Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland
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North Iceland: A Complete Guide for Drivers


With whale-watching opportunities, famed hot springs, and delightful towns and villages, North Iceland is one of the country’s must-visit regions. And the easiest way to explore this diverse and fascinating area is in a rental car.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to about seeing North Iceland by car. Read on to discover top sights, travel tips, and details on the new road trip itinerary, the Arctic Coast Way.

4x4 SUV driving on gravel road in norhern Iceland

Why explore North Iceland?

Most visitors to Iceland limit themselves to the area around Reykjavík and the south coast. While that’s convenient for international travel, it does mean they’re missing out on many of Iceland’s most remarkable sights—including in North Iceland.

North Iceland is the region that encompasses the whole of the country’s northern coast. The jewel in its crown is Akureyri, the so-called “Capital of the North”. This town is Iceland’s second-largest, and it sits in a superbly scenic location on the shores of the Eyjafjörður. If you visit North Iceland, you’ll likely pass through it.

But why come to North Iceland? Here are 5 good reasons to explore.

  • North Iceland is renowned for its whale watching. Iceland hosts as many as 20 different species of whale and dolphin throughout the year, and most of them come to the country’s north coast.

You can take boat tours from Akureyri, but you might have a better chance to see the region’s minke whales, orcas, and more at Húsavík. Sitting on the Skjálfandi Bay, Húsavík is the historic centre of Iceland’s whaling culture. From the village today, sightings of whales in summer are almost guaranteed.

  • North Iceland tends to have better weather. Typically, in summer, North Iceland is drier, milder, and better protected from the wind than the south coast. With the sun more likely to shine, you’ll have more chances to see the region’s gorgeous landscapes.

In winter, North Iceland is slightly colder, but you’ll still be more likely to see dry days.

  • North Iceland promises the best opportunities to see the northern lights. To witness the northern lights in Iceland, it’s best to be as far north as possible. On top of that, you need clear skies, very dark nights, and little light pollution.

North Iceland is on the edge of the Arctic Circle, making it the ideal spot for northern lights hunters. You’ll need to come between the months of September and April to see them at their best.

  • North Iceland is home to a dazzling array of natural sights. Northern Iceland showcases some of the country’s most breathtaking natural wonders. For instance, see mysterious rock formations and expansive ocean views, thunderous waterfalls and vast geothermal lakes.

There’s much more to explore too. For instance, in a rental car, wind your way along the Arctic Coast Way, to witness Iceland’s most dramatic fjords and mountain landscapes.

  • North Iceland has two of the most impressive travel itineraries. You’ll likely have heard of the Golden Circle in Iceland, but the north has two of its own road trip routes that are just as impressive.

The Diamond Circle takes in sights such as Lake Mývatn, Dettifoss Waterfall, and the Ásbyrgi Canyon. Meanwhile, the brand-new Arctic Coast Way is a dramatic journey through Iceland’s fjords and peninsulas.

Inspired? In the next section, you’ll discover some of North Iceland’s major sights in detail.


What to do in North Iceland

North Iceland is packed with welcoming towns, jaw-dropping scenery, and fascinating natural wonders. Here are 6 sights and activities not to miss on your visit.

1. Visit Akureyri, the Capital of the North

With a population of about 20,000, Akureyri is North Iceland’s largest hub (and the country’s second-biggest town after Reykjavík). Visit the “Capital of the North” for culture, restaurants, and opportunities for whale-watching trips.

A walking tour through the old town will show you buildings that date back centuries. For instance, the wooden house, Laxdalshús, was built in 1795, while other landmarks in the town are from the beginning of the nineteenth century.

While you’re here, don’t miss Lystigarðurinn, Akureyri’s beloved botanic garden. Plus, the Icelandic Folk Art Museum gives you a glimpse of the country’s fascinating historic culture.

2. Explore Lake Mývatn and its ancient volcanic surroundings

If you’re driving Iceland’s Ring Road, you won’t miss Lake Mývatn. It’s a vast body of water that extends over 37 square kilometres (14 square miles). And like much else of Iceland’s landscapes, it was created by an ancient volcanic eruption.

Today, Mývatn is recognised by UNESCO World Heritage as one of the most biodiverse areas in Iceland. In fact, it has some of the most varied bird life that you’ll find anywhere this far north in the world.

The lake itself is the centrepiece of a much larger volcanic area, featuring eerie rock formations such as Dimmuborgir, craters such as Skútustaðagígar, and hot springs. You can spend hours exploring everything the area has to offer.

3. Take a sealife tour from Húsavík, Iceland’s whale watching hub

When visiting northern Iceland, make sure to stop off at Húsavík. It’s a quaint village with a scattering of historic buildings which overlook the graceful Skjálfandi bay.

However, it’s best known for its history of whaling. You can dive into this story at the Húsavík Whale Museum, which shares how these magnificent creatures sustained much of this community. Or check out the Exploration Museum, for exhibits on Viking explorers, Arctic expeditions, and more.

You’ll find the most rewarding experience at sea. Hop onto a whale-watching tour to see orcas, sei whales, dolphins, and sometimes even a mighty blue whale.

4. Tour the Diamond Circle

The Diamond Circle is a 250 km (155 mi) itinerary in North Iceland that shows you some of the region’s natural wonders. You can start from Akureyri, Húsavík, or somewhere else (such as a local hotel) and tour the loop in a day.

Highlights include the magical Lake Mývatn and the whaling hub of Húsavík. But there’s much more to see besides.

For instance, stop off at Ásbyrgi, an enormous horse shoe-shaped canyon that’s carved out of the landscape. Beneath its high cliffs is a sheltered world of lush vegetation to explore.

Then visit the mighty waterfalls of Dettifoss and Goðafoss. While Dettifoss is known for its surging power, Goðafoss is an evocative and mysterious place.

Find out more about driving the Diamond Circle.

5. Drive along the Arctic Coast Way

The Arctic Coast Way is a brand new driving itinerary along North Iceland’s breathtaking coastline. Having only opened in 2019, the route offers an off-the-beaten-track experience encompassing the very best of Iceland’s north.

The itinerary stretches about 900 km (559 mi) between Hvammstangi in the west and Bakkafjörður in the east. When you set out on your northern road trip, it’ll take you along dramatic peninsulas and through breathtaking mountain passes.

As part of your journey, you can also explore the islands off Iceland’s north coast, such as Grímsey. It’s known for its birdlife and its dramatic location on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

6. Unwind in geothermal baths and spas

Iceland as a whole is known for its geothermal activity and natural spas. But in North Iceland you can leave some of the busier wellness destinations behind and indulge in more peaceful spa experiences.

For instance, try the Mývatn Nature Baths, a spa resort on the edge of the Mývatn geothermal area. Or try Geosea, whose spa pool overlooks the Arctic Ocean. Another option is to visit the modern facilities at Forest Lagoon, just outside of Akureyri.

On a busy trip through the wonders of North Iceland, a visit to a spa can be a rejuvenating and luxurious experience.


What to know about driving in North Iceland

If you’re visiting North Iceland, hiring your own vehicle is highly recommended. The sights are dispersed across nearly 1,000 km (620 mi) of coastline, and one of the great pleasures is to explore this region at your own pace.

Overall, North Iceland is a well connected region where roads are well maintained and frequently used. That said, though, there are some key things you should be aware of before hitting the road.

1. Be aware that roads in Iceland come in all shapes and sizes

Driving in Iceland might not be what you’re used to back home, as Iceland has a small population, very changeable weather conditions, and unique hazards that might catch you out.

One of the most important things to be aware of is the different types of roads you’ll encounter:

  • Unpaved roads. Major roads such as Route 1, the “Ring Road”, are paved and easily navigable. But there are many roads in the region that are unpaved. Instead, these are gravel roads, which tend to be much less frequently used.

If you’re driving the Arctic Coast Way, for instance, you’ll find that about a third of the route is unpaved. As a result, you may want to choose a more robust vehicle such as a 4x4.

  • Toll roads and tunnels. If you’re driving in North Iceland, you’ll likely encounter the country’s one and only toll road. It’s a tunnel known as Vaðlaheiðargöng and you’ll find it just to the east of Akureyri.

It’s important to be aware of this, as you'll need to pay for it either in advance or within 24 hours of passing through the tunnel. You can find out more in our guide to tolls and tunnels in Iceland.

  • Road closures. In winter, some roads—particularly the most remote ones—can be closed quite suddenly. This is usually due to heavy snowfall.

It can be quite a stressful experience if you’re caught out by this. So, check your route in advance—and that means in summer too. You can access weather forecasts at the Icelandic Met Office and look for any road closures at

2. Decide what to do based on the season

Icelandic winters tend to offer snow-capped hills and long hours of darkness. In summer, expect the midnight sun and much milder weather—particularly in the north.

The season you visit will shape your itinerary and activities. For instance, summer in North Iceland is the most popular time for whale watching, as it’s when there are most creatures in the local waters.

Similarly, you’ll find that summer is the easiest time to explore Iceland’s highlands and more remote roads. It’s the perfect season to tour the Arctic Coast Way, for example, as some stretches of this road are regularly closed in winter.

But winter has its own charms. It’s the perfect time to see the northern lights in Iceland, with dark skies which accentuate the magical swirling colours.

In winter, the entirety of the Ring Road will be open and regularly cleared of any snow. You’ll also get to see the marvellous landscapes of Mývatn in its white winter coat.

3. Choose the right vehicle for your trip

The vehicle you drive will have a big impact on your comfort, as well as how easy it is to get around. For instance, smaller passenger cars may be more affordable, but they might not be the best choice for unpaved roads.

Choose your vehicle depending on what you’re planning to get up to in Iceland:

  • 4x4 SUVs are a good choice if you’ll be exploring Iceland’s unpaved roads or the highlands. As they’re four-wheel drive, you’ll find they’re much better equipped for rugged winter road conditions too.

  • Electric vehicles make sense if you’re planning a trip around the Ring Road. They’re affordable to run and typically come with the most advanced technology. However, we don’t allow our electric vehicles into the highlands.

  • Motorhomes and campervans are the right choice if you’re intending to camp in North Iceland. They provide a comfortable, self-contained home for your trip.

Whichever you prefer, explore our full range of vehicles here.

4. Pack for all weather

At this point in this guide, you’ll know that the weather will have a big impact on your trip. But it doesn’t just determine what you get up to and which roads you choose. You’ll need to dress for the conditions too.

Here are our tips for packing for your trip to North Iceland:

  • Always bring a waterproof. North Iceland might be the driest part of the country, but it can still rain. Don’t get caught out, because it can make an uncomfortable trip.

  • Pack a spare pair of shoes. Driving in walking boots is hardly comfortable, but you don’t want to be walking around Iceland’s sights in light trainers either. Having a change of shoes is the best plan.

  • Remember to pick up some insect repellant. The name Lake Mývatn in English translates to “lake of midges”. When the wind is low, these little flies can come out in swarms. They bite, so it’s best to be prepared with some bug spray.

  • Prepare all the documents you need for your vehicle rental. With Höldur, you’ll need a valid credit card, your ID, and a driving licence that you’ve had for at least a year. The phone number of the emergency services can be useful too—it’s 112.

Frequently asked questions about visiting North Iceland

Need some more information? We provide the answers to some common questions here.

Is North Iceland worth visiting?

North Iceland is one of the most diverse and rewarding regions in the country. It’s definitely worth visiting.

One of the best ways to explore the region is in a rental car. It gives you the freedom and flexibility to travel at your own pace and see the sights that are most interesting to you.

When should I visit North Iceland?

You can visit North Iceland at any time of year. In summer, you’ll enjoy the midnight sun and dry, mild weather. Meanwhile, winter is the season of the northern lights, when snow covers the hilltops in white.

How long to spend in North Iceland?

Visitors typically spend between a couple of days and a week or more in North Iceland. It’s a region where you can slow down and take your time.

For instance, you can spend as much as 10 days to see everything on the Arctic Coast Way. Or you can choose some highlights of the region to visit on a shorter trip, or as part of a Ring Road adventure

Ultimately, it’s up to you how long to spend here. But no matter how long you have, expect an unforgettable adventure.

Can you see the northern lights in North Iceland?

North Iceland is one of the best places in the country to see the northern lights. As we’re so far north—on the edge of the Arctic Circle—the aurora borealis appears very strongly, particularly in the darkest months of the year.

There’s also the added benefit that North Iceland is much more sparsely populated than the south of the country. This means that there’s less light pollution to spoil the view.

What is the best time to visit North Iceland?

All seasons are a good time to visit Iceland—it just depends what you want to get up to.

Summer is a great time for whale watching, hiking, or camping out beneath the midnight sun. Alternatively, in winter, you’ll have the best chance to see the northern lights.

Spring and autumn can be ideal times to visit too. For instance, at these moments, there are fewer visitors around.

How to visit North Iceland?

There are three main ways for you to visit North Iceland:

  • Hire a car and drive. Probably the most popular option is to hire a vehicle from Reykjavík and drive on the Ring Road to North Iceland.

  • Fly from Reykjavík to Akureyri. Then, from the Capital of the North, you can hire a car to explore the region.

  • Book a tour. Guided tours tend to offer fast-paced itineraries of the most famous sights. They’re good options if you’re in a hurry or you want to meet fellow travellers. But if you want to go at your own pace, they won’t be the best choice.

Hot springs in Namaskard near lake Myvatn

Visit North Iceland with Höldur

The best way to explore North Iceland is by car. Hire a vehicle and kickstart your Icelandic road trip today.

At Höldur, we’re the largest car rental operator in Iceland, as well as the local Europcar franchisee. We have over 7,000 vehicles in rotation, with rental outlets across the country, including in Reykjavík and Akureyri.

Explore our range of vehicles to find the best option for you.

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