Things to Do in North Iceland
Often said to be one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland, Godafoss (which translates to “Waterfall of the Gods”) cascades into the Skjálfandafljót River that tears through Bárdardalur lava field. It lies along the “Ring Road” and leads to the Sprengisandur highland plateau, nestled between Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers.
Established in 2008 by combining Iceland’s former Jokulsargljufur and Skaftafell National Parks, Vatnajokull National Park is one of Europe’s largest national parks. It presents incredibly diverse and dramatic scenery including glacial plateaus, active volcanoes, towering ice caps, black-sand beaches, and terrain that is bubbling with geothermal activity. The park is dominated by the Vatnajokull glacier, Europe’s third-largest glacier, and contains Iceland’s highest mountain (Oraefajokull) and deepest lake (Jokulsarlon).
Dimmuborgir (“the dark castles” in Icelandic) is a surreal, unusually shaped lava field composed of volcanic caves and rock formations resembling an ancient collapsed citadel. It is frequently cited as being one of the most striking naturally-formed landscapes in a country filled with exceptional scenes– that’s saying something. It is consequently one of Iceland’s most visited attractions.
Although Dimmuborgir recently gained worldwide popularity after being featured in the acclaimed TV showGames of Thrones, it has long been part of Icelandic folklore. Indeed, Dimmuborgir is said to be the home of homicidal troll Grýla, her husband Leppalúði and their mischievous sons the Yule Lads; the story of this psychopathic family has been told to Icelandic children for centuries now as a means to get them to behave.
Moreover, Icelandic folklore says that Dimmuborgir connects earth with the infernal regions, and is rumored to be the very place where Satan landed when he was cast from the heavens. But contrary to popular beliefs, the Dimmuborgir area was not born out of divine intervention; science has a more plausible explanation. It was formed about 2,300 years ago during a volcano eruption caused by the Þrengslaborgir crater row. Lava started flowing in the area, forming a massive lava pool in the process and bringing water from nearby marshes to a boil. The vapor resulting from this chemical reaction created lava pillars that measured up to a few meters in diameter. But eventually the reservoir’s top crust collapsed under the lava’s weight, miraculously leaving the hollow pillars that we see today completely intact.
Albeit being one of the main settlements in North Iceland, Húsavík is home to only 2,500 inhabitants. It is, however, considered to be the whale-watching capital of the country, as the immense mammals are seen on about 95 percent of expeditions. Sitting on the eastern shore of the Skjálfand Bay (“the Shaky Bay”, due to the frequent earthquakes in the area), Húsavík played a significant role in Icelandic history, as it is the first place where a Norsemen settled, a Swedish viking named Garðar Svavarssonb; he stayed for one winter around year 870 and left a few of his people behind as he embarked on a new journey. This is precisely where the town got its name, which means “bay of houses” in Icelandic, as the lodgings built by Garðar where most likely the only ones in the country at that moment.
Attractions in Húsavík include, unsurprisingly, the Whale Museum (Hafnarstétt 1, Húsavík), a non-profit organization aiming to provide visitors with thorough and pertinent information on whales and their habitat. Also high up the list of things to do is the quaint wooden church Húsavíkurkirkja, which was built in 1907. The nearby Jökulsárgljúfur Park (part of the Vatnajökull National Park, the largest in Europe) and its Diamond Circle both make for a fascinating day trip destination, with wonders like the horseshoe-shaped canyon Ásbyrgi, the turf houses in Grenjaðarstaðu and the famed waterfalls Dettifoss (the most powerful in Europe at 6,816 cubic feet per second), Hafragilsfoss and Selfoss.
Formed by a massive volcanic eruption more than two millennia ago—and surrounded by surreal lava formations, mud pots, volcanic craters, and steaming fumaroles—Lake Mývatn remains geothermally active. The lake’s name comes from the swarming midges that fuel the local bird population.
Iceland’s natural hot springs, fed by volcanic activity and dotted all around the country, are world renowned. The most famous is the Blue Lagoon, but it’s almost always crammed with day-trippers from nearby Reykjavik. Myvatn Nature Baths, on the other hand, remain a pocket of tranquility, hidden away in the less-visited north.
Marvel at the sheer natural force on display at Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and one of Iceland’s most extraordinary attractions. Dropping some 132,000 gallons (500 cubic meters) of water per second 148 feet (45 meters) down the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, Dettifoss is a must-see for visitors to North Iceland.
With its gurgling mud pools, hissing steam vents, and plumes of volcanic rock, it’s easy to see why the Hverir geothermal area was chosen as a filming location for HBO’sGame of Thrones. It’s a mesmerizing sight, with the pockmarked terrain bubbling with silver-gray mud and steaming fumaroles, and the stench of sulfur omnipresent.
The small settlement of Dalvik, tucked between one of Iceland’s longest and most stunning fjords and the rolling hills of Svarfaðardalur, serves as the jumping-off point for ferries to Grimsey Island. It’s also a destination in its own right for outdoor adventures like hiking, whale watching, golfing, and bird watching.
With its futuristic facade looming over the city, the hilltop Akureyri Church (Akureyrarkirkja) is one of Akureyri’s most striking landmarks. The Lutheran church is not only a place of worship, but an architectural marvel, designed by Iceland state architect Guðjón Samúelsson, whose bold designs include the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík.
More Things to Do in North Iceland
As one of the highlights of the Diamond Circle, Ásbyrgi Canyon doesn’t disappoint. The horseshoe-shaped depression is technically part of the Vatnajökull National Park (the largest in Europe) and measures approximately 3.5 kilometers in length, 1.1 kilometer across and up to 100 meters high at its steepest cliffs. What makes this canyon so unique though is the distinctive rock formations present in over half its length, divided through the middle by a 25-meter-high piece called Eyjan ("the Island"), which offers spectacular views to curious hikers and day visitors.
Those would who prefer to stay down the canyon will enjoy walking in the typically Icelandic woodland, which consists of knee-high shrubberies, birch and willow trees. The canyon was actually formed by a catastrophic glacial flooding of the river Jökulsá after the last Ice Age -roughly 10,000 years ago—resulting from a volcanic eruption underneath the Vatnajökull ice cap. At least, according to science; Icelandic folklore has a different take on this story. Legend has it that the canyon was formed by the hoof print of Odin's (the all-father of the Norse gods) steed, a colossal eight-legged horse, which explains both the canyon’s odd shape and size.
Ásbyrgi Canyon stands guard to the Jokulsa Canyon and holds numerous wonders like the Hljoðaklettar rock formations, the mighty Dettifoss and even entire villages of hidden people, Iceland’s version of elves. A few Arctic foxes, gyrfalcons, ptarmigans and green-winged teals can also be seen.
Akureyri Botanical Garden (Lystigardur Akureyrar)
Iceland’s most famous garden and the northernmost botanical garden in the world, Lystigardur Akureyrar—or Akureyri Botanical Garden—defies its close proximity to the Arctic Circle by growing trees, plants, and flowers from all around the world.
Formed over 3,500 years ago, the ancient lava cave of Lofthellir is home to some of Iceland’s most impressive natural ice formations. Stretching for 1,213 feet (370 meters) beneath the Laxardalshraun lava field, the lava tube has its own microclimate, with temperatures of 32°F (0°C), and visiting is an adventure in itself.
Nuzzled between the Öxarfjörður and Skjálfandi fjords, the Tjörnes peninsula could be summed up in two words: birds and fossils. Indeed, the peninsula is famous for its uncharacteristically large population of rock ptarmigan game birds, its colonies of sought-after puffins and a vast
selection of other sea birds like purple sandpipers, dunlins, red knots and ruddy turnstones, which nest on the steep cliffs along the eastern coast in the spring and the fall. The Tjörnes peninsula contains numerous sediments rich in Pliocene era fossils, which date back to over 5 million years ago. In opposition to most of Iceland’s landscapes, which are of the volcanic lava kind,Tjörnes’ is sedimentary and consist of several layers of organic deposits.
They are living proof that the Earth’s poles have switched places several times, and they are major witnesses of the climatic changes currently occurring in the North Atlantic. Archeology aficionados should definitely pay a visit to the Fossil Museum in Hallbjarnarstaðir, and drive down the steep dirt road down the beach for a chance to be archeologist for a day!
Far from the birds and the fossils stands the Tjornes Fracture Zone, a submarine volcano located 10 kilometers north of the mainland, which separates the 80-kilometer wide zone of high seismic activity in northern Iceland from the Kolbeinsey Ridge, part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Brúnir Horse is a small family-run company based on a farm in Eyjafjordur, North Iceland. Passionate about horse breeding, the family opened its farm to visitors wanting to learn more about the Icelandic horse and everyday life on an Icelandic farm. Here, take in a horse show, then browse the on-site art gallery.
Icelandic Aviation Museum
The Icelandic Aviation Museum, housed in a large hangar at Akureyri Airport, displays a varied collection of large and small aircrafts, photographs, artifacts, and flight memorabilia. The museum devotes itself to preserving Iceland’s aviation history, such as documenting key moments like the country’s first flight in 1919.
Akureyri Museum (Minjasafnid á Akureyri)
The city’s namesake museum focuses on the history of Akureyri, the Eyjafjörður fjord, and the region’s former inhabitants, displaying a collection of art, artifacts, and photographs dating back to the Settlement Era. The museum takes visitors on a journey through the past with reconstructions depicting everyday life throughout the ages.
In far northern Iceland, the extraordinary natural landscapes of Gjástykki are among the region’s most striking. Hewn from a series of eruptions by the neighboring Krafla volcano, the rift valley features 65-foot-high (20-meter-high) walls of lava rock and valleys of multicolored slag, still hot with volcanic activity.
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