Iceland is situated on the edge of the Arctic Circle, at the juncture of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Sitting atop one of the world’s most volcanically active hot spots, Iceland is a captivating blend of magisterial glaciers, lunar deserts, thundering waterfalls, bubbling hot springs, and majestic fjords. Here are some interesting facts about Iceland.
Facts about Iceland
1. The territory of Iceland consists of many smaller islands and thousands of rocks and skerries that dot its shores.
You might think of Iceland as a singular island, but the country actually consists of 30 smaller islands and thousands of rocks and skerries.
2. Iceland is the second-largest island in Europe.
Occupying a total area of 101,826 km² (39,315 sq mi), the main island of Iceland is Europe’s second-largest island after Great Britain. Competitively, it is about the same size as the US state of Kentucky.
3. Iceland is not part of Scandinavia but part of the Nordic region.
Scandinavia refers to a geographical area known as the Scandinavian Peninsula and only includes Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
However, Iceland is part of the Nordic Region, or the Nordics consisting of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, as well as the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland.
4. Iceland has a 4,970 km (3,088 mi) long coastline.
Iceland’s rugged coastline, of 4,970 km (3,088 mi), borders the Greenland Sea on the north, the Norwegian Sea on the east, the Atlantic Ocean on the south and west, and the Denmark Strait on the northwest.
5. Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe.
With a population of around only 370,000 Iceland is by far the most sparsely populated nation in Europe. It has a population density of 3.5/km² (9.1/sq mi).
6. The capital and largest city of Iceland is Reykjavik.
Located on the southwest coast of Iceland, Reykjavik was the site of the country’s first Viking settlement. It is Iceland’s cultural, economic, and political center. About two-thirds of Iceland’s population lives in the Greater Reykjavik area.
7. Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital.
Situated at a latitude of 64°08′ N, Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world (of a sovereign state). It is almost four degrees more north than Helsinki – the second northernmost capital in the world.
8. The name Reykjavik means “smoky bay” in Icelandic.
Reykjavik derives its name from the steamy, smoke-like vapors discharged by the numerous hot springs in the area.
9. Iceland is home to the second-largest ice cap in Europe
Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap, which covers between 7,900 km² in area and 3,100 km³ in volume, is Europe’s second-largest glacier after the Severny Island ice cap of Novaya Zemlya in Russia.
10. Iceland is known as the “Land of Fire and Ice.”
Iceland gets its popular nickname of the “Land of Fire and Ice” due to its volcanic and glacial terrain.
The country sits atop the juncture of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. As a consequence of the interaction of these plates, volcanic activity is common. Hence the “fire” part of the nickname.
The northerly location of Iceland means that it receives a significant amount of snowfall. The country has over 250 glaciers that cover roughly 11% of the whole country. Hence the “ice” part of the nickname.
11. Every year, Iceland gets wider by two cm (0.8 in).
Iceland sits atop the Mid- Atlantic Ridge, the fault line where two of the Earth’s tectonic plates are slowly drifting apart. As a result, Iceland is getting wider at a
rate of roughly 2 cm (0.8 in) per year.
12. There are 130 volcanoes in Iceland.
Being one of the most geologically active regions in the world, Iceland is home to 130 volcanoes (including active and inactive). The most active volcano in Iceland is Mount Hekla, which has erupted 18 times since 1104, the last time in 2000.
Eyjafjallajökull is arguably Iceland’s most well-known volcano due to its eruption in 2010 that grounded much of Europe’s air traffic for several days.
13. Norwegian Ingólfur Arnarson and his entourage established the first permanent settlement in Iceland in 874.
According to the Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders), Iceland’s first known settler was Ingólfur Arnarson. Together with his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttir, brother Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson, and their thralls (slaves), Arnarson sailed from his native Norway to Iceland and settled at what is now Reykjavík in 874.
During the late 9th and early 10th centuries, Iceland was settled by other Norwegians fleeing the oppressive rule of their king and their thralls, many of whom were Irish or Scottish.
14. Iceland was given its name by a Norse sailor, Flóki Vilgerðarson.
In around 860, Iceland was visited by the Norseman Flóki Vilgerðarson, who is responsible for giving the country its name. After arriving in the country, he climbed a mountain and spotted a fjord on the other side full of drift ice and later experienced a harsh winter on the island. Vilgerðarson thus named the country Ísland (“Iceland”).
15. Althing, the national parliament of Iceland, is the oldest surviving parliament in the world.
One of the coolest facts about Iceland is that it boasts the oldest surviving parliament in the world. By 930 all available land in Iceland had been settled and had begun to see itself as an independent nation in need of national government.
Regional chieftains found it necessary to form a national government.
Rejecting the idea of a king, they opted for a commonwealth governed by a national assembly. In 930, a central legislative and judicial assembly, the Althing (Alþing), was established, and a uniform code of laws for the entire country was compiled.
The parliament was convened annually at Þingvellir (“assembly fields”), where laws were made and disputes settled. The Althing held its sessions at Þingvellir until 1800 when it was discontinued. Restored in 1844 by royal decree, it moved to Reykjavík.
16. Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000.
The majority of Iceland’s original settlers were pagans and believed in Norse gods. During the 10th century, however, Norway’s king Ólafur Tryggvason threatened Iceland with invasion unless it converted to Christianity.
Accordingly, Þorgeir—a lawspeaker in Iceland’s Althing, chose Christianity as Iceland’s official religion in 1000, though pagans were initially allowed to maintain their beliefs in private.
17. Iceland was one under Norwegian rule.
During the 13th century, with its taxes, the Church became rich and politically powerful, as did chieftains who owned Church lands or had become priests. Power moved into the hands of wealthy landowners, who plunged Iceland into civil war.
Norway stepped in as peacemaker, and in the year 1262 Iceland’s chieftains signed the Old Treaty, which allowed Iceland to keep its laws and promised that the Norwegian king would maintain order, in exchange for taxes and replacing the chieftainships with government officials.
18. Iceland was under Danish rule for over five centuries.
In the late 14th century, Denmark’s ruler, the “lady king” Margrete I absorbed the Norwegian throne under the Kalmar Union, thereby placing Iceland in Denmark’s hands. Iceland remained a Danish dominion for over five centuries.
19. Iceland attained independence in 1944.
The mid-19th century saw rising nationalism in Iceland, and the nation eventually achieved home rule when Denmark was forced to grant legislative power to the Althing in 1874.
Nazi Germany’s invasion of Denmark during World War II nullified its hold over Iceland and the Icelandic government decided to take control of its own defense and foreign affairs. On 17 June 1944 the country’s first president, Sveinn Björnsson, proclaimed Icelandic independence, ending over 500 years of Danish rule.
20. Iceland joined NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in 1949.
After World War II, newly independent Iceland felt uncertain about its lack of defense. Since its population had no desire to form its own military, in 1949 the parliament voted that Iceland should join NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
21. Iceland is the only NATO member without a standing army.
One of the interesting facts about Iceland is that it has no standing army. Iceland’s population (the smallest of any NATO member) is too small to have a capable military, plus it is much too expensive.
However, the Icelandic Coast Guard maintains defense for the country and is armed with small arms, naval artillery, and air defense radar stations.
22. Iceland was involved in the infamous “Cod Wars” with the United Kingdom.
The “Cod Wars” were fishing rights disputes which raged between Iceland and the UK for almost 20 years from the 1950s until the 1970s. The acrimonious feud saw violent clashes, with boats ramming into each other, the nets of trawlers cut, and the Royal Navy deployed for protection.
The first cod war began in September 1958 when Iceland, concerned about overfishing and its impact on a cornerstone of its economy, extended its fishing limit from three to 12 nautical miles from its coast.
In the coming years, Iceland continued to expand its claims as fish stocks continued to dwindle, and employed its coastguard to cut the cables of any foreign trawlers that were caught poaching.
Tensions came to a head in 1975, when Iceland declared a two-hundred-mile limit around its shores. This was resisted by the British, leading to the third cod war, which saw more violent clashes and rammings.
Iceland severed diplomatic relations for a time with the UK and threatened to withdraw from NATO. The dispute ended on terms favorable to Iceland in 1976, where Britain accepted the new 200-mile limit and received only limited fishing rights in return.
23. The so-called chess “Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky took place in Reykjavik in 1972.
In the fall of 1972, Iceland became the center of the world when it won the bid to host the World chess championship of 1972. The so-called “Match of the Century” was a match for the World Chess Championship between challenger Bobby Fischer of the United States and defending champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union.
The match was held in the Laugardalshöll arena in Reykjavik in the full glare of international publicity. In a taut Cold War encounter, Bobby Fischer won the match 12½–8½ and became the 11th World Chess Champion.
Later, when Fischer became a fugitive and was sought by the US government for breaking sanctions, a grateful Iceland awarded him citizenship in gratitude for “putting Iceland on the map,” and he spent the rest of his life living there until his death in 2008.
24. Iceland’s Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state.
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir served as president of Iceland from 1980 to 1996 and remains the longest-serving elected female head of state of any country to date.
25. Iceland had the world’s first openly LGBT head of government.
Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, who served as Prime Minister of Iceland from 2009 to 2013, was the world’s first openly LGBT head of government.
26. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iceland’s banking collapse of the 2000s was the biggest, relative to the size of an economy, that any country has ever suffered.
During the late 1990s, Iceland sought to diversify the economy by investing in banking. Wealthy Icelanders and Icelandic businesses invested in overseas companies and tempted by high-interest rates, foreign investors began pouring in money.
But this only fueled a credit economy with high-interest rates and rapid inflation, until national debts were valued at ten times Iceland’s actual economy.
When the bubble burst in 2008, the three major Icelandic banks, Kaupthing, Landsbanki, and Glitnir collapsed. The economy imploded, ruining many and left one in five households bankrupt.
27. Iceland is one of only two places in the world where there are no mosquitoes.
One of the mind-blowing Iceland facts is that it is one of only two places (and the only sovereign state) in the world without mosquitoes. The only other place in the world besides Iceland where there are no mosquitoes at all is the continent of Antarctica.
It is said that Iceland’s harsh weather conditions and the chemical composition of the country’s water and soil are responsible for keeping the pesky blighters away.
28. The national colors of Iceland are red, white, and blue.
The three national colors of Iceland that also appear on the country’s flag symbolize three of its dominant elements. Iceland’s volcanic fires are represented by the color red, white stands for the glaciers and snow, and blue is said to represent the sea that surrounds the nation.
29. The Icelandic language has changed little over the past thousand years.
Icelandic, the official and national language of Iceland, derives from the Old Norse language that was spoken throughout Scandinavia when the country was initially settled. Partly due to the country’s isolation and partly because of the people’s familiarity with the classical language, as preserved in early historical and literary writings, Icelandic has changed little over the past thousand years.
Thus, there is comparatively little difference between Old Norse and modern Icelandic with Old Norse varying slightly in spelling as well as semantics and word order. To this day, Icelanders can read medieval manuscripts with little difficulty.
30. Icelandic names are regulated by law.
Iceland has a relatively strict naming law. The Icelandic Naming Committee maintains a list of approved given names (first names) along with a list of banned names. The law is in place to prevent unwarranted embarrassment from ridiculous names.
If you want to name your child with a name that’s not on the approved list, you must get permission from this committee – the ultimate authority on names and spelling in general. The criterion for acceptance of names is whether or not they can be incorporated into the Icelandic language and cultural tradition.
31. Iceland uses a patronymic or matronymic naming system.
Unlike most other Western countries, Icelanders don’t have family names but use a patronymic or matronymic reference. Naturally, some family names do exist in Iceland, mostly inherited from parents of foreign origin.
This means that one’s name reflects the immediate father’s or mother’s given name and doesn’t refer to the person’s historic family lineage. The patronymic reference is the traditional and most common form used in Iceland, but the matronym is becoming more common.
The last name of a male Icelanders therefore usually ends in the suffix -son (“son”) and that of female Icelanders in -dóttir (“daughter”). For example, a male whose father’s name is Arnar will have the last name Arnarsson and if he has a sister her last name will be Arnarsdóttir.
32. Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 to 1989.
Interestingly, Iceland went through a period of prohibition which began in 1915 after a majority of 60% voted for a total ban on wine, beer, and other spirits. The ban on wine was lifted in 1922 and on spirits in 1935.
From 1935 until 1989, the prohibition only applied to “strong” beer (more than 2,25%). Strong beer was out of favor and strongly frowned upon at the time in Iceland for political reasons.
The country was engaged in a struggle for independence from Denmark at the time, and Icelanders strongly associated beer with Danish lifestyles. Thus, drinking beer was thought of as unpatriotic.
The prohibition on strong beer in Iceland only ended in 1989 after a referendum vote by the population. Now, every March 1st, the country celebrates “Bjórdagurinn” or “Beer Day” commemorating the end of a 74-year beer ban.
33. Strip clubs and lap dances are banned in Iceland.
In keeping with its tradition of being a feminist nation, Iceland banned strip clubs and lap dances in 2010 as they are seen as exploitative.
34. In Iceland, up until 1987 there was no television at all on Thursdays.
The Icelandic state public broadcaster, RÚV, which began broadcasting in 1966, ran the country’s only television station. However, RÚV didn’t broadcast anything on Thursdays until 1987 and until 1983, nothing aired for the whole month of July!
The TV restrictions were put in place so that Icelanders would get out and socialize instead of staring at the idiot box.
35. Iceland meets virtually all its electricity needs from environmentally friendly renewable sources.
Yes, Iceland produces virtually all of its electricity from renewables. Iceland meets 99.99% of its electricity needs with renewable energy.
Virtually all of this comes from hydropower, ~71%, and geothermal, ~29%. Wind power generates less than 0.05% of the electricity. Fossil fuels come a distant fourth, with only 0.01% of electricity production.
36. Iceland is the northernmost producer of bananas in the world.
Iceland is probably the last place you’d expect to find a thriving banana farm. Naturally, the country doesn’t have the tropical weather bananas prefer, but the island’s volcanic activity beneath the surface is a useful source of heat.
Bananas have been grown in greenhouses since 1941 using Iceland’s abundant geothermal energy for heat and light. Back in the day, import duties on fruit meant the Icelandic bananas were competitive, and Icelanders consumed domestically produced bananas until the late 1950s. However, since 1959 all bananas sold in stores have been imported.
Located in a greenhouse in the village of Reykir, the Icelandic banana production is managed by the Agricultural University of Iceland. The bananas are not grown for economic purposes and are consumed by staff and students.
37. Only one person has been killed by armed police in Iceland since it became an independent republic in 1944.
Amazingly, the only time Icelandic police have shot and killed anyone was in December 2013 when a 59-year old male was shot to death by police. The victim, who started shooting at police when they entered his building, had a history of mental illness.
38. Iceland imports ice cubes.
What you’re reading may seem as unlikely as Algeria importing sand but is actually true. It turns out that ice imported from other countries is as much as 40% cheaper than ice produced in Iceland, despite the fact that electricity is incredibly cheap in Iceland.
Labor costs are just too high in Iceland for the production of ice cubes to be economically viable. So Iceland imports tons of ice cubes from Norway, the UK, and even the United States.
39. Iceland isn’t a member of the European Union (EU).
While Iceland isn’t a EU member, it is closely linked to the EU through the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. Iceland is also a member of the Schengen Area.
40. Iceland has never won a medal at the Winter Olympics.
Quite surprisingly, Iceland has never won a Winter Olympic medal despite having participated in all but one edition of the Winter Olympic Games since 1948. Iceland has won four medals at the Summer Olympics.
41. Apollo astronauts trained in Iceland because NASA felt that the terrain would most resemble the surface of the moon.
Did you know that Iceland was once a training ground for the Apollo astronauts back in the 1960s? In the years preceding the Apollo missions, NASA thought it was vital for its astronauts to train in the most otherworldly terrain on Earth.
After much research, NASA officials determined that the Moon’s lunar landscape was remarkably similar to that just outside Húsavík, a small fishing community on Iceland’s northern coast. NASA sent 32 astronauts to train in its crater-filled terrain in 1965 and 1967. Amongst the 12 men that have set foot on the moon, nine trained in Húsavík.
But, instead of training for their moonwalks, the astronauts did a lot of geological research because NASA wanted them to pick the best rock samples to bring back to Earth. The lunar surface was expected to be covered mostly with basaltic rocks, specifically palagonite tuff, which Iceland has a lot of.
42. Musician Björk and the popular bands Sigur Rós, Kaleo, The Sugarcubes, and Of Monsters and Men are from Iceland.
Since Icelandic culture places a high value on the creative arts, a lot of Icelanders love creative writing, literature, and music. Hence, it comes as nos surprise that Iceland has produced some of the most innovative, unique, and impressive artists and bands.
43. There is no McDonald’s in Iceland.
Iceland is one of the few nations in Europe where you won’t see the famous golden arches. McDonald’s operated in Iceland between 1993 and 2009, before the fast-food giant pulled out of the country when it was hit particularly hard by the credit crunch.
The last McDonald’s burger and fries sold in Iceland are on display in the lounge of Snotra House guesthouse in Þykkvibær. McDonald’s isn’t the only American chain to come and leave Iceland. Other American chains have come and gone, including Burger King, Popeye’s, Papa John’s, Dairy Queen, and Little Caesar’s.
44. The English word “geyser” is derived from Geysir, the name of an enormous geyser in southwestern Iceland.
The English word geyser to describe a spouting hot spring derives from Geysir (which itself is derived from the Icelandic verb “gjósa” meaning to gush).
45. The national animal of Iceland is the gyrfalcon.
A fierce predator of the High Arctic, the gyrfalcon is the largest true falcon in the world.
46. Iceland has just one indigenous land mammal.
The Arctic fox is the only species of land mammal native to Iceland and is believed to have lived in the country since the last Ice Age.
47. Iceland is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland are Þingvellir National Park, Surtsey, and Vatnajökull National Park.
48. Iceland has produced one Nobel Prize Winner.
Icelandic author Halldór Kiljan Laxness won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955.
49. It’s illegal in Iceland for parents to threaten children with fictional characters.
Iceland takes children’s rights very seriously.
50. Iceland has more books written and sold per capita than any other country.
One of the most impressive facts about Iceland is that 10% of Icelanders become published authors in their lifetime.
51. About 10% of the Icelandic population went to France to support their team at the 2016 UEFA European Football Championship.
About 30,000 Icelandic fans traveled to France for Euro 2016, meaning roughly a tenth of the population of Iceland (at the time) were there to root for their side. Perhaps it was the fact that the Icelandic men’s national football team had secured their first qualification to a UEFA European Championship final tournament that prompted so many to travel.
To put that in perspective, if 10% of England’s population at the time had gone, France would have had an influx of 5.3 million people.
52. In Iceland owning a pet snake, lizard or turtle is against the law.
Another one of the weird laws and rules in Iceland is that it’s illegal to own snakes, lizards, or turtles as pets. The main reason why snakes, lizards, and turtles are outlawed is that they are a common source of salmonella.
53. Most Icelanders do not deny the existence of elves.
A widespread perception is that the majority of Icelanders believe in elves and hidden people. While this isn’t true, the majority of Icelanders don’t deny their existence.
Elves and hidden people have been part of Icelandic folklore and myths for centuries and most Icelanders like to think that elves or other unexplained supernatural or spiritual forces could exist in some form.
54. The currency of Iceland is the Icelandic króna (ISK).
Similar to the Scandinavian nations, Iceland has its own currency.
55. Poles make up the largest minority group in Iceland.
Polish nationals make up about 6% of Iceland’s population.