Akureyri

Akureyri is Iceland's largest urban centre outside the Greater Reykjavik capital region. It is the country's ‘second city' much like Shanghai, Birmingham, L.A, or Milan…but Akureyri has just 18,000 inhabitants. It might therefore be considered one of the world's smallest major cities. And what's more, it's also a really beautiful place to visit. Is it better than Reykjavík? That's down to personal taste; but a lot of people seem to think so.

Akureyri scores its first major points for being near the bottom of Iceland's longest fjord; meaning it stretches along the picturesque shoreline and enjoys stunning mountain views on both sides; including, it should be mentioned, the country's most renowned skiing area. By saying it is at the bottom of the fjord, we do not mean that the town is underwater. That's just silly!

Most Icelandic towns have fantastic natural scenery, we hear you say. Well that certainly is true, but Akureyri comes near the top of the list – and (somewhat less common) the town itself is largely made up of remarkably good architecture, pleasant parks, and wide tree-lined streets. In short, it's a nice place to be.

A few of Akureyri's many highlights are its superb outdoor swimming pool, one of the world's northernmost botanical gardens (which is also a good botanical garden by any northern European standard), the only big bona-fide shopping mall outside the capital, and reputedly also the northernmost Domino's Pizza in the world to boot.

The cathedral is small but perfectly formed and contains stained glass windows rescued from Coventry cathedral in the Second World War. The same can be said of ‘Artists' Alley'…not that it was rescued from Coventry, you understand; but rather that it is small but noteworthy.

One of the greatest things about Akureyri is leaving again. This is because it makes a perfect base for all sorts of exciting trips in northern Iceland. When staying in Akureyri, you are but a short drive from the paradise of Lake Mývatn, as well as the beautiful geothermal nature baths, the Goðafoss waterfall, the Christmas House, and the hugely active Krafla volcano system.

It may not be a short drive away, but you can also hop on a boat or a plane to the small island of Grímsey, the only place in Iceland you can cross the Arctic Circle. As well as this, the islanders are friendly and the birdlife prolific.

Akureyri is surrounded by attractive countryside and seemingly endless trails and hiking possibilities – including a particularly large recreational forest.

Getting to Akureyri means four hours in the car from Reykjavík, a little longer on a coach, and a little longer still on the bus. Yes, that's right; you can get there on Reykjavík city buses – almost certainly the cheapest option. You can also fly direct in about 45 minutes.