Reykjavík holds a tourism trump card, but Iceland's capital is effectively buckling under its visitor weight. With whispers of future tourism caps, as well as admission price increases and ever-escalating hotel costs, now's the time to go a bit off the beaten track in Iceland and visit Akureyri – a city 30km from the Arctic Circle.
The country’s second city, Akureyri has a stunning setting in the basin of the Eyjafjörður fjord in the north of the island. It sits almost equidistant between Reykjavík on the west coast and Egilstaðir on the east. As it accessible by car via a scenic four-hour drive along Iceland’s sole ring road – many a tourist has driven through Akureyri – but why not save more than seven hours by catching a flight and basing yourself in this northern port?
The country’s domestic carrier, Flugfélag Íslands (Air Iceland), flies Bombardiers north in what feels more like a leisurely commuter service experience than the full rigmarole and ceremony of a flight. The whole process is casual and carefree: you’re discouraged from arriving more than 45 minutes before your flight, there are hardly any checks either side, and there is no security. It’s said Icelanders, in a country of just 330,000 people, will almost always know someone in common so a flight predominantly packed with locals can appear like a collective game of Guess Who? as passengers work out who they know or delve into conversation about the country’s current affairs.
Some light ear-popping, a complimentary drink supped and breathtaking views below breathed in, and 35 minutes later you've touched down on a spit of runway known as Akureyri Airport, right on the water at the southern end of the city. The downside of flying? It's expensive and though some services operate daily between Keflavik International and Akureyri, these are only for connecting passengers with the flagship airline Icelandair. Otherwise you'll have to make your way to the smaller Reykjavík Airport, which operates up to seven flights daily between the two cities.
With a population of less than 20,000, Akureyri is more like a large town, akin to the likes of Clonmel or Greystones. Beer brewing is big business here and fishing has been a staple occupation for countless generations, but – as it is the island over – tourism is the main earner. The stretch from the main square, Ráðhústorg, to the main church, Akureyrarkirkja, is the pedestrianised heart of the city, and it is well stocked with all the essentials including boutiques, cafes, craft stores, banks and a smattering of good restaurants and bars.
Akureyri’s “twin towers”, for want of a better nickname, belong to the main church which, as the city’s landmark, dominates the skyline . Designed by Gudjón Samuélsson, the same prized Icelandic architect who designed Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavík, Akureyrarkirkja is similarly modelled upon basalt columns. The British-designed stained glass windows within – originally from Coventry Cathedral – are particularly worth the journey up the 112 steps to its door. Entry is free.
Right in the centre of the city is its best coffeehouse and you won’t miss this three-story royal blue wooden building with turrets. Locals come to enjoy Akureyri’s best coffee and while away a couple of hours working or chatting. The food is good too, with panini, quiches, soup, salads and daily hot specials on offer alongside freshly-baked cakes and pastries. Open from early morning until 11.30pm daily. facebook.com/blaakannan
For more wallet-friendly sustenance, Kristjáns bakery does a roaring trade with fresh pastries or a good-value no-frills lunch while a local hot dog/ sub shop, Hlöllabátar, gets lots of plaudits.
When it comes to bars, there’s much less choice than in the capital but compact Brygghúsbarinn, serving lots of locally-produced Kaldi microbrewery beers, and even more compact Götubarinn are two of Akureyri’s best. Many of the hotels in the area also have modern and comfortable bars.
Akureyri Swimming Pool
Get up close and personal with the locals whilst sharing a sauna or nudge for space in the hot tub at the excellent outdoor swimming pool on Þingvallastræti. Two 25m geothermal-heated pools, several “hot spring” tubs, a steam room and sauna offer the ideal excuse to indulge in a leisurely swim or lounge. It’s a surreal experience, especially when it’s snowing. The pool opens from early morning until night falls and entry costs roughly 600-800ISK (€5-6) per adult.
Five of the city’s museums have banded together to offer day-trippers reduced entry to all five, including Davidshús, the former home of one of Iceland’s greatest poets, Davíd Stefánsson; Minjasfnid á Akureyri, the city’s main history museum; and Sigurhædir, the home of the local poet and musician who composed Iceland’s rousing national anthem. The same 2000ISK (€16.50) ticket available at each participating museum allows same-day entry to all five. Some can charge up to €10 per person for entry, so it pays off from even your second visit.
An Icelandic-Asian fusion restaurant whose signature is the unique spice and herb rubs in almost every dish, as well as “sushi pizza”, which has to be tried to be believed. A stellar spirits wall, seasonally changing cocktails and lots of local beers bolster the drinks offering. Rub23 is located right across from the Akureyri church, and a tasting menu for two with two drinks costs roughly 20,000ISK (€70). rub23.is/en
Outside the city, a must-visit stop-off is Kaffi Kú, which means “cow café” in English. It is literally a café perched atop a working dairy parlour, 10 minutes’ drive outside the city. With a daily-changing line-up of hearty homemade dishes, cakes and sweet treats, 95 per cent of the menu is made using locally-sourced produce including the beef and milk which comes from their own herd. It is owned and run by an enterprising young family. Sit for a while and enjoy an extremely creamy latté with freshly-made waffles or a slice of traditional Icelandic Hjónabandssaela (“happy marriage cake”) while watching the workings of the machine-operated parlour below. Popular with tour groups, Kaffi Kú can be either packed or very quiet, but there’s ample seating and a great view. Take home an edible souvenir too: some homemade mustard, jam or their own beef jerky. kaffiku.is
It’s December 25th all year round in this magical little grotto, a five-minute drive outside the city. Jólagarðurinn, or Christmas House, is the stuff of Yuletide dreams at any time with a Santa-approved selection of Christmas decorations, festive frills and even foodstuffs. An adjoining but independent homeware boutique, Tante Grethe, is stocked with luxury crafts, food products and beautiful interiors.
Situated in the Eyjafjörður plain, Akureyri over time has climbed steeply upwards from the flat harbour area. With a surround of snow-capped slopes, naturally it’s a skiing hot-spot, particularly in late winter. www.hlidarfjall.is/en
Day-trips, tours and excursions
Two to three times daily whale-watching boat tours depart from different locations along the harbour, with a choice of several companies operating. Whalewatching is a popular tourist attraction and some companies claim a 99 per cent success rate for whale sightings. ambassador.is, whalewatchingakureyri.is, whales.is
Several local stables operate horse riding tours around the Akureyri countryside beginning at around 10,000ISK (approx €83) per person for a two-hour hack. hestaleiga.is, polarhestar.is
Saga Travel is one of the biggest tour operators in Iceland and their office is right off the main street at Kaupvangsstræti. With a diverse range of day tours on offer, from a wilderness lava walk and snowshoeing to cave explorations and a culinary coastline tour, it's easy to explore some of the country's more unusual activities. sagatravel.is
The 100-room Icelandair Hotel Akureyri on Þingvallastræti is all luxe nordic design with light-filled rooms, luxurious cottons, soft colours and large windows boasting incredible townside views.
The restaurant provides a generous fresh breakfast buffet each morning and is also a destination for lunch, dinner and afternoon tea for both tourists and locals. Minutes walk from the centre of Akureyri and right across from the local pool, this is the perfect base from which to explore the area. B&B double rooms begin at around 15000ISK (€125) per night.
How to get there
WowAir operate frequent services between Dublin and Reykjavík, a new route from Cork to Reykjavík begins on 19th May from €59.99 one-way. Icelandair/Air Iceland's new Belfast-Reykjavík route begins on June 1st from George Best Belfast City Airport.
Currency: Icelandic Krona (€ 1= 119ISK)
Time zone: UTC (+00.00)
Patrick Hanlon and Russell Alford write at GastroGays.com and contribute freelance to a number of print and digital publications in Ireland and the UK. @GastroGays