Widely considered the Capital of the North, Akureyri is only 100 km south of the Arctic Circle, but boasts the warmest climate in Iceland, with temperatures ranging from 75oF during summer months to 30oF during winter. However, Akureyri is also a very cloudy town, averaging just over 1000 hours of sunshine a year, with virtually no sunlight from November to February.
With a population of 19,000, Akureyri is the largest town beyond Iceland’s densely populated southwest corner, and enjoys many of the amenities of any vibrant urban center–with winding side streets and bustling plazas offering coffee shops, boutiques, gourmet dining, art galleries, and an active nightlife–all of which helps the locals get through the dark winter months.
There’s also a geothermal swimming complex that’s the envy of all of Iceland, and it’s conveniently located downtown behind the church.
If the identity and soul of Akureyri is best symbolized by the twin spires adorning the Church of Akureyri, or Akureyrarkirkja as designed by Guðjón Samúelsson (also known for Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja)…
then the heart and soul of Akureyri is in full bloom at Akureyri Botanical Gardens, or Lystigarðurinn—
established in 1912 by a society of women enthusiasts who were eager to provide a green space for locals to recreate or relax.
Not only is Lystigarðurinn the first planned park space in Iceland, it’s also one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, featuring over 7,000 species of plants, and making it a valuable resource for botany research.
An hour’s drive northbound brought us to Siglufjörður, a colorful and historic fishing village atop the mainland, and only 40 km from the Arctic Circle.
But the tale of Siglufjörður lies in stark contrast to Akureyri. In Akureyki, I had to hunt for a weekend parking space. Not so much in Siglufjörður, where its population has been in steady decline. Once a bustling seaport known as the herring fishing capital of the world, only 1200 residents now call Siglufjörður their home since the herring disappeared in 1968 from overfishing.
This cautionary tale is well-documented through the town’s award-winning Herring Era Museum.
Having grown up in a household that enjoyed sardines, kippers and herring, I felt compelled to explore the museum’s interactive exhibits: which illustrates how the fresh catch was hauled to port,
and subsequently processed by an army of “herring girls”…
who could gut and brine enough fish to fill three barrels an hour.
Iceland’s first processing plant was built in 1911, where oil and meal–for pet food–was extracted from the fish. As more fishermen from Scandinavia arrived to fish the fjord’s bounty, the industry prospered.
In 1925, disadvantaged “herring girls” successfully went on strike for equal pay, and formed one of Iceland’s first labor unions.
In its heyday, Siglufjörður had 5 processing factories, and 23 salting stations supported by a hearty population of 3,000.
Today, the town of Siglufjörður hopes to ensure its future and relevance by presenting their history, and Leah’s buddies hope that tourists are listening.