15 Best Things To Do In Northern Iceland & Places to Visit

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Ring road in summer of Iceland

When most people visit Iceland, they stay in Reykjavik and explore the southern coast. Iceland’s southern coast is more accessible year-round, so it makes sense that this would be a much more popular area.

The south coast gives you a wonderful snapshot of Iceland, especially if you only visit for a few days. If you have the chance to stay in Iceland for at least a week, though, then exploring north Iceland should be high on your list.

As you make your way along the famous Ring Road, you’ll discover all of the hidden gems northern Iceland has to offer. From its pristine, untouched nature to its historical landmarks and charming villages, North Iceland is full of adventure from sunrise to sunset.

Below, I’ll highlight some of my favorite things to do in northern Iceland.

TL;DR:

  • Most significant landmark – Dettifoss Waterfall
  • Best park – Vatnajökull National Park
  • Free activity – Goðafoss Waterfall
  • Activity for kids – Whale Watching
  • Activity for adults – Geothermal Pools
  • Place to eat – Kaffi Ilmur (Akureyri)
  • Nightlife – R5 Beer Lounge (Akureyri)
  • Place to stayHotel Kjarnalundur

Things to Do in Northern Iceland & Places to Visit

1. Dine, Drink, and Shop in Akureyri

Beautiful and colorful buildings in downtown Akureyri, Iceland
f11photo / Adobe Stock

Address: Akureyri, Iceland

Located at the base of the Eyjafjörður Fjord, Akureyri is the largest town outside of the capital area, earning it the nickname “Capital of North Iceland.” It’s about a five-hour drive from Reykjavik and is a popular town to use as a home base while you explore the area.

It’s not nearly as large as Reykjavik, but this charming small town will quickly steal your heart. Speaking of hearts, all of Akureyri’s traffic lights are in the shape of hearts, which will make you smile every time you see one.

I’d recommend Hotel Kjarnalundur, you’ll have beautiful panoramic views from your room. Dettifoss waterfall, Godafoss waterfall, Asbyrgi Canyon, and the Mývatn region are all close enough for easy day trips from Akureyri.

If that’s not for you, there are plenty of places to stay in Akureyri. There are also tons of yummy local restaurants, interesting museums, and shops to find souvenirs.

While you’re in Akureyri, be sure to visit Kaffi Ilmur, a charming cafe located in one of Akureyri’s oldest houses serving up authentic Icelandic cakes and pastries.

At night, head over to R5 Beer Lounge, one of the best bars in Akureyri, for libations and music. They have a wide range of local beers and whiskeys in a beautiful, rustic setting.

See Related: Day Trips from Reykjavik, Iceland

2. Go Above the Arctic Circle on Grímsey Island

Orange lighthouse at rocky shore of Grimsey Island in Northern Iceland
neurobite / Adobe Stock

Address: Grímsey, Iceland

Grímsey Island is a small little island located about 40km (25 mi) off the coast of Iceland. It’s the only place in Iceland where you can cross the Arctic Circle, and you can get to this island by taking a plane from Akureyri or a 3-hour ferry from Dalvík.

The island is known to be a birdwatcher’s paradise. In fact…with a population of fewer than 100 residents, there are more birds than people on Grímsey Island!

Puffins, one of Iceland’s most famous birds, come to nest in Grímsey from mid-April to early August, which makes summer one of the most popular times to visit this special arctic island.

See Related: How to Book Cheap Flights to Iceland

3. Spot Dozens of Whales on a Whale Watching Tour

Humpback whale breaches the bay surface while an Icelandic whale watching boat full of people observes
neurobite / Adobe Stock

Whale watching is one of Iceland’s most popular outdoor activities, and North Iceland is the best area to see them. There are plenty of tours in the capital region, but Húsavík (yes, that Húsavík), the oldest settlement in Iceland, is known to be Iceland’s whale-watching capital.

I highly recommend journeying to this town and joining a whale-watching tour in Skjálfandi Bay. These tours are about three hours long, and many of the boats are authentic Icelandic oak vessels specific to this area. 

Plus, you can check out the Húsavík Whale Museum while you’re in town, which goes into great detail about these sea creatures. There are also whale-watching tours from Akureyri, and since the distance between the two towns is about an hour’s drive, it may be easier for you to join a tour from Akureyri instead.

Over 20 whale species can be found in or around the bay, including blue whales, humpbacks, killer whales, minke whales, and dolphins. April to September are the best months for whale watching since these gentle giants come to the area to feed.

Humpbacks are the most common sighting, but these tours leave it up to Mother Nature, so whale sightings are never guaranteed.

4. Visit One of North Iceland’s Seven Ski Resorts

Alpine skiing in Northern Iceland is a popular activity for visitors, as it offers incredible views.
Jonas Tufvesson / Adobe Stock

Winter and North Iceland go together like peanut butter and jelly, and visitors looking to hit the slopes are in for a treat. There are seven ski resorts in North Iceland, and each one offers flood-lit slopes, ski rentals, and ski schools ensuring that everyone can experience alpine skiing in North Iceland, regardless of whether you’re an old pro or a first-timer.

Hlíðarfjall in Akureyri is one of the most popular ski areas. Still, you may be tempted to check out the smaller fishing towns like Sauðárkrókur, Siglufjörður, and Dalvík, which each have picturesque skiing opportunities. Lake Mývatn, Ólafsfjörður, and Húsavík can find smaller ski areas.

The resorts are open from November until May, offering downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, and snowshoeing. Remember that the daylight hours during the middle of winter can be only a few hours.

The slopes are well-lit, so you can continue to night ski. If you’re lucky, you may have the chance to ski under the Northern Lights!

5. Soak Your Stresses Away in a Geothermal Bath

Mývatn Nature Bath in northern Iceland at sunset
dudlajzov / Adobe Stock

Iceland’s unique volcanic activity plays a major role in the country’s tourism. There are roughly 130 volcanoes in Iceland, of which about 30 are active, and they are largely the reason for Iceland’s incredible landscape, like geothermal baths.

Just beneath the Earth’s surface, water is heated and travels through springs and filtered through lava rocks, providing perfect conditions for soaking.

The Blue Lagoon is one of the most popular geothermal spas in the capital region, but in my opinion, some of the best geothermal spas in Iceland are found in the north. Mývatn Nature Bath is one of the most popular geothermal spas in North Iceland, and you can bath in its silica-rich, milky blue waters year-round.

The GeoSea Baths in Húsavík are another wonderful option, and these particular hot springs are unique in that they are saltwater rather than freshwater. Overlooking Skjálfandi Bay, the views will take your breath away as you soak in the mineral-rich healing waters.

See Related: 2 Days in Iceland Itinerary: A Guide to See Everything

6. Treat Yourself to a Unique Soak at the Beer Spa

The Beer Spa in Northern Iceland
Management / TripAdvisor

Address: Öldugata 22, 621 Litli-Árskógssandur, Iceland

The Beer Spa is not a geothermal spa, but it still deserves a spot on this list because where else can you soak in a bathtub filled with beer? You’ll soak in a tub for 25 minutes that’s filled with beer, water, hops, and yeast. After your soak, you’ll head into a relaxation room for 25 minutes.

The health benefits are enormous, believe it or not! The beer is in the early stages of fermentation with a very low pH, which softens hair and tightens skin. The brewer’s yeast is a great source of vitamin B, protein, potassium, iron, zinc, and magnesium, and the beer hops are rich in antioxidants and have powerful anti-inflammatory effects.

It’s recommended that you don’t shower for 3-5 hours after your soak to have the best effects, so once you’ve enjoyed the ritual, head over to the restaurant and enjoy a meal and — of course — swing by the bar and order a beer. 

With a belly (and all your pores) full of beer, it’s probably not a bad idea to lay your head down somewhere nearby. Luckily, the Hotel Kaldi is essentially next door!

See Related: Multi-Day Excursions in Iceland

7. Stop to See The Breathtaking Goðafoss Waterfall

Godafoss waterfall in Iceland at sunset
Ronnybas / Adobe Stock

Address: MCMX+4W7, 645 Fossholl, Iceland

In a land where there are over 10,000 cascades, there are a few waterfalls in Iceland that stand out from the pack, and Goðafoss is one of them. Located about 45 minutes away from Akureyri, it’s one of the easiest waterfalls to get to, either by driving yourself or taking a tour. It’s also one of the stops along the Diamond Circle.

One of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland, Goðafoss clocks in with a height of 12 meters (39ft) and a width of 30 meters (98ft). While that may not come near the tallest waterfall in Iceland, the history behind the waterfall makes it spectacular. 

Depending on who is translating, Goðafoss either means “waterfall of the gods” or “waterfall of the goði (priest),” which dates back to when Iceland was first settled in the 9th and 10th Centuries by the original inhabitants who followed the Old Norse religion.

Once the Commonwealth was established in 930 AD, Christians pressured Pagans to convert. By 1000 AD, it was pretty clear that Norway would invade if pagans did not convert to Christianity, and the issue was even brought to Þingvellir where the law speaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði was given the difficult decision to make.

After much thought, Þorgeir agreed to make Christianity the official religion of Iceland (although Pagans were still allowed to practice privately). Legend has it that when he returned to his home in North Iceland, he threw statues of his Norse gods into the waterfall. Ever since then, it’s been known as Goðafoss.

See Related: Visiting Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland

8. See the Modern Monument, Arctic Henge

Arctic Henge, Iceland
Thomas Schnitzler / Adobe Stock

Address: F26Q+V4F, 676 Raufarhöfn, Iceland

You’ve heard of Stonehenge, but did you know about the Arctic version? Located in Raufarhöfn, a remote village in North Iceland, Arctic Henge (Heimskautsgerði) is a hidden gem that few travelers get to see, which makes it even more special for those who do take the journey to get here.

Raufarhöfn is about 1.5 hours from Húsavík, and while it was once the largest export harbor in Iceland, it sadly collapsed during the 1900s when the herring migrated elsewhere. Raufarhöfn is the northernmost community in mainland Iceland, which is a nifty little claim to fame, but it wasn’t pulling in the tourism numbers. Hence, a hotelier had the idea to build Arctic Henge to make the area more appealing to tourists. 

Although it does look like these structures have been here for centuries, you might be surprised to learn that the project began in 1996 and construction started around 2004. The Eddic poem, Völuspá, inspired the modern monument dedicated to pagan beliefs and Icelandic folklore.

When it’s complete, it will span 50 meters and serve as an impressive sundial for solstice celebrations, as well as a top destination for pagan worship. The site is open year-round and is an especially dreamy spot to watch the Northern Lights from.

Wanna stay nearby? Check into Hotel Nordurljos to enjoy the mesmerizing views!

9. See the Geothermal Springs of Námaskarð

Aerial view of Námaskarð Iceland
Bjarki Sigursveinsson / Adobe Stock

Address: Namaskardh, 660, Iceland

On the northeast side of Mývatn along the Ring Road, Námaskarð will make you feel like you’re on another planet. Peppered with hot sulfuric mud springs and steam springs, this geothermal area is a stark contrast to the abundant vegetation found around Mývatn.

The eternal emissions of acids and boiling water have made this area sterile, and while incredibly beautiful, it does look like what you’d imagine Mars to look like. As you wander around the area, be sure to follow the paths and don’t steer off course, as the ground is much too dangerous.

Another thing to note is that, due to the high sulfur content in the ground, you will smell this attraction before you see it. The air is thick here, and as someone who has visited this special spot, I can confirm that it’s a very potent smell, and it will take your breath away.

10. Hike with Beautiful Views of Mývatn

View of Hofdi, a private forest at the shore of Lake Myvatn
Travelina / Adobe Stock

Address: Mývatn 660, Iceland

Created by a basaltic lava eruption 2300 years ago, Lake Mývatn is one of the most unique sights in Iceland. Framed by volcanic landforms and abundant vegetation, this lovely ecosystem provides the perfect habitat for lots of different wildlife. Mice and rats love the vegetation, and Iceland’s only native land mammal, the Arctic Fox, loves the mice.

If you spot one of these elusive (and adorable) creatures, consider yourself very lucky! Mývatn is also home to more duck species than anywhere else in the world, making Mývatn one of the best bird-watching areas in Iceland.

Once you’ve explored the lake, it’s popular to head over to the Mývatn Nature Baths to soak in the geothermal waters. 

See Related: Most Beautiful Places in Iceland to Visit

11. Go For A Ride On Icelandic Horses

Horseback riding through a northern Iceland meadow on Icelandic horses
Yan / Adobe Stock

The Icelandic horse is one of Iceland’s most famous animals, and riding an Icelandic horse is one of the most popular things to do in Iceland. If you drive the Ring Road, you’ll undoubtedly see these majestic creatures peppering the fields.

When you come across an Icelandic horse as you make your way across Iceland, there are a few rules to remember. Never feed, ride, or pet the horses without the owner’s permission, and don’t trespass onto private property to get a close look at them. Almost all Icelandic horses are kept on private land and well cared for. 

On a similar note, do not call them ponies! That is a pet peeve of many Icelanders, and though these horses are smaller than other horses, they are indeed horses and not ponies.

From their genetic makeup to above-average intelligence, these beauties are officially horses, and calling them ponies can be offensive. They are one of the purest horse breeds in the world, and there are many regulations to keep the breed that way. 

Since the horses have no natural predators, they’re more interested than you would think, are generally friendly and loving animals, and are great for riding! You can ride Icelandic horses all over Iceland.

For a fully immersive experience, consider spending a few nights at the Lýtingsstaðir horse-breeding farm in Skagafjörður. Spend your days riding Icelandic horses and learning about their history, and then, in the evenings, retire to your private cottage surrounded by beautiful scenery and adorable farm animals.

12. Look for Puffins on the Tjörnes Peninsula

Flock of Puffins on the coast of Iceland
Forcdan / Adobe Stock

We’ve talked about the ducks around Mývatn, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Three birding trails in North Iceland offer exceptional bird-watching opportunities.

For visitors who want to see as many different species as possible, you’ll want to plan your trip around May and June. Remember that most migratory birds leave for warmer pastures around August and September. 

Puffins are one of Iceland’s most popular birds visitors want to see, and luckily, these adorable little flying potatoes have a longer stay in Iceland than other birds (May to mid-August). Iceland is home to about 60% of the world’s Atlantic puffins, and these seabirds tend to nest in sea cliffs all along Iceland’s coast.

The Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords are one of the most famous places to see puffins in Iceland, and on the south coast, the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) is where you’ll find the world’s largest puffin colony.

But what about bird-watching in North Iceland? The Tjörnes peninsula in North Iceland is famous for its bird-watching areas, and it’s also conveniently located just 15 minutes away from Húsavík, and on the Diamond Circle, which makes it an easy addition if you’re taking the scenic route.

We already mentioned Grímsey Island, but yet another reason to reach this Arctic island off the coast of the mainland is to see the puffins! They love to feed and breed here, and a visit to Grímsey Island during the summer months to see them is truly a unique adventure.

And since puffin season matches up with whale watching season, you can find plenty of tours that combine both, like this tour in Húsavík.

See Related: Silfra Rift and Fissure in Iceland: Where East and West Meet

13. Drive The Underrated Diamond Circle

Diamond Circle, one of the most scenic drives in Iceland
Tania & Artur / Flickr

You may be familiar with Iceland’s famous Golden Circle, which takes you to several iconic sights near Reykjavik. However, did you know north Iceland has its version called the Diamond Circle? It’s ideal for exploring North Iceland and takes you from lava fields to glacier canyons and everything in between.

This scenic route departs from Ring Road and heads north, bringing you to some of the most popular attractions in northern Iceland, including Lake Mývatn, Húsavík, Ásbyrgi Canyon, and both Dettifoss and Goðafoss waterfalls.

While this has been a desired path for decades, it wasn’t until 2020 that it was made official, and the road was repaved, which is excellent news since a self-drive tour is one of the most popular ways to tour the Diamond Circle.

See Related: Do You Need a Car in Iceland? Things to Know

14. Let The Northern Lights Take Your Breath Away

Aurora borealis in Iceland with silhouette
basiczto / Adobe Stock

Seeing the Aurora Borealis is a bucket list item for many, and Iceland’s location close to the Arctic Circle makes it one of the best places in the world to view them. September to April is the prime viewing time when the nights are the longest.

You can see the northern lights in every part of Iceland, but North Iceland truly does provide some stunning backdrops to see this natural phenomenon.

If this is your first time hunting for the Green Lady, we’d recommend taking a northern lights tour. These tours are operated by locals who have spent years aurora hunting, and they all but guarantee a good time.

Remember, the northern lights are a natural occurrence, so there’s never a guarantee that you’ll see them. Still, these experts closely watch the weather and will take you far away from any light pollution with minimal cloud cover so you can check this incredible experience off your bucket list.

Many of these tours will help you with your camera settings to ensure you get a great shot, and some even offer to take photographs for you, so you can just sit back and enjoy the show. Make sure you get a nap and some coffee before the tour because these tours typically start late at night and can last for a few hours.

See Related: Best Hotels in Iceland for Northern Lights

15. Enjoy Hours Of Activities Under The Midnight Sun

Fantastic summer sunset with Mt. Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss in Iceland
Oleksandr / Adobe Stock

While many folks come to Iceland in the winter to experience the epic skiing and northern lights, the summer gives you all of the hours in the day to explore this beautiful arctic island. Since Iceland hugs the Arctic Circle, the summer months offer nearly 24 hours of daylight to enjoy.

If you think there aren’t enough hours in the day, you should consider booking your trip to Iceland during the summer. The peak of Iceland’s Midnight Sun occurs around the summer solstice, June 21, but you can experience the extended daylight hours anywhere from mid-May to mid-August.

Since you’ll have endless daylight, it’s a great time of the year to explore. Want to go kayaking at 10 pm? Go for it. You’ll have plenty of sunshine.

How about whale watching in Akureyri under the Midnight Sun? Truly a one-of-a-kind experience. With endless daylight, you can hit the trails and see all of the major attractions in North Iceland without worrying about it getting dark.

It’s common for hotels in Iceland (such as the Centrum Hotel if you need a nearby example) to have black-out curtains so that you can get some much-needed sleep, but you may want to bring a sleep mask just to give you a little extra darkness to help you trick your brain into thinking it’s nighttime.

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Jacks
WRITTEN BY

Jacks

Jacks is a New Orleans native passionate about exploring the Arctic region. She's a frequent writer and contributor to Only in Your State. A mediocre ukulele player, photographer, and artist, she thrives on spontaneous solo adventures and encourages everyone to follow the deal, not the destination. When she’s not traveling, she’s feeding the neighborhood crows, squirrels, and bluejays that have befriended her, much to the dismay of her cat, Tugger.

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