Head out of Reykjavík and you’ll find yourself surrounded with rugged beauty: fields of lava rock, glaciers, volcanic craters, waterfalls, and more. After a while, seeing a bit of civilization isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s where Akureyri—pronounced A-coo-ray-ri—comes in. Deemed the Capital of the North, the city is the second-largest population in Iceland, trailing right behind Reykjavík.
Akureyri is a fantastic place to take in local art—and you won’t have to pay any admission fees to do so. It’s a beacon of hustle and bustle, or as much of that as you can get in Iceland. But don't let the modern surroundings fool you: This town has a long history. The first official home in Akureyri was built in 1778 and eight years later, the town was named an official trading post. The latter was a move by the then-ruling Danish king to improve living conditions in the country and to promote more commerce. Thanks to this title, Akureyri became an often-visited harbor and port, playing an important role in the country's fishing and trading industries.
The best way to check out the city is to simply walk around. The people are friendly, the architecture is wonderfully Nordic, and the cafés are plentiful when you need a pick-me-up. While Akureyri is a busy city full of retailers, restaurants, and bars today, there are whispers of its previous life as a remote trading hub, seen in various places around the town and just outside its borders. Ahead, you’ll find 10 of the best things to do and see while you’re visiting the Capital of the North.
Although Húsavik is the whale watching capital of Europe, there are a ton of tour companies in Akureyri that will take you out on the water to spot the world’s largest mammal. If you’re looking for somewhere to start searching, check out these tour operators: Elding Whale Watching Akureyri, Ambassador Whale Watching, or Keli Sea Tours. All boat tours take off from Akureyri's harbor, which is impossible to miss as you drive around.
Eyjafjörður is the highest fjord in the area, measuring in at more than 5,000 feet tall. There are local tour companies that offer walking and hiking trips if you’re looking to take on the sights with someone who can provide some background on the area. Experienced hikers can take it on themselves, but know that it’s a difficult journey, specifically between the Lambi hut to the summit of Mt Kerling. You’ll have to travel through the scenic Glera Valley to access this hike, which is a treat in itself.
The local swimming pools are a favorite year-round gathering spot for families and visitors alike. At the geothermal pools of Sundlaug, you can enjoy two 82-foot lap pools, three waterslides (including the longest one in the country), four hot tubs, one sauna, and a sunbathing area. A majority of this facility is wheelchair accessible.
As one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, Akureyri’s wonderland of flora is one of the more educational stops you can make in this city. Here, you’ll find 6,600 species from around the world, plus 430 local plants and flowers.
While not technically in Akureyri, this special place is worth a spot on your itinerary. Gásir is a medieval trading post, where you can still see some of the original ruins and learn about all the things that happened at this major post up into the 16th century. This place is mentioned throughout the Icelandic Sagas, so read up if you want to add another layer of interest to your visit. The best time to visit is in July, when the locals dress up in traditional medieval garb, sell their handicrafts, and teach workshops in sewing, weaving, and dying with natural ingredients.
The locals in Iceland's larger cities have done a great job at maintaining each respective area's earliest histories. This is no exception in Akureyri, where you can visit Old Town, a neighborhood directly to the south of the city center. Make sure to check out the hospital, theater, and primary school. You’ll also pass the Laxdalshús (otherwise known as the oldest building Akureyri), which dates back to 1795.
To get a good feel for the local arts scene, head to Kaktus, a collective of local artists that regularly host concerts, art shows, exhibits, and other performances. The best part? All events are free to the public.
Iceland has its fair share of niche museums—the Herring Museum, the Phallological Museum, the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft—and the Motorcycle Museum does not disappoint. Inside, learn all about the bikes during the last 100 years in Iceland via artifact-filled exhibits.
Akureyri Art Trail
You don’t have to visit a museum to see some of the best art Akureyri has to offer. There’s an official Akureyri Art Trail booklet that breaks down the city into six walkable sections. Along the way, you’ll find work from artists Ásmundur Sveinsson, Elísabet Sigríður Geirmundsdóttir (Beta), Einar Jónsson, Jóhann Ingimarsson (Nói), Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir, and more.
A 20-minute drive from Akureyri, you’ll find another historical point of interest: Laufás. Here you can explore traditional Icelandic turf houses, while learning what life was like in the area between 1840 and 1870. In its prime, these turf homes housed between 20 and 30 people, including farmhands. The museum is open between May and September, but you can still visit during the winter if you reach out and request to see everything.