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Journey north to see the stark, unspoiled beauty of Iceland for yourself. Known as the cultural and commercial capital of Northern Iceland, Akureyri is a friendly, picturesque town of white and red buildings – with clear, still waters before it and dramatic, snow-topped mountains behind.
Despite being just 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, Akureyri offers visitors one of the warmest climates in the country thanks to the sheltering effects of its mountain backdrop – and a harbour free from ice, which has played a big part in its success as one of Iceland's major ports and fishing communities.
The small-town nature of Akureyri offers visitors a quieter, less crowded experience of an urban centre than they might be used to – with a population of less than 20,000, you're unlikely to get caught in huge crowds whilst enjoying the streets, shops and attractions in the area.
A trip to the planet's northernmost reaches wouldn't be the same without seeing the incredible Northern Lights of the Arctic Circle. The haunting green glow of Aurora Borealis can often be seen in the skies above Akureyri from September to April on clear nights, and the Icelandic Met Office gives very useful year-round forecasts of the likelihood of seeing them. We now know that the Northern Lights are caused by electrically charged particles glowing in the thinnest, highest parts of the Earth's atmosphere, which form at the magnetic centres of the north and south poles – but what must Iceland's ancient Nordic settlers have made of them?
Akureyri's distinctive white Lutheran church looks down over the town from the top of a stepped, landscaped hill above the Kaupvangsstraeti. The church was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, the Icelandic architect responsible for the striking, stepped spike design of the Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik. Akureyri Church has a more traditional layout and interior than its sister church in the capital, but is no less impressive for it – featuring an organ with over 3,000 pipes, beautiful stained glass windows in a bright, almost comic-book style and a model ship suspended from the ceiling – a reminder of the country's Nordic tradition of giving offerings to protect seafarers on their voyages.
Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museum
The comparatively warm climate and naturally fertile soil of the region make Akureyri a great place to grow a wide variety of plants, and the town's peaceful, beautifully maintained botanical gardens offer visitors and locals alike a gorgeous place to relax. The gardens hold every native species of flora, as well as thousands of plant species from overseas. The town's natural history museum on Hafnarstraeti is also popular with visitors to the area, and functions as a research institute too – with more than 50 employees monitoring the local natural environment, and advising schools and the wider public on issues of natural resources. Visitors to the museum will find comprehensive collections of Iceland's native plants and wildlife – like its range of native insects and falcons, waders, seabirds and ducks. Akureyri's museum is twinned with one in Reykjavik, which together form Iceland's Institute of Natural History.
Bargain hunters might want to put Akureyri at the top of their list for shopping – many shops in town have ‘tax-free' signs, and although this involves a minimum spend to qualify for tax-free purchases, this does mean an added discount of about 15%. Shops can be found mainly in the Glerartorg shopping mall and along the Hafnarstraeti, the latter being visitors' best bet for designer outlets and souvenir shops.
There are some charming old-fashioned cafes in the town, serving coffee, cocoa, hot meals and a range of homemade desserts – these establishments are often painted in bright colours, and may offer spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. If you're looking for something more cutting-edge, however, you could also try some of the town's bistros, serving gourmet Nordic cuisine in ultra-modern settings.
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