Nestled down on the water’s edge, Akureyri grabs our attention immediately with its vibrant colours, as we drove along the road on the other side of the Eyjafjörður fjord in northern Iceland. This was day five of our eight-day itinerary around Iceland’s Ring Road and we were looking forward to staying here for a while.
Akureyri or “Akers” as we liked to call it is the unofficial capital of the north. Most likely, it’s because it is the second largest urban area outside Reykjavik. Even so, the population caps out at around 18,000 people. Having spent so much time in the smaller villages along the way, it’s actually quite nice to see a slightly larger town like this. The size of this town is further exaggerated by the staggering snow-capped mountains ranges that rise up from the edges of the fjord. At only 60 km south of the Arctic Circle, there’s always a feeling of winter around here, even in summer.
The architecture of Akureyri
We are drawn straight away to the houses and the style of architecture here. Nestled around the harbour are many of the original buildings that kicked off this small harbour town. In later years, as the population grew, the hills behind the town were developed. There was only one way to go…up!
The buildings of Akureyri feature a lot of corrugated iron, a building product historically thought of as a roofing material, or the basis of farm buildings like sheds. However, in the 1860’s corrugated iron was introduced to Iceland as a means of bartering by merchants for wool. The Icelanders were clever and embraced this new offering with creativity, completely transforming its use. Instead of the more traditional methods, the corrugated iron was used for the vertical walls of the houses.
As an external covering, this was perfect for allowing the snow to fall off the building. Then, to improve the aesthetic appeal, the iron was painted in bright colours. Today, these bright iron buildings are the centrepiece of cities like Reykjavik and can be seen all over the country, including here in Akureyri. There is also another special feature of the houses here, that of quilting. Many of the houses are covered in pressed iron plates, like tiles. These were imported from the US in the 1930s. They are not readily seen in any other city, perhaps due to the fact that the man who imported these tiles lived in the city.
There are many things that can be done in Akureyri but the thing we loved doing best of all was, wait for it, a tour of the city’s historical trail. Fear not, it was self-guided so we were able to make our way along the path as slowly or as quickly as we liked. There were some very funny moments as we got ourselves a little off track, literally speaking. Let’s take a look at what we found.
Self-guided walking tours of Akureyri
There are four dedicated walking paths through the town. Whilst they are identified by a colour on a paper map, there are no markings along the path so you will need to keep your wits about you, especially if time is of the essence. We ended up combining three of the four, purely by accident. We were, however, very glad that we were able to cover such ground as we came across some amazing buildings and local points of interest.
The four self-guided walking paths
1. Historical path (Blue) – 4.1 km (2.5 miles)
2. First settlers and town architecture (Green) – 2.9 km (1.2 miles)
3. River and gardens (Orange) 5.1 km (3.1 miles)
4. Sea and Oddeyrin (a fishing vessel) (Pink) 1.9km (0.6 miles)
The historical path winds its way along the oldest part of Akureyri, through the streets of the waterfront. Here you will find many of the early and most important buildings, all with some incredible stories attached. At the front of each of the more notable locations along the path, information boards have been put in place to assist with learning more about them.
Along the way, the street is lined with the typical houses of Iceland. It’s bright and vibrant, and we take ages just to move along here as we stop to look at them all.
Our first stop is at Spítalavegur Street and the home of Akureyri’s first shoe shop. On the left-hand side, the building has been added to. In fact, this building had so many additions, following its original construction in the late 1890’s, that it is one of only a few left standing in this city that has undergone such work. Spítalavegur translates to hospital and the street was so-named as a reference to the one built at the top of the hill.
Apparently, no visit to Akureyri is complete without a visit to Brynja, an iconic ice cream store. Like anywhere that’s had such a tag applied to it, people are drawn to it like moths to a flame. As it was diagonally across from the old shoe shop, we also dutifully stopped to see if the fuss was real. Whilst I am always happy to eat ice cream, and despite the knowledge that this is made out of milk, not cream, I personally fail to share the excitement. Ultimately, it’s a soft serve, with the option to put some chocolate or a few other items on it. It’s good but nothing special.
Laxdal House (Laxdalshus) was built in 1795 and is the oldest house in Akureyri. This area was where the merchants would come to shore by small boat. Originally, this was a residential property but later became the library. In 1943, the town acquired the building, with a plan to use it for the housing of homeless people. Unfortunately, the house already had 22 inhabitants (despite the size of it), so this plan never really came to fruition.
The yellow building below is Gudmanns Minde, also known as the Ancient Hospital dates back to 1835. Whilst it has also been a medical centre and pharmacy, this was the first hospital in Akureyri. It is now the home of the Association of Icelandic Nurses, carrying on the medical traditions that have been carried out for centuries.
Right at the end of the main street are several museums. It feels like you are walking in the middle of nowhere for a bit but then all of a sudden more buildings appear. Friðbjarnarhús is now the home of toys from the 20th-century.
Hidden behind two bright, two-storey buildings is the Nonnahús museum. As you walk along the path, the first sign that you are close is the statue of Jón Sveinsson, the writer known as Nonni. The small building at the rear, built in 1850 and now the museum was his home from 1857 to 1944.
Across from the museum is a tiny chapel. It’s worth just poking your head inside to have a look.
So at this point, we decided to go off the reservation and make our own track. We didn’t do this on purpose however! We followed the path up the hill for a little way and then instead of turning right, we turned left. This is what happened next.
We ended up in a mini forest! After following this unusual track for a while, the thought did cross our minds several times, that perhaps we had taken a wrong turn. We don’t get put off by this kind of thing, and we felt like we were committed to this path now, so onwards we went.
It may have been off-script, but, if you’ve got the stamina (and perhaps a better pair of shoes than what I was wearing), it’s worth coming up here. The views are spectacular, and I can almost promise you, there will be no-one else around.
Ultimately we found ourselves at the Akureyri Cemetery and on a portion of the First Settlers path. We wandered through residential areas, built high up on the sloped banks leading away from the fjord.
Highlights up here included:
- The Akureyri Junior College built in 1904. It is believed that this building arrived pre-fabricated.
- The Botanical Gardens are the northernmost botanical gardens in the world.
- More elaborate houses, a sign that the more wealthy could afford to live up on the hill away from the waterfront. The architecture is clearly much grander, with a mix of concrete, timber and corrugated iron.
- Panoramic views of the city from the back of the church.
Eventually, we felt as though we’d made it out from the weeds and back into civilisation. Weaving our way through the upper hills eventually brought us out at the main church in the centre of the city. Having been to Reykjavik only days earlier, it felt strangely familiar. This is because it was designed by the same architect as the Hallgrímskirkja Church there. The steps at the front of the church add to the dominating position this church holds over the city.
The centre of town is compact, with many eating establishments and places to have a drink.
Unique to Akureyri
When driving around Akureyri you will notice the shape of the red traffic lights, In 2008, Iceland suffered a devastating financial crash, the banks went broke, and people lost a lot of money. Following a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, severe austerity measures were put in place. The overall mood was a sombre one. Combine that with a country that goes into virtual darkness for many months of the year, and a pall came over the country that many found hard to lift. In Akureyri, the most unusual town in all of Iceland, they introduced heart-shaped traffic lights to try and lift the spirits of the townspeople.
Where to eat in Akureyri
Akureyri was and still is a fishing town so eating seafood is always going to see you eating the freshest stuff around. We stopped by the originally named Akureyri Fish to sample some of their finest. It certainly delivered with a crunchy batter and soft, white flesh inside. At AUD$26 (USD$19) for a piece of fish and chips, it would want to be! Alas, this is the only drawback of Iceland. It’s super expensive.
Like the ice cream, I’m also going to go out on a limb here and admit to not really understanding what all the fuss is about when it comes to Icelandic hot dogs. Called pylsur, there are pop up stands in the big cities and most food locations sell them. Regardless of where they are, they are served with raw and fried onions, tomato sauce, mustard and remoulade, a sauce made with capers, mayonnaise, mustard and herbs.
Conscious that I will be howled down by hotdog lovers worldwide, I’ll go out on a limb and be the naysayer. They are what they are, processed meat on a bun. Despite many attesting to the makeup of fresh lamb and other meats, I remain dubious. They are fast food and probably the cheapest food you can buy anywhere in all of Iceland, which I think cuts more to the point as to why people actually eat them. I’ve read many an article where travellers have said they’ve lived on hotdogs for a week as it was the only thing they could afford. I’m happy to eat a hot dog every now and then but you’ll never catch me saying they are a “must-eat”.
This takes the prize for the most unusual place to eat. Kaffi Ku, located just outside the city, sits on the upper level of a building on a farm. The farm is the largest and most technologically advanced farm in all of Iceland. Here, the dairy cows are milked by robots. Robots also clean the floors of the barn. It’s an interesting process to watch and you can do all of this from the cafe with a cup of coffee and cake.
If you haven’t been to Iceland, then you would be unlikely to have even heard of Akureyri. For those that know of its virtues, they come here to take advantage of the great outdoors and all it has to offer across the different seasons. Hiking and cycling along many of the mountain trails is popular. Given its proximity to the Arctic Circle, the town and surrounds becomes a winter playground, with skiing, sledding, snowboarding and even arctic diving for brave souls. This location offers spectacular viewing of the Northern Lights in winter and the midnight sun during summer. During the Summer Solstice, the sun does not set at all.
Further out, the town of Grimsey has one of the largest puffin colonies here and whale watching and bird watching are also important nature activities.
Where to stay in Akureyri
We didn’t have to worry about staying at one of the many hotels in Akureyri as we were, of course, on our road trip in the campervan. However, there are many options in the city itself.
Check out the available hotels and reviews via Trip Advisor.
Getting around Akureyri
Akureyri is serviced by a small airport, with flights coming from Reykjavik and directly from Keflavik International Airport also. Direct connecting flights from Europe and the US are operated by Air Iceland all year round. We flew with Air Iceland from London to Reykjavik (Keflavik Airport) and were pleased with their service. Air Iceland and Husavik Air operate flights from Reykjavik into Akureyri.
It is accessible via the Ring Road, and including Akureyri as part of an Icelandic road trip is a great idea. The local public bus system operates free of charge to locals and visitors alike, making getting to all the key locations in the area really easy.
Scheduled buses and bus tours also leave Reykjavik on a regular basis.
Visiting Akureyri is a definite must on a road trip, but if you are also flying into Reykjavik, try and find some time for a short flight north. You can hire a car here and get out into some of the less-visited fjords. Akureyri is a hub of cultural and adventure activities and it’s definitely one not to miss. There’s plenty of things to do in Akureyri all year round.