In this magical region where the Arctic Circle is just a stone’s throw away, you may feel that you’re at the end of the world. Remote as it is, North Iceland offers endless natural marvels for explorers to discover. Its landscapes are filled with snowy mountain peaks, idyllic fjord-side partures, thrilling canyons and waterfalls, steaming volcanic areas, and its waters are teeming with seals, dolphins, and whales.
The sparsely populated area is home to about 40,000 people and even more horses and sheep. The capital of North Iceland is Akureyri, a charming little town that was awarded the illustrious title “The Best Place to Visit in Europe” by the Lonely Planet in 2015.
In this article, you’ll learn how North Iceland’s weather is different than in the south. You’ll also learn briefly about the geology and history of the region and what activities are available to do.
How to Get Around in North Iceland
North Iceland, known as “Nordurland” in Icelandic, is easily accessible from Reykjavik. There is only one road that leads there: the one that circles the country, the Ring Road. The drive to Akureyri takes at least 5 hours without any stops, but since you’ll probably take plenty of photo stops along the way, the journey could easily take a whole day. The route leading to North Iceland is packed with wonderful attractions that it would be a mistake to drive by!
To explore North Iceland, you’ll need at least three days. If you’d like to make a lot of stops and spend less time in the vehicle, plan to spend 4–5 days here. Driving a rental car, a campervan, a motorhome, or joining a guided multi-day tour are all great ways to explore this wonderful region.
Exploring North Iceland on public transportation isn’t really a good option. Public buses to Akureyri run only once a day and they don’t make any stops outside of the popular areas where most of the natural attractions are located. There is an exception, though. This is the Highland bus that runs only in the summer (between late June and August) and takes the Kjölur route, crossing the Icelandic Highlands.
This bus makes plenty of stops along the way, visiting Gullfoss Waterfall, the Geysir Geothermal Area in Haukadalur, the Kerlingafjöll mountains, and the Hveravellir Nature Reserve. But once you’re in Akureyri, you’ll need to rent a car or join a guided tour to explore the region.
Since public transport isn’t really a possibility, guided group tours are generally the best option. These can be more affordable than the local buses. The bonus is that they stop at the most gorgeous locations while giving you all the fun facts and information that you could want in English. The greatest advantage of guided tours is that meals and accommodation are included, so you won’t have to hassle with planning your itinerary and booking your accommodation.
North Iceland tours depart from Reykjavik with the shortest of these tours lasting 3 days. You can also book an “around Iceland” tour that will take you around the entire island in 6–14 days. When choosing the length of the tour, keep in mind that the longer tours offer you more time to explore the area as a whole and each location in particular.
Of course, you always have the option of planning your own trip. For an unguided tour, you’d have to rent your own vehicle and travel around North Iceland on your own. While it definitely requires planning, it’s not impossible. And luckily for you, we’re here to help you make the perfect plan! To start, you’ll need a minimum of 3–4 days to travel from Reykjavík to North Iceland and back. Keep in mind that the longer you stay in the north, the more you’ll see, and the more memorable the experience will be.
You can also join some guided activity tours once you’re there. There are, for example, fantastic whale watching tours from Akureyri, Húsavík, and Dalvík. You can try other exciting activities like horseback riding and Superjeep tours. From Akureyri, there are organized group tours, day tours, and multi-day trekking tours that will take you into the Highlands area. Ask for recommendations at the tourist info centers, guesthouses, or other tourist service facilities.
North Iceland is sparsely populated. There are some small villages, but don’t expect too many options when it comes to restaurants or supermarkets. The largest town is Akureyri, which is the second-largest city outside of the capital area. Here, you’ll find plenty of cafés, restaurants, supermarkets, and vibrant city life – according to Icelandic standards of course.
The more famous smaller towns are Dalvík, Húsavík, Varmahlyd, and Sigglufjordur. These places also offer a few restaurants, cafés, and small grocery stores as well as guesthouses and country hotels. The accommodation options in the countryside are relatively limited, so it’s best to book everything in advance.
The main road is in good condition and is easily driveable, but some smaller roads in the fjords can be challenging to drive on in winter. While Iceland’s Ring Road is maintained all year round, the conditions can change quickly in the winter and even the main road can be closed for short periods of time.
If you’d like to explore North Iceland in the months between November and April, we’d recommend renting a four-wheel drive car. Inexperienced drivers who aren’t used to wintry conditions should join a guided tour instead of renting a car. In the summer, however, you should have no problem driving around North Iceland in any type of car, as long as you stay on the paved roads. Approaching the north via the Highlands will require a four-wheel drive car.
The Weather in North Iceland
Since it’s located closer to the Arctic Circle, the weather in the north is a little bit colder than in the other populated areas in the country. Compared to South or West Iceland, the average temperatures are slightly cooler. Spring begins later and winter will start sooner in the north than around the capital. You need to keep this in mind, especially if you’re planning on having a self-planned holiday. In this article, you can learn more about Iceland’s weather by month.
The good news, however, is that this is the sunniest and driest region in the country. There are fewer clouds and less precipitation, making North Iceland an excellent travel destination all year long. In the summer, although a bit colder, you’ll love it for the sunny weather. The days are longer than in the rest of the country and – unlike in the south – you can even observe the real midnight sun from here!
In the winter, the days can be as short as three hours while the nights are long and pitch black. Statistically, this is the region where you have the best chance for clear skies during the winter, making it the ideal destination for Northern Lights watching.
Geology and Nature
Iceland began to form more than 100 million years after the European continent. The island began to form around 26–44 million years ago. Since it’s located directly on top of a geological hotspot, Iceland is known for its volcanic activity and geothermal heat, features which North Iceland also has. You can even see the boundaries between the two tectonic plates, the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate, in Northeastern Iceland.
An active volcanic zone, part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, splits North Iceland in two. The fissure runs in a north-south direction and has created a volcanic system in this region. Lava eruptions, silicic and rhyolite rocks, and high-temperature geothermal fields concentrate in two central volcanoes: Krafla in the North and Askja in the Eastern Highlands.
The Krafla-Námafjall fissure, located in the Myvatn area, has erupted numerous times over the centuries, forming the dramatic landscape. Lake Mývatn has a wide range of geological beauties surrounding it, including geysers, pseudo-craters, and lava fields. You can also find many active volcanoes in the North, the most famous of which are Krafla, Kverkfjöll, and Hverfjall.
The Mývatn Fires took place in Iceland between 1724–1729. This was the most famous eruption in this area, which happened when many different fissure vents opened simultaneously. A lava flow destroyed three farms near Reykjahlíð and there were visible fountains of lava in South Iceland. Luckily, no one was harmed during this event.
One of the largest eruptions in modern Icelandic history took place in December 1975. This was the most recent eruption of the volcano, which lasted almost nine years. The Krafla volcanic system erupted nine times over this nine-year period, with several pauses in between eruptions. Now known as the “Fires of Krafla,” this eruption resulted in a lava field that measures 36 km2 (13.9 sq. mi.). If you’re not a volcanologist and would like some context, the 2014–2015 Holuhraun eruption, north of Vatnajökull glacier, produced a lava field that is 85 km2 (32 sq. mi.) in size.
Although there hasn’t been an eruption since 1984, there is still a high-temperature geothermal field within the crater. Magma has been proven to be present only 2.1 km (1.3 mi.) below the surface and is responsible for the strong volcanic activity in the area.
The nearby communities harvest this geothermal power. A power station provides them with electricity as well as hot water, which is used for heating their homes and swimming pools. The famous Myvatn Nature Baths, the northern counterpart of the Blue Lagoon, are also a result of this geothermal activity.
Other than the volcanoes, the region also features fantastic mountains, many of which remain snowy all year round. In fact, the mountainous Highlands of central North Iceland even hold a few small cirque glaciers and rock glaciers. These tall mountains are located on the Tröllaskagi Peninsula, which is a beloved ski destination in winter and a fantastic hiking area in summer.
North Iceland’s outstandingly varied geological features originate from a complex interaction between volcanoes, glaciers, glacial rivers, lakes, and the fluctuating sea levels. The landscape is entirely different from what you can see in the south, on the east, or even in the Westfjords.
Things to See in North Iceland
Since it’s a huge region, Northern Iceland is divided into two areas: the Northeast and the Northwest. The Northwest is more popular and more frequently visited as this lies on the way between Akureyri and Reykjavík, the two largest and most famous cities in the country.
The northeast is, sadly, very much underrated, although it offers equally stunning beauties as the western part. We highly recommend visiting both areas. If you are planning to explore this region, make sure to take plenty of detours from the main road and follow the fjord-side roads to the most remote areas. We wrote a whole separate article to introduce each of the must-see attractions in North Iceland to help you plan your trip!
Things to Do in North Iceland
As with anywhere in Iceland, traveling extensively is the best thing you can do in the north. Regardless of whether you drive yourself or join a tour, explore as much as you can in the region.
From Reykjavík, follow the Ring Road northwards and take detours to visit the peninsulas we’ve listed above. Believe us, these detours are worth taking! Stop in every village you can. Have a cup of coffee, visit a historical site, take a walk in the harbor, listen to the birds, and breathe in the crisp Arctic air. Don’t forget to try some local specialties and have a chat with the locals while soaking in the geothermal pool!
In summer, it’s very easy and completely safe to drive in North Iceland. Despite their remoteness, even the smallest villages are prepared for tourists and welcome visitors warmly.
In winter, some roads may be inaccessible or difficult to drive, but it’s always possible to get to Akureyri. The Ring Road never remains closed for longer than a few hours when the weather is very bad, but even that doesn’t happen every week.
For a winter trip, make sure you check the conditions often and that you have a suitable car. If you’re not experienced at driving in winter, just book a guided tour and you’ll be in good hands with the locals.
Kayaking or Sailing
Exploring the fjords from the water is an activity we can highly recommend. The fjords offer calm water that is generally very safe to paddle around, especially for experienced kayakers. Beginners can book guided kayak and boat tours, which are offered in a number of villages. When choosing your boat tour, you’ll have the option of going to the Arctic Circle and some of the remote islands as well. When you leave the mainland, you’ll have a great opportunity to see sea animals, such as whales, dolphins, and seals!
North Iceland is ultimately the best region in the whole country for whale watching. There are tours from Reykjavík and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, too, but the success rate is by far the highest in the north. The chances of spotting a whale exceed 98–99% in the summer, which is why most companies offer a refund guarantee or a free trip if you don’t see any whales during your trip.
More than 20 cetacean species frequent the waters around Iceland, eight of which are seen quite often on whale watching tours in the north. You’re most likely to see humpback whales (the friendliest and most curious of all), white-beaked dolphins, and harbor porpoises. Minke and pilot whales aren’t uncommon, either, while the majestic blue whales are shyer but still show up once or twice each season.
Whale watching tours keep operating during the winter, but with a somewhat lower success rate. Whales are seen on about 90–95% of tours during the winter. Whale watching in Iceland arose as an alternative to whale hunting and luckily, companies found it more profitable to show the whales to visitors instead of hunting them. “Meet us, don’t eat us!” is the motto in support of the whale watching industry in Iceland.
Soaking in a Geothermal Pool
North Iceland has one of the most scenic geothermal pools that you can find in the country. The legendary GeoSea Baths may have the best view, though, since they’re located on a high cliff in Húsavík. It has a perfect view over the North Atlantic Ocean, making it an ideal place to watch the midnight sun, witness the Northern Lights, or just admire the mind-blowing view.
Another highly scenic pool is located in Hosfós. Although it’s less luxurious, the view is just as beautiful as at the GeoSea Baths. We can’t decide which one is better. Try to visit them both and leave us a comment to let us know which you liked more!
North Iceland is a great destination for hikers and nature lovers. There are some wonderful trails in the Myvatn and Krafla area, in the mountains near Akureyri, and around the cliffs in the peninsulas. The best hiking destination in the region is probably Asbyrgi Canyon.
A number of hiking paths crisscross the thick, little forest running between the giant walls. A tiny, picturesque pond lies at the foot of the 100-m (328-ft) high wall at the end of the trails. The water is turquoise and green. Ducks and chicks peacefully float on its surface.
The acoustics are very special here. The sounds of bird chatter are magnified and hikers whisper so as not to disturb the peace of nature. You can take another route and hike up to the top of the walls and look down the canyon from the top. Exploring this unique area will help you understand why Icelanders started to believe in elves centuries ago.
Watch the Midnight Sun or the Northern Lights
Whether you visit the region in summer or in winter, the north is the best place to maximize your chances of seeing one of these two fantastic phenomena. The Northern Lights can appear in the sky from late August until late March and North Iceland is absolutely the best region in the country to see the show. This is because the weather is statistically clearer and less cloudy than in the southern areas and the nights are longer as well. In this article, we’ve listed the conditions you need for a successful aurora hunt and supplied some tips to maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
Due to its closer proximity to the Arctic Circle, the northern region is also ideal for watching the neverending sunset between June and July. In the strictest sense, the midnight sun can’t be seen from Reykjavík or the south and is only visible in a few specific places in North Iceland. In this article, we explain why this is and have made a handy list of where and when you can watch the midnight sun.