Why Northern Iceland Should Top Your Travel Wish List
Iceland, the land of ice and fire, has recently become a hot tourist destination. While most travelers visit Reykjavik, southern Iceland and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula; northern Iceland is one of the best “undiscovered” stretches of the country. It’s just as spectacular as these highly visited areas, but with a fraction of the tourists. Visiting northern Iceland is a chance to experience some of the best of Iceland how it is meant to be visited – stunning dramatic landscapes without hoards of tour buses. Iceland is a wild and rugged land. Where better to see it than along the stretch of the country that borders the Arctic Circle.
Northern Iceland runs from Greenland Sea in the east to the Westfjords and the North Atlantic Ocean in the west. With the scenic Trollaskagi Peninsula, Iceland’s second largest city Akureyri, the otherworldly volcanic area of Myvatn, the towering waterfalls of Dettifoss and Selfoss, and the magical dancing Northern Lights in the fall and winter months; Northern Iceland should top any traveler’s wish list. And to top it all off, northern Iceland has better weather than southern Iceland, which tends to be prone to getting socked in by low lying clouds.
Experience the Beauty and Wonder of this Dramatic Landscape
Northern Iceland’s landscape is just as stunning as its more famous southern cousin, just with far fewer Instagrammers. From the moonl-ike landscape of the caldera fields around Lake Myvatn, to the quaint fjord hamlet of Siglufjordur, to the towering cliffs of Trollaskagi Penninsula – northern Iceland is a place to come and linger for a while. There are many ways to experience the beauty of northern Iceland – camp at one of the coastal camp grounds, hike one of the towering calderas along Lake Myvatn, take a boat through the fjords, explore the northeast circuit, and marveling as the colossal waterfall of Dettifoss.
Get Off The Beaten Path in Northern Iceland
Northern Iceland is one of the best stretches of the country to get off the beaten path. While most visitors to Iceland stick to Reykjavik, the south and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula; northern Iceland sees only a handful of travelers. You will find some crowds at Dettifoss, lake Myvatn and on whale tours from Husavik. Spend time exploring northern Iceland into the Highlands to see Iceland at it’s wildest and most remote – how Iceland is supposed to be experienced, rather than with bus loads of tourists.
Some of the best stretches of northern Iceland to explore off the beaten path areas is the Northeast circuit, the Trollaskagi Peninsula, Jokulsargljufur national park, hiking around lake Myvatn (once you get amongst the pseudo-craters the number of tourists greatly diminishes), Skagheidi Peninsula, the Kjolur Route (requires a 4×4), and into the Highlands (you will need a 4×4 for the Highlands and it is best explored in the summer).
Enjoy Whale-friendly Eco-Tourism Whale Watching Experiences in Husavik
Tucked into Lundey Bay, the town of Husavik is the ultimate whale watching hub and a pretty town to explore. The main destination in Iceland for Whale Watching excursions, Husavik has up to 11 whale species that come to the area to feed. The best time to view whales is June through September. Aim for an early morning boat departure when the water is calmest and there are fewer tourists on the boats.
The company North Sailing runs whale-friendly electric boats that are carbon neutral, free of fossil fuels, and are silent sailing with minimum disturbance to the whales. They have been certified by the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) as a responsible whale watching operator. The World Cetacean Alliance is the world’s largest marine conservation partnership. Its mission is to protect whales, dolphins and porpoises and their habitats through global collaboration. They also offer travelers the chance to join a scientific research day trip where travelers will directly participate in citizen-science research led by Ocean Missions’ marine scientists on board the ship.
Best Place in Iceland to See the Northern Lights
While Iceland can get a bad wrap some times for Northern Lights viewing, especially compared to it’s neighbors farther north (such as the northern part of Norway and Finland), northern Iceland is actually a great place to view the Northern Lights. Many travelers make the mistake of only go to Reykjavik to see the northern lights, which is not a great location to view the Aurora Borealis due to its frequent cloud cover and lower latitude. The most northern stretches of Northern Iceland are a great place to view the Aurora Borealis, especially stretches right along the Arctic Circle.
The name Aurora Borealis comes from the ancient Greek word s meaning “sunrise” and “wind”. The indigenous Sami reindeer herders of Norway believed the northern lights were souls of dead loved ones forever dancing across the nights sky. In Viking mythology the Aurora Borealis features in many stories. One myth holds that the northern lights were the glow from the Valkyrie shields. In Iceland, some stories linked the dancing lights with childbirth, while other myths associated them with the souls of those who had passed on. Throughout history the northern lights have left strong impact on cultures and civilizations.
The northern lights are made by solar winds. It produces colors from greens to magenta to purples and reds, though the most common colors to see with the naked eye are actually grey and green (your camera will pick up on a wider range of colors). What you need for great viewing of the northern lights is solar flare activity, clear skies, as few city lights as possible, and as close to the full moon as possible. Ideally, get to a dark sky area (with few to no lights from civilizations), have clear skies and a night of the full moon. The best months to view the Northern Lights are September to March – you have a very good chance of having a spectacular northern lights show. Since snow usually arrives in Iceland late September and stays until April, if the conditions are not good for driving to northern Iceland then take a flight. Flights run year long from Reykjavik to Akureyri. Akueyri, Iceland’s second largest city, is a great home base for exploring northern Iceland and viewing the northern lights.
Good apps to help you plan your northern lights viewing are Aurora Pro to see when and where the greatest northern lights activity will happen, and Ventusky to find where you will have clear skies. You can also use the app LPM (Light Pollution Map) to see where you’ll have the least light pollution. Plan your visit around the full moon, and then be outside at sunset onward patiently waiting for the northern lights to show. Sometimes they happen right at sunset and sometimes it can take a while for them to become active. Patience is key with the northern lights. Give yourself as many days as possible to see them. (Note: Strong solar activity can be seen from cities, so you don’t always have to drive far from a city to see the northern lights if the activity is strong.)
Northern Iceland Has Its Own Towering Waterfalls
While southern Iceland is famous for it’s waterfalls. Northern Iceland has a few incredible waterfalls of its own. Not to be missed are Dettifoss and Selfoss, Godafoss, Kolugljufur, Reykjafoss, Geitafoss, Aldeyjarfoss, Hrafnabjargafoss, and Hafragilsfoss.
The most spectacular waterfall in northern Iceland is Dettifoss, and the only place in northern Iceland you may run into big crowds. At 45m high and 100m wide, a massive 400 cu meters of water roars over its edge every second in summer. The spray from all this water can been seen over 1km away. Dettifoss is one of the most impressive waterfalls in Europe, winning the distinction of having the greatest volume of water.
Linger in Cute Coastal Towns
Northern Iceland has it’s far share of cute coast towns – the prettiest being Siglufjordur and Hofsos, as well as Husavik. Siglufjordur and Husavik are both worth spending at least one night in, or as home base for a few days of exploration.
Situated on Lundey Bay, Husavik is Iceland’s whale watching center. With color buildings, snow-capped mountains ringing the bay and a lively restaurant scene, the town is a great place to spend some time. Siglufjordur is a historic fishing community located below the towering mountains of the the fjord Sigulfjordur (the town’s namesake), a deep fjord that connects to the sea with dramatic mountains on both sides. Located in one of the many fingers of the Trollaskagi Peninsula, the journey to this quaint fishing villages is its own journey through magnificent landscape. The Trollaskagi Peninsula has some of the most impressive and spectacular landscape in all of northern Iceland and is definitely worth extra time exploring and hiking. Siglufjordur is an excellent home base for exploring hikes around the peninsula.
Hofsos, a trading center since the 1500s, it is most famous for it’s infinity pool on the edge of an impressive fjord (conveniently the pool as part of the local community center making it very affordable to use.) With a beautiful blue, traditional Icelandic church and a town located on the edge of a wide fjord, Hofsos is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. The real gem of this tiny Icelandic town is the excellent community pool. Open to everyone for a very small fee, the infinity pool feels like it’s hanging out on the edge of the fjord. Late night dips are available, allowing visitors to enjoying the pool under the Northern Lights or the Midnight Sun.
Planning Your Visit
For a small country, Iceland has diverse landscape and much to see. You don’t need to drive the entire ring road to experience northern Iceland. Akureyri, in the heart of northern Iceland, is a 5 hour drive from Reykjavik. Daily flights connect Akureyri and Reykjavik, making it easy to get right into the heart of Iceland’s north. In the winter months, flights still run to Akureyri making it accessible all year round. Looking to escape the crowds and experience the beauty of Iceland – spend time exploring northern Iceland’s incredible beauty.
While locals know about the magic and beauty of northern Iceland, the region is still off the radar of most tourists – making it a perfect place to travel. You can drive to northern Iceland from anywhere else in the country or take a short flight from Reykjavik to Akureyri. There is still so much uncrowded beauty to enjoy in this stretch of Iceland.
Best Time To Go: Spring, Fall and Summer are great months to visit. Winter is also an excellent time to go to view the Northern Lights, but be prepared for snow and cold temperatures. To avoid the most tourists and have more access to car and van rentals the shoulder months of Spring and Fall are ideal.
Number of Days Visiting Northern Iceland: To really enjoy northern Iceland give yourself a full week. If you have less time you could easily cram in most of it in 4 or 5 days. If you driving to and from Reykjavik allow extra time for this drive.
Do you need a car?: Yes. The best way to explore Northern Iceland (and any part of Iceland) is by car. You don’t need a 4×4 (unless you are visiting in winter) if you stick to the main highway. If you want to get into the Highlands then you will need a 4×4.
Where to Stay: Camping in campervans and tents, staying at guesthouses and airbnbs and staying in hotels are all available across northern Iceland.
Getting There and Away: Iceland is easily reached from North America and Europe by direct flights on a number of airlines, including Iceland’s own airline, Icelandair.
Genevieve Hathaway is a travel and documentary photographer and filmmaker. She is passionate about telling stories that empower women, local communities and conservation. Genevieve is the founder and storyteller-at-large for ArchaeoAdventures.