Many visitors to Iceland fly into Reykjavik, do the Golden Circle tour and stick around the southwestern corner of the country. And, indeed if you’re only here for a few days, there’s more than enough to see and do in this region to fill a short trip. But, if you do have a little longer, you may well want to venture further afield than the capital and its surroundings and head out into the wilds to explore the little-visited region of northern Iceland.
So, first things first: is northern Iceland worth visiting? Well, if you like snow-capped mountains, fjords dotted with tiny fishing villages, gushing waterfalls, thermal hot pools, great hikes and miles and miles of awe-inspiring scenery – then yes, it certainly is.
With its indented coastline, undulating rural landscapes, lakes, gorges and volcanic craters, many people consider the north to be the most beautiful part of Iceland.
It’s also the closest part of the country to the Arctic Circle – and with a very small population and few settlements to cause light pollution, northern Iceland is a great place to see the northern lights. From late-September to late-March, you’ve got a good chance of catching this amazing light show in the north.
There’s no shortage of nature and history to explore in this beautiful region, so we’ve picked some of the best things to see and do in northern Iceland.
Check out the waterfalls
Claiming to be Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettisfoss certainly is an impressive sight, with 500 cubic metres of water plunging over its edge every second. Fed by meltwater from Europe’s largest glacier, it’s about 100m wide and the water thunders down some 50m when it’s in full spate.
You can get there along a beautiful 34km hiking path which runs alongside a canyon in the Vatnajökull National Park – or, if you’re visiting in summer, simply drive there. In winter the road is often unpassable, though, and you’ll definitely need a 4WD.
And if that’s not enough thundering water for you, Goðafoss (meaning “waterfall of the Gods”) is another spectacular horseshoe-shaped waterfall in northern Iceland. Fed by Iceland’s fourth largest river, Goðafoss is easily visited all year-round – though again you’ll need a 4WD in winter.
If you don’t like the idea of driving yourself, there’s the option of a private jeep tour that will take you to both Dettifoss and Goðafoss waterfalls.
Visit the hot pots at Hverir
The Hverir geothermal area is an other-worldly region of bubbling mud pots and steaming fumaroles. Cracks and fissures criss-cross the orangey-red landscape, belching out steam and a potent smell of sulphur. Watch where you step – and be prepared for the smell!
Drive the Arctic Coast Way
One of the best ways of exploring northern Iceland is to drive the Arctic Coast Way. This 900km route winds along the fjords of the northern coast from Hvammstangi to Bakkafjörður, passing pretty fishing villages, sandy beaches, craggy inlets and dramatic basalt rock formations.
You can stop off en route to go hiking, seal-spotting, whale-watching, horse-riding, bathing in hot pools and even Arctic surfing. And because the route is so close to the Arctic Circle, you get great views of the midnight sun in summer and the northern lights in winter.
Enjoy the bright lights of Akureyi
And if all this wilderness and nature is getting to you, you may want to explore the town of Akureyi, which sits in a picturesque location at the bottom of the Eyjafjörður, one of Iceland’s longest fjords.
It may be Iceland’s second largest city, but with a population of just 20,000 it’s a laid-back, low-key place that makes a good base from which to explore the rest of northern Iceland. It’s a five-hour drive from Reykjavik, with direct international flights from some European cities, including London, at certain times of the year.
Visit the volcanic Lake Mývatn
Check out the beautiful Lake Mývatn surrounded by volcanic landscapes and home to a huge variety of birdlife, including geese, owls, ptarmigan, gulls, ducks and snipe. Look out over the lake from the Mývatn Nature baths, where you can swim in natural mineral-rich waters of around 36–40C – or simply lie back in the warmth and admire the views.
Have a beer spa
If it’s not enough to bathe in natural mineral waters, Bjórböðin, on the western side of the Eyjafjörður, has wooden tubs where you can lie back in a bath filled with beer. The mixture of beer, yeast, hops and water is rich in vitamin B and antioxidants, and relaxing in it is supposed to be good for the skin and hair.
You can’t drink the bath water, but each tub comes with own private draught beer pump, where you can help yourself to a brew. And, you can always take a dip in the outside hot tubs afterwards – though these are just filled with plain water!
Go whale-watching in Husavik
The north coast town of Husavik is known as Europe’s whale-watching capital – and indeed, there are plenty of boat trips leaving from here on whale safaris.
The waters around Husavik are rich in sea mammals, with minke whales, harbour porpoises and dolphins often seen, while migrating humpback whales visit these waters too at certain times of the year. This whale safari cruises round Skjálfandi Bay on a traditional wooden Icelandic fishing boat in search of whales, dolphins and sea birds.
Get “Trapped” in Siglufjörður
Fans of Icelandic crime drama Trapped will want to visit the pretty coastal town of Siglufjörður, tucked alongside a long fjord overlooked by glowering mountains. You can even stay here in the upmarket Siglo Hotel, which featured prominently in scenes from the drama.