20 Fun and Interesting Facts About Iceland

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The Land of Fire and Ice has become a tourism darling in the past couple of years – and for good reason: Iceland is an incredible country, with features that you won't find anywhere else in the world.

I took my first trip to Iceland back in 2012, expecting to find a Scandinavian country with some cool scenery. And while I DID find those things in Iceland, I discovered that the country was full of surprises of all sorts that I hadn't been expecting.

These unique features are a big part of what has taken me back to Iceland more than once! (I've visited a total of 3 times, in fact.)

Reykjavik, Iceland
Reykjavik in winter
Behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland
Behind a waterfall

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 20 fun Iceland facts that make it the incredibly cool country that it is.

Here's a cool video from Iceland

20 Fun Facts About Iceland

1. Viking Ties

Basalt columns in Iceland

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

Tectonic plates in Iceland
Tectonic plates in in Þingvellir National Park

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

4. Volcanoes

Kirkjufell in Iceland

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

Blue Lagoon walkway in Iceland
At the Blue Lagoon

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

6. Eco-Friendly

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

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.

7. Glaciers

Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland

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.

RELATED: Chasing Ice and Battling Mother Nature in Iceland

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

Rainbow over a lava field in Iceland
An Icelandic rainbow

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

Reynisfjara beach in Iceland
Are those just rocks out in the sea, or frozen 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

Icelandic hot dog

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

Cafe in Iceland

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

Amanda in Iceland
Lots of wild, empty places in Iceland

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

View from Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland
View of Reykjavik

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

Sunset in Iceland

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.

RELATED: 12 Crazy But Cool Things You Can See in Iceland

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!).

Book your accommodation in Iceland:


What to pack for Iceland: Essentials for winter include silk leggings and a thermal shirt, warm socks like Heat Holders, a waterproof outer layer (I like my Columbia ski pants), and some winter hiking boots. (And I recommend most of these no matter what season you're visiting!)

And if you're visiting Iceland in summer? You'll definitely still want warm layers, a good rain jacket, and waterproof hiking boots.

Check out my complete Iceland packing list for more suggestions!

Read more about Iceland:

Which of these Iceland facts surprised you the most?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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99 Comments on “20 Fun and Interesting Facts About Iceland

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  1. 1. THE NAME THING IS NOT TRUE, please stop saying that because everyone believes it but it’s just blatant misinformation. When Naddoddur came to Iceland first, he named it “Snæland” which translates to Snowland and then it evolved. I am so incredibly irritated by this because everyone speaks of it as a fact when they know nothing about the country.
    2. I don’t know a single person that actually has a firm believe in the elves, it’s a cultural tradition that we respect and do not object to as it is a part of our story as a nation. So no, most of us don’t actually believe in them, we just respect what we’ve been taught.
    3. If you walk into a coffee shop in reykjavik and start spewing this cr*p, you’re just gonna have some infuriated Icelanders to deal with. Also don’t go up talking to random people, you speak to the ones you know and try not to make eye contact with the others.

      You seem like a treat, Sunna. I’ll make a note not to talk to anyone if I ever visit Iceland again. Wouldn’t want to infuriate anyone.

    Do you know why Iceland does not have McDonalds?

      I think there’s just not enough demand. Iceland actually used to have McDonald’s, but the chain closed all its Iceland stores after the country’s financial crisis in 2009, and they’ve never reopened there.

    Thank you so much, this really helped me for a school geography project I am doing. I learnt so much from this and it really interested me so I would love to pay a visit at some point in the future, although I am definitely not down for eating whales! Also, loved your Beautiful pics 🙂 x

    Why people are so bothered by the commercial whaling is beyond me, especially when we actually are keeping on top of things unlike some of our counterparts in other parts of the world. The fisheries within the EU has collapsed (no wonder EU wants Norway and Iceland to join!). The Spanish play with their food (bull fighting) while the Welsh do the same with their sheep. God knows what else is out there happening! I was always taught to not play with my food and eat it.

    I want to visit Iceland someday:)

    And there is no crime haha… the article writer is delusional. If you could only read the news in Icelandic, its full of all kinds of crime, violent to white collar. How do you define violent crime anyway? Does some need to die for it to be violent? Does purposely beating up someone not constitute as violent crime? If you take, beating up your fellow man into the equation, I am sure Iceland would probably constitute as one of the most violent countries per capital. But then again, its nature is really spectacular.

      It’s sometimes about perspective, Ragnar. I come from the US, where there is gun violence and other violent crime every single day, multiple times per day. In comparison, Iceland is super safe and has very little crime!

        No, you perceive it has having very little crime. Most of the big cases is just our government robbing us which maybe isn’t terrible to you cause you’re not affected by it. But the amount of underground drug-related activity here is grossly underestimated, one out of four women will experience sexual assault, 1 out of every 3 homes has domestic violence, you can’t trust any newspaper, many corrupt cops and people just disappear once in a while. “It’s about perspective” yeah, so the US having 300 something million people compared to Iceland’s 350.000 people is not counted into this perspective? Icelandic people having longer work hours so less free time? Fun fact: Iceland has more guns in personal possession than we have people, maybe just maybe, that’s because we don’t allow just any ‘kálhaus’ to run around with a gun.

          Well, almost every global crime index lists Iceland as a safe and peaceful place. Does that mean there’s NO crime? Of course not. I doubt there’s a single place in the world that has absolutely zero crime. But the crime rates are, statistically speaking, much lower in Iceland than in most other places in the world.

    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…).

      There’s obviously still demand for whale, which is why several countries (including Iceland, Japan, and even Norway) still have commercial whaling operations.

    I’m planning to add Iceland to my bucket list right now.

    I am not worrying of McDonalds, I am just wondering does the land grow any crops as most of the lands are covered with Lava.

    I ain’t believe in Fairy Tales. But the Elves and Trolls thing sounds fascinating to me. Wish to visit the place once (at least) in life.

      The soil is not great for crops, no. Most people who grow produce do so inside greenhouses!

    We just returned from Iceland and our 5 day stay was too brief! I loved all your comments and fun facts about Iceland. We learned most of this while on our trip, but your posting helped us remember it (you learn so much, so quickly there, that you have a tendency not to recall all of it until needed)

      My first trip there was also for 5 days, and I agree that it wasn’t nearly long enough! I can’t wait to go back!

    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!

      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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