Many visitors to Iceland spend their time in and around Reykjavik, or on the spectacular south coast – but there are some wonderful things to do in North Iceland, including volcanoes, mountains, fjords, alien-like geothermal areas and one of the most breath-taking waterfalls I’ve ever seen!
So if you are keen to adventure further than most, or if you’re planning to drive the Ring Road, here are some of the top things to do in North Iceland.
I visited North Iceland on my second visit to Iceland, and whilst South Iceland is still my favourite region, I really enjoyed the varied landscape of North Iceland – and the fact that some, though not all, of the attractions were still relatively quiet with few other visitors.
This list of things to do in North Iceland aren’t in order of how good they are (in fact, I’ve put my favourite at the end). Instead I’ve listed these in the order you could see them if you follow the Ring Road clockwise through North Iceland. All of these North Iceland attractions can be reached by a normal car (no need for a 4×4 unless it is winter, when the roads will be snowy).
1. Feel peaceful at Hrútafjörður
Hrútafjörður is a fjord in North-West Iceland. It doesn’t have steep sides like other fjords, (so I actually thought the water was a sound rather than a fjord, but what do I know!) and the landscape isn’t dramatic and spectacular like some of the other north Iceland attractions that I’ll cover in this article.
However, what I liked about this area is how peaceful it is. When I was there, the water was still and the air was quiet. There were only a few other campers around. A group of Icelandic horses were feeding right on the banks of the fjord. It felt so tranquil.
I found this place by accident, as I was searching for a campsite 2-3 hours north of Reykjavik, and found one at Sæberg, on the eastern side of the fjord. I haven’t seen it on other lists of things to do in North Iceland, but I really enjoyed it, and it felt like was seeing a different side of Iceland than I had seen on my previous trip a few years before.
The Sæberg Hostel and campsite has a hot tub overlooking the water, if you’re into that kind of thing. There’s natural hot springs in the area, so you might see steam coming from the ground!
Ps. Shortly after I visited here, I read about a scenic spot in another fjord in this area: the Hvítserkur rock on the west side of in the Húnafjörður. I didn’t visit this spot but photographs of it look striking, so it could be worth a detour.
2. Relive the past at Glaumbær turf roof farm
As you drive around Iceland, you may see the occasional turf-roofed building, a reminder of the old way of staying warm during Iceland’s cold winters. Well, you can get up close and personal with some of these in a cute little outdoor museum in Glaumbær: a complex of turf-roofed buildings that were a working farm in the late 1800s.
For ISK1700 (approx. £10) you can explore the complex of buildings and inter-connected homes, all insulated form the elements from the traditional method of lining the walls and roof with living turf. There are working buildings and living quarters, which were once home to a community of the farmer, his family and farm workers. There’s also a café and a very pretty church nearby.
If, like me, you get claustrophobic in small spaces, you might prefer the stunning views from the farm outside. From its elevated position, you look out across farmlands towards the moody mountains of the Trollaskagi peninsula (which is my next recommendation!).
3. Take the road less driven on Trollaskagi peninsula
If you’re short on time and driving the Ring Road in a hurry, you might not have time for this north Iceland attraction – but that would be a shame. I loved taking this remote detour off route 1 and doing something a little different, with far, far fewer other tourists to share the experience with.
The Trollaskagi peninsula is not the northern-most tip of Iceland, but it is a stunning part of Iceland to drive: the road hugs the mountainside, circling around snow-capped peaks and craggy coastline.
At the northern tip is an orange lighthouse with breath-taking views (and quite a steep gravel road down to it). I’ve read you can see whales from here, but I wasn’t so lucky. Nevertheless, it was a lovely spot: I was amazed at the stillness of the sea. And the steepness of the mountains descending into rocky beaches.
There are also some lovely towns, along this wild coast, including Dalvik where I had the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted at Gisli, Eirikur, Helgi, kaffihus Bakkabraedra cafe.
Good to know: If you take route 76 and follow it all the way around Trollaskagi towards Akureyri, you will be taken through three tunnels that go through the mountains, two of these are single lane, meaning you have to use occasional passing spaces to pass cars coming the other way. And if you want to explore the roads inland on the peninsula (off route 76), please note some of these are gravel and may not be suitable for a car that doesn’t have 4-wheel drive.
4. Visit a northern town: Akureyri or Husavik
I personally visit Iceland for the landscape and the spectacular natural beauty, but there are time where you need a little civilisation. There are two main towns in North Iceland: Húsavík and Akureyri.
I didn’t make it to Húsavík, but it is known for its whale-watching and its old wooden church. There’s also a hot baths with a view over the ocean which looks pretty special.
Akureyri has the nickname ‘Capital of North Iceland’ and it is an important fishing centre. If you’re passing through you can find plenty of bars and restaurants to grab something to eat or drink. I personally liked Kaffi Ilmur, which has one of those mini houses for the huldufólk (hidden people, or elves).
You can also visit the austere-looking Akureyrarkirkja church or arrange a boat tour from the harbour. Look out for the shape of the red lights on traffic lights in Akureyri – in a demonstration of whimsy and/or romance, they are heart-shaped.
5. Goðafoss, waterfall of the Gods
Goðafoss is just off the ring road, so you can’t miss it. It is a majestic ring of waterfalls, with a width of around 30 meters.
Legend has it that when Iceland rejected paganism and turned to Christianity, they threw their statues of Norse gods into the waterfall, hence its name ‘Waterfall of the gods’.
It was quite busy when I went, with bus loads of people there by mid morning – you’re definitely ‘on the beaten path’ here.
Top tip: avoid the café-bistro-gift shop that is located close to the waterfalls. On my Iceland Ring Road trip, I stopped in there and bought a bottle of coke, a caffe latte and 2 pints of milk, and the charge was ISK4,840, which was £28!! We all know Iceland is expensive, but that is ridiculous!
6. Marvel at the size of Myvatn lake
Heading east from Goðafoss, you will come to Lake Myvatn, a huge shallow lake.
The lake was created by a large eruption more than 2000 years ago and the surrounding landscape is dominated by volcanic features, including lava pillars and pseudo craters. It is surrounded by wetlands and is home to lots of water birds and fish. It has also been the set for several movies, including the Fate of the Furious (I’m a sucker for those movies!).
The lake seems huge, with a surface area of 37 square km – but it is really shallow. The maximum depth of the lake is 4.5 meters and the average depth is 2.5m.
There are plenty of walks you can take around the lake, and attractions including craters that are dotted around its perimeter. I loved the way the lake was so calm, reflecting the sky like an enormous mirror.
Be warned, though: in summer, there can be a lot of midges in the Myvatn area. Midges are irritating little flies that will buzz around your head and follow you around. I’ve heard they can bite, but I didn’t get bitten while I was in the area, thankfully.
7. Hike the Hverfjall Crater
Next to Lake Myvatn, you can’t help but notice an impressively huge, dark volcanic crater looming above the lake. This is Hverfjall, a tuff ring volcano that was formed 2500 years ago and is part of the Krafla volcanic system.
If you want to do more than admire its black outer slopes, you will have to climb to the rim of the crater. The path is steep but not long: the crater is approx 400m high. The walk to the rim takes only about 15-20 minutes, but if you want to walk the circumference of the rim, it will take another hour or so. The worst thing was being followed up there by midges, which seemed to be especially numerous and active at Hverfjall.
The views from the rim looking outward were great: you have stunning panoramic views of lake Myvatn and the surrounding area.
However, I loved looking inwards at the brutality of this crater: everything was black and barren. It felt like an alien planet and I was captivated by these dark slopes.
8. Feel the heat at Hverir Geothermal Area
The next top thing to do in North Iceland feels like another alien landscape!
Hverir is also known as the Námafjall Geothermal Area, and is a place where you can see evidence of the powerful forces beneath the surface of the earth. This place smells bad (kinda eggy) because of the hot sulphurous gases forcing their way out of the earth – but is a really cool place for a short stop.
It is at the base of a volcanic mountain, which you can hike if you have the time and energy. My favourite part of this is the splashy colour palate of mustard yellow and slate grey. The colours come from mineral deposits from steaming fumaroles and boiling mud pots, which you can wander around on foot.
If you’re driving the Ring Road, you can’t miss it – it is literally right by the road!
9. Admire the colour of Víti crater Lake
Another crater I recommend is Víti, which is also part of the Krafla volcanic region, and which started forming 300 years ago. This crater has a lake in it – a bright turquoise one, too!
Víti means ‘hell’, which I understand to refer to its violent, hot explosive origin. Nowadays, though, visiting Víti it is quite the opposite to hellish: it is a rather lovely thing to do in North Iceland.
You can get to Víti on a paved road off the Ring Road, which goes through a geothermal energy plant (there’s literally a pipe that forms an archway over the road!).
There’s no hike as such: from the car park, there’s just a very short walk up a slope to the main viewing platform. However, you can walk up around part of the rim of the crater, which has some steep, gravelly bits. From the rim path, you can see the lake from more angles and also to see a much smaller lake to the south east. This one isn’t that impressive, though, to be honest – the blue lake of Víti really is the star attraction!
10. Be awed by Dettifoss waterfall
Now, I’ve saved the best for last because this is probably my favourite thing to do in North Iceland – the magnificent Dettifoss! I thought I’d seen the most impressive waterfall at Gullfoss, part of the Golden Circle. However, Dettifoss jumped to the top of my list as soon as I got close it.
I couldn’t believe the power of the water in this waterfall – it is not so much that water falls over the edge; it explodes out from it! I found the scale and force of this waterfall to be so energising and invigorating, I involuntarily let out a ‘wooo!’ into the deafening roar. Not that anyone could have heard me in that noise!
The falls are 100 metres wide and have a drop of 44 metres down into a canyon. It is the second largest waterfall in Iceland in terms of volume discharge with an average water flow of 193 m³/s. It is also said to be the second most powerful waterfall in Europe (which make me want to first the most powerful, the Rhine Falls).
If you visit it from the west side, it’s a kilometre walk over uneven ground from the car park. You can also see Dettifoss from the east side. However, the road there is gravel and the reviews I read said it was in bad condition, so I chose not to take that route.
I highly recommend a visit to these epic falls!
Map of the Top Things To Do In North Iceland
Here’s a map of the top ten things to do in North Iceland.
I hope you enjoy your time in North Iceland!
And if you need more planning tips, check out my 7 & 10 Ring Road itineraries, which includes suggestions for places to eat and sleep in North Iceland.
And if you’re visiting Iceland on a budget, I have some tips for how to explore this stunning country without going bankrupt.