North Iceland launched its first official tour route along its coastal roadways in June 2019. The Arctic Coast Way winds 560 miles on the North Coast of Iceland, from Hvammstangi to Bakkafjörður. Far from the tourism hub, the landscapes and communities of North Iceland exist as they have for centuries. This is Iceland at its most authentic.
The Arctic Coast Way is the first route to bring travelers directly to the best places to see in North Iceland, from quaint fishing villages to natural wonders. This fresh road trip is already making waves. Lonely Planet ranked the Arctic Coast Way third on its list of the best destinations in Europe in 2019. That’s higher on the list than France or Italy! Most importantly, the Arctic Coast Way ensures that travelers fully experience the beauty of North Iceland without harming its natural environment. We’re breaking down the 560-mile journey into distinct sections and must-see destinations, allowing you to customize your own unforgettable adventure.
Part 1: The Coast of Sagas and Mythology in North Iceland
The Arctic Coast Way route begins in Hvammstangi, a northwest trading town. From there the road threads its way between snow-peaked mountains and rugged seascapes. Many of these North Iceland attractions have ties to Iceland’s Sagas and mythology.
Before you embark, it’s a good idea to explore the town of Hvammstangi itself. The Trade Museum tells the story of the fishing communities you’ll encounter during your journey. You can also go on boat tours of surrounding sea colonies. The beaches are a fantastic place to spot cute, blubbery Icelandic seals. Take a relaxing dip in the hot local swimming pool before you hit the road.
From Hvammstangi, you’ll set off along Route 711. The road curves through the rolling hills of Vatnsnes Peninsula. Along the seacoast of Vatnsnes stands a 50-foot tall seastack called Hvítserkur. According to local mythology, Hvítserkur was a naughty troll who wanted to destroy the local church bells. When he stepped out into the sun to do so, the rays turned him to stone.
Skagafjörður Peninsula and Tindastóll mountain
About 50 miles east of Hvammistagi, the hills of Vatnsnes turn into the snowy peaks of Skagafjörður Peninsula. You’ll know you’re there when you spot the looming peaks of Tindastóll, an imposing mountain that stretches 11 miles along the North Coast. The Skagafjörður Fjord of North Iceland is the perfect place to get out and explore nature. Mt. Tindastóll offers excellent skiing and snowboarding for all experience levels. Just watch out for the trolls and sea monsters said to inhabit the area!
Grettislaug Hot Spring
Further up the coast of Skagafjörður is Grettislaug, a thermal pool on the waterfront. Icelandic legend says that the outlawed giant Grettir swam five miles across the Arctic Sea and then bathed in the hot waters of Grettislaug (“Grettir’s Pool”), which saved him from freezing to death. Today, Grettislaug continues to offer warm solace from chilly Icelandic temperatures. From Grettislaug, you can embark on a boat tour of the uninhabited islands of Málmey and Drangey in Skagafjörður bay. Slipping away from the shore, you will find yourself entranced by the islands’ mythological sites, abandoned lighthouses and abundance of birdlife, including Iceland’s puffins.
The final peninsula along the Coast of Sagas and Mythology, Tröllaskagi literally means “peninsula of trolls.” Your first stops on Tröllaskagi Peninsula will be the historic trading posts of Hofsós and Siglufjörður. These villages provide a firsthand look at the fishing communities that have lived on these shores for centuries. They’re also excellent spots to stop for fish and chips. Continuing on the mountain tunnel roads, you’ll come to Ólafsfjörður. This little town is known for its herring, and for its trolls. Glancing around, you’ll quickly see that in Ólafsfjörður, trolls are everywhere you look! Dozens of paintings of trolls decorate everything from the fish factory to the public swimming pool.
Part 2: Coast of Fishing Towns and Heritage in North Iceland
The next part of the Arctic Coast Way exemplifies the cultural heritage of North Iceland. The fjords of central North Iceland are home to many fishing villages and their local communities. This is also the entryway to Grímsey Island, the only part of Iceland that actually lies within the Arctic Circle. Grímsey Island is just a ferry ride away from your first stop, Dalvík.
Eyjafjörður Peninsula, Dalvík and Grímsey Island
Soon after you cross into Eyjafjörður Peninsula, you’ll come across Dalvík. This colorful village has great skiing and whale-watching. The Hvoll Folk Museum is a must-see for history buffs, . and Dalvík’s fresh fish is a must-eat for everybody. In the summer months, the ferry to Grímsey Island sets out from Dalvík five days a week. Just make sure to read the ferry schedule first.
The next major stop is the town of Akureyri, the capital of Northern Iceland. Although Akureyri isn’t exactly a bustling city (pop. 18,925), it offers a lot in the way of culture. This is the spot to go bar-hopping when you need a break from the road. Akureyri is remarkably warm for a town on the Arctic Sea, and the relatively fair climate allows Akureyri to support a botanical garden. The Akureyri botanical garden is one of the northernmost of its kind.
Eyjafjörður Peninsula leads into Skjálfandi Bay, a fjord best-known for its only town, Húsavík. Húsavík is a whale-watching hub of Iceland and is notable for its quirky museums, like the Húsavík Whale Museum, a local favorite. Other eccentric museums in Húsavík include the Safnahúsið Húsavík Museum about Icelandic history and the Exploration Museum.
Part 3: Coast of Elemental Nature in North Iceland
Húsavík is the last major town along the Arctic Coast Way. From here, you will become one with the unspoiled nature of the northeast. The eastern part of Iceland’s north coast is chock-full of geological marvels, including lava formations, glacial rivers and the most powerful waterfalls in Europe.
From Húsavík, you will head north on Route 85. This is Tjörnes Peninsula, one of the most geologically diverse parts of North Iceland. The mountain fjords of the North Coast here turn into high sea cliffs. Kelduhverfi county on the coast of Tjörnes Peninsula is the site of the rift between the Mid-Atlantic ridge and the Atlantic Ocean. Years of earthquakes and eruptions on this rift have formed a stunning landscape of cliffs, canyons and lagoons.
Ásbyrgi Canyon is an enormous valley shaped like a horseshoe. Ásbyrgi hiking is some of the best in North Iceland, and many hiking trails set out from the Ásbyrgi canyon parking lot in Vatnajökull National Park. From Ásbyrgi, you can take a quick detour to Dettifoss Waterfall, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and to Lake Mývatn, a colossal lake surrounded by active volcanoes.
The final peninsula on the Arctic Coast Way is Melrakkaslétta Peninsula, perhaps one of the least-visited parts of Iceland. The elusiveness of Melrakkaslétta works to its advantage. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more peaceful and atmospheric corner of the country. Make sure to stop at the Arctic Henge, North Iceland’s own version of Stonehenge. This modern structure is a monument to ancient beliefs. The Arctic Henge is especially impressive when viewed against the Northern Lights or the Midnight Sun.
Þistilfjörður (Thistilfjördur) Bay and Bakkafjörður
The Arctic Coast Way comes to its conclusion at Thistilfjördur, an arctic bay in the far northeast. The nearby Rauðanes headland offers excellent hiking, with trails leading to secluded black beaches, rare rock formations and fantastic bases for birdwatching. The road ends at Bakkafjörður, a tiny and atmospheric fishing village.
Tips for the Arctic Coast Way
How do I get to the Arctic Coast Way?
The drive from Reykjavik to Hvammstangi is just two-and-half hours. From Keflavík International Airport in Reykjavik, you can rent a car and head north along the Ring Road. We recommend renting a car with four-wheel drive, as some parts of the road can get bumpy. Alternatively, you can take a domestic flight from Reykjavik to the airports in Akureyri or Húsavik. This is a good option if you only want to travel part of the Arctic Coast Way.
What is the best time of year to travel the Arctic Coast Way?
The Arctic Coast Way is open year-round, but time of year will affect which routes are open. June through August is summer season and all roads are open. You can still travel the Arctic Coast Way during the off-season (September through May), but snow will affect which roads are open and which sites you can get to.
How long will it take to travel the Arctic Coast Way?
From one end to another, the Arctic Coast Way road trip will take about nine days. You can customize the route to suit your specific needs and interests. We recommend leaving yourself plenty of time to explore at your own pace and to allow for any unexpected weather — or unexpected adventures.
What about the Arctic Coast Way in winter?
The Arctic Coast Way in winter is just as lovely, but expect more darkness and less daylight to explore. Many shops will have shorter hours or be closed. Prepare in advance and pack some snacks.
As you'll be in the North, it's also a fantastic opportunity to see the Northern Lights!
Driving in Iceland during the winter can be tricky, as snowfall occurs between September and May. Be prepared! Expect changing weather conditions. With heavy snowfall, parts of the route have extremely limited access. Check the daily forecast before you head out on the road.
Ready to hit the road? See the best of North Iceland and the Ring Road on our 11-Day Self-Drive Tour.