Iceland’s feisty capital of the north

Nestled at the head of the country’s longest fjord, Akureyri’s gourmet restaurants, unique art galleries and late-night bustle set it apart from other towns in rural Iceland.

Over the last few years, Iceland has been carving itself a niche in the collective global conscience, thanks to plane-halting volcanoes with unpronounceable names, a collapsed banking system and kooky musicians achieving chart success. It is the setting for those stunning wintry scenes in the cult TV series Game of Thrones, and in March 2013 Iceland was named the most welcoming country, besting 140 others.

That is a lot of exposure (and a lot of love) for an under-populated country marooned near the top of the globe. But beyond the southern capital of Reykjavík, home to nearly two-thirds of the country’s tiny 320,000 person population, many visitors would be hard-pressed to name another Icelandic town.

Some 390km northeast of Reykjavík is Akureyri, Iceland’s second “city” and the unofficial capital of the north, with a grand population of around 18,000. It is a popular stop for travellers driving Iceland's Ring Road (Route 1, which loops the country), and despite its diminutive size Akureyri offers unexpected moments of big-city living, complete with gourmet restaurants, a handful of art galleries and something of a late-night bustle – a far cry from other towns in rural Iceland.

City treats
Akureyri is nestled at the head of Iceland's longest fjord, the 60km Eyjafjörður, which sits at the base of snowcapped peaks. Trees and well-tended gardens belie the location, just 100km south of the Arctic Circle.

Dominating the town from its hilltop position is Akureyri's church, Akureyrarkirkja. It was consecrated in 1940 and designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, the same architect responsible for Reykjavík's landmark Hallgrímskirkja church. The exterior looks like a stylised 1920s US skyscraper, while inside is a large 3,200-pipe organ and a series of rather untraditional reliefs of the life of Christ.  

About 500m south, the wealth of plant life on display in Lystigarðurinn, the world’s most northerly botanical garden, is astonishing considering its latitude. On the edge of the gardens, Scandi-chic Café Björk offers a lunch buffet of soups and salads, and many visitors amble down Spitalavegur street to reach unassuming Brynja, known across Iceland for some of the best ice cream in the country (the soft serve treat is made with milk, not cream; go classic with vanilla, chocolate dip and your choice of nuts or candy sprinkles).  

Alfresco cafe tables and souvenir shops line the pedestrian shopping strip, Hafnarstræti, located in the centre of town. An obligatory replica troll and a stuffed polar bear provide cheesy photo ops for willing tourists, but there are authentic treasures to be found as well. At the Fold Anna store (Hafnarstræti 100; 461-4120) staff can be seen knitting lopapeysur (traditional Icelandic woollen sweaters). Bumper bookstore Eymundsson stocks great pictorial tomes, while Geysir sells beautiful, locally-designed clothing, strong on the folk motif.

You will find many of the town's most impressive dining and nightlife options on Hafnarstræti and surrounding streets. Bláa Kannan (the Blue Teapot) offers a cornucopia of cakes and lunchtime offerings such as paninis, bagels and a soup-and-salad buffet. A fjord panorama accompanies a menu of prime local produce at fifth-floor Strikið – anything featuring langoustine or lamb is a winner, but more unusual native offerings include whale meat and guillemot, a gamey-tasting seabird; finish with dessert made from skyr, a delicious Icelandic yoghurt. At sleek RUB23, you choose a protein (tip: opt for local fish or lamb), then pick one of 11 rubs or marinades to flavour your food.

For inclement weather, Akureyri has quality museums covering the expected (history, art, the preserved homes of local writers) and the unexpected (antique toys, motorbikes, aviation). Or you can adopt the local attitude that no weather is too bleak for a soak in a hot-pot (outdoor hot tub). Thanks to Iceland's abundance of geothermal heat, swimming is a national institution. Follow the locals to Sundlaug Akureyrar on Þingvallastræti where there are three heated swimming pools, hot-pots, waterslides and saunas.

If you are lured by the idea of horse riding in the surrounding splendour, a handful of farms can get you in the saddle for anything from an hour-long trot to a week-long wilderness adventure. A favourite option is Ride and Bite offered by Skjaldarvik, a peerless guesthouse about 6km north of town. Participants can enjoy a leisurely late-afternoon ride along the fjord's edge and into the surrounding hills, followed by a soak in the guesthouse's hot-pot plus a two-course dinner in the pretty onsite restaurant. They prepare a small, but well-executed menu using home-grown herbs and vegetables, and local fish and meat.

Activities around Akureyri
Seasonal delights include golf under the midnight sun at Jaðarsvöllur, the world's northernmost 18-hole course on the southwestern outskirts of Akureyri, or taking to the pistes at Hlíðarfjall, Iceland's premier downhill ski slope about 7km west of town. The ski season usually runs between December and late April, with the best conditions in February and March.

With your own set of wheels there are a number of excellent day-trip adventures to be had. The region largely makes its living from fishing and agriculture, and the network of sleepy villages is home to great diversions (natural and manmade) for travellers with time up their sleeves. Check out the geological wonderland of Lake Mývatn, an area 100km east of Akureyri with volcanic craters, lava fields and belching mudpots; boat tours from Húsavík, Iceland's whale-watching capital 92km northeast of Akureyri; and ferries to offshore islands, including remote, bird-filled Grímsey on the Arctic Circle.

As well as providing transport to these popular destinations, Saga Travel runs tours focused on local food or art and design, putting you in touch with small  businesses (a microbrewery and mussel farm, for example) that are not open to the general public. The company can also arrange tours by horse, motorbike, all-terrain bike or snowmobile. It is a good idea to make use of operators' travel-hardened 4WDs and experienced local guides if you want to explore some of the more remote geological features or interior highlands. A number of sights – such as the immense Askja caldera – are strictly inaccessible to regular 2WD cars, while the lava cave Lofthellir, featuring natural ice sculptures, can only be visited on a tour due to safety regulations.

Practicalities
The 390km route from Reykjavík to Akureyri along Route 1 takes about 4.5 hours by car, while buses regularly link the two cities in around six hours. Too slow? Air Iceland covers the distance a few times a day in about 45 minutes.

Akureyri's accommodation scene has undergone a transformation in recent years, with a slew of new, high-quality options at every price level. That said, the town fills up in summer, so book ahead.

Akureyri is also surrounded by excellent rural farmstay properties, although you will need your own car for these. The Akureyri tourist office website lists practically all options in the area.