Iceland was destined to be unique. As one of the last countries in the world to have human settlers, and as a tiny island located north of almost everywhere, it’s not surprising that we have our own way of doing things. What seems normal and everyday 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…
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.
Dating all the way back to the year 930, the first national parliament was founded in Thingvellir, which is now a national park. Many of the early settlers were Vikings or Celts.
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.
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 kilometre). 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 300,000 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, dangerous phenomenon has captivated explorers, artists and scientists for centuries.
We have no Standing Army
Iceland might look intimidating, thanks to its explosive geography, but it is actually an unusually peaceful and laidback 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 defence 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 the McDonald’s food following suit. This led to a domino effect and ultimately the shutting down of McDonalds 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 wass 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 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) revellers engaged in a pub crawl and imbibing in a beer or too. This is no time for judgement: Beer was banned for over 74 years, so they’re making up for lost time!
More Fun Facts About Iceland
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!).
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
- Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe
- Iceland has a naming committee which approves or declines people’s names
- There are more than 30 active volcanic regions scattered across the island
- Over 10% of the country is covered with glaciers
- You will find a geothermal swimming pool in almost any town in the country
- Icelanders’ favourite sweets are ice cream and black licorice
- Icelandic animals 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.
- 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 with 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- You can drink the water in most rivers in Iceland. The further out of the city you are, the purer the water tends to be. Enjoy it and fill up a water bottle when exploring the country
- 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.
- Deildartunguhver is the most powerful hot spring in all of Europe.
- Iceland was the first country to have an openly gay Prime Minister.
- The most popular sports are handball, soccer, horse riding, golf and swimming.
- More than 20 different species of whale can be found swimming in the sea around the island.
- No dinosaur bones have ever been found in Iceland as the land mass is only about 20 million years old – the last of the giant dinosaurs dies out 66 million years ago.
- Iceland has a universal healthcare system (which is paid for via taxes), with no private hospitals on the island.
- The freedom of religion is enshrined in the Icelandic constitution.