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Iceland was destined to be unique. As one of the last countries in the world to have human settlers, and as an island located north of almost everywhere, it’s not surprising that we have our own way of doing things. What seems normal and every day for Icelanders might seem exotic or eccentric to visitors. From our history to our land and sea to the people themselves, Iceland has forged an identity all its own. Here are some interesting facts that might surprise you.
Facts about Iceland
ICELAND HAD ONE OF THE FIRST PARLIAMENTS IN THE WORLD
We like to think that civilization and democracy are relatively new. They are a work in progress, after all! But Iceland boasts one of the oldest known parliaments in human history.
The Alþingi (Icelandic for “assembly” but also meaning “parliament”) ran until 1800. Then, after a 45-year hiatus, it was set up in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik.
This makes it – arguably – the oldest surviving parliament in the world.
Thingvellir National Park where the first parliament was founded, Iceland
IT’S ONE OF THE MOST SPARSELY POPULATED COUNTRIES ON EARTH
One of the reasons for Iceland’s beauty is that it’s relatively untouched by human interference. Much of this country is not ideal for human settlement: The glacier Vatnajökull covers about 8% of the country’s landmass, for instance. And we wouldn’t recommend building a house at the foot of an active volcano!
Consequently, Iceland has an average of about 8 people per square mile (or 3 people per kilometer). Like many sparsely populated countries, most of Iceland’s people reside in cities: Reykjavik houses roughly 1/3 of the country’s population.
Iceland’s population is about 350,000 people, so about 1/10th the population of San Francisco.
THE WORD “GEYSER” IS FROM ICELANDIC
The English language is quite the hodgepodge of international tongues and dialects, with words derived from Irish (Gaelic), French, German, Latin and even Norwegian and Icelandic.
The word “geyser” comes from Old Norse when it was spelled “geysa” and means to rush or gush forth.
Iceland is famous for its geysers. As far back as the 13th Century, there are documented findings of this geological feature. This dramatic and, sometimes, the dangerous phenomenon has captivated explorers, artists and scientists for centuries.
Eruption of Strokkur geyser in Iceland, popular Golden Circle site
WE HAVE NO STANDING ARMY
Iceland might look intimidating, thanks to its explosive geography, but it is actually an unusually peaceful and laid-back place. Violent crime is famously low, and its young population needn’t fear being drafted into combat any time soon.
In fact, Iceland is the only NATO country not to have a standing army, air force or navy. It does have a Crisis Response Unit (ICRU), which is a small, peacekeeping force of about 200 staff. These employees do not carry arms or wear a uniform in most circumstances.
There’s also a national coast guard and air defense system. However, a lack of a standing army means there is no permanent, professional, full-time military force.
THERE’S NO MCDONALD’S
Along with armed forces, another thing you’re unlikely to see in Iceland is a Big Mac.
McDonald’s used to have a small handful of branches in Reykjavik, and indeed, the famous burger franchise was a success at first. However, after the initial honeymoon period, business diminished. And – even more importantly – after the financial crash in 2008, ingredients imported to Iceland soared in price, with McDonald’s food following suit. This led to a domino effect and ultimately the shutting down of Mcdonald's restaurants in Iceland.
The last cheeseburger sold in Iceland is still on display as a museum exhibit. Visitors to the National Museum in Iceland can see the meal, dating back to 2009, encased in glass.
IT’S ONE OF THE “FREEST” COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD
The more you read about Iceland, the more you become aware of international rankings for things like prosperity, freedom and safety. This is because Iceland performs incredibly well in these kinds of lists.
Iceland was ranked 4th in the 2019 Index of Economical Freedom, with high rankings for “labour freedom” and “government integrity”. The country ranked 3rd in the world in a Personal Freedom chart by the Legatum Prosperity Index. And Iceland is number one in the world when it comes to the Global Peace Index and takes the top spot in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.
In other words, Iceland is always at or near the top spot when it comes to most quality of life metrics, especially when it comes to living a peaceful and free existence.
“BEER DAY” CELEBRATES THE END OF A LONG BEER BAN
Like the United States, Iceland had an unsuccessful spell of prohibition. Unlike the United States, Iceland commemorates the end of prohibition with a national beer-themed celebration!
Back in 1908, Iceland voted on an alcohol ban. That ban was amended when it affected their import/export business, as countries like Spain wanted to export wine to Iceland. So, a ban on beer was born. It lasted until 1989. Now, beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in Iceland.
Beer Day, taking place on March 1st is an unofficial national holiday marking the occasion. If you’re in Reykjavik, you might see some local (and visiting) revelers engaged in a pub crawl and imbibing in a beer or two. This is no time for judgment: Beer was banned for over 74 years, so they’re making up for a lost time!
There’s nowhere on this planet (or probably other planets!) like Iceland. A cold country with a warm reception; a rough landscape where you’ll have the time of your life; and an aggressive weather system that houses the safest country you can visit.
We love these contradictions and we think you will too. There’s plenty of room here, so we hope you’ll pop by and raise a glass with us (now that it’s not banned!).
Scenic glacier view in Thórsmörk mountain ridge, Iceland
Read on to find out even more about the land of ice and fire with 50 fast facts:
Iceland had the first democratically voted female president
Icelanders’ favorite sweets are ice cream and black licorice
Icelandic wildlife are not particularly threatening, with no snakes, no bears, no mosquitos and no poisonous bugs
The country has no trains or railway system
Iceland has had four winners of the Miss World Competition
Björk, Kaleo and, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men are all Icelandic musicians/bands
Back in the Viking Age, Icelanders had a different month system based on weather and crops. Some of the months were; Góa, Þorri, Harpa, Ýlir, Skerpla, Sólmánuður and Heyannir
Icelanders publish more books per capita than any other nation in the world
The Icelandic flag is white, red and blue
Icelandic Flag and Leifur Eiriksson Statue near Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik
Icelanders discovered Greenland (the natives notwithstanding)
One of the most popular museums in Iceland is the penis museum (no, really!)
Iceland was once ruled by Denmark and Norway
The longest word found in Icelandic is: vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur
From infancy to about 2 years old, Icelandic children sleep outside in baby carriages for their noon nap
All Icelanders can access a website called Íslendingabók to trace their heritage back to the Vikings and even see how they are related to other Icelanders. The question is not if they are related, it is how much!
Látrabarg in the Westfjords is the highest bird cliff in Europe
Icelanders always address each other by their first names, even if they might be speaking to the president
Icelandic horses have a unique gate, tölt and have not been mixed with other breeds for over 1,000 years
Midnight Sun is an annual occurrence taking place from June to July
About 50 Icelandic men are or have been named Álfur which is the Icelandic word for ‘Elf’
Strip Clubs are banned in Iceland
Icelanders learn Danish from a young age, but very few speak it as adults
Iceland was once home to the biggest banana plantation in Europe
More than ⅔ of Iceland’s population lives in the capital Reykjavík
The local police do not carry guns
Iceland is one of the few countries in the world where you can see red Northern Lights
Northern Lights over Budir church in Iceland
Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are fairly common, but the locals are trained to react appropriately from a young age.
Iceland’s only native mammal is the Arctic fox, which arrived during the ice age.
Iceland sits on the meeting of two tectonic plates, one is the North American plate and the other is the Eurasian plate. It is also the only place in the world where you can snorkel between two tectonic plates.
The country’s only international airport sits in the middle of a lava field.
Iceland has a 99.96% renewable energy supply which is mainly produced with geothermal energy.
There are so many waterfalls littered across the country that many of them don’t even have a name
Hraunfossar waterfall during autumn in Iceland
The Icelandic language has numerous words which do not have any direct English translation
Iceland was one of the last places in the world to be settled by humans
Iceland has been chosen multiple times as the best place to live as a woman
Visiting Iceland in summer and in winter can feel like visiting two different planets!
Forsætisráðherra is the Icelandic word for Prime Minister