Second Cities: Destinations to add onto a trip to Reykjavik
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Welcome to TPG‘s series, Second Cities. The series is designed to help you find smaller or less-popular-but-equally-amazing places to visit no more than a few hours by air or land from your original destination so you can maximize your itinerary.
Once an isolated speck of land in the North Atlantic, Iceland is now an international hot spot. Even after the demise of WOW Air, the ultra-budget carrier that offered flights as low as $99 each way, Iceland remains incredibly popular. In the country’s capital city, Reykjavik, tourists sometimes outnumber locals by three to one.
The northernmost capital in the world has a lot going for it: proximity to some of the country’s main attractions, dozens of options for day tours, a wild nightlife scene and an abundance of restaurants and shops. But it’s also far from many of the country’s most stunning — and far less visited — wonders and with so many other tourists on the streets, it doesn’t offer the same untouched feel as other parts of Iceland.
Spend a few days in Reykjavik, for sure, but when it’s time to head away from the capital, consider visiting one of these second cities.
On a spit of land surrounded by water on three sides, Ísafjörður is a tiny municipality of 2,500 people tucked into the mountains of Iceland’s Westfjords. Despite its small size, larger-than-life attractions are accessible as day trips from this quiet village. In winter travel gets dangerous and the main lodging for tourists is closed, so summer is the time to go.
Getting there: From Reykjavik airport (RKV), Ísafjörður is a scenic 40-minute flight on Air Iceland Connect. The flights start at 68 euros (about £57) each way. Alternatively, it’s a 550km (280-mile) drive northwest from Reykjavik, which takes about six hours in the summer months. Snow can arrive in the Westfjords by the end of September and it might not melt until May.
There’s a third option, though it requires more time and coordination. First, drive 172 kms (about 100 miles) from Reykjavik to Stykkishólmur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. From there, catch the Ferry Baldur to Brjánslækur in the Westfjords, a crossing that takes close to three hours and runs daily (twice per day in summer). The journey to Ísafjörður from the ferry landing is another two hours (122 kms or 75 miles). The road from Brjánslækur to Ísafjörður is unpaved and mountainous in parts. If you do undertake the trip when there’s snow on the ground, use a 4WD vehicle, pay close attention to the weather and give yourself lots of extra time.
Where to stay: Book at Gentlespace Guesthouse and take your pick from one of four accommodations spread throughout Ísafjörður. There are two two-bedroom apartments, a one-bedroom apartment, and three individual rooms located in a shared guesthouse. Open in summer, each apartment is different, each includes a washing machine and fully stocked kitchen, and all are in the centre of town. Rooms in the cosy guesthouse have a refrigerator, microwave oven, coffee maker, and electric kettle, and all accommodations have free Wi-Fi.
What to see and do: Ísafjörður is the unofficial capital of the Westfjords and a great base for exploring the sparsely populated region. In town, there are a few small-but-charming museums, including the Maritime Museum and Natural History Museum. The wide-open spaces that surround the town offer activities like kayaking and horseback riding.
Outside of town, the beauty and history of the Westfjords really come alive. Take a 20-minute drive to Suðureyri for a food tour that explores the area’s culinary traditions, or head 20 minutes in the other direction, to the town of Súðavík, where the nonprofit Arctic Fox Center has exhibits on Iceland’s only native land mammal.
And of course, some of the area’s main attractions are the natural wonders and otherworldly landscapes Iceland is famous for. Head south of Ísafjörður to Dynjandi, a stunning multitiered waterfall with a total height of nearly 330 feet. Then continue to Látrabjarg, the westernmost point in Iceland. The cliffs are the seasonal home of millions of birds, including the world’s largest population of puffins and razorbills.
Iceland’s second-largest city outside the capital region (population 18,000), Akureryi has a bustling centre and a youthful feel, thanks to the 2,500 students enrolled at the University of Akureyri. A mini-Reykjavik, the city has plenty of bars, restaurants, and cafes. Its main draw, though, is its easy access to the wonders of Iceland’s north.
Getting there: From Reykjavik city airport (RKV), Akureryi is a short, 25-minute flight on Air Iceland Connect. The flights start at 63 euros (about £53) each way. Alternatively, it’s a 388 km (240-mile) drive, which takes about five hours in summer; give yourself an extra hour or two in winter. You’ll be on the Ring Road (Highway 1) for most of the drive and the road is generally flat and well-paved.
Where to stay: Part of the Kea Hotels chain, which includes properties in Reykjavik, Hotel Kea is set in the heart of town right near the retro-futuristic Akureyrarkirkja Church. The stylish rooms at the four-star hotel are decked out in neutral tones with hardwood floors and large windows. Room rates include breakfast, Wi-Fi and a welcome drink. There’s also an on-site bar and restaurant.
What to see and do: Southwestern Iceland has the Golden Circle and northern Iceland has the Diamond Circle, a quintet of natural wonders that can be explored on a looping day trip that starts and ends in Akureyri.
The stops include: the small fishing village of Húsavík, where you can go out on a whale-watching boat or learn more about the massive cetaceans at the Húsavík Whale Museum; Ásbyrgi, a two-mile long canyon that’s a popular hiking spot; Lake Mývatn, a volcanic lake, and Dettifoss waterfall, the second-most-powerful falls in Europe.
The Mývatn Nature Baths (the north’s answer to the Blue Lagoon) and the 100-foot-wide Goðafoss waterfall are not technically on the loop, but close enough to include in a day of exploring.
Akureryi itself also offers plenty of diversions. There’s a multitude of museums — including the Akureyri Museum of Industry, the Aviation Museum, the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Museum, and the Akureyri Art Museum — as well as the Lystigarður Akureyrar botanical garden and the Akureyrarkirkja Church. In winter, locals head to Híðarfjall mountain for skiing; in summer the Jaðar Golf Course, the northernmost 18-hole golf course in the world, stays open late so you can golf under the midnight sun.
Vík í Mýrdal
Vík í Mýrdal, often shortened to just Vík, is set at the seaside on Iceland’s south coast. Home to fewer than 500 residents — and site of one of the most photographed churches in Iceland — it’s perfectly located for exploring the best of Iceland’s stunning southern shores.
Getting there: The scenic 187 km (117-mile) drive from Reykjavik to Vík takes about two and a half-hours with no stops, but with plenty to see along the way, plan for twice that. In the summer, you can also take a bus from Reykjavik to Vík (as well as to Akureryi or Ísafjörður) but a car is highly recommended. Without one, you’ll be limited in where you can go without paying for group tours.
The entire drive is on the Ring Road (Highway 1), which is flat, paved, and well-marked, making for a relatively easy drive even in winter (though as always in Iceland, check the weather forecast before heading out).
Where to stay: The glass-fronted Hotel Vik is part of the Icelandair Hotels chain and is located in a prime position, close to the town’s famous church and steps from the black sands of Reynisfjara beach. There are 78 rooms spread over two wings, with an on-site restaurant, bar and fitness centre. Many rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows looking at the mountains or the sea, and all rooms include free Wi-Fi and breakfast.
What to see and do: En route to Vík from Reykjavik, a trifecta of waterfalls makes for a great way to break up the drive. First, there’s Seljalandsfoss, a 200-foot-high curtain of water that drops into a deep pool. Behind the waterfall, a rock overhang creates a recess and you can actually walk behind the waterfall — getting wet in the process. Afterward, it’s a short walk to Gljúfrabúi, a second waterfall tucked into a cave and accessible only by wading through the stream produced by the falls.
Thirty minutes down the road, the Skógafoss falls are stunningly wide (80 feet) and tall (200 feet). Fit travellers can see it from above by climbing the steep path alongside the falls. Just before reaching Vík, detour to Dyrhólaey, a beautiful series of cliffs overlooking Vík’s famous black-sand beach and a collection of basalt sea stacks known as Reynisdrangar.
In Vík, check out Reyniskirkja, a quaint little church with a gorgeous view over the town and sea. Then follow the crowds out to Reynisfjara beach — but stay far back from the water’s edge as rogue waves have been known to pull people out to sea.
Activities like horseback riding on Reynisfjara beach or ice climbing or snowmobiling on the nearby Mýrdalsjökull glacier are also available. With more time, it’s worth the drive (about 2.5 hours each way) to Skaftafell National Park for a look at Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland, or onward to Jökulsárlón, a glacier lagoon where you can take a boat ride through cerulean waters dotted with bobbing icebergs.