The area around lake Mývatn in the North-East of Iceland is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful in Iceland. I may not be totally objective as my grandmother was born and raised on a farm just outside Mývatnssveit, and I still have a lot of family in the area. Her childhood was spent there before cars, electricity, and other modern luxuries, helping out on the farm and playing with humble toys, such as sheep bones. Later on, my grandparents built a summer house close by where I spent all my summers as a child, playing in nature, helping out on the dairy farm and going with my grandparents to buy smoked trout from the local market (Delicious!).
My nostalgically emotional connections aside, Mývatn’s amazing landscapes are reason enough to visit the area. The region is renowned for its otherworldly landscape, volcanic craters, and diverse bird life, and it’s only an hour’s drive from Akureyri, the biggest town in the north. Although Mývatn is a popular tourist destination, the tourist services have been developed to cause little disruption to the delicate ecosystem, so it never feels crowded. If you’re not sure what to see, here are some of the highlights.
Although these formations look like volcanic craters and are caused by underlying volcanic activity, these pseudo craters never actually spewed lava over the surrounding area. They were formed when lava flowed over the wet ground and trapped steam under it. The pressure then caused steam explosions and formed the pseudo craters, which are now protected as natural monuments. They also provide a fun hiking experience, and the views from the rim over Lake Mývatn are stunning.
Höfði is a nice place for a short stop. It’s a rocky promontory in the lake and a wonderful viewpoint. Kálfastrandarvogur bay has unusual lava formations, both in the lake and onshore, that make this area one of the most beautiful around Mývatn. Taking your time to enjoy the nature is a big (if not the biggest) part of travelling in Iceland, so make sure you don’t rush it. Taking a picnic on a nice day, with a spectacular view of the striking rock formations is what travelling to Iceland is all about.
Dimmuborgir is an overgrown lava field with striking lava pillars. The lava formations are reminiscent of an ancient collapsed citadel (Dimmuborgir actually means “Dark Castles”) and was formed around 2300 years ago in a huge eruption. Legend has it that this is where elves lived, but the terrain makes you feel more like you’re walking through Mordor. The area is perfect for hiking and has some beautiful hiking trails. You can choose between a few different routes and walk between lava formations and green birch forest in the mysterious surroundings. Dimmuborgir is a perfect adventure for kids as well, and if you’re there around Christmastime, you might even run into a Yule Lad or two.
Grjótagjá is a hot spring inside a small cave which used to be a bathing area. In the early 18th century, an outlaw called Jón Markússon lived there and used the cave for bathing. Today, unfortunately, the water is too hot to bathe in, with an average temperature of 50°C. Still, it’s a remarkable sight, and I recommend going there to take a look into the mysterious caves which are located under a crack in the lava. For the Game of Thrones fans out there, Grjótagjá was used as a location for filming the 5th episode of the 3rd season.
The Mývatn Nature Baths
Just like its more famous cousin, the Blue Lagoon, the Mývatn nature baths are a man-made lagoon with bright turquoise water drawn from depths of up to 2500m. It’s only half the size of the Blue Lagoon, but it also has less than half of the visitors, making a visit there much more personal. In addition to the lagoon itself, there’s also a steam bath with natural geothermal steam. In the restaurant, I tried the Mývatnssveit speciality, underground-baked rye bread with smoked trout, and I recommend you try it as well. Relaxing in the soothing warm water surrounded by beautiful nature is the perfect way to end a long day of travelling.
Time to pull out the selfie stick, people, this is something you’re going to want to show the people back home! It’s a hot spring area with bubbling mud pots and steam fumaroles (steam springs), in vibrant and beautiful colours because of crystallised sulphur. The area looks like another planet as it has almost no vegetation because of the extreme heat and constant emission of fumes (on that note: stay on the trail, do not go too close, and absolutely no swimming!)
Krafla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. The landscape around it is covered with steaming vents and craters, and in 1975-84, Krafla erupted in what is now (impressively) known as the Krafla Fires; fissure eruptions and magma movements that created the beautiful lava field around it. You can go see the Krafla Caldera, around 10 km in diameter and 2 km deep filled with water. There have been 29 recorded eruptions there. In the summer, you can also visit the Krafla power station to learn about how geothermal energy is transformed into power for the Icelandic people.
Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum
Lake Mývatn has a rich birdlife, especially when it comes to waterbirds. Based on the taxidermy work of Sigurgeir Stefánsson farmer, the museum is quite remarkable as it contains a specimen of nearly all Icelandic breeding birds, except one (there’s no red phalarope). This is also the only place in the world where you can find so many species of ducks in one place. After walking through the bird collection’s interactive display, you can sit at the refreshment shop (a chance to get some more of the rye bread) and watch over the lake and the birds there with bird-watching binoculars.
Only 45 min drive and a 30 min hike from Mývatn, this 3500-year-old lava cave has the most magnificent natural ice sculptures currently known in an Icelandic lava cave. It’s 370 m long in total. To go to the cave you’ll need to join a tour (from Mývatn or Akureyri). It’s good to wear warm clothes and good shoes since there are ice and water on the floor of the cave.
You’re going to need a good place to eat between sightseeing. I recommend this restaurant in a cowshed that offers homemade local food. There’s a window into the actual cowshed where you can see the cows. You can even try the warm fresh milk at breakfast, and for dinner, you can have a farm-to-table meal. They have excellent lamb, goulash, and even a vegetarian dish.
- Driving time to Mývatn from Reykjavík: around 6 hours.
- Flights: 40 minutes to Akureyri (Air Iceland) or Húsavík (Eagle Air).
- Spend at least 3 days there.
- If you have more time, why not go to Húsavík, the best place in Iceland for whale watching, or spend a day walking around Akureyri.
- You can book tours to most of the Mývatn attractions. Saga Travel offers day tours. They also go to Askja and Holuhraun, Dettifoss, Ásbyrgi, from Mývatn, Akureyri or Reykjavík. To book it, just contact us!
- Accommodation: There are several hotels and guesthouses around the area, as well as campsites. My personal favourite: Narfastaðir Guesthouse.
- Did you know that “mý” in “Mývatn” means midges? It’s named after the flies that swarm around the lake when the weather is still, and that’s why there are so many trout in the lake. They’re not as bad as mosquitos, but you might still want to carry a net.