A Piece of Everything in Akureyri
If you wish to visit the countryside in Iceland while still being able to choose from a variety of activities and cultural events, Akureyri, the capital of the North, is an essential stop. Upon arrival your eye will surely be caught by many things at once. The ocean view from the bottom of the Eyjafjörður fjord, which ends in a body of sea called “the Pool” by locals, is an impressive sight to behold, balanced by the town panorama which bears the town church as a crown on top of its steepest hill.
Being the biggest town outside of the Reykjavík area, Akureyri has plenty of cafés, restaurants and activities, but is still small enough to offer the quietude of the countryside. It has become a favourite among tourists, both foreign and Icelandic, striking a balance between a city and a town.
The first thing for a visitor to do is probably to take a stroll through the town centre. If you are lucky you might be able to drop in on a live concert at Græni hatturinn, one of Akureyri’s best-known cafés, or when hunger sets in, grab a burger or a salad at Bautinn, one of the many restaurants located in the town centre. Finding accomodation should not be a problem, seeing as the town has plenty of hotels and an ever-growing number of guesthouses (although one needs to book in advance for the summer). The hardcore camper will probably be best at home at the campsite on top of the hill close to the church, right next to the town’s excellent swimming pool. The Akureyri swimming pool has for many years been one of the country’s most popular pools. It is the place to visit for a refreshing swim, striking a conversation with the locals or taking a nose dive down the pool slide if one is interested. It has been made bigger and better in the last few years, swimming lanes have been added and yet another hot tub, ideal for letting stiff muscles relax after a day of walking around town. In addition, the pool is a great place for children, although you should be prepared to spend some time convincing them that this time on the slide really will be the last one.
A vibrant cultural scene
For those interested in the arts, Akureyri does not disappoint. The steep hill that runs down from the church into the centre is generally called “Arts’ Alley” because of the stunning number of art galleries to be found there, along with the Akureyri School of Visual Arts, some design and handcraft shops, workshops and a coffee house that also serves as a gallery. You will also find the Akureyri Art Museum in this same street, an institution that has been one of Akureyri’s cultural pillars since its foundation in 1993. Despite the museum’s policy of keeping its exhibitions diverse, they are both progressive and carefully selected, interesting and provoking. It has a wide and ever-growing collection of older art that is presented alongside the works of new and interesting artists, both Icelandic and foreign. Every year a culture festival is held in Akureyri, running from mid-June until late August, called the Summer Art Fest. During that time, the town has a colourful schedule of cultural events related to the visual arts, music, theatre, local history and more, taking place all over town. The festival is managed by the Akureyri Cultural Center and any further information on the festival events can be acquired in a booklet published by the center in the beginning of June, available at most cafés and galleries in town, or in the center’s office also to be found in the “Arts’ Alley”. The Akureyri Drama Society is the second oldest drama society in Iceland and a well established one. It is also the only professional drama society outside of the capital area. They stage their productions in a beautiful and well preserved old house on the outskirts of the town centre, obvious to anyone walking along the coast towards the bottom of the fjord, away from the centre. A night at the theatre can even be interesting although your Icelandic may need some fine-tuning.
A stroll through history
Akureyri has a rich and colourful history, not only reflected in it’s relatively large number of museums, but also in the town itself, especially the older part, situated south of the centre, where you can see beautiful and well-preserved houses from earlier centuries. Akureyri Museum, which specializes in the collection and preservation of artefacts and records relating to the area’s cultural history, offers historical walking tours through these older parts of town in Icelandic, Scandinavian and English. Other museums include the Akureyri Museum of Industry, with displays of old machinery and products, the Aviation Museum, which records the history of flight in Iceland, exhibiting numerous aircrafts, and Nonnahús, a museum dedicated to the acclaimed I celandic author Jón Sveinsson. Another thing not to be missed is the Botanical Garden, which has in recent years become one of the town’s most popular sites. Inside, you can take a look at the garden’s wide collection of flora, including specimens of almost every type of plant growing in Iceland and around 7.500 foreign specimens. The idea for the garden was realized by a group of prominent women in 1910 and has grown relentlessly since then, offering locals and tourists a shelter from the hustle and bustle of the town.
Get out of town!
But the town itself is only half of what the Akureyri area has to offer. The Eyjafjörður fjord is one of Iceland’s most popular places for camping, hiking and sightseeing. One of these sights is Kjarnaskógur, a forest near Akureyri. Although trees are a rare sight in Iceland, you will find them in abundance in this quiet and beautiful area the locals use for picnics and family gatherings. There is also a campsite there, ideal for anyone who prefers the tranquility of the forest to the comfort of the town, and a perfect location for setting up camp at the eve of a long hike. New walking tours have been mapped out recently and a track for mountain-bikes as well, but if ease and quiet is what you are looking for, the forest can also be the best place to sit back and enjoy doing nothing. There are numerous walks and hikes you can take in the vicinity of Akureyri. The local travel societies regularly offer interesting and exciting hikes in most ranges of difficulty. In the summer of 2009 they organized three weeks dedicated to a variety of walks andhikes taken every day of these three weeks and although nobody expects you to walk every one of these days, picking one, two or three of the toursis heavily recommended, seeing as the same thing has been planned for the summer 2010. Just a few minutes from Akureyri, you can find the northernmost 18-hole golf course in the world, Jaðarsvöllur. Each year the Akureyri Golf Club hosts a most unique golf tournament, the Arctic Open, where the participants play from late afternoon until morning, taking advantage of the midsummer sun shining throughout the night.
The fjord of islands
The Eyjafjörður fjord is magnificent to look at from the tip of the pier, but it doesn’t have to end there. From the part of the harbor closest to the town centre regular boat trips are scheduled every week, the most established ones being those offered by Húni II and Haffari, two boats ready to take you on a fun trip to sea. Húni II offers boat trips where they mix sightseeing with historical guidance to significant sites in the area and since 2008, has also organized round trips to the village of Hjalteyri, including the boat trip to and fro, a bus trip when on land and a guide to point out the sights worth seeing on the way. It is surely a good way to get to know the countryside from many perspectives. For those that like to fish, a trip on Haffari is recommended, offering both sightseeing and sea angling with professionals. Another aspect of the Eyjafjörður fjord is the islands, from whom its name is derived, literally meaning “the fjord of islands”. Its most famed treasure is the one called Hrísey, an island of about two hundred inhabitants, known for its beautiful nature, diverse bird life and many pleasant walking trails. Although the island is small, it has a restaurant, a guesthouse, a camping spot, a super market, museums and even a swimming pool with a recently attached info center. A good way to get to know the island is to take one of the ever-popular tractor tours or perhaps to find your way to the lighthouse, located on the highest point of the island, and take in the beautiful view, which is especially breath-taking on a clear summer night. Grímsey is the northernmost settlement in Iceland with the Arctic Circle running straight through it. Despite that, the summers are generally mild and the island sports an incredible number of plants and during the summer, up to sixty species of birds nest there, making the island ideal for bird watching. It has two guesthouses and a camping spot, so there is no need to rush off if one does not want to. New walking trails have also been mapped out for the summer of 2010. Regular ferry trips to both Hrísey and Grímsey are carried out from the Dalvik harbor but one can also fly from Akureyri airport to Grímsey.
The North of Iceland is an area no one should miss while staying in Iceland. The key to that area is Akureyri, being both the cultural center of the North and a vibrant town full of activities and pleasure. In the end one has to add that it is a town full of lively locals who will welcome you every day of the year, even in the heaviest of blizzards.
For more information regarding everything related to Akureyri, the website www.visitakureyri.is provides a good overview of what the town has to offer, as well as historical facts and more. It also lists additional contacts for further information on activities, events, planning, accommodation, etc.