Best Of Iceland Awards: North - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Best Of Iceland Awards: North

Best Of Iceland Awards: North

Published December 14, 2017

Welcome to Grapevine’s Best Of Iceland—a guide to the best hikes, hotels, must see spots, eateries, road trips, tours, shops and more, all around the black shore of this rocky subarctic isle. We assembled panels of locals, travellers and Iceland experts to help us decide the winners and runners-up in each category: all come highly recommended. On this page, you’ll find our awards for the northern area of the country.

If you’d like to hold a copy of the Best of Iceland magazine in your hands, you can order one here, posted worldwide; if you think we’ve missed something, give us a shout via Facebook or Twitter. Finally, a word of advice: some places—whether a hiking route or a countryside restaurant—close down for winter, so be sure to check ahead. If a winner is marked “Summer,” it’s probably either not accessible or not open in winter.

Best Accommodation

Winner: Brekkugata 35, Akureyri
Brekkugata 35 is a homely guesthouse, and our panel spoke of it warmly, particularly admiring its personal touch. “It’s a homestay run by artists in their lovely creative home in a historic house and former art gallery, with a delicious homemade breakfast,” they said. The owners “put their heart into it,” continued the panel, “and they know the town inside out.”

Luxury Pick: Sigló Hótel
This rustic-swanky gem is a favorite of Icelanders on a weekend ski or golf getaway. Kick back in the cosy lounge, with modernist central fireplace and harbour views, or relax in the private outdoor hot pot (cleansing plunge into the fjord optional).

Budget Pick: Akureyri Backpackers
Our panel had nothing but praise for the convenience and stellar staff and management of Akureyri Backpackers. It has clean, smart, minimal rooms, dorms for those on a budget, and a choice of cooking on the kitchen or eating in the cosy café-bar. A star amongst hostels.

Best Meal

Winner (Summer only): Baccalá Bar, Hauganes
Our panel chose to highlight a unique food experience, and so picked this eccentric restaurant, open summers only, run by a family with several generations of history in the tiny fishing village of Hauganes. (You can’t miss it, it’s the one with a porch shaped like a Viking ship.) “It’s very personal,” said one panelist. “They run sea angling tours, and sometimes they’ll cook your catch right up for you in the restaurant kitchen.”

Winner (Year-round): Rub23, Akureyri
Akureyri’s most fancy eatery is Rub23: a stylish, intimate restaurant on the town’s main street with a wide variety of different plates on offer. Their signature dishes are the “rubs” of the title: select which meat or fish you’d like, and then the spice blend you’d prefer, for a customised main course done to your liking. There’s a decent wine list, too. It’s a pricey treat—but worth it.

Runner Up: Siglunes, Siglufjörður
The owner of Siglufjörður’s schmancy Siglunes Guesthouse recruited the Moroccan-born chef Jaouad Hbib to run the restaurant, and “it’s really adding something to the community,” as one our panelists admiringly reflected. It’s a pretty space with a friendly staff, and the menu, which changes daily, puts a Mediterranean twist on Icelandic ingredients.

Runner Up: Geitafell, Vatnsnes
Often overlooked, the Vatnsnes peninsula is known for seal-spotting, the oddly shaped Hvítserkur sea stack, a general air of rocky desolation—and the substantial seafood soup at this farmhouse restaurant, whose twinkly-eyed proprietor, the son of a Scotsman, has also converted one of his silos into a family folk museum in the shape of a turret.

Newcomer: Cafe Berlin, Akureyri
There’s no better place than Café Berlin for a sunday morning brunch. From the classic eggs and bacon to more Instagrammable options like poached eggs and avocado toast, this place has everything your heart (and stomach) might desire. You can add warm waffles for a small addition fee. Enjoy people-watching with a hot coffee. You’ll feel right at home.

Must-See Spot

Winner: Hrísey
Our panel spoke of this this island in the middle of Eyjafjörður with an almost spiritual reverence. (Energy fields were invoked.) The half-hour ferry ride to the island takes you across the Iceland’s longest fjord, with the mountains and sky reflected in the glassy waters. On the island are a few leisurely walks, many birds, and views to offer you, as our panel said, “a very introspective moment.”

Runner Up: Ásbyrgi
Even better than it looks on Google Image, this horseshoe canyon at the northern end of Vatnajökull National Park was carved by glacial flooding several millennia ago. Turn off Route 85 and walk to the tip of Eyjan, the “island” of rock that was once the canyon’s northern bank, to take in the vast forested gorge; or drive down to the pond tucked just beneath the sheer, 100-metre cliffs of the far side.

Runner Up: Dettifoss
Amid the monochrome of the northeastern Ring Road, Europe’s most powerful waterfall is an imposing sight. It’s difficult to reach in winter—only the road approaching from the southwest is paved—so check the road conditions in advance. If you’re able to get there, be aware that it’s a slippery walk to the waterfalls, and take no risks.

Best Bathing Spot

Winner: Hofsós Pool
The pool at Hofsós is situated just at the edge of a cliff at the edge of town; there’s no fence, and the views extend out to the island Drangey and beyond, all the way to the cliffs on the far shores of Skagafjörður. An infinity pool, North Iceland style. “I’d drive hours to get there, especially at sunrise or sunset,” one of our panelists said; the others murmured approvingly.

Runner Up: Sundlaug Akureyri
With evident pride, our panel declared this the platonic ideal of an Icelandic municipal pool. “I drive by every day with my kid,” said one panelist, “and when he sees the top of the water slide he asks me, ‘When does it open, when does it open?’ He gets so excited! And so do I.”

Runner Up: Mývatn Nature Baths
The Mývatn Nature Baths is a smaller, quieter version of the Blue Lagoon, with silky white water than seems to coat your skin in geothermal goodness. It’s a bit more expensive than your average pool, but it’s the perfect final stop for a day spent exploring the north.

Best Hike

Winner (Summer only): Jökulsárgljúfur
This northern section of Vatnajökull National Park offers breathtaking sights and well-marked trails for hikers of all fitness levels and ambition—from the full 30-plus kilometres between Dettifoss and Ásbyrgi, to the loops starting in the parking lot at Vesturdalur. Once-in-a-lifetime sights include Hljóðaklettar (fortress-like clusters of basalt “echo rocks”) and Rauðhólar (“red hills”) scoria cones, as well as many raw, sweeping vistas along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river gorge.

Winner (Winter): Dimmuborgir
This vast natural maze, situated close to Lake Mývatn, was formed when a large lava cavern collapsed, leaving jagged rock formations and black pillars grasping upwards dramatically. There are several clearly marked paths, and the entrance is just a short walk from the car park, making it the perfect place for a brisk winter hike, whether you want to be out for an hour or a whole day.

Runner Up: Vatnsdalur
Off the Ring Road in the low-lying farmland area between Hrútafjörður and Blönduós is a river valley: a trail leads you upstream, following the Vatnsdalsá inland, and you’ll be able to see waterfall after waterfall as you stroll along the canyon towards the Highlands.

Runner Up: Héðinsfjörður, Siglufjörður
Before the tunnels were built, the only road into Siglufjörður was over the mountains from Skagafjörður to the south and west—an ideal trail for more experienced hikers. Easier routes wend along the peaceful uninhabited fjord to the east of town, accessible through the tunnel or by boat.

Easy Option (Summer only): Strýtur, Hveravellir 
The Highlands are crisscrossed with hiking paths, and one of the most convenient, in terms of both accessibility and difficulty/reward ratio, is Strýtur at Hveravellir. You’ll start in a geothermal oasis and cross lava fields and broken rocks before rounding the lip of a magnificent volcanic cone.

Best Road Trip 

Winner: Mývatn
No surprise here: our panel loves the varied and accessible landscape of the Mývatn region, from the spectacular Goðafoss, to the fascinating Dimmuborgir lava field to the ‘Game of Thrones’-approved “secret” hot spring cave Grjótagjá. But they also put in a word for the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum, on the drive over from Akureyri. “I love how they present their collection together with progressive modern art without discrimination,” enthused one panelist.

Runner Up: The Arctic Coastal Way
Too long to be considered a single “road trip,” this truly epic drive was a passionate favourite of our panelists. “It’s just you and the North Atlantic,” they said, of the roads that take the long way through North Iceland, past the fjords, cliffs and desolate fishing villages the Ring Road cuts out of the circuit. “It’s the loneliest place I’ve ever been,” said one awestruck panelist. Whatever your preferred driving mix is, blast it.

Runner Up: Hjalteyri & Eyjafjörður
Starting from Akureyri, stop off at the cavernous exhibition space in the old Hjalteyri fish factory, swim in Eyjafjörður, then reset your body temperature in the hot pot overlooking the water—if you’re lucky, one panelist averred, you might see some whales. Continue up the fjord to explore Dalvík, Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður and loop back past Hófsos.

Best Tour

Winner: Askja Super Jeep Tour
“It’s like a reset button for your soul,” said one panelist, of the remote Highlands caldera of Askja. “There’s nothing except the mountains encircling you, and the geothermal water before you. Then there’s Drekagil (“Dragon Canyon”) and the new lava field at Holuhraun—it’s still warm, really rough, and huge. You feel how devastating nature can be.” Askja is only accessible during winter via a Super Jeep tour—don’t even think about driving there in a rental car!

Runner Up: Lofthellir Cave
There are few lava caves in North Iceland, noted our panel, but this one is a spectacular mix of—yes!—fire and ice. Accessible only by 4X4 and a short walk, the cave is serviced by operators departing from Akureyri and Mývatn; our panel recommended finishing off with a soak in the Mývatn Nature Baths.

Runner Up: River Rafting
Two operators lead tours down the respectively lazy and rapid West and East Glacial Rivers south of Varmahlíð. “It’s like the most popular thing on Trip Advisor so you know I’m not making it up,” said one panelist. “You’ll definitely get wet, but it’s worth it.”

Runner Up (Winter only): Dog sledding
One wonderful, natural, invigorating way to get out into the winter landscape is dog sledding. After petting the huskies in the kennel, you’ll be pulled out onto the open snow for a run across the open snow. The tours are, of course, weather-permitting, so check ahead to see if there’s enough snow.

Best Museum/Gallery

Winner: The Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s pride and joy, and unquestionably the best herring museum in the world, Síldarminjasafnið is “an unexpected pleasure for tourists,” a panelist said. Visitors are reliably overwhelmed by the bounty of artefacts and historical colour to be found at this museum dedicated to Siglufjörður’s glorious commercial fishing past. “It was a really important thing for Sigló,” another panelist added, “the starting point for it becoming something other than a ghost town.

Runner Up: Spákonuhof
This “Museum of the Prophetess” tells the story of Þórdís, one of the first settlers of Skagaströnd and a legendary seer. “It’s got character, charm and history,” said one panelist, “as well as home-made knitted things, fortunetelling, runes, Tarot cards, palm readings, and coffee.”

Newcomer: Kaktus
This workshop and exhibition space in Akureyri hosts intimate and more ambitious art shows, concerts of all musical genres, theatrical performances, readings and talks—always for free. You can also check out their comic book library. It’s run by an independent collective of young artists.

Best Bar

Winner: Microbar & Bed
Maybe you’ve been to Microbar in Reykjavík, and tried their house brew, from pioneering microbrewery Gæðingur? In that case, consider a pilgrimage to their sister watering hole in Sauðárkrókur (the farm where Gæðingur is brewed is just a little ways out of town). Here, their signature ales and lagers are always on tap, alongside quirkier varietals. And then, like the name implies, you can sleep it off upstairs.

Runner Up: Græni Hatturinn 
We needed an Akureyri bar for this list, and our panel stumped for “The Green Hat” because of its best-in-the-North live music lineup—you can catch many of Iceland’s top hip-hop acts there this summer—and because closes earlier than the bar next door, the downtown hub Götubarinn, “so there’s nobody getting drunk and fighting.”

Runner Up: Gísli, Eiríkur, Helgi kaffihús Bakkabræðra
One panelist has fond memories of this charmingly folksy café/bar in Dalvík, named for three bumbling brothers of folk legend. “I was there late at a party one night and came back the next day for the soup and bread,” they recalled. “Everyone working there was so sweet, like, ‘Oh we’re so happy you came back!’”

Read more Best Of Iceland awards here. Buy a copy of the magazine, posted worldwide, here. Read more travel articles here.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!

Go travel with Grapevine tried and recommended tours by Grapevine. Fund Grapevine journalism by booking with us.