At this point it’s common knowledge that Iceland is the land of dreams. Roaring waterfalls, tranquil hot springs, and glaciers galore… really, what’s not to love?
And ask anyone if visiting the Blue Lagoon or Golden Circle is at the top of their bucket list and you’re bound to get a resounding yes. But despite the obvious draw of the most notable sights or the urge to take Icelandair up on their stopover offer, believe me when I say the rest of Iceland is well worth more than only a few days of your time. For those willing to venture more than just a couple of hours from Reykjavik, the rewards are more than you could possibly imagine.
Just a 35-minute flight (or five-hour drive in good weather), Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, awaits your arrival to the Northern region. Though it’s hard to call this charming spot a city when the population is a mere 18,000 and everyone treats you like a neighbor. The colorful downtown streets here are perfect for trying local treats or picking up a handmade gift before venturing out into the snow-capped fjords.
Once you’ve had a chance to relax, a trip to Lake Myvatn should be first on your to-do list. It’s hard to put into words the beauty of this enormous, albeit shallow, body of water. One side is bordered by lush pastures and wetlands known for their plentiful and rare birdlife; the other is covered in misshapen lava fields and bubbling mud pools.
In the summer, take either the Hofai or Skutustadagigar walk, or some of the lengthier trails, to get a variety of viewpoints of the lake as well as a glimpse of Dettifoss Waterfall (only the most powerful waterfall in Europe – pictured up top). Some areas also offer bikes or horses to rent if you prefer a different means of travel. And be sure not to miss a stop at Dimmuborgir (aka “Dark Castles”) just nearby. These twisted basalt pillars and caves are unique lava features that only exist on dry land.
Now, prepare yourself: we have another exciting attraction coming up. If you’ve ever dreamed of bathing in a private Blue Lagoon, you’ll be right at home in the Myvatn Nature Baths. While the water and geothermal heat provide the same minerals and health benefits as the Blue Lagoon, the smaller size and lack of development make these baths feel more secluded and tranquil (read: much less touristy). Having personally foregone the Blue Lagoon in favor of Myvatn, I can tell you I have zero regrets.
You can also stop and try the Hverabraud bread here. A local delicacy, Hverabraud is made by mixing a molasses-based dough and burying it near the geothermal vents to bake. And though it looks and weighs more like a brick, it’s oddly delicious…
For those with a more daring palate, you can always stop at the small fjord town of Dalvik, home of the Ektafiskur Fish Factory. The mainstay, salted cod, is the Iceland national dish that most people come to try. Known as hakarl, it essentially consists of preserved (and pungent!) Greenlandic shark meat. I would call it more of an experience than a treat. Aside from that, the fish in the region is pretty much the freshest you could hope to eat.
One of the most enticing features of Northern Iceland, though, is that it continues to amaze year round. During the warmer months, the fjords here offer some of the best whale watching in the country. Even a brief boat ride can result in numerous sightings of humpback whales, minkes, harbor porpoises, and even the occasional orca. For the more adventurous of heart, a 30-minute helicopter transfer or three hour-hour ferry can take your to Grimsey Island — the only part of Iceland above the Article Circle. With only 85 inhabitants, you are more likely to run into an auk or puffin than another person here. (We’re not complaining.)
If you find yourself here once the first snow has fallen (i.e. Oct – Apr) do not fret. The locales embrace the flurries wholeheartedly. The tall mountains make this a great destination for both cross-country and downhill skiing. And, of course, snowmobiling abounds.
But traveling in the winter also allows you a chance to see the coveted Northern Lights. The natural phenomenon is on many travelers’ bucket lists but due to the remote location, lack of large cities, and higher latitude Northern Iceland is one of the best places on the planet to witness this spectacular sight. (Read more about them here, and see them in their glory here↓)
So with all this mind, it may be time to start considering Iceland as more than just stop over and venture out into the northern untamed wilderness. You won’t regret it.
Want to witness the beauty of Myvatn and the Northern Lights for yourself? Check out this 8-day trip to Northern Iceland.
Image Credits (top to bottom): iStock, Intrepid Travel x2, iStock, Intrepid Travel x2