Finding winter wonderland: Akureyri and the north of Iceland in winter

All winter long I’ve been wanting to get away for a few days to visit Akureyri and the surrounding areas but I’ve never felt I had quite enough time for it. The drive to Akureyri is around 4,5-5 hours, possibly a bit longer in winter, which in my mind meant that I would need at least three days for this trip if I wanted to see something more than just the insides of a hotel room. Until I got out of my brainfog for a moment of clarity and remembered that we actually have this domestic airline here in Iceland that gets you to Akureyri in 45 minutes. Duh.

Air iceland

On Sunday last week I checked the forecast for the week and looked at my schedule and saw that I could afford a couple of days away from the office and the weather forecast wasn’t looking too bad. So I convinced my best friend Elli, who happened to be in Iceland on a visit from his home in Sweden, to join me and booked us on the earliest flight out on Wednesday morning. Of course I talked to my friends at Budget who hooked us up with a car and then we booked a room at the Icelandair Hotel in Akureyri because it was a good deal and I’ve stayed there before. Air Iceland generously gave us a good rate on their flights which was helpful since all their cheapest fares were already booked because we were booking so last minute. It’s sometimes helps to have people in your corner that want to help you make things happen and I’m always grateful for that!

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We ended up having an amazing time and it was very special to us because we are both celebrating our birthdays this month and a friendsaversary but we met for the first time in February 30-something years ago, mere days after we both made our first appearance in this world.

I know you don’t read this blog to get life advice from me but if there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started my business it is  that you have to make time for the people you love in your life, no matter how much you have got going on. Friendship is not something to take for granted because our time on earth is not unlimited. So if you see an opportunity to jump on an adventure with your best friend – take it! The memories you make together are worth so much more than a few extra krónur in the bank.

A few practical things about visiting north of Iceland from Reykjavík in winter

Flying is a very convenient way to visit Akureyri and the surrounding areas if you are pressed for time because it only takes 45 minutes to fly and you could leave Reykjavík in the morning and come back in the evening. I would recommend you spend at least one night though (or more if you have the time) because the area simply deserves it. The drive between Akureyri and Reykjavík is also beautiful in winter so it might be worth flying there and drive back but just keep the sometimes hefty one-way fees for the car rental and the three mountain passes on the way in mind.

I’ve done a day trip with Air Iceland up north once before and I absolutely loved it. Especially the part that it only took a day! The contrast between the photos I took on that trip and this one is really quite something.

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The one downside to flying is that there’s always a risk that domestic flights get cancelled due to bad weather. It’s not an every day occurrence but it does happen. Because of that I would suggest you start your visit to Iceland by going to the north (much like the guy who accidentally ended up in Siglufjörður when he wanted to go to downtown Reykjavík did – only intentionally) before you explore Reykjavík and the surrounding areas towards the end of your trip. That way you have some wiggle room in case of unexpected delays. Of course you can also just stay in the north and skip Reykjavík and the south altogether but just make sure you have a buffer day between your domestic  flight and your flight home if you decide to do that.

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People often complain about the price of  domestic flights in Iceland and give you examples that it is cheaper to fly to London from Reykjavík than Akureyri. I’m not going to argue that this isn’t true, sometimes, but you can get a better deal by booking your flight a bit in advance (like with any flight) and being flexible with dates. Also, if you don’t mind paying 40.000 a person for a day trip out of Reykjavík (like many of the super jeep tours cost) these prices aren’t that bad in comparison. I’m not saying one is better than the other or that you shouldn’t do super jeep tours (they’re fun, so do them) – I’m just trying to put things into perspective.

Finally if you are going to be exploring the Mývatn area in the midst of winter like we did I would recommend you get a 4WD, preferably a jeep. We would not have been able to visit all the places we did end up going to if we had been driving a tiny little Yaris. We actually saw some questionable PDTB (pretty dumb tourist behavior) in some of the places we visited. Just if you see a car of the same size you are driving stuck in a pile of snow and a bunch people shoveling snow and pushing it to get it out of there don’t go drive into the exact same pile as soon as the other car is out of it. Let’s just leave it at that.

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Of course if you don’t feel comfortable with driving in the snow or if you find it too expensive to rent a 4WD you can also visit Lake Mývatn on day tours from Akureyri in vehicles that are ready for everything and operated by experienced drivers and great guides.

Places for when you are hungry

We came into Akureyri around 08:00 am. It was too early and dark to head out straight away and because we had to get up so early and we hadn’t had time for breakfast we decided to find somewhere to sit down for a while. We ended up going to a little coffee shop / breakfast place called Berlin that is located in Skipagata in the downtown area of Akureyri. We got great food for a reasonable price and the playlist included a lot of songs by Antony and the Johnsons which in our books gives them some extra cool points. I got avocado, chili and egg on toast and Elli got a ham sandwich with a Portobello mushroom. We didn’t want to be those people that photograph everything they eat so you’ll just have to use your imagination.

In the evening we went to Bryggjan which is kind of a weird restaurant that is located in a beautiful old building by the waterfront in Akureyri. I say weird because when you get in there you feel like it should be some really nice somewhat upscale fish restaurant but the menu is more of the the burger joint / pizzeria /  diner variety. Then they were playing this really awful Icelandic music quite loudly (which, I admit, many in Iceland think is great so this one might be more about me than them) and the part of my brain that categorizes things got all confused. What is this place? But the food was very good, if you are just looking for something not too fancy, and the prices fair.

If you are looking for something a bit more upscale I have never been disappointed with Rub 23. Look up recent reviews though because I haven’t been there in a while.

Our road trip

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I have to admit that I wasn’t completely prepared for how white everything was when we got out of Akureyri. Everything was covered in snow and you couldn’t make out where the ground started and the sky ended for most of the day. Because of that we didn’t visit the places I would normally visit when I go up there like the Skútustaðagígar or Dimmuborgir. Instead we spent our time on walks, playing in the snow and mingling with some horses. But we also visited Goðafoss and the geysers at Námafjall and just took in the beautiful nature all around us from the road. It was breathtaking. No cars or people for long stretches at a time. All sounds muffled because of the snow. And this odd feeling that maybe you’re a character in some sort of post-apocalyptic blockbuster and you half expect a pact of zombies showing up to eat you at any given minute. Or, you know, something slightly more beautiful and poetic.

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Elli 9

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The highlight for both of us though was going for a dip at the Mývatn Nature baths. I often mention this place when people are looking for alternatives to the Blue Lagoon. The showers are simple, the interiors kind of like one of those gas station restaurants (no fancy lava walls like at the Blue Lagoon) but it’s clean, the staff nice and the lagoon itself is absolutely lovely. It didn’t spoil our experience that we practically had it all to ourselves. When we got in there were 6 people there and when we left we had been there alone for a while. The people that were there were all people we had been bumping into the whole day at various spots so they almost felt like friends at that point. And the best part? The entrance is 3.500 ISK compared to the almost 10.000 ISK it costs you to visit the Blue Lagoon.

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Planning for the unexpected

We ended up having a bit of  trouble with the weather for our return journey and woke up to the news Thursday morning that all flights after the one we were booked on had been cancelled due to a bad storm. Because of past experiences I was a bit worried our flight would get cancelled last minute too, in which case we would have been stuck in Akureyri until the next day. On the other hand the weather forecast around Reykjavík was looking particularly grim that day and we knew if we would drive back we might risk getting stuck on the way due to road closures.

We ended up driving back, because we couldn’t afford getting stuck, and we got to Reykjavík less than an hour before they closed the roads. Although we enjoyed the views on the way and generally had a good time this drive was stressful to say the least. And I’m used to all kinds of conditions.

Our flight was the last flight that left Akureyri that day so we actually could have just enjoyed a nice quiet morning in Akureyri and flown home instead of driving in crazy wind 388 kilometers back to Reykjavík. You can’t get it right every time but we learned our lesson and now know to trust Air Iceland when they say they’ll probably get us home.

I think the Iceland we experienced up north that day is the Iceland many people are looking for when they book their trip to Iceland but can no longer find in the more popular tourist spots. It was vast and cold and white and spectacular and otherworldly. Breathtaking really. And very calming. We both loved it.

And it’s only 45 minutes away.

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18 thoughts on “Finding winter wonderland: Akureyri and the north of Iceland in winter”

  1. Winfried says:

    Hi Auður,

    Great story. Up to now I was 5 times in Akureyry and Mývatn in the winter times, twice with a one-day trip tour organized by Air Iceland and in 2012-2014 I was three times there for my own and made some trips with teh local company Saga Travel.

    I also can recommend guided tours especially when you’re not familiar with the road conditions and the weather in the winter times. I was moe than happy that I had guides who drove me safe through the winter areas. The mentioned Icelandair Hotel is also a good recommendation. I also was there three imes. It has nice rooms and phantasic beds to do a hibernation 🙂 And the geothermical bath is just on the other side of the street.

    A good advice to eat something in Mývatn is Vogafjós (http://www.vogafjos.is). It’s a great restaurant with good food and a cowshed that you can see from the restaurant.

    Regards
    Winfried

  2. I just visited Akureyri this past weekend and loved it. I was there for work, so I didn’t get to venture to any of the nature sites outside of the city, but after reading your post, I think I’ll need to plan a holiday to do just that. 🙂 Thanks for the information and photos!

  3. Charlotte says:

    Your photos are beautiful Audur – any tips for so crisply and deeply capturing the light and colours here in what could easily have been a white-out of over exposed shots? Kit or technique or both?

    1. mm Auður says:

      Are you making fun of me? Because that’s not very nice 🙂

      1. Charlotte says:

        Haha, absolutely not! The colours of the horses and your clothes and the light through the clouds are very vivid and crisp vs the snow – that’s what I meant 🙂 Are you going to tell me your secrets?

        1. mm Auður says:

          I don’t know if I have any secrets – I actually struggled a bit with the conditions because everything was so covered in snow and the sky was milky white too and I didn’t have the time to find the exact right settings. I always shoot everything in RAW which makes it easier to manipulate the photos in the editing process. I don’t edit my photos a lot but I might lighten some shadows or fix some highlights if necessary. Taking photos of people and objects in the snow is not difficult, the white sky diffuses the light quite well and you don’t have to worry about any harsh shadows or anything. It’s just the landscape that is challenging. I’m sure if we hadn’t been really focused on using the daylight while we had it I would have given myself more time to get this right.

          I almost only use prime lenses on my camera with a large aperture (I can’t afford the fancy stuff though so I have the Canon 28, 50 and 85mm f/1.8 ) and I usually shoot in AV mode if I’m not photographing the northern lights or something that requires me to set the shutter speed. On that day we didn’t have a lot of daylight so most of these are shot with a larger aperture since I didn’t have the time to set up a tripod and everything for longer exposure times. I used auto ISO but maybe I could have manipulated the ISO for better results. My camera is not great in low light situations and higher ISO usually means more grain, which I hate. Then I edit the raw files in Lightroom and maybe clean up the JPGs in Photoshop if needed.

          Many of the photos on my blog in general are taken on my phone or my little Sony RX100 iii and are hardly edited (although I often add a matte look because it better fits the feel of my blog). If you have a good eye you can take good photos with any camera.

          1. Charlotte says:

            Brilliant, thanks Audur that’s exactly what I wanted to know about! We have a Canon 450d DSLR which we’re OK with but by no means pro so good to hear some of these tips from you to think about.

            We researched how to shoot the northern lights for our last trip to Iceland and got some great shots but I wasn’t as proud of most of our landscape shots – all a bit dull and washed out – I really want to capture the depth of colour in the stone, water, moss and lava fields when we come back in May

  4. Adam says:

    Can you tell me the name of that amazing waterfall!?
    Thanks so much!
    A

    1. mm Auður says:

      It’s called Goðafoss.

      1. Adam says:

        Thank you so much! I’m an artist based in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. I recently received a grant, and the project begins with a trip to Iceland for inspiration (followed by a show and public projects here in Portland, OR later this year). My wife and I will be arriving next week. Just wanted to say thanks for your blog and all of the great info here. Its been really helpful in planning our trip.

  5. Belgje says:

    VERY VERY nice pictures of this nice town and region in winter. Just great!
    I can recommend “Backpackers”-bar to tourists too. (the hostel, I don’t know) A bar where average people, like me 😉 can still buy a beer at reasonable prices. I’ve been climbing in the mountains around Akureyri, what was the name of that top again?
    And I slept in some kind of “horse town” nearby the city ;-). Just put my car in the middle of the night in this cowboy zone and left in the early morning. ;-)) Why? On the hills (free camping) were young guys driving and hanging around, drinking alcohol, mad behaviour. Sad. So I left a beautiful parking in the hills.
    Great visit, pretty small town!!! (to us, it seems to be a village…)
    Myvatn was great too, and there were not too much mosquitos. 😉 Very nice region. Beautiful hiking trails.
    Later we had to leave the region (Asbyrgi) because of that volcano Bardarbunga (or something …)
    Audur, there must be other nature baths in the northern region (I saw a picture you made) but I didn’t find it. Do you have an adress or gps coordinates?

  6. davide lovato says:

    Hi! Nice experience man! I would like to hear your opinion: me and me gf (30yo) we’ll rent a 4×4 and drive on iceland. We have 6 full days available… we would like to drive the whole ring, but are in doubt for the north side roads conditions. I have never driven on a slippery/frozen road, so i don’t know if it’s possible and how does it take respect the normal conditions. Do you think we should remain oh the south side+snaelelsness+gold ring? Are anyway 1200 km, like the whole iceland ring! Thanks ✌?

    1. mm Auður says:

      I would say that 6 days is too little for the whole ring road in winter. Maybe you would like to read this post: http://www.iheartreykjavik.net/2015/05/can-i-do-the-iceland-ring-road-in-five-days/

  7. Carolyn says:

    Hi Auður!

    Your pictures are breath taking! My fiance and I are planning our honeymoon to Iceland (something different and exciting) in end of October, beginning of November!

    I have some questions if you don’t mind!! When did you travel to the north? We want to take 10-12 days to do the Ring Road. I read up a lot on Ring Road itinerary examples, but I am hearing to avoid the north during Iceland winter. There’s a chance that major roads will be closed off due to weather conditions. We planned a weekend in Reykjavik upon our arrival and then hit the road for the remainder of our time. Probably will go clockwise so we will get to the north earlier and we can try to avoid worse weather in the northern part later on in the week. We were thinking Akureyri would be our mid point and from there take a flight to Hofn. Based on your experience driving around the North, do you think Akureyri is easily accessible to get to from Reykjavik? We plan to stay in hotels along the way so we don’t drive for too long and stop to see the Westfjords, Snæfellsnes, etc. We would unfortunately miss most of the Northern sights, but I heard the main road to Detifoss is usually closed in the winter anyway and the drive there is a bit risky. We would rent a rugged 4×4, but I would hate to get stuck in the snow on our honeymoon lol.

    Thanks for a very helpful article!

    ~C

    1. mm Auður says:

      First of all: thank you for the compliment.

      Second: It’s impossible to say now what the weather will be like when you will be here. This winter, for example, there was no real snow in Akureyri until mid November and it only lasted 5 days or so. The photos in this post were taken in February 2016 but there is nowhere near as much snow up there this year. So you just have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

      I think it is a mistake to go all the way up to Akureyri and not check out the Mývatn area at least.

  8. Selena says:

    Hi we will be leaving akureyri tomorrow heading towards blonduos, just wondering is route 1 ok to drive on in winter or head north on route 82, any thoughts would be great, would just like the route that is less stressful lol.
    Thanks

    1. mm Auður says:

      Unfortunately with all the e-mails and comments I receive I cannot answer everything in real time here. Route 1 is always the best option as it’s better maintained than the other roads.

  9. Ellen Saab says:

    Hey Auður!

    Your photos are absolutely breath-taking. Truly beautiful. Having been to Iceland myself, I know the impossibility of capturing the beauty of it in a single photo, but you came very close.

    Last December, we attempted driving to Mývatn but failed. We resembled the questionable tourist you mentioned, getting caught in the snow with a toyota Yaris, it is funny how well you depicted our unpreparedness…

    Second time around, we are heading there in November for 1-2 weeks from Australia. I understand this is quite an awkward time as it is not quite the perfect time to see the NL’s or the snow. However, I am wondering, if you have any idea of the possibility of either of these phenomenons occurring in November? How often does it snow in the north at this time?

    Also, If you have any general tips on what to do or see at this time i would really love to know!

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post! You have completely inspired me to head to Mývatn, even if it means going in a Toyota Yaris. Truly an amazing post!

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