. 

Akureyri – The Capital of the North

Perched on the edge of Eyjafjörður Peninsula, the capital of the North is home to around 20,000 residents. Despite its relatively small size, Akureyri has a rich cultural scene, including chic cafés, trendy bars, and traditional art galleries. The city is known for its colorful houses and the iconic Akureyri Church that dominates its skyline. 

colourful scandinavian architecture church in akureyri

Mývatn

Mývatn is a geothermal lake in North Iceland. The lake is considered one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. The Mývatn Nature Baths is a geothermally heated spa and North of Iceland’s equivalent to the Blue Lagoon. The area around Mývatn is home to otherworldly Námafjall Mountain and Grjótagjá, a volcanic cave featured in Game of Thrones.

aerial view of the landscape at myvatn lake

Dimmuborgir

Just east of Mývatn lies Dimmuborgir, a cluster of bizarre lava fields. Here you can find some of Iceland’s strangest natural phenomena, from enormous lava tubes to dramatic rock formations. Dimmuborgir means “dark castles” in Icelandic, which refers to the area’s resemblance to a collapsed fortress. Naturally, Dimmuborgir was also a shooting location for Game of Thrones. 

a hiking path near dimmuborgir in north iceland

Húsavík

This picturesque town over Skjálfandi Bay is known as the whale-watching capital of Iceland. Around 23 different marine mammal species visit Húsavík’s waters throughout the year. The local whale museum contains a 72-foot (22-meter) blue whale skeleton, along with other exhibits. 

houses and harbor view at husavik town in iceland

Dalvík

Another whale-watching hub and a busy port, Dalvík offers many marine activities. This village marks the entrance to Tröllaskagi Peninsula, home to fascinating rock formations that look straight out of Icelandic sagas. A ferry connects Dalvík with the Isle of Grímsey, the only part of Iceland within the Arctic Circle. 

white beautiful church in Dalvik in iceland

The Arctic Coast Way

The Arctic Coast Way is a new tourist route that opened in North Iceland in June 2019. It spans 560 miles of coastal road and introduces travelers to waterfalls, spectacular rock formations, mountain peaks, tranquil fjords, and more. 

Vatnsnes Peninsula

Vatnsnes is known for its seals. Both gray and harbor seals can be spotted around the shore. Vatnsnes is one of the best places in Iceland to see these cute creatures. 

Hvítserkur

Vatnsnes Peninsula is also home to the fascinating Hvítserkur Monolith, a strangely shaped basalt sea stack that resembles an elephant or dinosaur. In Icelandic mythology, Hvítserkur is the name of a troll. The legend goes that Hvítserkur the troll wanted to offend local Christians by wrecking their church bells. When he set out to do so, however, the rays of the sun turned him to stone. 

hvitsekur rock formation at sunset in north iceland

Asbyrgi

The Ásbyrgi glacial canyon is a mandatory destination for all hikers. The enormous canyon is shaped like a horseshoe, pressed into the green countryside of Vatnajökull National Park. According to Norse mythology, Odin’s eight-legged horse created Ásbyrgi when he stepped against the ground. 

people sitting at asbyrgi canyon in iceland

Goðafoss

This breathtaking waterfall is one of Iceland’s most historic. Urban legend states that in 999 CE, the lawspeaker of the Icelandic Parliament decided that Christianity should become the dominant religion. To signify this decision, the lawspeaker tossed his pagan idols into the falls, leading to the name Goðafoss (“gods’ falls”). Nobody is sure whether this story is true or not. Nonetheless, the vastness of Goðafoss certainly seems inspired by the gods. 

happy woman spreading arms close to godafoss waterfall in iceland

Things to Do in North Iceland

North Iceland offers a never-ending stream of incredible activities. Here are some of our favorite things to do in the North:

Whale Watching

The seas and fjords around North Iceland play host to incredible aquatic mammals. Humpbacks, minke whales, and more visit throughout the year.

Whale-watching tours from Dalvík have a success rate over 98%. You can also combine whale watching and a beer spa or puffin watching.

humpback whale jumping near a boat in dalvik

Horse Riding

Horse riding is an excellent way to explore North Iceland’s untouched countryside. One of the most popular places to ride is along the Svarta River, located about 62 miles (100 kilometers) from Akureyri. This traditional Viking horse ride will transport you back in time to learn about Norse culture. 

River Rafting

Rafting is popular throughout Iceland and the North is no exception. The North Coast is home to a pair of glacial rivers with rushing waters ideal for river rafting. River rafting on the West Glacial River is excellent for families, thanks to its calmer waters. Those seeking a thrill should head for the Beast of the East! This spectacular ride introduces experienced rafters to the roaring white water of East Iceland.   

river rafting group in eastfjords of iceland

Winter Activities

North Iceland offers some of the best winter activities in the entire country. Thanks to its proximity to the Arctic Circle, it’s an excellent place to spot the dazzling Northern Lights. 

You may get lucky and catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis if you’re staying in the North during the winter! If you’re looking for something more organized, take a look at our Northern Lights Tour from Akureyri.

two happy friends posing in front of northern lights in iceland

Sightseeing

North Iceland is as diverse as the rest of the country and offers a massive variety of sightseeing opportunities. Witness the power of Dettifoss Waterfallexplore dramatic volcanic Askja Caldera, or set out on the famous Diamond Circle Route. Hop on a ferry to the Isle of Grímsey and see the adorable puffins that live there. Gaze upon the incredible colors of Lofthellir Ice Cave.  With so many choices, you’re bound to find the perfect adventure for you and your family. 

sunset with a rainbow at dettifoss waterfall

Recommended tours

Related blog posts