Escape the south coast crowds for the natural wonders of North Iceland’s Diamond Circle

The Myvatn series of lakes makes up part of the striking landscape of North Icelend  (Visit North Iceland)
The Myvatn series of lakes makes up part of the striking landscape of North Icelend (Visit North Iceland)

Iceland has been something of a victim of its own beauty. Every day you’ll spot convoys of minibuses, coaches and hire cars trundling along the Golden Circle, with tourists taking whirlwind trips into the ‘wild’ from Reykjavik. At times, you’re more likely to be poked in the eye with a selfie stick at Reynisfjara Beach than encounter a puffin. Or trip over a tripod at the mighty Stokkur geyser than marvel, wide-eyed at the eruption.

Like other tourist favourites – Amsterdam, Bali, Venice and Tenerife, to name just a few – Iceland is feeling the strain of overtourism. But it is possible to escape the well-trodden tourist trail if you venture up to the island’s lesser-known, more remote north. Outside the town of Akureyri, a sightseeing circle of natural wonders dubbed the ‘Diamond Circle’ is an awe-inspiring alternative to the Golden Circle.

Tourism in Iceland boomed in the 2000s as tourists became ever-more aware of the stunning natural beauty of the island. The 2008 financial crisis actually helped this growth as a weakened krona made trips to Iceland more affordable. Shortly after in 2010, the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull made headlines, once again opening the world’s eyes to the glacier-capped landscapes (while also causing havoc to European air travel). These endless snowy surfaces of vast ice caps, towering waterfalls and craggy volcanic plateaus also provided the fantasy backdrop to Game of Thrones, attracting hordes of ‘set-jetters’ to the tiny island. Low-cost airlines like WOW and EasyJet began routes to Keflavik Airport in the south and it wasn’t long before the yearly number of tourists peaked far beyond the population of Iceland.

Flights now run directly to Akureyri in North Iceland from London Gatwick (Visit North Iceland)
Flights now run directly to Akureyri in North Iceland from London Gatwick (Visit North Iceland)

In 2023, the first international flights started to arrive Akureyri (including direct EasyJet flights from Gatwick), the quiet fjordal ‘Capital of North Iceland’. Previously it would have taken a tiny twin-prop plane, a five-hour drive or an eight-hour bus journey to reach this region from Reykjavik. This region is still relatively untrodden, but it won’t be long before those drawn to Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes find their way to the north.

Before the mini-buses turn into coachloads, I decided to make my base in Akureyri and spend a day following the route of the Diamond Circle, taking in thundering waterfalls, geothermal baths, a sprawling lake in the lava plains, and one of the prettiest fishing villages on the island.

Read more on the holiday swaps to avoid the crowds

There aren’t many airports in the world within walking distance of a city centre, but Akureyri is one of them. It’s just a five-minute drive, but I opted for the pleasant 20-minute walk along the fjord-side pathway to the handful of hotels, guesthouses and holiday apartments in the compact centre.

An imposingly grey, Brutalist hilltop church, designed by the same architect as the Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik, presides over the city, and the Hofn (harbour) building is as sleek and black-glassed as the capital’s Harpa Concert Hall. It would be easy – and lazy – to describe Akureyri as ‘Reykjavik in miniature’. Guerilla knitted bin covers with bulging eyes, love hearts for stop signs at traffic lights and vibrant murals tell me the artistic community is strong here. Spending a day or two in the hillside Arctic Botanic Gardens and wandering the forest pathways of Kjarnaskogur Forest Park in a famously tree-sparse Iceland is a delight. Perhaps it’s the cocooning mountains or the tiny population, but Akureyri feels quiet.

Dettifoss waterfall featured in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (Visit North Iceland)
Dettifoss waterfall featured in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (Visit North Iceland)

There’s plenty to see in Iceland’s northern wilderness and following the 250km route of the Diamond Circle from Akureyri means it’s possible to hit the highlights in a single day. The easiest (and cheapest) way to experience the Diamond Circle is by hiring a car and driving yourself. The limited number of roads in North Iceland means taking a wrong turn is rare. If, like me, driving isn’t your thing, tour companies run day trips around the Diamond Circle thanks to a demand for shore excursions from the Greenland and Arctic cruise ships that dock in Akureyri Harbour.

The route follows Route One east for half an hour until I hit the first awe-inspiring scene: Godafoss Waterfall. These horseshoe-shaped falls are some of the most powerful in Iceland and could give the Golden Circle’s Gulfoss a run for their money. Walking paths snake across the moss-green expanse and I get close enough to the falls to feel the mist on my face. Next, the Diamond Circle passes the expanse of Lake Myvatn, sparkling teal against the volcanic landscape. Lake Myvatn is home to a geothermal lagoon just as milky blue and ethereal-looking as the south’s famous Blue Lagoon. Like its southern sister, Myvatn Nature Baths are geothermally heated pools created by run-off from a nearby geothermal power station. The silica-rich water is a natural by-product and perfectly safe to bathe in. The minerals in the baths leave skin feeling baby-soft and are said to have healing properties for conditions like psoriasis.

Emerging soft and squishy-feeling from Myvatn Nature Baths, it’s just a couple of minutes’ drive to the ochre plains of the Hverir area of geothermal activity. With bubbling mud pots and yellow, sulphur-stained hills, it feels like I’ve landed on another planet. Walkways wind between each geyser and boiling hot pool and, unlike at Geysir in South Iceland, I don’t have to wait long for the smattering of visitors to dissipate for a people-free shot of this ethereal landscape.

In the geothermal area of Hverir you’ll find an ochre-hued plain with bubbling mud pots (Visit North Iceland)
In the geothermal area of Hverir you’ll find an ochre-hued plain with bubbling mud pots (Visit North Iceland)

Some may recognise Dettifoss waterfall from the opening scenes of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Cubic tonnes of grey and white water flow over a chasm as the Jokulsa a Fjollum River cuts through the landscape. From afar, human figures are dwarfed by the mighty cascade. Forty-five minutes further along the route, Asbyrgi Canyon is a vast, horseshoe-shaped glacial canyon shaped by millennia of slow ice melt. Meaning ‘shelter of the Gods’, Viking legend has it that Asbyrgi is the hoofprint of Sleipnir, the Norse god Odin’s trusty, eight-legged steed.

Just under an hour’s drive from Asbyrgi, the final stop on the Diamond Circle is the pretty fishing village of Husavik. The shamble of wooden buildings on the waterfront prompts an endless loop of Ja Ja Ding Dong to start up in my mind – this was the filming location used as Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams’ hometown in Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Boats putter out into the wild North Atlantic where minke and humpback whales frolic and breach the waves. You might even spot a majestic orca or two in the right season (April and May). Husavik is a great place to spend a night outside of Akureyri, affording you enough time to embark on a whale-watching trip. A lifelong fan of the camp spectacle, I opt to spend my time here at the Eurovision Museum — showcasing Iceland’s glorious history of weird and wacky song contest entries.

My day on the Diamond Circle ends back in Akureyri. With the airport so close to town I can just make out the hum of an aeroplane engine echoing off the white-tipped hills. Wheels hit the tarmac of the runway that appears to float on the fjord. I imagine passengers taking in that first breath of fresh, near-Arctic air as they disembark. Now’s the time to experience this northern outpost before the selfie sticks truly take over.

Husavik is known as one of the best places for whale-watching in Europe (Visit North Iceland)
Husavik is known as one of the best places for whale-watching in Europe (Visit North Iceland)

How to get there

EasyJet operates direct weekly flights from Gatwick to Akureyri Airport from £85 return between October and March. Flight time is around three hours 30 minutes.

Alternatively, EasyJet, Wizz Air, Jet2, IcelandAir and British Airways all fly direct from across the UK to Keflavik Airport and there are several daily flights from Reykjavik domestic airport to Akureyri. Hiring a car is the best way to get around North Iceland and there are a number of car hire outfits in Akureyri, or you can drive from Reykjavik. The drive takes around five hours.

Where to stay

Hotel Akureyri is split across four townhouses in downtown Akureyri and radiates sleek sophistication from low-lit lounges. Its NORTH restaurant is a fine dining affair with a tasting menu curated by Iceland’s only chef with a Michelin star.

Saeluhus Apartments & Houses are a short walk from the city centre, up on a hillside overlooking the fjord below. Stylish studio apartments come with kitchenettes and balconies with hot tubs. On a clear winter’s night, you might spot the Northern Lights.

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