Beyond Reykjavik - Discovering the best of North Iceland

A northern lights adventure in Icelands Mývatn region
A northern lights adventure in Iceland's Mývatn region | Courtesy of Anton Freyr Birgisson / Geo Travel Mývatn

Editorial Manager

Iceland has evolved from a ‘hidden gem’ to popular tourist destination in less than a decade. Nearly all journeys here begin and end in the capital, Reykjavik, with our own Epic Trip highlighting the many adventurous excursions travellers can enjoy in the south. A new direct UK flight to the lesser-explored northern region however is helping foreign arrivals discover even more reasons to return.

If you’ve been to Iceland before you’ll know there are plenty of reasons to come back. New attractions are being developed all the time and the country itself is large enough to warrant multiple return trips.

Previously, you would have to travel through Keflavik International Airport, which is technically not even in Reykjavik. Many visitors who want to explore further would take a road trip around the island or opt for an internal flight to the north to continue their journey. For a short visit its certainly advisable to pick one region and do it justice, and now you can head straight to Akureyri from the UK on a new easyJet service from Gatwick.

Dressed for extremes

Travelling to Akureyri

Just as I landed at Akureyri’s tiny airport – through a seasonal blizzard – news emerged of a volcanic eruption in the south of the country. Initial worries were soon quashed, however, as this was hundreds of miles away. Even then, there was hardly any disruption in Reykjavik as Iceland has measures in place to deal with these natural occurrences. Here in the north, following a short flight from London, we were off for a few days of adventure in a destination known for extremes.

easyJet now operates from London Gatwick to Akureyri up to twice a week throughout winter with prices starting from £40.17 per person (one-way, including taxes and based on two people on the same booking). The schedule operates twice a week on Tuesday and Saturday throughout winter until 30 March 2024 and will start again on 29 October 2024.

Akureyri is known as the ‘Capital of the North’, and now has international flights directly to London.

The airport is undergoing an extensive renovation to increase capacity and accommodate more international flights, with the new terminal expected to be open later in 2024. For now there are a handful of daily flights and most of these serve other parts of Iceland. You can walk to the centre of town in less than 30 minutes, a viable option if you’ve travelled light, or take a shuttle bus ride that operates throughout Akureyri to several convenient drop off points. Most people will pick up a rental car and begin their own adventure, or join one of the many local tour operators on the ground such as Geo Travel Iceland.

We started our first day here with a quick trip to the downtown area for lunch. Fresh seafood is plentiful, not really surprising as Akureyri is a port town. Its the unofficial ‘Capital of the North’, although it only has a population of around 20,000 permanent residents. Luckily the shops are fully stocked, so if you’ve forgotten your thermals or arrive unprepared for the weather, you can layer up.

As you have limited daylight hours at this time of year – I travelled in early January – you have to make the most of it if you want to visit local attractions. We took a short drive to Húsavík in the Norðurþing municipality which has surged in popularity since it was featured in Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020). Húsavíkurkirkja is the iconic wooden church which was a big part of the Will Ferrell film and is the best known landmark here, although the town is also popular for whale spotting in the summer. If you visit Husavik Whale Museum you can learn more about why Iceland is a hotspot for sightings of the sea-based mammals and also how whaling was a big part of life here decades ago. Attitudes to eating whales have drastically changed in recent years, and the museum does an excellent job of presenting all aspects of the debate.

GeoSea in the summer is a very different experience, but locals visit throughout the year and at all hours.

It was already dark by the time we headed to GeoSea the local geothermal spa here. Taking a warm dip at the end of a long day is a popular way to relax in Iceland, and I was glad to discover I was scheduled for a spa on every night of my stay here!

Adventure in North Iceland

My adventure would continue in Mývatn, an area with a large volcanic lake and plenty of outdoor activities. Checking into the Berjaya hotel I thought I was done for the day, but there was one more surprise in store for us. As the weather conditions had turned in our favour, although it was still bitterly cold, we were offered the chance to chase the northern lights. As we drove through the icy evening and stepped onto the frozen lake – absolutely following the directions from our guide Anton – I suddenly remembered the new series of True Detective had been shot in the region. Night Country – as the fourth instalment of police drama is subtitled – is set in Alaska but was entirely shot on location in Iceland. The country was deemed to be the ideal place for a production shot at night to recreate the 24 hours of darkness that hit the northernmost parts of the globe.

The hotel has an outdoor hot tub perfect for Northern Lights spotting if you don’t fancy going off the property.

With the ice beneath us holding firm we looked up for the cascading lights Iceland is famous for. At one point I did wonder why I had chosen not to spend the evening in the hotels outdoor hot tub and look for the northern lights in warmer surroundings, but I was here for adventure and that’s what I got!

easyJet holidays offers three nights at the 3* Myvatn Berjaya on a Room Only basis for £368 per person including 23kg of luggage per person and flights from London Gatwick on 2 November 2024. Tours and activities can be booked through Musement.

Gingerly walking on frozen Lake Myvatn we spotted a fire in the distance. There were sporadic breaks in the clouds above us, and rare sighting of faint lights were greeted with understandable excitement. As we got to the fire, a friendly lake troll was waiting for us with a mug of hot chocolate to warm us up. Allegedly the ‘troll’ was actually Þórður Steinke, a friend of our guide who had been sent out ahead… but i’m not so sure.

With long nights there is an obvious benefit that I found out as I set my alarm for our planned sunrise hike the following morning. I didn’t have to get up until 10am so got a proper rest ahead of our climb up to Hverfjall Crater. This is a moderate ascent, so suitable for most people, but be sure to add snow grips or crampons to your winter boots. Don’t worry, your guide will make sure you have everything you need, and Anton even packed extra gloves for the occasion.

Dimmuborgir Lavafields are a distinctive feature of the landscape you can see from the top. This view is the backdrop to famous scenes from Game of Thrones and north Iceland featured in many episodes from the series. Adding to the otherworldly nature of the area, the pulsating mud fields of Hverarönd are a popular stop. The smell of sulphur takes some getting used to, but thankfully you’ll soon forget the odour once the rock formations and soft steam come into view.

After a quick lunch stop at a ‘secret’ hut we made it to a couple of the famous waterfalls you will have seen in many pictures from Iceland. Again, be sure to have your crampons on as the walk can be treacherous but Dettifoss in Vatanjökull national park is worth the effort. The last stop was Mývatn Nature Baths – a more relaxed environment than our previous spa – which has healing waters and a cosy feel.

With our final full day already upon us, it was another early start back in Akureyri. As mentioned, Husavik is probably the best spot for whale watching in the summer months, but at this time of year you’ll have to catch a boat in the main port in town if you want to see whales, porpoises and wild birds. Larger vessels are required to break through the ice, and give you some shelter from the icy winds in the fjord, but in summer you can get a small speed boat instead.

A beer spa somehow made it onto our itinerary, not that I heard any complaints, and then the final lagoon experience awaited us. The Forest Lagoon is one of the newest attractions in Iceland and one of the main reasons people continue to return to the north. With views overlooking one of Iceland’s longest fjords, Eyjafjörður, the spa’s unique location surrounded by birch and pine trees truly sets it apart. Trees are something of a rarity in the country, so this is an extra special location which was apparently discovered entirely by accident. There’s an incredible sauna, which has a large viewing window to immerse you in nature, and an intensely cold plunge pool if you really want to experience the full Nordic treatment.

You could always combine a trip to the north with our own Iceland adventure in the south if you want to see and do as much as possible in one go. What’s great for curious travellers is that there are now different options. The north of Iceland is a truly special destination in what is already a special country. Flying here directly welcomes repeat visitors and, as you can see, there’s also plenty to do for first-timers looking to experience one of the ultimate travel bucket list must-sees.

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