Capital of the North - Akureyri
Often called the “Capital of the North”, Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest city. Nestled at the bottom of the beautiful Eyjafjörður fjord and surrounded by mountains, it’s known for its mild climate and picture perfect scenery. Since Air Iceland will begin flying directly to Akureyri from Keflavík International Airport this February I thought I should head up north to see what Akureyri has to offer to curious visitors.
The area around Akureyri attracts people from all over the world wanting to experience the volcanic rock formations and geothermal landscape that has become famous lately as a setting for the Game of Thrones TV series. But the town of Akureyri is worth a closer look. More than just a place to pass through on your way somewhere else, Akureyri is a enchanting, cosmopolitan town that is still somehow quintessentially Icelandic.
I flew from Reykjavik on a rainy morning but landed in a beautiful, snowy wonderland 45 minutes later. The airport is located about 3 km from the centre of town but I wasn’t headed there straight away. Instead I was picked up by Sesselja Barðdal, the owner of Kaffi Kú, a cosy little café operated above the family cattle farm. As we drove through the snow she told me all about how she and her husband moved back to his parents’ farm and decided to open up an organic café and food production company. We drove up just as her husband Einar was about to start the preparations for the day. The café itself is newly furnished and cosy, with a varied menu of bistro food and traditional Icelandic dishes. In the summer you can even buy a picnic basket full of goodies and eat outside. All food is locally sourced and most of it comes from right there on the farm. At one end of the café there’s a little shop where you can buy meat and homemade condiments (try the homemade marmalade, it’s heavenly). The main attraction though is the fact that the café is built on top of the cow shed and has enormous glass windows that look over the roughly 200 cows they keep. A large monitor lets you watch the milking robot milking the cows which is surprisingly fascinating. I could have spent hours just sitting there with my coffee and watching the cows go about their business.
But there’s no rest for the wicked and Sesselja kindly took me around the fjord before dropping me off in Akureyri again. We stopped at Silva, a vegan restaurant that also rents out cottages, and then at possibly my favourite place in the area, the Christmas Garden. Consisting of two small houses and a tower, the Christmas Garden is just as festive as it sounds. One of the houses is a shop that sells Scandinavian design and sweets but the distinctive red house is where magic lives. Stepping in you can’t help but be overcome with the Christmas spirit as baubles and trinkets from all over the world fill every nook and cranny. The tower houses the world’s largest advent calendar so make sure you climb up there. But as much as I’d have liked to stay and pretend it was Christmas we had to continue on.
Sesselja dropped me off at the Hof Culture Centre by the Akureyri harbour. Hof’s construction was finished in 2010 and, as the name suggests, it has been the hub for Akureyri’s arts and culture scene ever since. Akureyri’s incredibly rich cultural life is its most distinguishing feature (well that and the stunning landscape). The town boasts of one of the largest libraries in the country, a number of museums on everything from aviation to literature, and an ambitious Art Museum that not only curates several exhibitions a year but also runs the Summer Arts festival where a whole street, most commonly known as the Arts Canyon, comes alive with all sorts of artist from all over the world showing off their talents. It’s like a mini-fringe festival. Head of PR for the Art Museum, Hlynur Þormóðsson took me around the galleries and told me that the museum policy is to support young artists and give them the space and opportunity to showcase their art. The living proof was right there in front of us as we watched art students from the University of Akureyri set up an exhibition on their final projects. Akureyri also has an active theatre and legendary music venue Græni hatturinn – The Green Hat, where they have live music every weekend. If you want to experience the best of Icelandic music, as well as the welcoming nature of the locals in Akureyri, this is the place to be.
After walking all over the town and chatting to people on every street corner (the locals really are very welcoming, although as an Icelander you will have to trace your family history for everyone you meet) it was time for a relaxing soak in the swimming pool hot tubs and then a grateful rendezvous with my comfy bed at the modern and stylish Akureyri Icelandair Hotel. I left the next morning determined to come back as soon as possible.