Known as the ‘Capital of the North’, Akureyri is the biggest town outside of the wider Reykjavik area.
It started off as a tiny harbour village, which is the area now known as Akureyri old town.
Over the years it expanded first alongside the fjord; where you’ll find downtown Akureyri today, and then up the hills towards the surrounding mountains, providing picturesque views across the Eyjafjörður fjord.
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Why visit Akureyri during winter?
If you’re after a winter wonderland, Iceland is the perfect destination. Akureyri is a great choice if you want to avoid the crowds, as this north Iceland town is still quite a hidden gem, although well prepared for tourists.
In summer, as it’s so close to the Arctic Circle it’s a great place to experience the midnight sun, but in winter it’s at its most beautiful. You’ll be guaranteed a thick layer of snow, and almost everyone decorates their gardens and houses in fairy lights. It made the whole town feel magical at night, like Christmas lasts all winter. Oh – and there’s a very good chance you’ll get to see the Northern Lights too!
Beyond the town centre there’s adventures galore to be had – just 5km up is one of the most popular ski resorts in Iceland, but you can also go snow shoeing, hiking, husky sledging and whale watching to name but a few.
Akureyri’s also a great base for exploring the wider area, where you can see everything from volcanic craters and mud pools to lava rock formations and epics waterfalls.
Have we piqued your interest? Well now here’s our guide to the best things to do in Akureyri during the winter months.
Explore Akureyri old town
In-between Akureyri’s tiny airport and the modern centre is the old town, full of wooden and metal houses painted all the colours of the rainbow. The oldest here is Laxdalshus, which was built back in 1795.
It’s well worth a wander around, as the architecture is beautiful, plus you can find several museums in the old town, including the former home of author Jon Sveinsson, and the Akureyri Museum, which gives you a taste of the town’s history.
Another must see is the black-tarred museum church. This was moved to its current site from the other side of the Eyjafjörður fjord, where it was originally built back in 1846 and is a great example of the simple wooden churches from that time.
No matter how cold it is we highly recommend a stop at Brynja’s for ice cream, as its one of the oldest shops in Iceland!
Explore downtown Akureyri
A short walk from the oldtown will bring you to downtown Akureyri, a hub of cute little cafes, restaurants and shops.
Many of the older houses exteriors here have a quilted texture unlike the usual ridges of corrugated iron you’ll most often see. These are tiled with pre-pressed iron plates imported from America in the thirties.
Downtown Akureyri’s two main streets are Hafnarstraati and Skipagata. There’s lots of lovely shops to visit here as well as gorgeous cafes like the beautiful blue Blaa Kannan Café, which was built in 1913.
If you’re after something a bit stronger than a coffee or hot chocolate then consider stopping off at Akureyri Backpackers, which has a very welcoming bar where you can grab a decently priced meal and beer (in Icelandic terms that is) and play one of the board games they have stored away.
While you’re in the area be sure to check out the steep Kaupvangsstræti, which is also known as Art Street. It used to house factories and industrial operations, but now it’s home to the Akureyri Art Museum, School of Visual Arts and many artists’ studios and galleries.
When you’re crossing the road in downtown Akureyri, keep an eye on the traffic lights as there’s something special about them – all the red lights are heart shaped!
Explore Akureyri by foot
Personally, I think the best way to explore Akureyri is by foot, and to support this Visit Akureyri developed a range of walks that let you explore different aspects of the town.
There’s the historical path, the first settlers and town architecture route, the river and gardens path, and the sea and Oddeyrin district route.
Ranging from half to three miles in length, there’s something for everyone and one of the best ways to take in all the sights Akureyri has to offer. Just be warned however, if the snow is deep it may be that some of the paths are unpassable. Grab a guide from the tourist office and get exploring!
Getting around Akureyri
The town itself is quite compact so it’s easy to walk to a lot of places by foot, but if the steep hills get too much it’s worth knowing that the buses here are free and there’s six different routes you can take.
Things to see and do in Akureyri
Akureyri’s iconic church is a must visit. Perched on one of the town’s steepest hills, it proudly looks down over the town centre and something truly special to see, especially when lit up at night.
Walk its 100+ steps if you’re feeling fit and healthy to check out its interior – one of the stained glass windows in here actually originates from Coventry Cathedral. True fact!
Supposedly during the war some of the windows from Coventry Cathedral were taken down and put into storage for protection and these went missing, presumed stolen.
Years later one of these turned up in a shop and was bought by the architect building Akureyri Church. Its origins were unbeknownst to him at the time and it was only later that the window’s original home came to light!
Akureyri has two geothermal swimming pools; the indoor Glerarlaug and the outdoor Akureyri Thermal Pool – both great places to warm your bones after a day of winter exploration.
With hot tubs for the adults and water slides for the kids, it’s a big hit with visitors and locals alike.
See what’s on at the Hof Cultural Centre
You can’t miss the Hof Cultural Centre. This iconic circular building is found downtime, and is home to exhibitions, shows and concerts. It’s well worth checking out what’s on during your visit if you’re after a taste of culture.
Enjoy an Icelandic afternoon tea
Afternoon tea, or high tea as they called it here, isn’t hugely common in Iceland, but you will find it on the menu at some of the larger hotel chains.
In Akureyri you can enjoy an afternoon tea with a local twist at the Icelandair Hotel, just opposite the swimming pool. The ‘sandwiches’ came in the form of delicious bruschetta served on the most amazing Icelandic bread, and we got to try a cake made with mysingur; an old, Icelandic brown cheese. Another Nordic-style dish was the Daim bar cake, which was essentially a dark chocolate rice crispie cake.
With a nice selection of teas and coffees and open fires, it’s a lovely place to get cosy when you’ve had enough of adventuring in the snow!
This taken your fancy? Read my full review of Afternoon tea at the Icelandair Hotel Akureryri.
Akureyri has a lot of museums for a town of its size, but these are perfect to visit if you’d like to know more about the town and its history, or simply want a day the warm and dry!
Below is a rundown of the many museums you might want to check out, but be warned that many of them have much shorter opening hours, or even close during the winter. This means that the Akureyri Museum Pass (which gives you 24 hours of access to a number of the below museums) might not be the best use of your money, but by planning ahead you’ll be able to see what’s open when and make an educated decision/plan.
Visit Akureyri is a great resource on opening hours and prices, so be sure to check it out.
This is one of top museums to visit as it’s all about the history of Akureyri, which actually celebrated its 158th anniversary this year.
This is the former home of beloved Icelandic poet and author David Stefansson, which has been turned into a museum of his life.
A part of Akureyri Museum, this is the childhood home of author Jon Sveinsson, and was the inspiration for many of his children’s books. It’s also one of the oldest buildings still standing in Akureyri, built back in 1850.
Next door to the airport, unsurprisingly, the museum is dedicated to aviation in Iceland, from the first attempts at commercial aviation in 1919 through to te mid and late 20th century airlines. Houses 28 full-sized aircraft.
Akureyri Industrial Museum
The Akureyri Industrial Museum, which is over two floors, focuses on the industrial eta, with artifacts including printing presses, sewing machines and erm, margarine makers!
Icelandic Motorcycle museum
This museum documents the 100-year history of motorbikes in Iceland. The building was built specifically to house this collection, which was gifted by a local enthusiast after his death.
Into the Arctic
We didn’t make it to many of Akureyri’s museums during our visit, but I’m so glad we visited Into the Arctic.
For approximately £10, your ticket provides lifetime access to this small but quirky museum, which shares stories about arctic explorers and the local area.
We were the only ones there during our visit and so the curator gave us a guided tour; even opening up the displays and letting us hold some of the items. He brought the stories to life, and made it a hugely memorable part of our time in Akureyri.
After wandering around the museum, be sure to pop into the on-site café, where you can enjoy a local coffee and an Icelandic doughnut, which is called a Klejner.
Akureyri Art Museum
Akureyri Art Museum showcases the work of local and international artists, and features everything from illustrations and photography through to performance art.
This 19th Century building is filed with toys from the 20th century, once owned by the local Guðbjörg Ringsted. More of a collection than a museum, it might appeal to people wanting a trip down memory lane…
Akureyri Art Trail
Spread across the town are a variety of open-air artworks by local artists, which make up the Akureyri Art Trail.
Grab a trail guide from your hotel or the information centre or download the Akureyri Art Trail guide online, which divides the town into six easy walking tours that let you take in all the pieces and offer a fun way to explore more of the town’s side streets and hidden gems.
Akureyri is home to the world’s northernmost botanical garden, which contains almost all the plants that grow in Iceland including species from several other countries including Greenland.
Now there’s not so much to see here in winter and the gardens are only formally open over the summer months. However, the gates are open throughout winter and visitors are invited the explore the grounds at their leisure….
If you’re visiting Iceland in winter it’s important to come prepared – Akureyri’s average winter temperature flits between 0-80. Be sure to check out Laura’s Iceland packing list, with recommendations on the best clothing and footwear to bring!
Whale watching in Akureyri
Eyjafjörður fjord is Iceland’s longest at 38.5miles in length. At its deepest it goes down to 200m and it’s regularly visited by humpback whales. This makes Akureryi a great place for a bit of whale watching.
Elding Whale Watching offers trips from the downtown harbour area, and you head north up the fjord in the search of these magnificent beasts. There’s a 99% viewing rate and they offer a free second trip if your first doesn’t lead to any sightings.
I particularly liked the company because it had a big focus on environmental protection and talked a lot about ecology, plastic use and marine life.
They also talked about fishing and whale meat – explaining that the locals don’t eat it and that’s it’s sold as traditional food to tourists and the only way to bring this to an end is always to say no if it’s something you’re offered.
It wasn’t too long before we spotted whales, they’re not as easy to spot as you’d expect and you have to keep your eyes peeled – they can be under for several minutes before they come back up for air.
We were lucky enough to see two whale breaches during our trip which were spectacular – the whole ship took a sharp intake of breath when they happened. A bucketlist dream ticked off.
A few top tips:
- Wrap up very, very well as it will get super cold, especially when you’re travelling into the wind.
- In order to get a good viewing spot, arrive early. Seats are minimal, and make sure you pick a side rather than the front or back of the ship, it’ll give you a better view.
If you want a bit of adrenaline-fuelled excitement in Akureyri you’re spoilt for choice. Visitors can have a go at winter horseback riding, hiking, snowmobiling, snow shoeing (which Emma highly recommends after her experience in the Pyrenees, dog sledding and skiing to name but a few.
For the extremely adventurous (read insane!) there’s even arctic diving! I’ll pass on this, thanks, and stick to the below…
Open from the end of November until early May, Mt Hlíðarfjall ski resort is known as one of the best skiing spots in Iceland.
5km up the mountain skiers have amazing views down over Akureyri and the fjord as they make the most of the exciting ski slopes and cross-country runs, even in the height of winter, thanks to the floodlight main runs.
Go husky dog sledding
Going husky sledging had been on my wish list for a lifetime, and I finally made it reality on my trip to Akureyri.
I can highly recommend Inspiration Iceland, which offers guests a more authentic husky sledging experience. When you go on one of their tours you don’t just sit in a sleigh and go for a ride, you become a husky musher yourself!
Our dog sledding trail was a 4km long snow-covered pathway alongside a frozen river, with the mountains rising out of the ground either side of us. The view was absolutely jaw dropping, but it’s even more amazing when you’re rushing along on a sledge pulled by huskies.
We were shown how to manage our dogs and how to use the (very basic) sledge and off we went!
To find out more about our day with the dogs, check out my post Husky Dog Sledding in Northern Iceland…
Head out into the hills outside Akureyri for a great chance to see the Northern Lights. Our tour took us to several different hot spots to try and see the lights. We were on the verge of giving up and heading home when the heavens suddenly began to flicker!
Go hunting the Northern lights
The strength of the colour ebbed and flowed during our lightshow – sometimes it was just a stripe across the sky but other times layers danced and swept across the entire night sky like a rainbow. It was spectacular and a must-do when visiting Northern Iceland.
How to photograph the Northern Lights – experts share their tips on how to photograph the Northern Lights – learn what equipment you need and what settings to use to capture the Aurora Borealis.
The Christmas Garden
Just on the outskirts of Akureyri you’ll find The Christmas Garden; a museum and shop dedicated to Christmas and the legend of the Yule Lads. These are a group of pranksters who come to town one-by-one during the last 13 nights before Christmas.
As part of this Icelandic Christmas tradition, children place their shoes on their windowsills before bed. The ‘lads will leave small gifts in the shoes of good children, while naughty kids will wake up to find a potato instead!
Open all year round, you’ll feel like you’re entering the world of Hansel and Gretel when you visit the Christmas Garden, thanks to its gingerbread-esque house and fairytale tower, which is home to the world’s biggest advent calendar.
Inside the main building though, you’ll be able to check out Christmas decorations from around the world alongside traditional Icelandic Christmas items and traditions. Definitely a cool place to visit during the winter months.
Further afield – exploring northern Iceland
Akureyri is a great base for exploring the wider area. Northern Iceland has so much to offer, but is also more enjoyable (in my humble opinion) because there’s hardly any crowds.
For example, forget Reykjavik’s Blue Lagoon; instead head to Mývatn Nature Baths, where it’s much, much quieter, but just as beautiful and warm.
There are lots of interesting attractions to check out, including the Arctic Henge and Laufas turf houses (although sadly they can only be seen from the outside during winter, as the site’s part of Akureyri Museum), and also some amazing natural wonders.
Goðafoss waterfall is a must-see, as are the Skutustadagigar pseudo-craters at Lake Mývatn, Dimmuborgir lava rock formations and Hverir mud pools.
Finally, if you have time, I recommend heading north from Akureyri, either by boat or plane and visiting the islands of Hrísey and Grímsey. The latter lies across the Arctic Circle, and is the northernmost point of Iceland.
For more info and daytrip inspiration, why not check out my post Places to visit near Akureyri?
Things to do in Akureyri in Winter
So, there you have it – our guide to what to do in Akureyri in winter.
I hope we’ve inspired you to visit this wonderful town; the people are friendly, the sights jaw-dropping and the memories you’ll make will stay with you forever!