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The Land of Fire and Ice was full of surprises of all sorts.

While definitely European/Scandinavian in nature, the country of Iceland is unique in so many ways that I felt its quirkiness deserved an entire post of its own. From elves and trolls to glaciers and volcanoes, here are 14 interesting facts that make Iceland the incredibly cool country that it is.

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.

Reykjavik, Iceland

A viking boat sculpture in Reykjavik

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.

Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

The North American plate (left) in Þingvellir National Park

4. Volcanoes

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. Glaciers

Surprisingly, another large section of Iceland 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.

Myrdalsjokull Glacier, Iceland

The Myrdalsjokull Glacier

6. No Mountains

Even though photos might lead you to believe otherwise, there are no mountains in Iceland — just valleys. If you look closely, most of the mountains here are relatively flat on top. This is because, as mentioned above, the country was carved out by slow-moving glaciers, chewing up the land and gouging deep valleys into it.

7. Eco-Friendly

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.

Hraunfossar Waterfall, Iceland

They harness the power of rivers like this one near Hraunfossar Waterfall.

8. Lack of Forests

Even though Iceland is quite “green,” it is sorely lacking when it comes to trees. Because of Iceland’s harsh and ever-changing climate, the only trees native to the country are spindly and stunted birches, most of which were chopped down by the first settlers to build homes. It’s almost eerie to drive for miles and see hardly any trees. Icelanders are attempting to combat this, however, with various reforestation projects all around the country.

9. 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.

10. 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 (which I’ll tell you all about in an upcoming post), 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.

Reynishverfi Beach, Iceland

Are those just rocks out in the sea, or frozen trolls?

11. No McDonalds

As astonishing as it sounds, Iceland is the only country I have ever been to where McDonalds 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! I found this fun fact very refreshing.

12. Weird Foods

Iceland makes up for its lack of fast food with its bevy of downright weird 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”).

Minke Whale

Minke Whale

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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.

Lava fields, Iceland

A rainbow over lava fields

There are of course plenty of other interesting things to learn about Iceland, which I look forward to sharing with you over the coming weeks!

 

Which of these fun facts surprised you the most?

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69 Responses to 14 Fun Facts About Iceland

  1. Simon says:

    Iceland has been on my dream list for such a long time. I’m attracted by the nature, its wilderness, its traditions. The only thing that really disturbs me is commercial whaling. How can this possibly still happen? I know that the climate is very hard but nowadays there’s no need too hunt whales for eating (and who knows what else they do with them…).

    As you wrote, commercial whaling is a controversial matter. This doesn’t mean that I won’t go to Iceland if I have the chance, but for sure I won’t taste at whale meat :-)
    Simon recently posted..7 Wild Super Shots: Emotions Through Images

    • DangerousBiz says:

      It had been on my list for a couple of years, too, and I’m really happy that I finally got the chance to go! I had such a great time.

      The commercial whaling issue is both troubling and interesting. They did a feasibility study a couple years ago, and now have quotas on the number of whales that can be caught each year. And they mostly fish for minke whales, which are not endangered. But yeah, still definitely controversial. I feel like it’s just such a part of their culture that they just find it normal to continue.

    • Ragnar says:

      “and who knows what else they do with them” … what do you think REALLY think we also do with them ?

    • Thru says:

      Whaling in Iceland is absolutely minimal. What surprises me is how much focus there is on Iceland killing a single dozen of whales per year, while mainland European countries are literally cleaning up all the cod out of the Atlantic? At least there’s a good reason to eat whale, first of all, it’s so full of omega fatty acids and plus it’s absolutely delicious!

  2. EurotripTips says:

    Super interesting post! I really want to visit Iceland one day and I learned a bunch of things here ;-) Looks like you had a nice trip!
    EurotripTips recently posted..A Walk Down Portobello Road Market, a Photo Essay

  3. Gaelyn says:

    The best news is no McDonalds. The geology sounds most interesting. And the food enticingly different. Sure look forward to more. I suppose you are back already.
    Gaelyn recently posted..Follow your dream

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I LOVED that there was no McDonald’s there. Apparently the franchise has been trying for years, but Iceland just isn’t interested!

      I am indeed back already, but I have a ton of Iceland content coming up, so stay tuned to learn a lot more about this very cool country.

      • Syssa Einars says:

        I’m afraid I’m gonna have to burst your No-McDonalds bubble. We had several McDonalds restaurants in Iceland for many years and Icelanders not wanting them here is not the reason they’re gone. Apparently, McDonalds has this rule about the meat products all being from them, perhaps even vegetables and bread also. With the banks collapsing in 2008, one of the side affects was the falling of the Icelandic currency, making import insanely expensive. I believe the Icelandic company, running McDonalds here, tried to get an exception from this rule, because we have excellent sources of meat, corn and vegetables in Iceland, but it wasn’t granted. Their only other option was to shut McDonalds down, which they did, but instead they opened a new place called Metro. Run by the same owners at the same locations, driven by the same business model, even has a large M in it’s logo and the same sterile service as all those American fast food chains.

        • DangerousBiz says:

          Shhh, don’t burst my bubble! Lol. It’s much nicer to think that Iceland just didn’t want any McDonalds’. ;)

  4. Dean says:

    I knew quite a few of these facts but I had no idea that 50% of Icelanders believe in elves and trolls. How interesting. And no McDonalds? Awesome!
    Dean recently posted..In Luang Prabang, Laos, Photo Opportunities Are Everywhere

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I was blown away by the elves/trolls thing, too. Definitely planning to write about it soon. The number could possibly be even higher!

      • Lilja says:

        I’m from iceland and it’s kind of rare that people around here believe in elves :)
        I don’t know anybody who believes in it for an example

  5. Leah Travels says:

    I learned so much from this post and your photos made me want to visit even more. I know you must have the best time. Can’t wait to read more.
    Leah Travels recently posted..I Want to Go with Oh to Florence

  6. No mountains, only valleys?…Definitely an interesting fact…
    The World of Deej recently posted..The Travel Bucket List – Top 10 Abroad

    • DangerousBiz says:

      According to one guide, yes. Of course, they LOOK like mountains, and some small ridges ARE formed by earthquakes and solidified lava, but yes, most of the country was carved out by glaciers!

  7. Jennifer says:

    Iceland had one McDonald’s but it went out of business several years ago.
    Jennifer recently posted..Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Tromsø, Norway

  8. Ruth says:

    I don’t know which of these facts is more interesting. No wonder the landscape is so different from what we are used to see. The weird foods fact caught my eye since my husband is always trying to get his hands (or mouth) on different kinds of animals. Which ones you tried?
    Ruth recently posted..When travel takes away the power to control

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I was not brave enough to try the fermented shark, but I did try whale and puffin and plenty of seafood. (I have a post planned about it in the near future, so stay tuned!)

  9. Lauren says:

    Ok, your photos are amazing. I’ve been wanting to visit Iceland for years and now I’m even more desperate to go! I especially like the bit about the elves and trolls.

    Although, the no McDonald’s might be a bit of an issue for me… ;)
    Lauren recently posted..1,500km in 8 days: My Epic Scooter Trip Around Northern Thailand

    • DangerousBiz says:

      But just think how many weird food adventures you could have, Lauren!! ;)

      And stay tuned, because I have a TON of photos left to share!

  10. Jeff says:

    I once read in a very old issue of Reader’s Digest that heating is very cheap in Iceland. This is because of the volcanoes which heats the water in the place.

    On another note, I wonder what will happen if all languages were as unchanged as Icelandic. Perhaps we can even chat with the likes of Shakespeare, right?
    Jeff recently posted..broadway sheet music

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Yup, most people’s electric bills are less that $30 per month in the winter, I was told, because the heating is all done by geothermal water, which is super cheap! I wish we had volcanoes in Ohio… lol.

  11. Sabrina says:

    Sounds like an amazing place! I love that so many people believe in trolls and elves. I bet there are some amazuing stories out there. And no McDonald’s? How weird! Not that would neccessarily miss it, but I do wonder why since there are the other big fast food chains…
    Sabrina recently posted..Getting a Foot Massage in China

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I love the trolls and elves, too. I feel like it just makes the place seem even MORE unpretentious. I want to go back already!

  12. Juliann says:

    Fasntastic pictures and info. This was already on my list of “must-see” places, but now I feel like I need to really plan the trip. Can’t wait to read more!
    Juliann recently posted..Vick’s

  13. Okay, I TOTALLY want to live in a country where the majority of the population believes in elves!! And with landscapes like that, it would be like living in a Tolkien novel!
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..Koh Nang Yuan: The Most Beautiful Island in Thailand?

  14. And has anyone told you the Icelandic joke yet?

    Q: ‘What should you do when you’re lost in a forest in Iceland?’

    A: ‘Stand up.’

    I heard it from three different people and laughed politely every time.
    Richard Tulloch recently posted..SIX DREAM DESTINATIONS – where’s yours?

  15. Did you take these pics? They are phenomenal. Especially the last one wow!!!!!!!!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..My Beautiful Adventures Announces New TV Show: Episode One — Hong Kong

  16. I’m in the middle of planning my trip to Iceland in June and found this in my inbox!! I’m only going for a week and my primary goal is to take loads of photos for my website. I’m trying to figure out how to do this, and the few activities I want to do (snorkeling the rift, the phallic museum etc.) without dying of exhaustion.

    And on the McDonalds point. I live in Bermuda and you won’t find any here either!! There’s no franchises allowed here so you won’t find any of them. Except one KFC (they got in before the law was made).
    Johnny Peacock recently posted..Elora Doors

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Well Iceland is a fantastic place to take tons of great photos! Will you be able to rent a car while you’re there? That would probably be the best way to see the most in the summer (because there is certainly A LOT to see!). But if you won’t have a car, there are tons of companies that offer full-day tours to all different parts of the country from Reykjavik. That’s how I saw everything!

    • Sarah says:

      I did diving in the Silfra… it was absolutely amazing!!! The water was soooo clear. Definitely do the snorkelling :)

      • DangerousBiz says:

        I don’t regret not doing it on this trip since I fully intend to go back to Iceland someday, but it’s definitely something that will be on my “must do” list for next time!

  17. Maria D. says:

    No McDonalds! Awesome, haha
    Maria D. recently posted..Hong Kong on the Cheap

  18. Wow, no Mc Donalds. Hahaha.
    Kieu ~ GQ trippin recently posted..Cruising Whitsundays with Whitehaven Xpress

  19. Cherina says:

    Great to hear you had such a great time in Iceland! I am looking forward to reading about your trip and hearing any recommendations you have. I’m dying to know whether you saw the northern lights? I think I am going to be a bit late for them by the time I get there at the beginning of May.
    Cherina recently posted..Exploring Melbourne on a Seriously Tight Budget

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I have tons of Iceland posts coming up over the next few weeks, so definitely check back every few days!

      Sadly, no, I did not get to see the northern lights. :( But that’s just an excuse to go back, right??

  20. Helen says:

    McDonald’s went out of business in Iceland like 2 years ago. They were popular but they required them to ship everything in from Germany, instead of locally, and it was too expensive. They also had Burger King at one time, but they went belly up too. Here is another fun fact, they have the most profitable Domino’s chain in the world, and eat more pizza per capita then any other country. Most people don’t truly believe in elves and trolls, it is more of tradition. My husband is Icelandic and I have been there a few times. :)

  21. Gosi says:

    I’m from iceland and mcdonalds had been here for a long time and made a lot of money and had 3-5 outposts here but the guy who owned the rights invested in the wrong companys and went broke but now his girlfriend owns one of the places and it’s called metro and is alot like mcdonalds!

    But I think people should stop freaking out over the whailing since the whale population around iceland is rising and we are not killing that many of them the nation that actually kills the most whales is usa and we dont complain about that we hunt whales for food (somebody wonderd what else we do with them, dont know what he means but we did send keiko to the usa who went on to star in free willy, no need to thank us) and our hunting of whales is sustainable! Ok they are beutiful animals and very majestic but so are bulls (male cows) and they are sacred in india but the people that hate whaling dont say much about geneticaly mutated cows and chickens! That’s worse from my point of view

    Just look at how sheeps and cows are raised in iceland walking around in open nature and cared for with almost complete freedome! That’s why our food is so damn good and when you see this then you can say we are cruel to animals! :) and yeah I know some whalers they respect the whales and are more like the old native americans! It’s not a whaling blood bath like some would like you to think

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks for sharing such unique insight, Gosi!! Interesting about the McDonald’s… I actually love that you don’t have any there!

      I had no idea that Free Willy came from Iceland! That’s awesome. ;)

    • Raya says:

      I agree with you on almost everything, but the USA doesn’t actually kill the most whales. It is actually Japan.

  22. Ayngelina says:

    Iceland used to have a McDonalds but then lost it because (I think) the price of ingredients was just too much, it would have made it very expensive so finally they closed a few years ago.

    I’m sure they are better off.
    Ayngelina recently posted..Food Friday: A Chef’s Cozumel

  23. One of the top 5 most photogenic countries in the world per head of population…true story.

  24. Vicky says:

    Ah, love it! Can’t wait to visit Iceland – another one on the list for next year for sure. Thanks for all the great tips.
    Vicky recently posted..Wanderlust and the Freedom of Travelling

  25. [...] warm for Spring Break, I decided to go in another direction — north again, this time to Iceland. The Land of Fire and Ice has been on my radar for quite a few years, and I decided that 2012 would [...]

  26. David Rogers says:

    i plan to go there one day. i live in florida and own a lawn service. with all those gorgeous girls there i may not want to come back. i think america is losing out and is becoming 3rd world. i see on the news kids in school with no food or home im so sick of it here. but…how will i import my dodge ram hemi 4×4 to iceland?

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Sure you (and Wikipedia) can call them mountains. But Iceland was actually shaped by glaciers! So, technically, there are only valleys and then the higher land that wasn’t scraped away by the ice (the “mountains”).

  27. Erik says:

    I have a four day stopover on my way to Europe in April. I can’t wait!
    Erik recently posted..New Zealand- Chapter 25: Waitangi, The Hokianga & Rain

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Whoohoo! I hope you love it! I’m actually considering a stopover myself on my way to Europe this summer… we’ll see, though!

  28. Thru says:

    The fact about the mountains isn’t really true… All mountains are volcanic, but there are two types of them; First, the ones that form as volcanic eruptions under glaciers but don’t manage to break their way through the ice, then the glacier eventually melts and after stands a mountain with near vertical slopes and a flat top due to the movement of the glacier. Sure, the glacier helps giving the mountain it’s shape, and it might even possibly eventually divide one mass of a mountain into two mountains, creating a fjord, but they are still mountains. The mountain was there but couldn’t be seen until the glacier was gone. The second type of mountains are the ones created by eruption after the Ice age glacier cap had melted, usually erupting on fissures, hence sometimes creating valleys , as the volcanoes are often parallel to each other, erupting on a wide area of fissures that cross the entire island due to the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Mountains can be created by a) Clash of the tectonic plates (like Alps, Himalayas, Andes) or b) Volcanic activity… just saying… :-þ

  29. Cristina says:

    Hi! I just returned from a photography workshop in Iceland! I was astounded by this country. I’ve started a new website and my first blog post will be about Iceland! I enjoyed reading these fun facts and the photos you took! Great job!

  30. The NO MOUNTAINS fact really changed my perspective on what I’ve always imagined Iceland to be. I’ve always thought it’s full of mountains! Also, a slightly non travel-related Iceland fact, but am I the only one who thinks that they have one of the quirkiest (but awesome) music ever? Bjork, Sigur Ros, Emiliana Torrini, Mum, Of Monsters and Men. Must be those elves and trolls!
    Andrew Darwitan recently posted..7 Wonders of Singapore

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Well, to be fair, it does LOOK like there are quite a few mountains in the country. But, according to guides I had, Iceland was carved out by glaciers, so really the “mountains” are just what was left over after the glaciers moved through. There are tectonic plates beneath Iceland, but they are moving away from each other.

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