Take a day trip from Reykjavik to Akureyri, the capital of Northern Iceland, watch the Aurora Borealis in winter, and visit Nonni’s house, and the Christmas House
Lying 100 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, Akureyri is the second largest city in Iceland. With a population of 16,000 people, it is barely one-tenth the size of Reykjavik. It takes about five hours to drive from the capital to Akureyri, and given the uncertain and sometimes extreme weather, it’s better to take one of the ten flights a day connecting the two cities.
The flight only takes forty-five minutes, and one needs to check in thirty minutes before flying. Don’t get there too early – there’s nothing to do except eat breakfast, drink coffee, and watch endless videos about all the places in Iceland where the traveler can shop.
The airport is about twenty minutes out of town, but on a pleasant day there’s nothing nicer than strolling down The Road to Nowhere, so called because Highway 1 loops all the way around the country – in fact it’s Iceland’s only highway.
Akureyri is charming, with white and multi-coloured clapboard houses set in the long and narrow Eyjafjordur fjord, overlooked – on clear days – by snow-capped peaks. Chunky fishing boats with icebreaker prows that remind the traveller how far North they are sit in the harbour. Cafes line the city centre, facing the impressive frontage of the Hotel Kea. The streets themselves are tidy and litter-free but — outside of high summer — fairly empty.
During the summer, Akureyri is jammed with travellers circumnavigating Iceland on Highway One and visitors to the many arts festivals the city hosts. Akureyri considers itself the artistic capital of Iceland.
Amongst the museums are the Folk Museum, a Natural History museum, and ‘Nonni’s house’, where one of Iceland’s greatest writers lived. About 13 kilometres out of town is The Christmas House. But other than during July and August, hours are variable, with some opening at 10 or 11 am and some at 2 pm, while others close at the same time. For the day-tripper, it’s best to plan ahead.
This is easy, however: Iceland is a sophisticated country, and with its long dark winters has more internet users than almost anywhere else in the world. Over 93% of the population speak (very good) English, so it’s easy to check places out while you’re in Reykjavik.
It’s not uncommon to go into bars and find customers sitting at the bar with a beer and their laptop open, tapping in via Bluetooth. It’s also expensive, because food has to be moved around the country. A burger and fries costs around seventeen dollars in Akureyri. Fortunately credit cards are universally accepted.
Dominating the city’s aspect is the cathedral, which includes one magnificent stained-glass-window from Coventry Cathedral. It is a working church, and the visitor will need to show sensitivity and patience, to ensure that they don’t disturb a funeral, christening or wedding.
Next to the church are the Botanical Gardens, which are run by staff from the University next door, and while small, contain an astonishing array of plants, many of them familiar to overseas visitors, but chronologically out of sync (many plants whose season in the UK ends in June or July flower here in September). It’s also a nice place to sit and to shelter from the sometimes biting wind.
During the winter, when nights last for twenty-plus hours out of twenty-four, Northern Iceland is a perfect place to watch the legendary Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Akureyri is also a useful base to explore Northern Iceland further. There is a forest nearby, and one can ski in the mountains. Anything seems possible, here up on what feels like the edge of the world.