Akureyri is the second largest city in Iceland, after Reykjavik. It is the capital of Northern Iceland and is located at the end of Eyjafjörður Fjord. You’ll find it easily on any map of Iceland as Eyjafjörður Fjord is a very deep and narrow fjord.
It is a charming little town and we had a lovely few hours wandering around it. Its population is a sixth of Reykjavik’s, and most tourists only do the Golden Circle which never goes up into Northern Iceland, so there were not very many choices when it came to cafés, restaurants, or other tourist attractions. What I did really like about it though, was that it felt really authentic. It’s a bit less developed than Reykjavik, and I felt at some point that we could almost sense what living in an Icelandic town so far north was like. All you have to do is step out from the centre of the city onto the side streets, and you’ll get a sense of what it means to be an urban area in Iceland.
Akureyri is a little, sleepy town, and that really cold northern light gave its many quiet, empty streets a surreal feel. Sometimes, while walking through some of its abandoned streets, I wondered if we had not been shrunk and placed into a miniature model with no other living person in sight.
Things to do in Akureyri
The thing I remember most from the wander around the city was the pit stop for ice cream at Brynja, which is an ice-cream parlour slash milk bar a twenty minute walk from the downtown Akureyri, along the bay to a more suburban area. This parlour looked like something out of a Betty and Veronica comic from the seventies – it probably hadn’t changed much since. From what I understood on the newspaper cuttings on the wall, is that the ice-cream is made from cows owned by the Brynja family. When we were there, we had to queue behind a number of school children, dressed in shorts, who had obviously finished some sporting event and were ready to cool down and fuel up with some ice-cream!
Even if you think it’s too cold or not sunny enough for ice-cream, I would really recommend a walk along the bay from the heart of the downtown area to where the ice-cream parlour is located. There are a couple of interesting restaurants along the way, and more importantly, you get to stroll along one of the most stunning and serene bays, sheltered from all sides by a range or rolling mountains, footed by grassy slopes that curve into the glittering water. On a good day, as it was when we were there, you can see many people boating and sail-gilding in the bay.
The other thing I recall doing in this lovely little place, was eating a delicious arctic char chowder at a cafe on a rise overlooking a square in the heart of the city – Kaffi Ilmur. This place had a great view and a charming vibe (its low ceilings and tight spaces made me feel a little like I was in Paris – although everything was made of wood which is very much a Nordic country thing).
There is also Akureyrarkirkja – translated into Akureyri Church. It’s an impressive art deco structure consisting of simple and bold lines. I think you can infer a lot about how people from a country approach, or in Iceland’s case, used to approach religion, by the style of architecture chosen for their churches. Today, Iceland is one of the most irreligious countries in the world, with almost 50% of the population being agnostics or atheists, this number going to 100% amongst the population below 25.
Akureyri Botanical Garden
The best thing about Akureyri however, is its botanical garden. What’s amazing about this garden is that it has a variety of flowering plants from high mountainous regions and temperate zones, along with species native to the arctic.
The flowers here are very beautiful, some – I assume – selected specially for their uniqueness in colour and shape. Although the garden is very manicured, there is still something wild and untamed about the plants within. The flowers, being from cold climates, aren’t very large.
Most have thin, translucent petals and pale delicate colours. It’s almost as if their fragile aesthetics are a metaphor for beautiful sunny days during the short, temperamental Icelandic summers.
The botanical garden, in addition to being beautiful, is also used for scientific research. Here, certain plants are grown to show that it is possible for them to survive on the edge of the Arctic. Iceland actually isn’t all that cold year round, thanks to warm currents blowing up the gulf stream, so this certainly helps these plants survive the winter and thrive in the summer. Of course, one must not forget the two months of midnight sun that make up for the short growing season and year round low temperatures.