All About the Scenic Arctic Coast Way Route

A road near Akureyri on a sunny day with snowcapped mountains in the distance

When you think about Iceland you can’t help to think about glaciers and volcanoes. After all, the country’s name literally has ice in it and the volcanoes, well, let’s just say they have caused some turmoil in the last decade.

The Arctic Henge

However, that is not all the country has to offer. It is also home to many other magical natural wonders, including natural hot springs which you can bathe in, rhyolite-colored fumaroles, moon-like landscapes, birch forests, lava parks, and remarkable waterfalls. 

Map of the Arctic Coast Route

The island is big but the nation is small, so major sweeps of the country are somewhat untouched giving an opportunity to roam around free and in solitude: a feeling that is quite rare in today’s world.

There are, of course, the busier sites like the Golden Circle or the south coast, but Iceland still has many areas which are especially rural and are rich in animal life, i.e. horses, sheep, cattle, and the occasional wild Arctic fox.

Arctic Fox on grassy meadow with flowers

By diverging from the usual route and going north, you get a glimpse of why settlers came to Iceland in the first place. Think The Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones, and you might just be setting the scene right. The route around the north of Iceland is most commonly known as the Arctic Coast Way and in 2019 this route was on Lonely Planet’s list of top 10 must-see places in Europe!

Map of the Arctic Coast Way in Summer

In this blog, we will cover its highlights. Featuring its must-sees and must-dos.  

Fun facts about the Arctic Coast Way

  • There are 21 fishing villages from the official start to the end of the Arctic Coast Way. Plenty of opportunities to stay and enjoy the local atmosphere.
  • The Arctic Coast Way takes you into the best whale watching area Iceland has to offer, with a record number of nine different species of whales spotted in one trip!
  • There are 18 geothermal pools within the Arctic Coast Way, if you simply want to soak in Icelandic culture. And, that’s not counting the beer baths!
  • Akureyri is the capital of North Iceland, but Húsavík is the capital of whale watching.
  • The Arctic Coast Way covers six peninsulas!
  • The story behind Hannah Kent’s best-seller Burial Rites took place on the Vatnsnes peninsula.
  • You can take a boat to Grímsey, one of the northernmost parts of Iceland, which straddles the Arctic Circle. A truly fascinating island with only about 150 inhabitants.
  • In 2019, the Arctic Coast Way was listed by Lonely Planet on the list of top 10 places to visit in Europe!

Highlights of the Arctic Coast Way, North Iceland

1. Ásbyrgi

Ásbyrgi is yet another place connected to the pagan religion. The canyon is believed to have formed when Sleipnir, Óðinn’s 8-legged horse stepped down when traversing over Iceland. His hoofprint (luckily) left a permanent mark which today we call Ásbyrgi.

This is for many Icelanders the ultimate natural paradise with birch trees, ponds, and lava walls framing it all in like a scene out of a fairytale. There are some amazing hiking trails around the area and the camping ground is stellar. No matter how you choose to explore the Arctic Coast Way, make sure Ásbyrgi isn’t left out! 

Man standing on edge of Ásbyrgi canyon.

2. Húsavík

The capital of whale watching tours in Iceland and an absolute joy to visit. This is just one of the many fishing villages situated along the Arctic Coast Way, but surely one of the better ones. On a rainy day, you can enjoy many interesting museums or simply treat your taste buds to delicacies of the sea.

When the weather allows, a stroll around town is a great way to spend your time. Especially stopping at the harbor, hopefully joining one of the many whale watching experiences they offer.

Tourists on the boat watching whales in Husavik bay

Another fantastic activity at Húsavík is the GeoSea baths, magically located at the edge of the ocean. This place will truly have you in a geothermal bathing bliss in seconds. Additionally, they have great changing facilities, delicious food, and, of course, dazzling views, so you can’t go wrong with a visit here!

People enjoying GeoSea baths in Husavik

3. Akureyri

The capital of the north and truly the most urban place you’ll find when exploring the region. Akureyri has it all, a buzzing theater scene, a range of museums and restaurants, a high street with that old fishing town charm and adorable houses, and a great variety of tours to go around exploring.

If you are there in winter a Northern Lights adventure is only a pick-up away. And, if you are there in summer, the midnight sun lasts even longer in the north, making your summer night a memorable one.

View over the town's houses, Akureyri in North Iceland

Akureyri is located in Eyjafjörður and around the fjord you’ll find many different hamlets and interesting stops. The Cowshed Café, located right inside the stables, or the full-blown gingerbread Christmas house, are open all year round. There is something wonderfully quirky and unique about Akureyri and its surrounding lands. Firmly placing Akureyri at the top 10 must-visit places on the Arctic Coast Way. 

4. Siglufjörður

Once a bustling town of young people seeking employment in the herring boom era, Siglufjörður is now a sparsely populated yet picturesque town on the Tröllanes peninsula. The mark of old money is evident in the town’s persona and architecture.

But, with added tourism and as a result, funds, the locals were able to restore and fix up all of the derelict but charming buildings around town, many of which were vacant.

The townsfolk completed the renovations with the utmost respect to historical accuracy and attention to detail, even going through old photos to get the paint colors just right, and the windows exactly the same height. And, through this restoration process, the pride this town once held and the beauty it so gracefully possessed was reclaimed. 

Performer at the Herring Museum at Siglufjorour

As a result, the town is once again filled with people from all over Iceland and the world, this time looking to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the surrounding fjord, the charm of the town, its residents, and local activities including great dining experiences and heli-skiing.

5. Skagafjörður

Skagafjörður is one of those places you don’t hear talked about a lot, my guess is that someone is trying to keep it to themselves because this place is out of this world!

Renowned for the best Icelandic horses, Skagafjörður is also largely a geothermal area with excellent swimming pools and bathing opportunities. Including the infamous Grettislaug where the outlaw Grettir the Strong bathed after having swum across the fjord.

Skagafjörður hot pool

It is home to Jökulsá austari, Europe’s most adventurous river rafting location. As well as being where many of the most famous scenes from the Icelandic sagas took place. Which historians have worked hard to display in many of the ambitious museums Skagafjörður has to offer.

My favorites are Glaumbær, turf house hamlet and heritage museum and Kakalaskáli where a guided audio tour invites you in an impressive journey through the Sturlung era!

Couple sitting on bench and enjoying the view over Skagafjörður

The Arctic Coast Way in winter

Driving the route in winter can be more challenging than in summer. The weather is the main factor at play and can change suddenly, sometimes without much warning. This is why it is important to keep this in mind at all times and check the weather forecast and road conditions frequently.

However, this little cheat sheet we have prepared for you might also come in handy!

Map of the Arctic Coast Way in Winter

Different ways to explore the Arctic Coast Way

The Arctic Coast Way can be explored in many different ways. Some like to drive the whole Ring Road, exploring the south and east of Iceland before taking on the adventures of the north. Others like to start venturing in the west before visiting the coast of sagas and mythology.

You can even catch and flight from Reykjavík to Akureyri, grab a rental car and journey on your own. Anything is possible in the Land of Fire and Ice!

Hvítserkur basalt rock on the beach

The Arctic Coast Way is developed and owned by Visit North Iceland. Visit North Iceland is responsible for marketing and promotion of North Iceland working for 21 municipalities, 250 companies, and the government.

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About the author

Ragnheiður is a nature lover first and foremost, having studied anthropology and media at university. She also loves sharing her passion about her home country, Iceland, with everyone she meets. You’ll often find her traveling the Icelandic countryside, especially the Westfjords and south coast, although her hometown is Reykjavík. Her interests include Icelandic food and drink, plants and wildlife, and cultural traditions.

View more posts by Ragnheiður Harpa

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