When planning a visit to Iceland, many tourists focus primarily on the capital city of Reykjavik, which makes sense—it’s a 40-minute drive from the nation’s only international airport and its most populated city, with the requisite number of hotels, restaurants, pubs, museums and other cultural attractions. However, visitors with more than a few days to spend in-country should consider a trip to the charming town of Akureyri, widely known as the “Capital of North Iceland.”
It’s also Iceland’s second-largest metropolitan area, although with a population of just under 20,000 people, it’s unlikely you’ll feel crowded during your visit. If you make the roughly five-hour journey between Reykjavik and Akureyri, be sure to check out the destinations that made our list of the top 10 things to do in Akureyri.
Akureyri Whale Watching
Akureyri is located along the Eyjafjörður fjord, a long, narrow waterway that’s home to several varieties of whales and other marine life, including humpback whales, minke whales, dolphins, harbor porpoises, killer whales (orcas) and seals. In addition to these majestic creatures, you’ll also enjoy spectacular views of Súlur, the town-mountain of Akureyri, as well as lush valleys and breathtaking coastal landscapes.
A number of tour companies offer whale-watching excursions in and around Akureyri, including:
- Whale Watching Hauganes: The oldest whale-watching tour operator in Iceland, Hauganes operates two traditional Icelandic oak boats and offers two types of tours—strictly whale-watching and combination whale-watching and angling. On the latter, you’ll have the opportunity to fish for cod, haddock, pollock, catfish and halibut, and the tour company will even fillet your catch for you. Depending on the season, the three-hour tours are available from one to five times each day.
- Ambassador: This company offers standard tours aboard a luxury vessel as well as “extreme” excursions on a high-speed RIB boat—the perfect choice for adrenaline junkies. Tours are available May through October.
- Whale Watching Akureyri: Like the Ambassador, Whale Watching Akureyri offers “classic” tours on a larger vessel and “express” tours on RIB boats, which are smaller vessels that allow sightseers to get closer views of whales and other wildlife. Tours are offered year-round.
Akureyri Church (Akureyrikirkja)
This towering Lutheran church is an iconic symbol of Akureyri. Located in the town center, the building was designed by architect Gudjon Samuelsson and consecrated in 1940. It includes several impressive architectural features, including a stained-glass window from the old Coventry Cathedral in England, which was destroyed in an air raid during World War II.
Made of white Italian marble, the baptismal font is an exact replica of the one in Our Lady’s Church in Copenhagen. The altar piece above the font came from the very first church constructed in Akureyri in 1863; painted by Danish artist Edvard Lehmann, it was gifted to the church in 1867.
Akureyri Swimming Pool
Just behind the church is the Akureyri swimming pool. You might be wondering why a public pool merits mention on a top 10 list of tourist activities, but rest assured that public swimming pools in Iceland are an entirely different experience from your local community pool in the United States.
In addition to two 25-meter outdoor pools, the property boasts an indoor pool, a splash pool, water slides, four hot tubs, a steam bath, a sauna, water jets and more. All of the pools are heated with natural geothermal water, with temperatures ranging from a chilly 41°F to a steamy 110°F. There’s also an expansive outdoor lounge area perfect for sunbathing during summer and playing in the snow during winter.
The price of admission is less than $10 for adults and less than $3 for children, making it an affordable destination for the entire family. And in case you forgot to pack your swimming essentials, the pool even offers a package that includes admission, swimsuit rental and towel rental for less than $20.
Akureyri Botanical Garden
If you happen to be visiting Iceland during the summer months, be sure to make time for a visit to the country’s top botanical garden, Lystigardurinn. Located just 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the park is one of the world’s northernmost botanical gardens and features more than 6,000 varieties of Icelandic, Arctic and international plant life.
The garden is open June 1 through September 30, and admission is free. In addition to the impressive selection of flora, the park features picturesque scenery like shade and sun gardens, fountains, a pond with an arched bridge and rock gardens. There’s also a charming café on-site where you can relax with coffee, dessert or a light lunch.
Laufás Turf Homes
History buffs will enjoy a stop at the Laufás turf homes, which were built in the mid-1800s and remain some of the most well-preserved evidence of how Icelanders lived in centuries past. This former farm site is counted among the National Museum’s Historic Buildings Collection and is managed by the Akureyri Museum
Located on the outskirts of town, the property includes a dozen dwellings built from a combination of timber, stone and turf. They housed as many as 30 people during the farm’s peak as a wealthy vicarage well into the 20th century. The furnishings inside date to around 1900.
Museums and Culture
For such a small town, Akureyri is home to an impressive number of museums and other cultural attractions.
- Hof Cultural and Conference Centre: Opened in 2010, this first-class performing arts center is a stunning place to catch a concert, play or other performance. The site is also home to Akureyri Theatre Company’s drama school for youth ages 9 to 16, and the company performs at Hof as well as the Samkomuhúsið theater and several other locations in town.
- Akureyri Art Museum: The museum opened its doors in 1993 and was the first cultural institution outside Reykjavik to focus exclusively on the visual arts.
- Akureyri Museum: The museum features two permanent exhibitions illustrating the history of the area from settlement to modern day and includes artifacts reflecting the Viking period, Middle Ages, religion and everyday life. Exhibition texts are in English but also offer German and Danish options.
- Akureyri Museum of Industry: This unique attraction celebrates industry in Akureyri during the last century through displays of machinery, products and photos of people at work.
- The Aviation Museum: Tracing the history of aviation in Iceland from the early 20th century to the present day, this museum features photos and text as well as many types of retired aircraft, including the first glider built in Akureyri in 1937.
- The Motorcycle Museum of Iceland: This relatively new 800-square meter facility is dedicated to motorcycles in Iceland over the past 100 years and features bikes from around the world as well as other artifacts and information.
- The Toy Museum at Friðbjarnarhús: This whimsical museum houses a collection of 20th-century toys owned by Guðbjörg Ringsted, including dozens of dolls and toy cars.
Jólagarðurinn (The Christmas Garden)
A 10-minute drive from town center, the exterior of the house at the Christmas Garden looks like something pulled straight from the lyrics of your favorite holiday carol. When you walk in the door of the festive red cottage, you’ll be greeted with a roaring fire and the scents and sounds of the season. There you’ll discover Christmas decorations from all over the world as well as traditional Icelandic Christmas items crafted by local artisans. Climb the stairs to the upper level of the house to see the world’s largest Christmas calendar. The picturesque garden adjacent to the house features tables and benches, making it a lovely place for a picnic lunch.
No matter what time of year it is, you’ll want to be sure to include the Christmas Garden in your stay in Akureyri. After all, this is the closest you’ll probably ever get to the North Pole!
Located along the Eyja Fjord and surrounded by mountains, Akureyri is home to some spectacular scenery, and horseback is an excellent way to experience it.
Horseback tours of various lengths are available, and you don’t need any prior riding experience to thoroughly enjoy the relaxed pace of these sightseeing excursions. Hestaleigan Kátur offers one- to two-hour tours daily year-round for riders of all ages. Saga Travel’s one-hour ride, available May through October, is perfect for beginners and includes complimentary coffee, tea and cake as well as use of the hot tub at the Skjaldarvík Guesthouse.
Skiing at Hlíðarfjall
Located just next door to Akureyri, Hlíðarfjall provides much more reliable snowfall than the southern part of the country, where the lack of snow can mean the local ski resort Bláfjöll is open for only a few days out of an entire season.
In contrast, Hlíðarfjall in the country’s snowy north can offer fantastic skiing almost half the year. The resort is equipped with seven ski lifts and 23 alpine slopes, with the longest trail clocking in at more than a mile long. All of the main runs are floodlit to allow skiers to stay on the slopes well past sunset. Two on-site cafeterias keep skiers fueled with hot and cold foods, soups and desserts.
Day passes run around $45 for adults and $15 for children, with equipment rental available for an additional fee.
Downtown Akureyri is the pulse of the city, packed with a wide variety of cafés, restaurants and shops. Here, you can sample nearly any kind of cuisine, from traditional Icelandic fare to sushi featuring freshly-caught local fish. Many pubs and restaurants also feature live music on various nights of the week, providing an additional taste of regional culture.
- Hafnarstræti, the street where you’ll find the highest density of shops, runs from Town Hall Square to Hótel Kea. Peruse the boutiques for casual wear, high fashion and everything in between, as well as books, music, art and souvenirs. It’s also a prime people-watching location.
- Ráðhústorg, Akureyri’s main square, is an ideal location for relaxing in a coffeehouse or browsing an art gallery, or catch a movie at the local cinema.
- Serious shoppers will want to head to Glerártorg, the upscale mall located a short walk from the town center. Built in the year 2000, the mall is home to dozens of shops and restaurants, a supermarket and much more.
Bonus: Northern Lights
Of course, no visit to any part of Iceland would be complete without an attempt to catch the stunning aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. Given its relatively small population and minimal light pollution, Akureyri is as good a place as any for a sighting. However, this is one activity that’s best saved for the winter months, since Akureyri’s location near the Arctic Circle means almost constant daylight during the summer but very long nights in winter.
While it may not be quite as popular with tourists as capital city Reykjavik, Akureyri definitely deserves a spot on the list of must-see destinations in Iceland. If you’ve visited any of the places in this article—or have other suggestions for visitors to the town—be sure to let us know in the comments.
We passed through Akureyri on Day 5 of our Iceland journey.