Akureyri, the self styled “capital of the North,” is Iceland’s second-largest settlement. Often called Iceland’s ‘second city’, the 18,000-strong population falls slightly short of the international standard for a ‘large town,’ but as Iceland often proves, size isn’t everything. Akureyri’s imposing, austere church glares down over the harbour, which has a compact and friendly feel, from its heart-shaped traffic lights to the free buses. And, if you know where to look, there’s a surprising amount of art and culture to be found in the diminutive downtown area.
Here are our picks if you find yourself with 12 hours in Akureyri.
1. Start off your day with brunch at Akureyri Backpackers.
Akureyri Backpackers is ostensibly a hostel, but is much nicer than the images that the word “hostel” usually conjours. Rather than crumbling paintwork and rickety bunkbeds, Backpackers has high ceilings, fancy high-design lampshades and pristine rooms. The wood-lined bar area is a perfect spot for a coffee or a beer, and has chairs that look like they were perhaps once in a train or bus, mismatched furniture, and a cosy atmosphere. The weekend brunch comes in three sizes, from a small “Cleopatra” breakfast (according to this menu, Cleo ate bacon & eggs) to a medium sized “Asterix,” or a larger “Obelix” with sausages, potatoes, pancakes and all the trimmings. Weekdays, there’s a cold breakfast buffet.
2. Take a dip in the town swimming pool.
Skip your morning shower and head straight up to Akureyri’s swimming pool after breakfast. It’s one of the finest in Iceland, with geothermal hotpots (the hottest is an intense 43˚), a sauna and steam room, two water slides, various paddling pools, and some pummeling waterfalls to work the tension out of your shoulders. If you forgot your swimming stuff, you can hire some, so you’ve no excuse to miss out on this superb pool.
3. Meander down the “Art Alley.”
Akureyri has a surprisingly vibrant arts scene for such a small town. Kaupvangstræti, also known by locals as “Arts Alley,” is a steep street in the heart of the town that’s lined by galleries and art institutions of various types, from the city museum to the exciting Kaktus performance space, the town’s art school, and various small independent galleries of various types. On the first weekend of each month, the galleries all open their new shows, so if you’re lucky enough to arrive on this day it’s a great opportunity to mingle with the locals, many of whom dress up for the occasion.
4. Browse some second hand books.
At the bottom of “Art Alley,” there’s a secondhand bookstore. Take a browse through some of your favourite titles, whether Icelandic translations or classics from the English canon. The more eclectic bibliophile can get lost for hours searching for hidden gems. You’ll leave with a bag full a books and complete unwavering conviction that you will now learn Icelandic – just like your unused gym membership and never-opened 18-disc Rossetta Stone “Learn Spanish” Box Set.
5. Take a road-trip, whether inland to Mývatn or up the northern coastline.
You can pick up a car at the Airport from Hertz, or the town itself. There are all sorts of great road trips you can take, but we have two that we’d particularly recommend. For those on a tighter schedule, it’s a beautiful one-hour drive up the fjörd to Siglufjörður, and there are some spectacularly remote locations along the way, such as the Hjalteyri art factory and the beautiful town of Dalvík. An alternative is a longer daytrip (6 hours total, approximately) to the amazing Dettifoss, also taking in a variety of sites around Lake Mývatn such as the spooky Dimmuborgir lava maze, the Goðafoss waterfall, and the Mývatn Nature Baths, which is like a quiet, unspoiled version of the Blue Lagoon. (We’ll run some more detailed Akureyri road trip guides soon.)
6. Get a Brynja ice cream
Made from churned milk with added cream, Bryjna’s soft-serve is famous throughout Iceland. We recommend a waffle-cone with vanilla ice cream and caramel dip rolled in crushed nuts. Brynja is located in Akureyri’s old town, so while you eat your cone, you can wander the history trail reading plaques and eyeing the beautiful old houses. Just be warned: Brynja could ruin lesser ice cream for you altogether.
7. Get dinner at one of the town’s restaurants.
As well as a solid menu of burgers and local lamb at the Reykjavík Backpackers bar, you can find all sorts of interesting dinner options around town. Sticks + Sushi has a nice menu of sashimi and all the sushi standards, made with outstanding fresh fish; for those looking for something fancy, Rub 23 is the town’s top-quality luxury option.
This atmospheric revue-bar is everything you’ll want from an independent music venue. It’s an atmospheric sit-down place with a long bar down one wall with that’s often packed to bursting with appreciative, open-minded music listeners. You can often catch the best Reykjavík bands here, as well as some interesting local talents.
9. End the night at Götubarinn.
This atmospheric local bar in the heart of Akureyri (the name translates as “Street Bar”) is something of an institution. There are lots of hidden nooks to hide in during the busy weekends, but people also congregate around the piano, with many nights ending in an impromptu singalong. The locals are pretty friendly, and always happy to see fresh faces in town. If it’s not open, there’s a more basic drinking hole called Cafe Amour on the town square that might be.
from 10,800 ISK
from 15,300 ISK
Accommodation provided by Akureyri Backpackers.