Often overlooked for the popular sites of the Golden Circle and Southern coast, the sparsely populated northern region of Iceland offers dramatic vistas, austere landscapes and a magic all its own. Here are 20 things you must see in northern Iceland as you point your compass north.
For the purposes of this post, we are referring to the northern half of Iceland, as shown in the following Google map.
WHAT TO SEE:
1) Hraunfossar – Waterfall
While not the largest, these unique falls pour from porous lava rock. This series of falls will whet your appetite for more waterfalls in the coming days. There are easy footpaths that take you to several vantage points allowing you to capture the falls in all their splendor.
2) Gerðuberg – Basalt Column Wall
Down a tiny road off the highway, you will find the Gerðuberg Basalt Column Wall rising up out of the ground next to an unassuming farm. These black cliffs with their octagonal organ pipe formations are a great photo opportunity and a geologist’s dream.
3) Búðakirkja – Black Church
This tiny village on the southern coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula features a picture perfect church, unique in its jet-black color. Sitting starkly against a grass covered lava field, the Búðakirkja (Budir church), was originally built on the site in 1703 and later reconstructed in 1987. The church grounds hold a historic graveyard as well as the bell from the original church. There are hiking trails leading from the church grounds into the fairyland of nooks among the green lava fields.
4) Arnarstapi and Lóndrangar Cliffs
The exceptionally dramatic southern coastline of the Snaefellsnes peninsula is filled with soaring archways, sheer cliffs, and powerful blowholes. Arnarstapi itself features a beautiful natural harbor. There is an easy 2-mile hike between Arnarstapi and Hellnar that hugs the coastline and offers breathtaking views of the crashing waves, basalt cliffs and soaring seabirds. A little south of Hellnar, you will find the jagged Lóndrangar cliffs dramatically silhouetted against the sky. Puffins nest upon these ancient basalt volcanic plugs.
5) Hólahólar – Volcano Crater
A short drive from Londrangar Cliffs, this small crater gives you stunning, 360-degree views. And a great vantage point to photograph the nearby mountain range. From far away, the crater appears tiny, but once you’re on top and see people walking around the rim, it seems huge and the people like ants. Considering how close this location is from the highway, it’s a no-brainer to stop here and walk up the convenient metal staircase to the top.
6) Kirkjufell Mountain
Easily the most photographed mountain in all of Iceland, Kirkjufell (Church Mountain in English) is a 1,519 foot (463 meters) mountain along the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Beautiful in every season, day or night, Instagram and Pinterest are filled with its stunning image. Be sure to cross over the bridge to get the iconic photo of the falls in front of the mountain.
7) Stykkishólmur – Town
The largest town in the Snaefellsnes peninsula, features a picturesque harbor, historic houses, an iconic church, bright orange lighthouse and charming restaurants. Many people are familiar with the town from its starring role in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
8) Dynjandi Falls
Photo: Jennifer Boyer (Flickr)
This beautiful waterfall cascades elegantly down a cliff side as if a white cape has been draped upon it. There are smaller falls just below. It is a little off the beaten path, but if you have the time, it’s worth visiting.
9) Hvítserkur – Rock Formation
Rising 50 feet (15 meters) from the sea and located on the remote northwestern coast of the Vatnsnes peninsula, Hvitserkur resembles a dragon or elephant drinking from the sea. The name itself translates to white shirt due to the fact that it is covered with the white Cormorant guano. I tend to like the local legend that Hvitserkur is actually a troll that was turned to stone when he failed to hide at sunrise. Any way you look at it, Hvitserkur is lovely at sunrise or in the setting sun.
10) Glaumbær – Turf Houses
These charming turf houses are worth seeing. Even if just for 30 minutes to snap a few photos. We visited in low season so many of the services (shops, cafes) were closed for the winter. These sturdy and cozy structures give you a great idea of how traditional homes were built using resources available to early inhabitants.
11) Goðafoss – Waterfall
Another of the spectacular and iconic Icelandic waterfalls, Goðafoss is located just meters off the Ring Road #1. Water from the Skjálfandafljót river falls from a height of 12 meters. The powerful falls are over 30 meters across. There are two access points, to the right you can view the falls by scrambling over rocky terrain for an up-close, mist soaked view, or you can drive just past the tourist gift shop and restaurant to approach the falls from the left. At the end of a paved walking path, you will find a stunning vantage point above the falls, with a railing to keep visitors a safe distance from the rumbling water.
Goðafoss features in the religious history of Iceland. In the year 1000, the Icelandic leader Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði threw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall, this making Christianity the official religion of Iceland.
12) Lake Mývatn
Weird, wonderful and filled with wildlife, Mývatn Lake was formed during a massive eruption 2300 years ago. Today the area is best known for its fantastical volcanic landscape, the multitude of birdlife that visits during the spring and summer and for being the location of several key scenes in Season 3 of Game of Thrones. If you visit during the summer be forewarned the name “Mývatn” is derived from the vast numbers of midges that gather around the lake. There are several good restaurants and lodging options near the lake which make it a great base for exploring the surrounding splendors.
13) Grjotagja Cave
Climb inside this lava cave to discover a steamy thermal pool heated by a volcanic spring. Once used as a bathing spot for locals needing a warm dip during the frigid winters, in the 1970’s nearby volcanic activity caused temperatures to rise to dangerous levels. You can still visit the cave and enjoy its mystical beauty, just don’t plan on taking a dip unless you fancy a cooked lobster experience.
14) Dettifoss – Waterfall
The largest waterfall in volume in all of Europe, this mind-blowing waterfall is 45 meters high and over 100 meters wide. Over 500 cubic meters of water plunges over the edge per second. The grayish-white falls get their color from the sediment filled melt-water of the nearby Vatnajökull glacier. There are several easy hiking trails that allow you to view the falls from both above and below. Just be prepared to get wet from the thundering spray.
15) Asbyrgi Canyon
Photo: Javier Rodríguez (Flickr)
Part of the Jokulsargljufur National Park, Asbyrgi canyon is 3 1/2 kilometers long with canyon walls as high as 100 meters, making it a stunning natural wonder.
According to legend, the canyon gets is unusual shape from the hoof print of Odin, a Viking pagan god.
During offseason, the park receives very few visitors and the easy hiking trails are deserted, making for a magical and quiet exploration. A perfect location for the capital of the mythical “hidden people” (huldufolk), who live in cracks within the surrounding cliffs.
The most dramatic photos of this canyon can be taken from the top edge of the cliffs.
16) Hljóðaklettar – Lava Formation Landscape
A wondrous landscape full of geometrically shaped lava flow formations. The area features moderately challenging hiking trails over the hardened lava rocks that wind through giant pillars of stone. It’s worth hiking here for at least an hour, just to experience another magical and otherworldly environment so typical of Iceland. Keep in mind that in you’ll need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get here, especially in the spring and fall when the snow and ice cover the landscape.
17) Hverir – Geothermal Pools
Stop here to see the geothermal pools and steam vents. The red color of the nearby hills makes for great photos, especially when set against a blue sky. The boiling thermal pools bubble up at the surface and steam pours out of thermal vents like an old locomotive. It’s fascinating to get up close to the raw power escaping from the underworld. Prepare yourself for a strong sulfur smell, which can be overpowering depending upon the direction of the wind.
18) Dimmuborgir – Lava Formation Landscape
These black lava formations including pillars, arches, and caves are the result of a 2000-year-old lava flow. Easy walking trails guide you through spectacular landscapes. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand why local folklore has it that this is a troll fortress. During the winter holidays, the area comes alive with troll-themed celebrations.
19) Hverfjall – Volcano Crater
Formed over 2500 years ago, Hverfjall is an almost perfectly symmetrical crater that rises 463 meters high and measures 1040 meters across. Made of black basalt, those willing to hike up the sandy and windswept trail to the top of the crater are rewarded with a spectacular view of the inside of the crate and the surrounding volcanic landscape. The monotone black sand across the crater expanse, gale force winds and few visitors create a very otherworldly experience (check out the video below).
20) Akureyri – Town
Photo: dconvertini (Flickr)
The second largest city in Iceland, Akureyri is the capital of the north and features a cute downtown, great restaurants, and a bustling harbor. This colorful city is popular with visitors for its close proximity to skiing and most of the famous sites in the northern part of the country. The heart-shaped traffic lights bring a smile to your face and add to the city’s friendly vibe.
Tip: Akureyri has a quirky parking policy. Parking is free as no meters exist. Instead, you must get a parking clock at one of the local merchants, banks or gas stations. When you park you put the clock on your dashboard and set it for the current time. Be sure to look at the signs showing the time limit for your spot which are in 15/30/60/120 minute increments. Instead of feeding the meter when your time runs out, you simply reset your clock. Police patrol the parking spots reviewing the dashboard clocks and do issue tickets if you forget.
21) Bonus: Icelandic Horses
While driving across northern Iceland, you’ll likely see some Icelandic horses behind the fences along the highway. Their long, wavy manes, furry coats and friendly disposition tend to attract crowds. It’s a great opportunity to pull over and take some photos.
WHERE TO STAY
Northern Iceland features a number of boutique hotels. You won’t find the large chains with hundreds of rooms outside of Reykjavik or Akureyri, so it is best to book far ahead to avoid being left without accommodation.
One of the most luxurious and romantic hotels in Iceland, with a spectacular view from every room. And if you want to be pampered and enjoy some serious culinary delights, Hotel Budir is the spot. This property fills up quickly, so reserve early.
A new and charming hotel with exceptional views of the coast. This hotel has comfortable rooms and a great restaurant.
Nice location within walking distance to downtown. This hotel features very modern and comfortable, if not small, rooms. The breakfast included with your room is expansive and a nice surprise, given the very affordable room rates.
Lake Mývatn area:
New, modern and comfortable rooms. Its location just outside of town allows for excellent Northern Lights viewing. The reception desk will provide wake-up call service when the Lights appear.
One of the newest hotels in Reykjavik and located in the heart of the city. The rooms in this gorgeous, industrial inspired hotel are stylish, modern and extremely comfortable. The beds and linens created an irresistible cocoon. The spacious bathrooms and high-end toiletries lead to long showers. The hotel features outdoor patios, a complimentary happy hour and a deliciously expansive breakfast.
The top floor offers gorgeous view rooms, each one unique in its layout and theme. The staff is friendly and the bar is one of the best in Reykjavik. Located on Hlemmer Square it is a bit of a walk to the main part of the city. Parking can be tricky, but the fun and cozy rooms make up for the frustration.
WHERE TO EAT
This is a total splurge but worth the cost. The restaurant is dedicated to featuring the very best from the Icelandic sea, land, and air. The creative menu is filled with delicious surprises and the space is filled with warm woods styled with a modern flair.
It’s a unique experience to dine while watching cows being milked. That is what you get with the Vogafjos Cowshed restaurant. The menu features local delicacies such as trout, skyr and yes, beef. The portions are large and the service is friendly. This is a good option for breakfast or lunch because when else will you have an opportunity to eat among the cows.
After a day of hiking and exploring the Mývatn Lake area, nothing sounds better than a hot pizza and cold Icelandic beer. Daddi’s Pizza is an unassuming little spot just off the main road #848. They feature creative pizza toppings such as local smoked trout, cream cheese, and pine nuts or more traditional options like sausage and mushroom. The tiny spot is a local favorite and makes for a great way to end the day.
WHAT TO BRING AND WEAR
Iceland has the purest water in the world. There is no need to spend money on bottled water when the stuff coming out of the taps is just as pure if not better. A reusable water bottle will save you tons of money and keep you hydrated while driving between sites or while on your outdoor excursions. Why not choose one in stunning blue with a comfortable handle to hold while hiking?
Wind/rain resistant shell and pants
Keeping your feet and ankles toasty can be accomplished with a warm and comfortable pair of socks.
Any time of the year is good for long underwear in Iceland. In the deep winter, a pair of soft merino wool long underwear fits the bill, and in the spring a lighter pair of silk long underwear is perfect for layering
There are so many cute and warm leggings or tights available in the marketplace. Paired with an Icelandic sweater, these allow you to be stylish, warm and comfy as you explore the best Iceland has to offer.
Don’t forget about keeping your hands warm. Since you will be gripping onto handrails and rocks as you hike among the waterfalls, gloves work much better than mittens. Looks for a pair that is thick, wind resistant and waterproof.
Northern Iceland is truly a magical and remarkable place. When you travel there, please share your experiences and photos!