When you think about Iceland you can’t help to think about glaciers and volcanoes. After all, the country’s name literally has ice in it and the volcanoes, well, let’s just say they have caused some turmoil in the last decade.
However, that is not all the country has to offer. It is also home to many other magical natural wonders including natural hot springs which you can bathe in, rhyolite colored fumaroles, moon-like landscapes, birch forests, lava parks and remarkable waterfalls.
The island is big but the nation is small, so major sweeps of the country are somewhat untouched giving an opportunity to roam around free and in solitude–a feeling that is quite rare in today’s world. There are, of course, the busier sites like the Golden Circle or the South Coast but Iceland still has many areas which are especially rural and are rich in animal life, i.e. horses, sheep, cattle, and the occasional wild Arctic fox.
By diverging from the usual route and going north, gives you a glimpse of why settlers came to Iceland in the first place. Think Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones and you might just be setting the scene right. The route around the North of Iceland is most commonly known as the Arctic Coast Way Route and in 2019 this route was on Lonely Planet’s top 10 list of Europe’s must-see places!
In this blog, we will cover its highlights. Featuring its must-sees and must-dos.
Fun Facts about the Arctic Coast Way Route
- There are 21 fishing villages from the official start to the end of the Arctic Coast Way. Plenty of opportunities to stay and enjoy the local atmosphere.
- The Arctic Coast Way takes you into the best whale watching area Iceland has to offer, with a record number of nine different species of whales spotted in one trip!
- There are 18 geothermal pools within the Arctic Coast Way, if you simply want to soak in Icelandic culture. And, that’s not counting the beer baths!
- Akureyri is the capital of North Iceland but Husavik is the capital of whale watching.
- The Arctic Coast Way covers six peninsulas!
- The story behind Hannah Kent’s best-seller Burial Rites took place at Vatnsnes Peninsula.
- You can take a boat to Grímsey, one of the northernmost parts of Iceland which straddle the Arctic Circle. A truly fascinating island with only about 150 inhabitants.
- In 2019 the Arctic Coast Way was listed by Lonely Planet on the list of top 10 places to visit in Europe!
The Highlights of the Arctic Coast Way – North Iceland
Lake Myvatn and its surrounding attractions are a reason on its own to visit Iceland. It is a true geothermal utopia with colorful mud pools, spiraling hot springs, bubbling geysers, grandiose volcanic craters and incredible views. Whether you are driving the Ring Road one clockwise or counterclockwise this place will leave you gobsmacked. It happens quite frequently when traveling around Iceland’s diverse landscapes that you are traveling between planets, but never is the contrast as great as it is in Myvatn.
Dimmuborgir is also located in the Myvatn area but like the waterfall mentioned below, it deserves its own review. This exquisite lava park is packed with all sorts of natural rock formations, sculpted through volcanic eruptions and ice ages. It’s troll-like pillars have been an inspiration to many of the folklore tales in the area, something which you’ll understand very well once you have visited.
The waterfall of the gods, as Godafoss translates, is truly one of the gems of North Iceland. Godafoss waterfall drops gracefully down into a horseshoe-shaped canyon creating a most aesthetically satisfying setting. Whether you visit in winter or summer, this place is just as sure to amaze.
The waterfall basks in folklore but in the year 1000 chieftain Thorgeir Thorkelsson is said to have thrown his pagan idols down into the falls after returning from Thingvellir where parliament had been held and the decision made for Iceland to convert to Christianity. Many say that this is where the name Godafoss (Goðafoss) comes from. Goðar means gods and foss is waterfall.
Asbyrgi is yet another place connected to the Pagan religion. The canyon is believed to have formed when Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse stepped down when traversing over Iceland. His hoofprint (luckily) left a permanent mark which today we call Asbyrgi. This is for many Icelanders the ultimate natural paradise with birch trees, ponds and lava walls framing it all in like a scene out of a fairytale. There are some amazing hiking trails around the area and the camping ground is stellar. No matter how you choose to explore the Arctic Coast Way, make sure Asbyrgi isn’t left out!
The capital of whale watching tours in Iceland and an absolute joy to visit. This is just one of the many fishing villages situated along the Arctic Coast Route but surely one of the better ones. On a rainy day, you can enjoy many interesting museums or simply treat your tastebuds to delicacies of the sea. When the weather allows a stroll around town is a great way to spend your time. Especially stopping at the harbor, hopefully joining one of the many whale watching experiences they offer.
Another fantastic activity at Husavik is the GeoSea baths, magically located at the edge of the ocean. This place will truly have you in a geothermal bathing bliss in seconds. Additionally, they have great changing facilities, delicious food, and, of course, dazzling views, so you can’t go wrong with a visit here!
The capital of the North and truly the most urban place you’ll find when exploring the North. Akureyri has it all, a buzzing theatre scene, a range of museums and restaurants, a high street with that old fishing town charm and adorable houses and a great variety of tours to go around exploring. If you are there in winter a Northern Lights adventure is only a pick up away. And, if you are there in summer the midnight sun lasts even longer in the north, unmistakenly making your summer night a memorable one.
Akureyri is located in Eyjafjordur and around the fjord you’ll find many different hamlets and interesting stops. The Cowshed Café, located right inside the stables or the full-blown gingerbread Christmas house, open all year round. There is something wonderfully quirky and unique about Akureyri and its surrounding lands. Firmly placing Akureyri at the top 10 must-visit places on the Arctic Coast Route.
Once a bustling town of young people seeking employment in the herring boom era, Siglufjordur is now a sparsely populated yet picturesque town on the Troll Peninsula. The mark of old money is evident in the town’s persona and architecture. But, with added tourism and as a result, funds, the locals were able to restore and fix up all of the derelict but charming buildings around town, many of which were vacant. The townsfolk completed the renovations with the utmost respect to historical accuracy and attention to detail, even going through old photos to get the paint colors “just right”, and the windows “just the same height.” And, through this restoration process, the pride this town once held and the beauty it so gracefully possessed was reclaimed.
As a result, the town is once again filled with people from all over Iceland and the world, this time looking to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the surrounding fjord, the charm of the town, its residents, and local activities including great dining experiences and heli-skiing.
Skagafjordur is one of those places you don’t hear talked about a lot, my guess is that someone is trying to keep it to themselves because this place is out of this world! Renowned for the best Icelandic horses, Skagafjordur is also largely a geothermal area with excellent swimming pools and bathing opportunities. Including the infamous Grettislaug where the outlaw Grettir the strong bathed after having swum across the fjord.
It is home to Jokulsa Austari, Europe’s most adventurous river rafting location. As well as being where many of the most famous scenes from the Icelandic Sagas took place. Which historians have worked hard to display in many of the ambitious museums Skagafjordur has to offer. My favorite are Glaumbaer, turf house hamlet and heritage museum and Kakalaskali where a guided audio tour invites you in an impressive journey through the Sturlung era!
The Arctic Coast Way in Winter
Driving the route in winter can be more challenging than in summer. The weather is the main factor at play and can change suddenly, sometimes without much warning. This is why it is important to keep this in mind at all times and check the weather forecast and road conditions frequently. However, this little cheat sheet we have prepared for you might also come in handy!
Different Ways to explore the Arctic Coast Way Route
The Arctic Coast Way Route can be explored in many different ways. Some like do drive the whole Ring Road, exploring the south and east of Iceland before taking on the adventures of the north. While others like to start venturing in the west before visiting the coast of sagas and mythology. We, Iceland Travel, offer an amazing road trip, where for 11-days you get to explore the best Iceland has to offer. Expertly crafted by travel specialists, The Arctic Iceland Road Trip truly is a trip of a lifetime!
For those looking for a shorter road trip, the North Iceland Coast Charm might be perfect! Six days and five nights focusing on all the highlights of the north. Ideal for someone who has already explored the south or someone who simply wants more time to explore Iceland’s unique north.
You can even catch and flight from Reykjavik to Akureyri, grab a rental car and journey on your own. Anything is possible in the land of ice and fire!
The Arctic Coast Way is developed and owned by Visit North Iceland. Visit North Iceland is responsible for marketing and promotion of North Iceland working for 21 municipalities, 250 companies, and the government.