If Iceland is at the top of your list of dream destinations, you’ll want to know these 27 things Iceland is known and famous for before you go.
Iceland is famous for being called the Land of Fire and Ice because of its volcanoes and glaciers. It is dotted with natural wonders such as The Blue Lagoon and Dettifoss Waterfall. Iceland is also known for its rich cultural history, Norse mythology, folklore, and having no official family names!
But that’s barely scratching the surface. Let’s dive into this mysterious country to find out more!
1. The Icelandic flag
Iceland is famous for its flag – and it’s had many flags over its turbulent history. Iceland’s current flag came years after a struggle for independence from their Nordic forefathers.
There’s evidence that the first people to live in Iceland were Gaelic Celts from Ireland, but they didn’t stick around long. In 874 AD, Norwegian vikings left their native lands because of civil war and the Irish monks were ousted or taken on as slaves. Before long, Iceland was made part of a commonwealth and ruled by Denmark, Sweden and Norway at different points before gaining their true independence 17 June 1944.
The flag in use today was designed by Matthías Þórðarson. He stated that the red should symbolize the lava and fire of Iceland’s thermal geography, white for the snow and blue for the Atlantic ocean.
Even with fearsome viking ancestors, it’s possible to become a peace-loving nation. Iceland is known for being one of the most peaceful countries in the world.
Iceland has no official army or Ministry of Defense and even the police force isn’t armed with weapons. The last war that Iceland was officially involved in was the Iraq war of 2003 – where they contributed two Icelandic troops.
As you’ll find out later, Icelanders prefer to deal with conflicts through discussion, peaceful protests and deliberation.
If you do manage to anger one however, they may give you an ominous threat for revenge: “Ég mun finna þig í fjöru” or “I’ll find you at the beach”. Yikes!
Home is where the heart is, and Iceland’s main hub is its capital, Reykjavík. Home to over 60% of the Icelandic population, it’s just as popular with locals as tourists.
Located in the south-west of Iceland, the name Reykjavík translated means Smoky-bay. It’s believed to be the first settlement of anywhere in Iceland, and has a reputation for being one of the greenest, cleanest and safest cities in the world.
You’ll notice a lack of greenery around Iceland. Contrary to popular belief, trees can grow there – the vikings just chopped most of them down. Reykjavík has made strong efforts to increase its greenery, despite being one of the cloudiest capital cities with some of the coolest temperatures.
Lastly, remember there are no trains at all in Iceland so don’t go looking for a subway or inter-country train line in Reykjavík!
Even though Iceland is actually one of the youngest landmasses in the world at 25 million-years-old, it’s got some real history to its name. Iceland is famous for having the oldest running parliament in the world, called Alþingi, or Althing. It shows the softer side of the viking people, because they created it in 930 AD to avoid civil disputes.
The Alþingi didn’t have a leader, but a so-called law-speaker to read out rules. The most famous law-speaker was Snorri Sturluson, but we’ll talk more about him next. Blood feuds were solved diplomatically – or at least, by the standards of the time. Even viking women in Iceland were granted divorces and land rights which was highly unusual for the era.
The original site of the Alþingi is in Þingvellir National Park, the only UNESCO world heritage site in Iceland. The current Icelandic parliament is located in downtown Reykjavík and operates under the same name as the original Alþingi.
5. Vikings & The Prose Edda
Almost all of what we know about viking beliefs and Norse mythology comes from Snorri Sturlusson’s poetry anthology, The Prose Edda. Iceland is known for its connections to viking history, and Snorri’s poems are still analyzed by historians and writers today.
Without Snorri, we wouldn’t know about Loki’s drunken tricks or Odin’s quest to steal the mead of poets. If those aren’t familiar to you, Chris Hemsworth might never have played Thor! There are seven of Snorri’s manuscripts remaining intact today. The most complete version is held in the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík.
All Icelanders are well-versed in Snorri’s stories – and if you want to be too, read Neil Gaiman’s book Norse Mythology. Kári Gíslason and Robert Fidler’s book Saga Land tells the real-life story of one of Snorri’s half-Australian descendants who goes on a quest to Iceland to find his roots. I highly recommend both!
With a landscape like Iceland’s, you’d need Norse deities to explain the beauty and variety of natural phenomena that exists there. At least, Icelanders did until Christianity came along. Iceland is famous for being the last Nordic country to stop worshipping Norse gods, and at Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, you can see the final resting place of Icelandic viking pagan beliefs.
Goðafoss is one of Iceland’s most significant historical landmarks and is nothing short of spectacular. Legend has it that chieftain Þorgeir threw his statues of the Viking gods into the cascading water to mark the beginning of Christianity in Iceland.
Located in the north of Iceland, Goðafoss is located close to other sightseeing splendors like Dettifoss, Mývatn lake and the town of Húsavík.
Close by to Goðafoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss. Iceland is known for its beautiful scenery, and at Dettifoss you can see how compelling it really is.
The water that flows into Dettifoss is from the glacial river Jökulsá á Fjollum. If you follow the river to its origin, you’ll find Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. Dettifoss is 45 meters (147 feet) high and because of the enormous volume of water that passes through it, it’s one of the noisiest places in Iceland.
Catch Dettifoss early in the morning to check out the inky rings around the edge of the waterfall. It’s just melting ice, but they look spectacular!
8. Icelandic Horses
Iceland is known for its strict protection of their national treasures, Icelandic Horses. Distinctive looking and incredibly friendly, the Icelandic Horse has been part of Iceland’s history since the beginning.
In 980 AD, the Alþingi passed laws that prohibited any importation of other horse breeds. The Icelandic Horses arrived in Iceland with the Norwegian vikings and they’ve stayed ever since. In the over 1000 years that have passed, the Icelandic Horse is still the only horse breed allowed in Iceland. Some are exported to other countries but once it’s gone, it’s never allowed back.
Horses in Norse mythology were especially significant. Odin, father of the Norse gods, had an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir. According to legend, the Ásbyrgi canyon near Goðafoss was shaped by Sleipnir when one of his hooves slammed into the ground.
It’s not just Norse gods who indulge in mischief and mayhem in Iceland. Iceland is famous for its folklore, often centered around elves and trolls. There are various statistics showing how many Icelanders actually believe in them, but one thing’s for sure. They’re very hesitant to rule out their existence entirely – a whole 80%, apparently.
Dotted around yards and even next to highways, you’ll find tiny replicas of houses and churches built by Icelanders for the local trolls, called Hidden People in Icelandic: “huldufólk“.
Called Álfhól, these tiny dwellings give the mischievous creatures somewhere to live, and hopefully, keep them happy. A great way to spend time in Iceland is to go on an Álfhól hunt, and see how many you can find!
Don’t look out for Santa if you spend Christmas in Iceland. Iceland is famous for not having a Santa Claus, but rather 13 “jólasveinar” or “Christmas lads”. The “lads” are depicted as ugly little men who live in the lava fields of Dimmuborgir and come to visit children at Christmas time while they are sleeping.
Let me introduce you to a few: Doorway-Sniffer, Bowl-Licker, Candle-Stealer and Sausage-Swiper. Sound friendly? No, these little creeps are all-knowing and sometimes ruthless. All 13 of the Christmas Lads have different personalities, which are hinted at in their names.
In the 13 days leading up to Christmas, Icelandic children put a shoe in their bedroom window. When morning comes, they’ll know exactly who visited and how well they behaved the previous day. For instance, if Sausage-Swiper swung by, the sausages in the house may have vanished. If the kid behaved nicely, they might find candy in their shoe. If not, they can add a rotten potato to their Christmas gift collection.
If the idea of Christmas Lads sneaking up on you in the night gives you the creeps, you’ll be happy to know that one of Iceland’s festive customs is much more wholesome. Especially if you’re a book lover like me!
Iceland is famous for the tradition called Jólabókaflóð, or, “Christmas-book-flood”. On Christmas Eve, Icelandic families exchange gifts of books and cozy up to read them in the evening.
The tradition took off during World War II when foreign imports were restricted but paper remained cheap and easy to get hold of.
Iceland is famous for having active 130 volcanoes, some active, others inactive. There’s also a further 30 volcanoes underneath the island’s surface. Many of us remember the chaos caused by Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption in 2010, but Icelanders are used to them by now.
Some of the other major volcanoes in Iceland are called Katla, Askja and Krafla. The most recent eruption was in 2014, and that time it was the volcano Holuhraun, located in the center of Iceland.
Most Icelandic towns and cities are built far away from the volcanoes to avoid damage from glacial floods or ash, so the south-coast of Iceland is pretty barren when it comes to villages. Tourists are often keen to get a glimpse and photos of them, but stay up-to-date with local news to do it safely!
13. The Blue Lagoon
If you’ve been dreaming of bathing in Iceland you’re not alone. Iceland is known for its many naturally occurring hot springs, and National Geographic named the most famous one, the Blue Lagoon, as one of the 25 Wonders of the World.
The Blue Lagoon is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland, and it’s hard not to be enchanted by the milky blue waters in the middle of a black lava field. The water sits at a comfortable 38-39 °C (100 °F) so it’s perfect for a soak. The water is naturally heated and derived, but the shape of the pool was actually a man-made accident in 1976.
There’s no chlorine or chemicals in the water, so subject to requirement for entry is an extended shower. There are even diagrams showing you which bits to target and how to, er, wash them properly (!). It might be the most expensive dip you ever take at 5990 ISK ($43,46), but on arrival, you get a towel, mud mask and drink included in the price.
14. Best at being “best”
When you have such a tiny population, it’s easy to become the best at…well, everything. Iceland is famous for being the “best” at many things per capita. The less people there are in a country, the more likely they are to be good at doing stuff.
Icelanders drink the most Coca Cola, read the most books, and produce the most music per capita. They’ve even got the most Nobel Prize Winners – with the grand total of one winner.
Not only that, but one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book, more than anywhere else on the planet.
15. Islendiga App
It’s all very well being the best at everything, but when you have a small population, there’s an increased chance of awkwardness. Iceland is famous for being obsessed with genealogy, and that can be pretty important in Iceland’s dating scene.
The Íslendingabók is an online database of Icelandic genealogy that makes it possible for all Icelanders to trace their family tree back 1200 years. When a competition arose to find the most creative way of using the Íslendingabók, three students of the University of Iceland stepped in to save the day – or more accurately, embarrassment.
It would be mortifying to discover that whoever you’ve locked eyes with across a room is actually a distant cousin.
The Islendiga app allows Icelanders to “bump” their phones to check for family ties before couples exchange numbers. Don’t worry, it’s mostly an Icelandic in-joke. Incest is not rife in Iceland despite the small population. Over recent years, Iceland’s census has grown due to immigration, particularly from Poland. Still, better safe than sorry!
16. Beer prohibition
If you visited Iceland between 1915 and 1989 you’d have been in for a slight shock – especially if you love beer. For 75 years, Iceland had a beer prohibition in place.
Iceland is known for celebrating being allowed to drink beer on 1 March, called Bjórdagurinn in Icelandic, after beer prohibition was repealed on that day in 1989. Up until then, you could buy any other alcohol – spirits, wine, etc – but absolutely not beer. Today, beer parties spring up every year on 1 March to exercise the legal right to drink beer!
Be warned, though. Just because beer’s back, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to obtain alcohol in Iceland. Firstly, you’ve got to be 20 or over. Secondly, it’s only sold in government-owned stores called Vínbúðin.
17. Kids with curfews
Iceland is famous for its holistic approach to tackling underage drinking and drug-taking. At the beginning of the 1990s, Icelandic teenagers were some of the worst binge-drinkers in Europe.
In response, the government created a project called Youth-in-Iceland. They installed curfews, arranged alternative activities for the kids and parents went on patrol. Kids younger than 12 are still not allowed out in public unaccompanied by their parents after 8pm, and 13-16 year-olds have until 10pm.
A government initiative offers parents up to 500 USD to cover sports, arts, and music programs to involve their children in learning new hobbies to dissuade them from getting involved in party culture. And miraculously, it worked. Only 5% of Icelandic teenagers got drunk in 2016, compared to 42% in the 1990s.
18. Parenting style
Iceland is known for having some quirky differences when it comes to parenting. Did that Icelander really call a baby “such a butthole”? Do babies really nap in freezing temperatures? The answer to both of these questions is a solid yes.
If you want to comment on how adorable an Icelandic baby is, tell its parents that it’s an “algjört rassgat”, or “such a butthole”. They’ll be stoked that you think so. It’s a term of endearment that apparently comes from the size of… I can’t explain this one. Just know it’s true!
Because Iceland is so safe, parents leave their babies outside shops, cafes and their homes to sleep in fresh air. They’re not bad parents for doing it, either. These days, it’s more common to see napping babies outdoors in the summertime, but that’s not saying much. The average summer temperature in Iceland is 10–13 °C (50–55 °F).
19. Pet laws
You might think that in a country as large as Iceland with so few people, there’d be a lot of freedom. That’s mostly true, but Iceland is famous for having some really baffling pet laws.
Bad news if you’re a dog person. In 1924, Reykjavík prohibited having a pet dog after a spike in echinococcosis cases. The tapeworm can be spread from dogs to humans and has a 75% mortality rate if contracted, though it’s preventable today. You can happily have a dog these days as long as it’s vaccinated and certified healthy.
The ban led to a massive increase in the number of pet cats. Even today, Reykjavík proudly sells merchandise proclaiming themselves “a cat capital”. The hugely popular Facebook group Cats of Reykjavík showcases just how many felines prowl the capital’s streets. That’s not all, though. It’s also still against the law to have a pet turtle, snake or lizard in Iceland.
20. Icelandic names
Iceland is famous for having a complicated system when it comes to names. If you want to find an Icelandic friend’s name in the phone book, look for their first name. It’s the only way.
There’s an old superstition in Iceland about choosing the first names of unborn children. Whoever the mother dreams about while pregnant, especially if that person is no longer alive, should be whom she names her child after. Most Icelandic names have meanings, and some even believe names have hidden powers.
And that’s just first names. Last names are even more complicated because Icelanders don’t actually have one. A simple formula for understanding their system is the “family name” will be the father’s first name, with son or daughter attached to it. If the father is called Ragnar, his son would be Ragnarsson, literally Ragnar’s-son. But the father would have the surname “Thorsson” if his father was called Thor. No one changes their family name when they get married in Iceland, so I guess that makes things a little easier. Kind of.
21. Women’s rights
Iceland is famous for being the first country in the world to democratically elect a female president, Vigdis Finnbogadóttir, in 1980.
She was so popular that Iceland kept her as president for 16 years – the longest term of any female leader in the world.
Iceland has been named Most Gender Equal Country nine times in total, and Iceland has the most gender-equal parliament in the world without a quota system.
22. Questionable delicacies
There’s a lot to love about Iceland, but the food situation is, to put it mildly, questionable. Iceland is famous for having some very unique ideas about what makes a culinary delight. Fermented shark or puffin heart, anyone?
Hákarl is the name given to fermented shark, a traditional Icelandic dish. Most Icelanders agree that this dish is foul – so it’s mostly a funny joke to them that only tourists eat it these days. The shark is cleaned, beheaded, and buried in soil for 6-12 weeks. When it’s taken out of the earth, it’s dried for a few months. Then it ends up on the end of a fork approaching a tourist pinching their nose. Why? It smells absolutely terrible.
If that’s not daring enough for you, some older Icelanders still eat raw puffin hearts. Apparently, it tastes a bit like beef jerky. I’ll take their word for it.
23. The Icelandic language
Iceland is famous for its language, and it really is quite unique. Icelandic is a North Germanic language that comes from Old Norse. Being so isolated from the rest of the Nordic countries, Iceland’s language has barely changed since settlers arrived there.
In fact, most modern Icelanders have no trouble reading Snorri’s Prose Edda even though it’s 700 years old. You can’t say the same for most other European languages, especially today – we borrow words from each other all the time.
The Icelandic language even has its own day of celebration, 16 November. In 1996, it was decided that Icelanders should celebrate the longevity of their language and its uniqueness. If you want to learn Icelandic, you’ll need to be dedicated. Conjugating, pronunciation – oh, and there are 13 vowels in Icelandic. Be warned that there is no c, q, w or z in the Icelandic alphabet.
When we think of sports-loving nations, Iceland sometimes gets left behind. However, Iceland is famous for its sporting achievements and athletes as much as anywhere else!
Iceland gained considerable attention after its success in the 2018 Soccer World Cup. It was the first time they ever qualified, making them the country with the smallest population to do so. The iconic “thunder-clap” and “skol” chant is still talked about among soccer fans. Despite rumors, it’s not a viking war-cry. It actually means “cheers” in Icelandic.
Boxing was made illegal in Iceland after residents complained that the sport showed an increase in violent crimes. Martial arts in Iceland are therefore enormously popular, especially Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), sometimes called cage-fighting. One of the all-time MMA champions, Gunnar Nelson, is an Icelander from Reykjavík with 17 wins and five losses to his name.
When Icelanders don’t like something, they find a way of making it known. Iceland is famous for getting creative with peaceful protests, from making a lot of noise to silently walking away.
From 2009-2011, a peaceful revolution took place in Iceland. To force the then prime minister and his cabinet to resign, citizens headed to their kitchens. Not to cook – but to collect their frying and saucepans. Icelanders bashed them together outside of parliament and presumably the noise was so unbearable it couldn’t be ignored any longer. The people won!
In 2016, Icelandic women realized they were paid 14-18% less than their male colleagues. What did they do? Well, at exactly 2.38pm, the minute they started working “for free”, women left their desks and went to Austurvollur square in Reykjavík.
26. “Smelly” shower water
If you put the hot tap on in Iceland and feel like you smell worse for it, don’t worry. Iceland is famous for having exceptionally clean water, but it doesn’t always pass the sniff test. Living on a volcanic island might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
The cold tap water in Iceland has natural filters so no chlorine, calcium or other chemicals need to be added. The lava and rocks do it for you! Iceland’s clean drinking water means you’ll save money by not having to go out and buy bottled water.
The hot tap is another story. If it smells slightly eggy, it’s because of the magma and sulfur dioxide flowing beneath the surface of the water mains. People pay good money to go to spas with sulfuric water – think of your shower as a spa experience. Albeit a bit of a smelly one.
27. Black sand beaches
You wouldn’t expect Iceland to be famous for its beaches, but these are unlike almost any other in the world.
Some Icelandic beaches have black sand which look a bit like they belong to another planet. This rare phenomenon is almost unique to Iceland because of the minerals left by erupted volcanoes. It’s thanks to lava fragments, ash and other minerals that you get to see this natural wonder up close – though it can be dangerous.
The most famous black sand beach, Reynisfjara, is about 180 kilometers (112 miles) from Reykjavík. At the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, you can visit Black Lava Pearl Beach, famous for its hiking path called Nautastígur in Icelandic, “the path of the bull”.
Have you been to Iceland or always wanted to go? Tell us your favorite thing about Iceland in the comments or give us tips on where else to go!