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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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
featuring natural ice sculptures, can only be visited on a tour due to safety
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.
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.