Reykjavik, on the coast of Iceland, is the country’s capital and largest city. It’s home to the National and Saga museums, tracing Iceland’s Viking history. The striking concrete Hallgrimskirkja church and rotating Perlan glass dome offer sweeping views of the sea and nearby hills. Exemplifying the island’s volcanic activity is the geothermal Blue Lagoon spa, near the village of Grindavik.
Area: 274,5 km²
Weather: 10 °C, Wind S at 45 km/h, 84% Humidity
1. Viking Ties
Iceland was settled by Vikings from Norway sometime in the 800s. This fact makes Iceland a fairly “young” country when it comes to settlement, and also contributes to its distinct cultural background. The Icelandic horses in the country today are unique in the fact that they are direct descendants from the horses the Vikings first brought over from mainland Europe.
RELATED: The Horses of Iceland
And a bonus fun fact for you: The Vikings are the ones who gave both Iceland and Greenland their names, purposefully mis-naming them both so that their enemies would hopefully go to ice-covered Greenland instead of following them to where they actually settled in Iceland.
2. First Parliament
Iceland is home to the very first parliament grounds in Europe. In the year 930 AD, the first Parliament met in Iceland in what is today Þingvellir National Park. The site has since been dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its cultural, historical, and geographical significance.
3. Tectonic Plates
The “geographical significance” part of Þingvellir being dubbed a UNESCO site is due to the fact that this is one of only TWO places in the entire world where you can see two of the earth’s tectonic plates meeting above the earth’s surface (the other is in Africa). The North American and Eurasian plates jut up out of the ground here in Þingvellir, moving apart roughly 2 cm per year.
You can even go diving/snorkeling between the plates in nearby Þingvallavatn Lake.
RELATED: Iceland’s Golden Circle
Because it’s located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland is an incredibly active country geologically. There are more than 125 volcanic mountains in the country, a handful of which are still very active, and another handful that could easily awaken and become active as the country changes and grows.
Iceland experiences a volcanic eruption roughly once every 4 years, though the past few years have seen one eruption or more each year (we all remember Eyjafjallajokull, right?). Because of this constant activity, a good portion of Iceland is covered in lava fields.
5. Hot springs for all
Because of all the volcanic activity going on beneath Iceland, the country is filled with geothermal activity – and hot springs.
There are a couple famous commercial thermal pools and baths in Iceland (like the famous Blue Lagoon near the airport and the Mývatn Nature Baths further north) that are man-made but filled with natural geothermal water. And then there are the “wild” hot springs that people swim in that come in all different forms from small pools to heated rivers.
And in Iceland, these hot springs and pool are used year-round, even during the winter months.
RELATED: Relaxing at Iceland’s Blue Lagoon
Iceland is perhaps the most eco-friendly country I know of. And the kicker is, they don’t even have to try very hard. Because the whole country is essentially “alive” with volcanic activity, the nation harnesses hydro and geothermal energy to power more than 80% of the country.
Very few fossil fuels are burned here (there are even some hydrogen buses driving around Reykjavik!), and most homes are heated using geothermal water that’s pumped up from beneath cities and towns.
Surprisingly, another large section of Iceland (11%) is covered in glaciers. Glaciers are responsible for carving out everything in Iceland that hasn’t been shaped by magma and earthquakes, making for a landscape more unique than any other country I’ve visited.
8. No Forests
Iceland was formed by some pretty harsh phenomena: volcanoes and glaciers. Much of the country was carved out by slow-moving glaciers, chewing up the land and gouging deep valleys into it.
But, contrary to popular belief, trees DO grow in Iceland. However, when the Vikings arrived, they forested the crap out of it, cutting down almost all the native tress in the country. Today, reforestation is being attempted, but you’ll still definitely notice the lack of forests when you visit.
9. No mosquitos
Speaking of things that Iceland is lacking… the country is devoid of creepy crawlies like snakes and poisonous spiders. The island is also free from mosquitos. Scientists are puzzled by why mosquitos are missing from Iceland, but I somehow don’t think anybody misses them!
Unfortunately, Iceland DOES still have biting midges (sand flies), which can sometimes be even worse than mosquitos.
10. Preserved Language
While very close to Danish and Norwegian, the Icelandic language remains totally unique. Words with far too many consonants abound, and syllables seem to just blur together.
Unlike other languages that have changed drastically over the centuries, Icelandic remains very close to its original roots. A Bible from the early 1500s (the first one printed in Icelandic, which can be found in a folk museum in Skógar) can still easily be read by Icelanders today.
Not unsurprisingly, the Iceland language has a lot of words to describe weather – including more than 150 different ways to describe wind.
11. Elves and Trolls
The majority of present-day Icelanders (more than 50%, I was told) believe in the existence of fantastical beings such as elves and trolls. There are many amusing stories and legends about these creatures, and Icelanders go so far as to postpone construction projects if it’s believed that something is going to be built where elves currently live.
Large fallen rocks in fields are said to be frozen trolls, and one guide told us that the smell present in Iceland isn’t from sulphur at all — it’s the smell of the trolls’ dirty bath water.
12. No McDonald’s
As astonishing as it sounds, Iceland is one of the few countries I’ve been to where McDonald’s restaurants do not exist! Yes, you can find KFC and even Taco Bell in Reykjavik, but forget about picking up a Big Mac or some Chicken McNuggets — you won’t find them here! In fact, Reykjavík is the only capital city in Western Europe without a McDonald’s.
McDonalds DID open a restaurant in Reykjavik back in the 1990s, but the chain was not popular enough to survive and pulled out, never to return.
13. Weird Foods
Iceland makes up for its lack of fast food with its bevy of interesting traditional foods. Along with things like whale, puffin, and dried fish, visitors can also try fermented shark, sheep’s head, and even pickled ram’s testicles. The even weirder part is that some of these dishes can be found in just about ANY kind of restaurant in Iceland (including a Mexican place that advertised “traditional Icelandic dishes”).
Oh, and the most popular food in Iceland? Hot dogs.
14. Commercial Whaling
Fishing is Iceland’s main industry, and the nation remains one of just a few in the world that still allows commercial whaling. This, of course, is quite controversial, and has caused tension between the peaceful country and other nations.
15. Beer is cherished
Iceland celebrates Beer Day (Bjórdagurinn) each year on March 1. This is to celebrate that fact that beer is once again legal in Iceland. From January 1, 1915 to March 1, 1989 (that’s 74 years!), beer was banned in the country.
The 1915 ban was much like Prohibition in the United States, and banned all alcohol in Iceland. Restrictions were lifted on some alcohol as time passed, with things like wine and liquor legal again by the 1930s. But it took a lot longer for the country to allow beer again.
Today, there are lots of microbreweries in Iceland (just like in most other countries), and you can even relax in a beer spa close to Akureyri in northern Iceland.
16. Small Population
The entire country of Iceland (which covers roughly the same area as the U.S. state of Kentucky) only holds a population of a little over 300,000 (as opposed to Kentucky, which has a population of more than 4.3 million). This small population makes for a largely rural country, and a capital city which feels like a really big small town.
17. It’s all in the name
Like some other Scandinavian cultures with Viking histories, name conventions in Iceland are a little different. There are no traditional surnames here; instead, Icelandic people have patronymic last names, with their last names deriving from their’s father’s name. This is why almost all Icelanders’ last names end in either -son or -dottir (daughter).
And, speaking of names, Iceland has a “naming committee” that keeps an official register of approved Icelandic names. There are many names that are banned, and anyone wanting to name their child something that’s not already on the list has to submit it for approval.
18. Very little crime
There is little crime in Iceland, and virtually no violent crime. The country does not have a standing army, and its police officers do not carry guns.
19. A nation of book lovers
Along with having a high proportion of published authors (roughly 1 in 10 people in Iceland will publish a book, according to the BBC), the country has is home to one of my favorite holiday traditions – and it involves books.
The day before Christmas in most parts of the world is simply known as Christmas Eve. But in Iceland, it’s more than that: it’s the day on which family members exchange books as gifts, and spend the evening reading them.
There are so many new books published in Iceland before the holidays each year that there’s a word for it: Jólabókaflóðið, or the Christmas book flood.
20. Northern Lights and Midnight Sun
Being located very close to the Arctic Circle, Iceland experiences long winter nights and long summer days, with almost 24 hours of darkness/twilight in December and nearly 24 hours of daylight in June.
Because of this, Iceland is a great place to see both the Northern Lights and experience the Midnight Sun. Though, both of these can be made difficult to see thanks to Iceland’s ever-changing weather.
Practical Iceland info
Thinking of planning your own trip to Iceland? Here are a few tips:
How to get to Iceland: Iceland is just a 4- or 5-hour flight from the East Coast of the US, or about 3 hours from the UK. There are multiple airlines that fly there, including some budget airlines.
Where to stay in Iceland: Reykjavik is a great base, especially in the winter months since most tours start and end there. I recommend the Rey Apartments for both location and coziness (plus, having a small kitchen helps cut down on food costs!).