Choose from 10 Fun Things to Do in North Iceland
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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.
Húsavík is the largest settlement in the Tjörnes peninsula and is located on its western shore. Traveling around the peninsula is easiest with a car; visitors simply need to drive along route 85.
From $ 230
Descending via rope ladder from the Laxardalshraun lava field, the first that hits you upon entering Lofthellir cave is the temperature, which plummets to around 0°C, but the freezing microclimate and enveloping darkness only add to the experience. Formed over 3,500 years ago from solidified lava, Lofthellir has earned a reputation as one of Iceland’s most famous caves, home to the country’s most impressive collection of natural ice formations.
The lava tube stretches for 370 meters and visitors can explore the honeycomb of underground chambers by torchlight, sliding down the icy slopes and scrabbling through ice columns. The thrilling climb is all part of the adventure but the undeniable highlight is the magnificent scenery – glittering walls of ice, frozen stalactites and stalagmites, and gigantic ice sculptures carved out over thousands of years.
Lofthellir Cave is located around 45 minutes by car from Lake Myvatn and is only accessible by guided tour. Although no hiking or climbing experience is necessary, basic fitness and decent walking shoes are advised, as visitors will have to walk across the lava fields to reach the cave (an easy, 30-minute hike over rough terrain), descend into the cave via rope ladder and scramble (assisted by ropes) around the cave’s ice structures. Tour operators generally provide waterproof clothing, rubber boots and torches.
Admission: Only reached via guided tour
From $ 230
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.
What makes Godafoss waterfall so spectacular is the 330-foot-wide (100-meter), horseshoe-shaped canyon dug by the powerful river over the centuries. In typical Icelandic fashion, the canyon and waterfall are sort of split in two by black lava promontories, which only adds to the uniqueness of the place.
Guided tours of Iceland’s Diamond Circle and day tours to Lake Myvatn, leaving from Akureyri, typically include a stop at Godafoss. You can book a group or private tour and travel by 4WD vehicle, minibus or minivan, or even take an aerial tour in an airplane. Whether you visit the falls independently or on a guided excursion, be sure to take the path behind the falls for a more intimate, less-crowded viewpoint.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Godafoss is a must-see attraction for outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, and those with an interest in Icelandic history.
- Don’t forget to wear waterproof clothing: You can get soaked by the falls’ spray
- Wear comfortable shoes suitable for walking over uneven surfaces.
- Access to the falls is free of charge.
- Although you can walk close to the edge on the west bank, practice utmost caution as the rocky ledges can be extremely slippery.
- There are several spots from where to get views of the falls, including a viewing platform and a nearby restaurant with free Wi-Fi.
How to Get There
Godafoss is located 31 miles (51 kilometers) east of Akureyri and you can reach it within around 45 minutes by car via Route 1 (Ring Road). The site has a parking lot with restroom facilities. If you’d rather not rent a car, you can join one of a number of tours leaving from Akureyri that include visits to Godafoss.
When to Get There
All of Iceland’s main attractions are at their busiest during the summer months. You can avoid the biggest crowds by visiting in the early morning or at night—long daylight hours mean you will still be able to see clearly. The weather in northeast Iceland can be challenging in winter, but the lack of crowds makes this a peaceful time to visit.
The Legend of Godafoss, Iceland’s Waterfall of the Gods
Even more than being one of North Iceland’s most beautiful sights, Godafoss waterfall holds a significant role in Icelandic folklore due to its role in the Christianization of the country. Legend has it that in the year 1,000, Iceland’s local Chieftain Thorgeir Ljósvetningagodi threw his heathen statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall upon returning from the Althingi (parliament), where he had decided that Iceland’s official religion would be Christianity from that point forward. In honor of his decisions, Thorgeir then decided to christen the mighty cascade, the “Waterfall of the Gods.”
From $ 136
As Iceland's fourth largest lake, Mývatn is an important stop on any north Iceland road trip. Formed by a massive volcanic eruption over two millenniums ago, it is still geothermally active today and it is surrounded by surreal lava formations that are so characteristically Icelandic.
The lake got its name from the vast numbers of midges that gather on its shores, a witness to the vital role the lake plays in the region's avifauna. In fact, Mývatn is one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in the world as far as ornithology (15 species of ducks, Barrow's goldeneye, red-necked phalarope, red-breasted merganser, gadwall, mallard, to name a few) and entomology (midges and black flies) are concerned, thanks to high biological productivity and the presence of numerous wetlands in the area.
The region surrounding Lake Mývatn doesn't lack in attractions and sights either, which are all more of less located along the well-known ring road. The Hverfjall Crater is a 2,500-year-old, 1,500-foot (460-meter) high and 3,400-foot (1,040-meter) wide tephra tuff ring volcano that is nearly symmetrical and accessible by two walking paths, while Dimmuborgir ("the dark castles") is a surreal, unusually shaped lava field composed of volcanic caves and rock formations resembling an ancient collapsed citadel, one of the most striking naturally-formed landscapes in Iceland. Even closer to Mývatn is the Lofthellir Lava Cave, which boasts the longest natural ice sculpture inside in a lava cave in Iceland at 1,213 feet (370 meters) long. Last but not least, the Mývatn Nature Baths are basically a less congested, less touristy version of the Blue Lagoon, and well worth a visit.
Lake Mývatn is located 90 kilometers (55 miles) southeast of Akureyri and can be reached via route 1 in just over an hour. It is also possible to circle the lake (36 kilometers or 22 miles) via bicycle; many stores in nearby SkútustaÃƒÂ°ir, Vogar and ReykjahlíÃƒÂ° offer bicycle rentals for a day.
From $ 169
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 show Games 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.
Dimmuborgir is located just east of Lake Mývatn, 90 kilometers (55 miles) southeast of Akureyri. It can be reached via route 1 in just over an hour. Many day trips to the Diamond Circle include Dimmuborgir.
From $ 1,141
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 one of the filming locations for HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones. Used onscreen to portray the otherworldly landscapes ‘North of the Wall’, the fantastical landscapes are just as mesmerizing in real life – the pockmarked terrain bubbling with silver-grey mud and steaming fumaroles, and the stench of sulfur omnipresent.
Located just below the Krafla caldera and a short ride from Mývatn Lake, Hverir makes a popular stop on North Iceland’s Diamond Circle driving route, but with ground temperatures reaching heights of 400ºF, this isn’t a region for exploring off-the-beaten-track. Thankfully, a network of roped walkways and viewing platforms make it easy to take in the highlights, set against a backdrop of the looming Namafjall Mountain.
Hverir is located in the Mývatn region of North Iceland and can be reached by car, via a signposted gravel track off the main road to Krafla. The high temperatures of Hverir geothermal area make it far too hot for bathing or walking on, so be sure to stick to the marked paths and heed the warning signs.
From $ 230
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.
With water bubbling between 96.8°F (36°C) and 102.2°F (39°C) and an idyllic backdrop of looming volcanoes and picturesque Lake Myvatn, visiting the baths is the perfect way to soothe tired limbs after a day spent exploring the surrounding volcano- and glacier-laced landscape.
Visitors to Myvatn Nature Baths have access to saunas, heated pools, and massage services. You can spend the whole day soaking in the milky blue, mineral-rich water, reaping its health benefits. The man-made lagoon makes use of the run-off from the Bjarnarflag geothermal borehole nearby and is full of natural silicates and volcanic microorganisms renowned for their restorative and relaxant properties. Visits to the baths are often included in day tours around northern Iceland, leaving from Akureyri.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Myvatn Nature Baths is a must-visit attraction for nature lovers and those who want to reap the benefits of its mineral-rich waters.
- Don't forget to bring your swimsuit and towel, although both (and a robe) can be rented on-site.
- Geothermal water in Iceland usually contains sulphur so do not bring brass or silver jewelry into the baths as the water can turn those metals black.
- Built on top of a geothermal area, the humidity can reach 100 percent. Take turns cooling off in the outdoor showers.
- The bath complex has lockers for safekeeping your valuables.
- There is a restaurant on-site, serving lunch, dinner, snacks, and drinks.
How to Get There
Myvatn Nature Baths is about an hour-and-a-half's drive along Route 1 (or, the "Ring Road") from Akureyri, the nearest city. Public buses are infrequent and tricky to fit to a visitor's schedule, but you can rent a car from downtown Akureyri or at Akureyri Airport. If you would rather skip the hassle of driving, join one of the guided day tours that visit the baths as part of a larger tour around North Iceland.
When to Get There
The Myvatn Nature Baths are open daily year-round, although opening hours differ slightly from summer to winter. In summer, due to the long days experienced in North Iceland, they stay open late, allowing you to experience the midnight sun in a setting that couldn't be more idyllic. With fewer visitors, winter offers a quieter experience, as well as the chance of spotting the northern lights"”and, despite the northerly location, the region enjoys a temperate climate.
The Healing Waters of Myvatn Nature Baths
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's busiest attractions, but you can experience all the benefits of that hot spring without the drawbacks of crowds and a hefty price tag by heading north for the Myvatn Nature Baths instead. Surrounded by pristine nature, the hot water is bound to make you feel revitalized after a day of hiking across the volcanic region's steaming lava fields.
Address: Jardbadshola, Mývatn, Iceland
From $ 169
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.
Ásbyrgi Canyon is located 63 kilometers (39 miles) east of Húsavík and can be reached in less than one hour via route 85.
From $ 230
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 GarÃƒÂ°ar 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 GarÃƒÂ°ar where most likely the only ones in the country at that moment.
Attractions in Húsavík include, unsurprisingly, the Whale Museum (Hafnarstett 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 ÃƒÂsbyrgi, the turf houses in GrenjaÃƒÂ°arstaÃƒÂ°u and the famed waterfalls Dettifoss (the most powerful in Europe at 6,816 cubic feet per second), Hafragilsfoss and Selfoss.
Húsavík can be reached by plane from Reykjavik or by car from Akureyri via route 1 and 85 in just under 90 minutes. It is also possible to reach Húsavík from Akureyri via bus route 641, which stops along many of the sites listed above.
Address: Húsavík, Iceland
From $ 230
With an immense 500 cubic meters of water falling each second, Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and one of Iceland’s most extraordinary natural attractions, famously immortalized in the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s 2012 film, Prometheus. Dropping 45 meters and stretching for 100 meters along the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon in the Vatnajökull National Park, it’s hard not to be impressed by the magnitude of the falls, the largest of the three major waterfalls found along the Jokulsa river (including nearby Selfoss and Hafragilsfoss).
Dettifoss Waterfall is among the top sights of the ‘Diamond Circle’ driving route, the 260 km long ring road, which links together the highlights of North Iceland, but the falls can also be reached by hiking the scenic 35km trail from Asbyrgi canyon. As well as looking out over the canyon from the banks, visitors can climb down to the riverbed, where the views are marred by clouds of foam and the bedrock visibly trembles under its force.
Dettifoss waterfall is located around 90km from the town of Húsavík in the Vatnajökull National Park, Northeast Iceland. Road 864, a single-track gravel road, runs to the eastern bank of the falls and is open only from May-October, during which time buses also run from Mývatn. Alternatively, the paved Road 862 runs to the west and remains open during the winter, depending on the weather. Entrance is free.
From $ 230