Volcanoes, steaming lava fields, bubbling mud pools, waterfalls and geothermal springs all await in primordial North Iceland.
In this region just a few kilometres from the Arctic Circle you may feel at the end or the beginning of the earth.
North Iceland’s natural marvels are spread around a vast and unpopulated area, where the largest town by far is Akureyri, home to just 18,000 people.
To make things easier you can follow itineraries like the Diamond Circle, leading from the lonely port at Húsavík to awesome glacial canyons, the most powerful waterfall in Europe and Lake Mývatn, which has a world of alien volcanic landforms on its shores.
The coast, on the Greenland Sea is the best place to see whales in Iceland and Húsavík has a world-class museum about the cetaceans of the North Atlantic.
Let’s explore the best things to do in North Iceland:
1. Herring Era Museum
In Siglufjörður there’s a salting station that was once the centre of Iceland’s lucrative herring fishery.
In the first half of the 20th century Siglufjörður was sometimes described as the “Atlantic Klondike”, with thousands of speculators showing up for a slice of the vast wealth generated by the Atlantic herring.
The salting station was abandoned 1969 after herring simply disappeared from this corner of the Atlantic, and an ensemble of buildings was converted into a museum in 1994. The Róaldsbrakki, a Norwegian salting station, dates to 1907 and has artefacts like salting barrels and black and white photos conveying the atmosphere in Siglufjörður at the time.
Grána is a herring factory from the 1930s, with heavy machinery gathered from herring sites around Iceland, while the Boathouse recalls the bustling waterfront in Siglufjörður and has ten vessels docked on its piers.
2. Lake Mývatn
Close to the Krafla Volcano, Lake Mývatn is prized for its salmon and trout stocks, while the surrounding wetlands are protected as a natural park.
The lake was created by an eruption 2,300 years ago and is embedded in a peculiar volcanic landscape of rootless vents and lava pillars.
The birdlife on the shores is astonishingly rich, and a new Bird Museum has been opened to document the many waterfowl species (common scoter, red-breasted merganser, gadwall) that frequent the lake in summer.
Enclosing the lake is a world of bizarre volcanic sights, from craters to geothermal pools and bubbling sulphur springs.
Ten kilometres in diameter and up to two kilometres deep, the active Krafla caldera near Lake Mývatn has lava fields that are still warm and scattered with volcanic features like rifts, gullies and lava flows.
There were nine eruptions at Krafla between 1975 and 1984, during which an epic magma chamber became visible from the surface.
At Leirhnjukur there’s a hiking trail through a sulphuric terrain, where steam rises from the ground and there are neon-coloured mosses by the path.
Just remember to avoid the light clay, as it can be hot enough to melt the soles of your shoes.
Víti Maar (Crater of Hell) meanwhile is a crater that took shape after a steam explosion in 1724 and has a teal-coloured lake.
4. Mývatn Nature Bath
Up the slope from Lake Mývatn is a quieter North Icelandic equivalent to the Blue Lagoon in Grindavík.
With a view of the lake, the Mývatn Nature Bath is an inviting geothermal pool, which may be just what you need after picking your way over lava flows.
The waters are claimed to be beneficial for respiratory and skin complaints.
There’s more room to move around at the Mývatn Nature Bath, and everything’s a bit more relaxed: You can even take a beverage into the water with you and look down towards the green shores of Lake Mývatn.
The main pool has a temperature in the high-30s, and there are also two steam baths, which get closer to 50°C.
5. Hveraströnd Sulphur Springs
East of Lake Mývatn and in the shadow of Námafjall is a geothermal field on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, where temperatures not far below the surface soar to more than 200°C. Above, the landscape looks like something from another planet, with boiling mud pools, steam fumaroles and earth tinted yellow by the sulphur.
There’s no vegetation to speak of at Hveraströnd, and you have to bring a camera to capture the desolation and the plumes of steams rising from the hissing fumaroles and pools.
In the late-Medieval period Hveraströnd was a key source of the sulphur that went into early gunpowder.
Avid Game of Thrones watchers may want to make the pilgrimage to this beautiful lava cave with a hot spring, around 1.5 kilometres east of Lake Mývatn.
In the episode Kissed by Fire in season 3, this is where Jon Snow and Ygritte have an “encounter” causing Jon Snow to break his Night’s Watch oath.
The pool in the cave had been used for bathing since the 1930s, but became dangerously hot after the Krafla eruptions in the 70s and 80s.
Since the 90s temperatures have slipped below 45°C and bathing has been allowed once more.
Translating to “Dark Castles”, Dimmuborgir is a group of strange lava fields left over from an eruption in the Þrengslaborgir and Lúdentsborgir crater row 2,300 years ago.
Just past the east shore of Lake Mývatn, Dimmuborgir was formed when lava, ten metres deep, pooled on top of a small lake and marsh.
As the water underneath boiled, the steam rising through the lava created bizarre formations like pillars, arches and bridges.
The top layer of lava drained away down the slope, leaving these eerie structures behind.
Dimmuborgir is the only place in the world where you can see these kinds of volcanic formations on land.
At the cafe you can try Hverabrauð, a sweet rye bread made in special wooden casks buried in geothermally heated ground.
The second longest river in Iceland, the glacial Jökulsá á Fjöllum has hewn away at the basalt to create an awe-inspiring canyon, 25 kilometres long, up to 500 metres wide and 120 metres deep.
In the canyon there is a chain of waterfalls: Selfoss, Dettifoss, Hafragilsfoss and Réttarfoss.
This natural monument is now the northernmost part of the enormous Vatnajökull National Park, which encompasses much of eastern Iceland.
One of the sights to search for in the canyon is Hljóðaklettar, a cluster of strange basalt columns, standing vertically, horizontally and diagonally.
Like many of the spots on this list, Ásbyrgi is on the Diamond Circle and has to be seen when you come by the Jökulsárgljúfur.
This horseshoe-shaped canyon is not far west of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river and was shaped by catastrophic glacial flooding at the end of the last Ice Age, about 8,000-10,000 years ago and then again approximately 3,000 years ago.
The canyon walls are up to 100 metres high and shelter a forest of birch, willow, larch, spruce and pine on the fringes of the Botnstjörn lake, a remnant of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which has long since changed course.
The Eyjan (Island) rock sits in the middle of this formation and has a photo-worthy panorama of this breathtaking scene.
The traditional explanation for Ásbyrgi is that it was formed by the hoof of Sleipnir Odin’s eight-legged horse.
Thirty metres across and twelve metres high, Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) is sensational all year round and regarded as one of Europe’s most beautiful waterfalls.
If there’s a time when the falls are absolutely unmissable it’s around late-spring when the water is encrusted with icicles.
The name, Goðafoss comes from a story in Ari Þorgilsson’s Íslendingabók, written in the early 12th century.
A century before, in 999, the lawspeaker Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi threw his pagan idols into the falls after deciding that Iceland should officially adopt Christianity at the Althing (parliament). The falls are on the 178-kilometre Skjálfandafljót river, beginning at the Vatnajökull ice cap in the Highlands.
In terms of discharge, Dettifoss on the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon is Iceland’s largest waterfall.
In bare rocky scenery, this colossus is 40 metres high and 100 metres wide and has an average flow rate of 193 cubic metres a second.
Dettifoss is a mainstay of the Diamond Circle, and you may have seen it in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). The high water discharge generates a thunderous roar, and propels spray high above the canyon walls.
On sunny days there’s invariably a rainbow in the canyon.
Dettifoss can be accessed by the gravel Route 864 and the recently laid 862, which has a tarmac surface.
You can embark on the hike of a lifetime from these falls to Ásbyrgi, around 30 kilometres away.
Just below the Arctic Circle, the fishing port of Húsavík in Skjálfandi Bay was, according to the Landnámabók (Book of Settlement), the first place in Iceland to be settled by Norse man, in the winter of 870. And from this the port, silica harvested at Lake Mývatn was exported to Scandinavia and the European mainland.
Now it’s a hub for the fishing industry on the north coast, and the best place in Iceland for whale spotting expeditions.
Appropriately, Húsavík Whale Museum, set in the town’s old slaughterhouse is a supreme exhibition on the whales that inhabit the North Atlantic.
There’s in-depth information about each of these cetacean species, their eco-systems and the history and present of the whaling industry in Iceland.
You can view complete skeletons of minke, sperm, pilot, humpback, beaked and bottlenose whales.
13. Whale Watching Tours
More than 20 types of cetacean can be spotted in the waters around Iceland from April to September, and Húsavík’s location in Skjálfandi Bay on the Greenland Sea makes it the prime whale watching location.
For round ISK 12,500 ($100) a variety of companies will take you on a three-hour tour of the bay where the likelihood of sighting fins, tails, blowholes or full breaches is always high.
You’ll be in the company of an expert and personable guide who can fill you in on the behaviour of minke, humpback and blue whales, and ensure you don’t miss anything.
The island’s in the bay, like Flatey and Lundey also have huge puffin colonies that you can observe.
Cold-weather gear will often be provided, and a cup of hot chocolate and a cinnamon will keep your spirits up.
On Eyjafjörður, Laufás was first mentioned in the earliest days of the Settlement of Iceland at the turn of the 10th century.
You can head there now to explore a manor/farm dating back to the 1600s, all with a photogenic mountainous backdrop.
The unusually grand manor house has was built in the second half of the 19th century using timbers from 200 years before, while the church on the site is from the same period but its fittings are much older and include a pulpit from 1698. The manor’s out buildings, including a row of delightful Icelandic turf houses, are furnished with farming tools and everyday implements from the turn of the 20th century when the farm was still running.
15. Akureyri Botanical Garden
In the town of Akureyri at the southern end of Eyjafjörður, this restful plant-based attraction has one of the most extreme locations for botanical garden on the planet.
Akureyri is just 50 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, but there’s an unusually warm microclimate as the mountains buffer the fjord against the vicious winds.
This space was opened to the public as a park in 1912 and has been a botanical garden since 1957, now growing around 7,000 species from Arctic, temperate and mountainous zones.
Some 400 of these, growing in the southeastern corner of the garden, are flowers native to Iceland’s heaths and mountains, like dwarf birch, Bellard’s kobresia, the highland rush, dwarf fireweed and moss campion.