Being the most populous settlement in North Iceland, it is fair to say that Akureyri is a small town with a big personality… one that could be considered a little strange by outsiders. So how much do you really know about the unofficial capital of the North? Read on to find out 5 strange facts about the town of Akureyri.
The locals love sports. Especially if they involve Snow.
Akureyri loves sports. Despite a mere 18.000 inhabitants, the town boasts two football clubs, two handball teams, a field and track team, a swim club and a plethora of martial arts dojos, ranging from MMA to Tae Kwon Do.
See also: Skiing and Snowboarding in Iceland
As if that were not enough, visitors will also find a shooting club (Piston, rifles and archery), a gymnastics team and the country’s largest ski area. The northernmost, 18-hole golf course in the world can also be found nearby, known for hosting the Arctic Open competition for the last twenty years.
In short, Akureyri is a winter wonderland for sports enthusiasts and travellers alike. Tour activities such as dog sledging, horseback riding and snowmobiling are also all easily accessed from the town.
In April each year, Akureyri hosts the AK Extreme, a snowboarding and skiing event. The downtown area closes off to traffic so that world-class snowboarders can demonstrate their skills—one event even sees participants jumping from a massive ramp made of shipping containers.
The town used to have nearly no Icelandic inhabitants
Historically, Akureyri was more of a trading hub than an actual town. The natural harbour offered an excellent location for mooring ships, utilised by the Danish who mostly populated what is today known as Innbær (“The inner town”) of Akureyri.
Locals preferred to live at Hrafnagil, a village close to where the area’s first settler, Helgi, came to shore with his wife Þórunn and their newborn daughter. After all, Hrafnagil sported a church and a school, meaning there was little incentive for people to move to Akureyri, despite the trade industry.
See also: The History of Iceland
An attempt to populate Akureyri was such an abysmal failure that the King of Denmark revoked the town’s right of trade. This ultimatum was given after the port failed to increase its local populace of 12 people. Thankfully, the townsfolk earned their rights back and the populace began to grow into, eventually, what it is today.
The Akureyri Church Window is a Part of a Major Mystery
Akureyrarkirkja—the iconic church that stands overlooking downtown—boasts a particularly unique window, located right behind the altar. Look closely, and you will see that it is quite different from the other stained glass windows there. While the bottom and the top look identical to the other four windows at the altar, the middle section is much older.
When Akureyrarkirkja was under construction, there was some dispute as to how the windows should look. The problem solved itself when a merchant named Helgi Zoega returned home from a trip to England. With him, he brought the beautiful window mentioned above.
See also: 21 Most Beautiful Churches in Iceland
Helgi had bought the window from an antique dealer in London, who claimed it was initially from the Coventry Cathedral, recently obliterated during the Second World War. The window was inserted to stand as the centrepiece of the church, serving instead of an altar table, and was usually called The English Window or The Coventry Window.
It made for a charming tale, that the glass, rescued and hidden in a barn during the blitz had somehow made its way from the 14th century St. Michael’s Cathedral to a little town in Iceland. This window placement, however, was not without controversy.
Helgi’s daughter, for example, did not feel comfortable considering her father to be something of a wartime thief. To make matters more complicated, in 1981, the staff of the new Coventry Cathedral contacted Akureyri church regarding the return of the window. They never received a reply.
In 2010, the head priest of Akureyri church stated that should Coventry want the window back, they would have it, though this would fail to materialise. In 2014, a group of researchers from the BBC came to Akureyri to study the window for a documentary focused on the disappearance of the Coventry windows in the 1940s.
Much to everyone’s shock, it turns out that the window wasn’t from Coventry at all. Unfazed, the local reverend claimed surprise but stated the locals love their English Window nonetheless, and even more now that it has suddenly become so much more mysterious.
The food traditions are different from the rest of the country.
Akureyri’s culinary traditions differ somewhat from the rest of Iceland, namely in how they treat their fast food servings.
For example, most people who have read of Iceland’s food scene know all too well about the legendary Icelandic hot dog. They might not be so aware that Akureyri’s version of ‘með öllu’ (“one with everything”) also comes with a cocktail sauce, added to the typical toppings of fried and raw onions, ketchup, sweet mustard and remoulade.
Another pure Akureyri invention is to eat a burger ‘franskar á ‘milli’, i.e. with fries in between. This handy timesaver not only adds a uniquely fried, potato-heavy taste to the patty in question but also allows for the whole fast food meal to be eaten in one foul swoop.
Aside from the quick and easy takeaways, Brynja Ice Cream Shop stands out as the culinary gem of Akureyri’s food scene. With a quaint, hometown ambience, this over-the-counter establishment provides all one could need on a late night, from basic groceries to delicious, homespun ice cream. Brynja is also the birthplace of ‘bragðarefur’, a flurried up soft-serve milk ice cream with fresh fruits and large candy pieces.
The local grammar School celebrates graduation by dancing in the streets
Menntaskólinn á Akureyri (Akureyri Youth College) is the oldest educational establishment in town, dating back to the 1130s.
The school was originally located at Hólar episcopal see, where it remained until 1802 upon its closure. This caused an outrage, and after some time, the school was reopened at Möðruvellir, in Eyjafjörður. Sadly, that school burned down in 1902, and it was decided to move the students to Akureyri, where the school was built anew in 1904.
See also: Studying in Iceland
Being one of the two oldest educational establishments in the country (the other being Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík), Akureyri Youth College hangs on to some strange old traditions. The newer ones, however, are vastly more entertaining and worthy of a mention here.
One such tradition dictates that at the end of the students’ last examination, the classes gather early in the morning, dress up in matching costumes and travel through town on a trailer pulled by a tractor. They visit all their teachers, and wake them up with loud singing, usually bringing small gifts or breakfast.
Another tradition claims that the school year cannot be counted as officially over until Iceland’s independence celebrations. On June 16th, the town fills up with Júbilantar (‘Celebrants’) sporting black caps that mark them as former students of Menntaskólinn. Those who have just finished their degree are rewarded with a white-capped hat and must wear the white cap for a year.
The Júbilantar are there to assist the white caps in transitioning from Nýstúdent (‘New Graduate’) to a fellow black cap. This must happen at midnight so that the new graduates can put on their own white caps on the morning after.
But then comes the fun. The new graduates must show off their caps. They wear it throughout the day, attending parties and lunches, before heading to the evening ceremony hosted by the school. There, at midnight, all the new graduates head to the packed town centre where they line up in a double row and march in song. Ultimately, they will form a giant circle on the main square, all 150 or so of them… and dance the Hokey Pokey.
How did you enjoy your time in Akureyri? What was your favourite thing to do in Iceland’s northern capital? Make sure to leave your thoughts and queries in the Facebook comments below.