25 Things You Didn’t Know About Iceland

by Katie Hammel on June 16, 2010

by Katie Hammel | June 16th, 2010  

1) At roughly 39,000 square miles, Iceland is small – about the size of the US state of Ohio. 11% of the country is covered with glaciers, and 8% of that is a single one, Vatnajökull, which is located in the vast and nearly uninhabited interior. Three of Iceland’s five glaciers are the largest in Europe. Another 30% of the land is lava fields.

>> Read about transportation in Iceland

2) Though it’s called Iceland, the name is a bit misleading. It seems Iceland should have been called Greenland, and vice versa. When Eric the Red colonized Greenland, he decided give it a more inviting name to entice people to move there.  Iceland, on the other hand, doesn’t even get as cold in winter as New York City, on average.

3) Only about 320,000 people live in Iceland. Of those, over 2/3 of the population live in and around Reykjavik, which is the northernmost capital in the world.

4) Iceland sits out in the North Atlantic Ocean, just south of the Arctic Circle (which passes through the island of Grismey but not through the mainland itself). It’s part of Europe (but not part of the European Union), though Norway is 603 miles away. Flying time from New York to Iceland is only about five hours.

>> Learn more about flights to Iceland

5) Because of its northerly position, the sun shines in Iceland nearly 24 hours a day during the peak of summer.  In mid-winter, the area experiences the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) phenomenon on clear nights, and it’s only light about four to five hours each day.

>> Read about where and how to see the Northern Lights in Iceland

6) Iceland is one of the most geologically active spots on Earth. It sits at the meeting point of the Eurasian and North American continental plates – which are slowly moving apart. The result is some of Iceland’s unique geological features, like the rift at Thingvellir, Geysir, hundreds of waterfalls (two of which – Gullfoss and Dettifoss – are the most powerful in Europe), and near-daily mini-earthquakes. After seeing the beauty of Iceland, you begin to understand why, while only 20% of the Icelandic population says they believe in the existence of elves, 80% say they aren’t willing to rule out the possibility.

7) Iceland is home to the youngest place on Earth. Surtsey Island, in the Westman Islands, came up from the ocean floor during a volcanic eruption in 1963. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

8 ) Iceland is also abundant in natural beauty. Within the country you’ll find volcanoes, mountains, Fjords, glaciers and glacial lagoons, black sand beaches, lava caves, and towering seaside cliffs. What you won’t find, are lots of tall trees. An old Icelandic joke is that if you ever get lost in a forest in Iceland, all you need to do is stand up.

9) The Norse people are the first believed to have settled Iceland; they arrived as early as the 800s. Ingólfur Arnarson, the first known permanent settler, built his house near Reykjavik in 874, and by 930, the land was mostly settled. In the late 14th century, Iceland fell under control of Denmark and did not become independent again until 1944.

10) Iceland is a parliamentary republic, and is the site of the oldest Parliament in the world, which was founded at Thingvellir in 930. The head of government is the Prime Minister; there is also a President, which is a largely ceremonial position.

11) In Iceland, people are named using patronymics, which creates a “last” name based on the father’s first name and the person’s gender, e.g. Katrín Karlsdóttir (Katrín, Karl’s daughter). Because of this, the Icelandic telephone directory is listed alphabetically by first name.

12) Iceland has one of the highest per capita rates of car ownership in the world. There is one car for every 1.5 people, and by car is the best – and in many cases the only – way to get around. There is no rail system in Iceland.

13) The Ring Road (Route 1), the 831-mile long road that circles Iceland, was only completed in 1974, and is still unpaved in parts, as are many roads in Iceland. In fact, there are nearly double the number of miles of unpaved roads as there are paved roads.

>> Learn more about driving in Iceland

14) Renewable sources such as geothermal and hydro power provide about 80% of the nation’s total energy, and Iceland expects to be energy-independent by 2050. Iceland has never produced oil or gas, and it is one of the few countries to offer filling stations dispensing hydrogen fuel for cars powered by fuel cells. Even the famous Blue Lagoon was created from the runoff water from a hydro-electric power plant.

15) Iceland is very progressive in gay and lesbian matters. In 1996, legislation was passed to create registered partnerships for same-sex couples and in 2006 same-sex couples were granted the same rights as different-sex couples in adoption, parenting and assisted insemination treatment. In June of 2010, Parliament unanimously voted to approve same-sex marriages. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, who became Iceland’s first female Prime Minister in 2009, is also the world’s first openly gay head of government.  Strip clubs, however, have been banned since 2010.

16) Though Iceland is home to 130 volcanoes, only about 40 have erupted in the last 1000 years.  On average, a volcano erupts every 5 years.  While Hekla, which erupted several times in the 1300’s and caused widespread destruction,  is one of the most active in the world,  Grímsvötn was the last to erupt. It erupted in May 2011.

17) The Icelandic police don’t carry guns. Crime in Iceland is very low, and guns are illegal (except for hunting) so they only carry extendable batons and pepper spray.

18)  Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 until March 1, 1989. Actually all alcohol was banned from 1915 to 1935, but when Prohibition was repealed, the beer ban stayed. Though the country’s unofficial national drink, Brennivin, is called “the black death” and contains 40% alcohol, some Icelanders feared the dangers of beer. Since the repeal of the beer ban, Beer Day has been celebrated on March 1.

>> Learn more about drinking in Iceland

19) During the 19th century, over 15,000 people left Iceland due to poor conditions, and the population dwindled to under 50,000. Many of those people settled in North America, in the Canadian province of Manitoba, where they created a colony called New Iceland. Other former Icelanders went to Utah, and today Spanish Fork, Utah has one of the largest Icelandic populations, most of whom are Mormon.

20) Tipping is not necessary in Iceland as it is included in the total bill. However, contrary to popular belief, a service person will not be insulted if you offer a tip for exceptional service.

>> Learn more rules for tipping in Iceland

21) Icelandic, the official language, remains very much unchanged from early days.  In fact, instead of adding foreign words, it always makes new words from existing phrases. Icelanders are taught Danish and English in schools though, so most have some proficiency in English. There is no Icelandic word for please.

22)  Iceland is known for some odd (by American standards, anyway) delicacies like whale, puffin, boiled sheep’s head, ram’s testicles, horse, and harkarl – a kind of fermented shark. But Icelandic food is also typically very healthy and all-natural, like skyr – a thick, slightly sour yogurt that is very high in protein and nutrients but virtually fat free. Here, organic isn’t a yuppie trend, it’s just the way things are. The country doesn’t even have a McDonald’s anymore (though that was more about cost than being health-conscious). The last of the three McDonald’s restaurants in Reykjavik closed in 2009. Icelanders do consume more Coca-Cola than any other nation on Earth, per capita, but it is said to the best tasting because it is made with Icelandic water and not corn syrup.

>> Read more about Icelandic food

23) Drinking is very expensive in Iceland, but that doesn’t stop the people from partying until the week hours on Friday and Saturday nights. They just pre-drink at home before they head out on the runtur, or pub crawl.

24) Icelandic horses are one of Iceland’s natural treasures. There are over 80,000 Icelandic horses in the country, known for their friendly,docile nature and unique fifth gait. The horses are so beloved,  and their purity and bloodlines so protected, that no other horses can enter the country and once an Icelandic horse leaves, it can never return. Horses aren’t the only animals in the country though. While the only land mammal native to Iceland is the Arctic Fox, the country is also home to lots of sheep – there are nearly twice as many sheep as there are people in Iceland. There are no native reptiles or amphibians on Iceland and only about 1300 insects, compared to about 1 million throughout the world.

25) Icelanders enjoys an excellent quality of life. Though at 43.5 hours per week, they have the longest work week in Europe , they also have one of the longest life expectancies. In 2007, Iceland was ranked the number-one most developed country in the world by the UN’s Human Development Index. Iceland has the highest literacy rate in the world and has been rated one of the best places in the world to be a mother, based on maternal death rates and access to health care. Iceland is one of the most technologically advanced companies and has the highest number of broadband internet connections per capita in the world. Icelanders also go to the movies more (per capita) than people anywhere else.

Ready to go? Use the widget below to look for flights, hotels, hostels and vacation packages!

Photos by: WanderingtheWorld (www.LostManProject.com), Bob Jagendorf, totalpodcastrophe, jtjdt, pocuis, ZanthiaEwan McIntosh, DunechaserHello, I am Brucejff ryn pmrneedfire,   jasperwiet,

{ 37 comments }

Dave June 20, 2010 at 11:26 am
Corner

Great article, and I think it’s excellent that Icelandic police don’t carry guns. It makes them so much more equal and more like the normal citizen and results in them behind more friendly and the citizens friendlier to them.

Also Icelandic jails are actually created to help the people not destroy their lives forever.

Corner
Crystal aka Traveler's Barista August 27, 2010 at 5:10 pm
Corner

Love this article! Such neat information I had no idea about and I was one of those people who assumed iceland was full of ICE and not an island you’d want to visit. It’s definitely now part of my Travel Bucket list!

Corner
Jean-Baptiste September 12, 2010 at 7:14 am
Corner

I’m back from Iceland… A two-week stay that literally changed my life.
I was VERY nostalgic until I read this article. I really feel better now, and more in love with Iceland than ever!

Corner
Icelander October 10, 2010 at 2:59 pm
Corner

Nice article, thought there are two things wrong with it. There is an icelandic word for please and it is “Vinsamlegast” and its brennivín not brennevin.

Corner
deputu October 31, 2010 at 10:23 am
Corner

The pictures look so nice. Very colorful. I like them very much.

Corner
Dave and Deb January 4, 2011 at 7:52 am
Corner

Wow! These images are incredible. Iceland has been a place that is very high on our list and looking at the photos has bumped it to even higher! That’s cool that there isn’t a McDonalds anymore. It is rare that we visit a country that doesn’t have them scattered throughout.

Corner
bryan January 10, 2011 at 9:44 pm
Corner

Your article is nice. But when I went there recently, the people were so rude in every store or venue I went to. Its like the people dont like tourist money. I always greet people with a big smile and hello. I even attempt few Icelandic words. They are definitely not warm people. Maybe its the isolation thats changes a persons way of living or interacting. Of course whoever reads this will not beleive what I just wrote. Go there and see for yourself! Youll see.

Corner
ibrahim mansour January 19, 2011 at 9:38 am
Corner

its so beautiful views , that makes human very happy .
The greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being.

Corner
Ama January 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm
Corner

We went to Iceland for our honeymoon in the beginning of December. A very isolating sort of place; very quiet. As to the people they reminded me of my Swedish father who people often find intimidating or difficult to warm up to. Like my father I noticed people smiled less when you greeted them and did not feel the need to make “small talk”, using a slightly gruff tone. However none of these people were rude to us. I think it might just be a cultural difference. I also notice that younger people tended to be friendlier than those in their 40s+.

Corner
Lois January 28, 2011 at 7:12 am
Corner

Where are the wonderful Icelandic Sheepdogs?!

Corner
Kristbjörg Una January 31, 2011 at 5:48 pm
Corner

Good work.. Icelandi is a good place to travel too, lot of stuff to see..

But there is one thing.. The Rúntur is not going out drinking, a common mistake. The Rúntur is a drive through town, most people on the Rúntur are not drinking just taking a look at the life down town. So we head out to Djammið, not the Rúntur (in most cases anyways). Rúntur is a very old habit of ours and is conected to everyone having a car like you said befor, mostly the people on the rúntur are people too young to get in to the clubs. Every town has a Rúntur witch most offen takes you throug the mainstreets. Rúntur is not only a weekend thing, you can take a Rúnt any day of the week just to see how your town life is going.

Corner
Cheap Tickets February 9, 2011 at 10:02 am
Corner

Iceland is great place for spending your Holidays.

Corner
ana February 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm
Corner

is a wonderful country but the people there are very depressed
most young people choose to stay in Spain where they have access to entertainment and fun to drink
there are many suicides too but do not want to talk about it.

Corner
Alexandra March 2, 2011 at 2:41 am
Corner

Fantastic article, I really liked it!
And I wanted to point out, to the please talking about Icelandic people being rude and all that yes, Icelandic people can be unsocial to tourists and yes, it has to do with Icelanders being so concealed from other countries but most of the younger people aren’t rude or unsocial at all! As a matter of fact, I think Iceland has the most-tourist friendly young generation(probably ranging from ages 5-30) than any other country I’ve been to. But yes, the older people or not nearly as nice.
Otherwise, it’s an amazing country to visit and I think everyone should come to Iceland at least once in their lifetime.

Corner
Georg March 4, 2011 at 5:05 am
Corner

You should have mentioned the fireworks in Iceland. It’s legal for everyone over the age of 16 to purchase as many fireworks as he wants from 26th December to 6th January.

Corner
Andrea March 4, 2011 at 9:58 pm
Corner

Awesome list and gorgeous photos! It probably sounds a bit silly but I first became interested in the country when someone told me that many of the people there believe in elves. The more I’ve been seeing and reading about Iceland, though, I have many more reasons than that for putting it near the top of my list as a destination.

Corner
judy p March 18, 2011 at 7:55 am
Corner

I had the time of my life. Just returned a few weeks ago. I found the people warm and accomodating. The land is fantastic, all the beauty…planning to return as soon as possible!!

Corner
Joe March 19, 2011 at 2:52 pm
Corner

Wait, what does a ban on strip clubs have to do with gay and lesbian matters?

Corner
Joe March 19, 2011 at 2:54 pm
Corner

Also, with crime so low, all the more reason to treat people like adults and let them own firearms.

Corner
Riitaa March 29, 2011 at 1:45 am
Corner

Amazing beauty of Iceland

Corner
Liudmila March 31, 2011 at 6:52 am
Corner

Very interesting. I dream to visit Iceland, too. The best time has to be July.

I laughed about the number of cars “pro capite”: one of the highest in Europe… I read in statistics once that Salerno (Italy) has 4 cars per ogni resident, newborns included. :-) ))

Corner
Anna April 1, 2011 at 11:31 am
Corner

I visited Iceland last May and loved it. It wasn’t at all what I expected but it was beautiful and the people we met were nice.

Corner
DTravelsRound April 6, 2011 at 1:12 am
Corner

Wow — what a fascinating post! You have made me want to make Iceland my next adventure!!

Corner
Cailin April 28, 2011 at 11:33 am
Corner

I will now be searching for Icelanders on my cross Canada trip through Manitoba! So crazy I never realized that. Also there isn’t a word for please? crazy!!

Corner
Seattle Dredge May 8, 2011 at 12:29 am
Corner

Great list! Can’t wait to visit :]

Corner
Escapator May 23, 2011 at 10:06 am
Corner

Cool post. Its interesting there is an average of 1 volcanic eruption every five years, last year there was the infamous ashcloud volcanoe, and this year it is erupting again!

Corner
Federico June 8, 2011 at 6:28 pm
Corner

I stumbled upon a youtube video of iceland called, inspired by iceland, i watched it like 30 times and now with this great article i feel more in the culture! I want to see the northern lights as well! I worked at.a hotel in nicaragua and have guests from iceland all the time, they are in theyre 40s maybe, but they are great nice funny and honest people! Go iceland! See you soon!

Corner
Rajesh June 17, 2011 at 3:26 am
Corner

Nice – info

Corner
Anne-Lise June 22, 2011 at 6:29 am
Corner

Great article about a beautiful country!

Do need to be updated. The last vulcano to erupt was Grimsvotn. :-)

Corner
anthony June 22, 2011 at 10:22 am
Corner

This brings back fond memories of last august in Iceland. Beautiful people, beautiful country, great food. Counting down the time to a return visit.

Corner
E J June 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm
Corner

My wife and I were in Iceland for 8 days at the end of May 2011. It is a beautiful country with incredible scenery, great food (especially lamb and seafood), the sweetest horses, and super friendly people. We loved every minute of it, and highly recommend it our friends as a great vacation spot.

Corner
Anna Ryan June 23, 2011 at 2:14 am
Corner

Iceland is not 64,000 sq. mi. it is only 39,600 sq. mi. Please correct.

Corner
Michael June 23, 2011 at 4:52 am
Corner

The reason why horses are not allowed to come back to Iceland once they left is another: Iceland has almost no animal diseases. And the Icelanders want to keep it like this. Thats also the reasons why imported dogs or cats have to stay at least for four weeks in quarantine, when they enter the country.

Corner
Asdis June 25, 2011 at 1:07 am
Corner

Anoyher mistake: it is in the European Union, but not part of the European Community.

Corner
Jefe June 26, 2011 at 3:19 pm
Corner

I had fantasized about going to Iceland for almost 15 years and when I finally bought a ticket to go, I was slightly afraid that my trip there would be anti-climactic because my expectations were so high. Well, Iceland GREATLY exceeded my expectations. Nature is raw there, it’s alive, and the people are exceptional. Iceland is a very special place that is worth visiting not once but as many times as possible.

Corner
Erin P. August 15, 2011 at 10:57 am
Corner

Super dreamy. However, the writer did not mention that New Iceland in Manitoba, Canada is also referred to as Gimli, its more common name. Would be nice to see Gimli in the article!

Corner
Schneeemann September 21, 2011 at 4:08 am
Corner

I love Iceland (went once there), so it’s a nice little article to share the love, but so many mistakes. The Isle is called Grímsey not Grismey! And yes, the 40+ generation tends to be less welcomming. It’s part of their culture, don’t take it personally.

Corner

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: