27 Things Iceland is Known and Famous For

If Iceland is at the top of your list of dream destinations, you鈥檒l 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!

iceland flag

But that’s barely scratching the surface. Let’s dive into this mysterious country to find out more!

1. The Icelandic flag

iceland flag snow

Iceland is famous for its flag – and it鈥檚 had many flags over its turbulent history. Iceland鈥檚 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 Matth铆as 脼贸r冒arson. He stated that the red should symbolize the lava and fire of Iceland鈥檚 thermal geography, white for the snow and blue for the Atlantic ocean.

2. Peace

black sand beach

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: 鈥溍塯 mun finna 镁ig 铆 fj枚ru鈥 or 鈥淚鈥檒l find you at the beach鈥. Yikes!

3. Reykjav铆k

Reykjavik swan

Home is where the heart is, and Iceland’s main hub is its capital, Reykjav铆k. Home to over 60% of the Icelandic population, it鈥檚 just as popular with locals as tourists. 

Located in the south-west of Iceland, the name Reykjav铆k translated means Smoky-bay. It鈥檚 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. Reykjav铆k 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鈥檛 go looking for a subway or inter-country train line in Reykjav铆k!

4. Al镁ingi

脼ingvellir National Park
脼ingvellir National Park, the original site of the Al镁ingi

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 Al镁ingi, or Althing. It shows the softer side of the viking people, because they created it in 930 AD to avoid civil disputes. 

The Al镁ingi didn鈥檛 have a leader, but a so-called law-speaker to read out rules. The most famous law-speaker was Snorri Sturlusson, 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 Al镁ingi is in 脼ingvellir National Park, the only UNESCO world heritage site in Iceland. The current Icelandic parliament is located in downtown Reykjav铆k and operates under the same name as the original Al镁ingi.

5. Vikings & The Prose Edda

viking settlement

Almost all of what we know about viking beliefs and Norse mythology comes from Snorri Sturlusson鈥檚 poetry anthology, The Prose Edda.

Iceland is known for its connections to viking history, and Snorri鈥檚 poems are still analyzed by historians and writers today. Without Snorri, we wouldn鈥檛 know about Loki鈥檚 drunken tricks or Odin鈥檚 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 脕rni Magn煤sson Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjav铆k. 

All Icelanders are well-versed in Snorri鈥檚 stories – and if you want to be too, read Neil Gaiman鈥檚 book Norse Mythology. K谩ri G铆slason and Robert Fidler鈥檚 book Saga Land tells the real-life story of one of Snorri鈥檚 half-Australian descendants who goes on a quest to Iceland to find his roots. I highly recommend both!

6. Go冒afoss

godafoss

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 Go冒afoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, you can see the final resting place of Icelandic viking pagan beliefs.

Go冒afoss is one of Iceland鈥檚 most significant historical landmarks and is nothing short of spectacular. Legend has it that chieftain 脼orgeir 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, Go冒afoss is located close to other sightseeing splendors like Dettifoss, M媒vatn lake and the town of H煤sav铆k.

7. Dettifoss

detifloss waterfall

Close by to Go冒afoss 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 J枚kuls谩 谩 Fjollum. If you follow the river to its origin, you鈥檒l find Europe鈥檚 largest glacier, Vatnaj枚kull. 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鈥檚 just melting ice, but they look spectacular!

8. Icelandic Horses

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鈥檚 history since the beginning.

In 980 AD, the Al镁ingi passed laws that prohibited any importation of other horse breeds. The Icelandic Horses arrived in Iceland with the Norwegian vikings and they鈥檝e 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鈥檚 gone, it鈥檚 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 脕sbyrgi canyon near Go冒afoss was shaped by Sleipnir when one of his hooves slammed into the ground.

9. 脕lfh贸l

iceland small houses

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鈥檚 for sure. They鈥檙e very hesitant to rule out their existence entirely – a whole 80%, apparently.

Dotted around yards and even next to highways, you鈥檒l find tiny replicas of houses and churches built by Icelanders for the local trolls, called Hidden People in Icelandic: “hulduf贸lk“. 

Called 脕lfh贸l, 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 脕lfh贸l hunt, and see how many you can find!

10. J贸lasveinar

christmas tree santa

Don’t look out for Santa if you spend Christmas in Iceland. Iceland is famous for not having a Santa Claus, but rather 13 鈥渏贸lasveinar鈥 or 鈥淐hristmas lads鈥. 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鈥檒l 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.

11. J贸lab贸kafl贸冒

christmas gifts

If the idea of Christmas Lads sneaking up on you in the night gives you the creeps, you鈥檒l be happy to know that one of Iceland鈥檚 festive customs is much more wholesome. Especially if you鈥檙e a book lover like me!

Iceland is famous for the tradition called J贸lab贸kafl贸冒, or, 鈥淐hristmas-book-flood鈥. 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.

12. Volcanoes

volcanic eruption

Iceland is famous for having active 130 volcanoes, some active, others inactive. There’s also a further 30 volcanoes underneath the island鈥檚 surface. Many of us remember the chaos caused by Eyjafjallaj枚kull鈥檚 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

blue lagoon

If you鈥檝e been dreaming of bathing in Iceland you鈥檙e 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.聽

The Blue Lagoon is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland, and it鈥檚 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 掳C (100 掳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, but on arrival, you get a towel, mud mask and drink included in the price.

14. Best at being “best”

coca cola

When you have such a tiny population, it鈥檚 easy to become the best at…well, everything. Iceland is famous for being the 鈥渂est鈥 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鈥檝e 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

couple polaroid

It鈥檚 all very well being the best at everything, but when you have a small population, there鈥檚 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 脥slendingab贸k 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 脥slendingab贸k, 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 鈥渂ump鈥 their phones to check for family ties before couples exchange numbers.

Don鈥檛 worry, it鈥檚 mostly an Icelandic in-joke. Incest is not rife in Iceland despite the small population. Over recent years, Iceland鈥檚 census has grown due to immigration, particularly from Poland.

Still, better safe than sorry!

16. Beer prohibition

glasses beer

If you visited Iceland between 1915 and 1989 you鈥檇 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 Bj贸rdagurinn 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鈥檚 back, it doesn鈥檛 mean it鈥檚 easy to obtain alcohol in Iceland. Firstly, you鈥檝e got to be 20 or over. Secondly, it鈥檚 only sold in government-owned stores called V铆nb煤冒in.

17. Kids with curfews

boots child ice

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

cute baby

Iceland is known for having some quirky differences when it comes to parenting. Did that Icelander really call a baby 鈥渟uch a butthole鈥? 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鈥檚 an 鈥渁lgj枚rt rassgat鈥, or 鈥渟uch a butthole鈥. They鈥檒l be stoked that you think so. It鈥檚 a term of endearment that apparently comes from the size of鈥 I can鈥檛 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鈥檚 more common to see napping babies outdoors in the summertime, but that鈥檚 not saying much. The average summer temperature in Iceland is 10鈥13 掳C (50鈥55 掳F).

19. Pet laws

reykjavik cat

You might think that in a country as large as Iceland with so few people, there鈥檇 be a lot of freedom. That鈥檚 mostly true, but Iceland is famous for having some really baffling pet laws.

Bad news if you鈥檙e a dog person. In 1924, Reykjav铆k 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鈥檚 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, Reykjav铆k proudly sells merchandise proclaiming themselves 鈥渁 cat capital鈥.

The hugely popular Facebook group Cats of Reykjav铆k showcases just how many felines prowl the capital鈥檚 streets. That鈥檚 not all, though. It鈥檚 also still against the law to have a pet turtle, snake or lizard in Iceland.

20. Icelandic names

boy winter wear

Iceland is famous for having a complicated system when it comes to names. If you want to find an Icelandic friend鈥檚 name in the phone book, look for their first name. It鈥檚 the only way. 

There鈥檚 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 鈥渇amily name鈥 will be the father鈥檚 first name, with son or daughter attached to it. If the father is called Ragnar, his son would be Ragnarsson, literally Ragnar鈥檚-son. But the father would have the surname 鈥淭horsson鈥 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

girls road trip

Iceland is famous for being the first country in the world to democratically elect a female president, Vigdis Finnbogad贸ttir, 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

puffin iceland

There鈥檚 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?

H谩karl is the name given to fermented shark, a traditional Icelandic dish. Most Icelanders agree that this dish is foul – so it鈥檚 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鈥檚 taken out of the earth, it鈥檚 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鈥檚 not daring enough for you, some older Icelanders still eat raw puffin hearts. Apparently, it tastes a bit like beef jerky. I鈥檒l take their word for it.

23. The Icelandic language

islandic signs

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鈥檚 language has barely changed since settlers arrived there.

In fact, most modern Icelanders have no trouble reading Snorri鈥檚 Prose Edda even though it鈥檚 700 years old. You can鈥檛 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鈥檒l 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.

24. Sports

boxing gloves

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 鈥渢hunder-clap鈥 and 鈥渟kol鈥 chant is still talked about among soccer fans. Despite rumors, it鈥檚 not a viking war-cry. It actually means 鈥渃heers鈥 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 Reykjav铆k with 17 wins and five losses to his name.

25. Protesting

iceland protests
Photo Credit: Helgi Halld贸rsson

When Icelanders don鈥檛 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鈥檛 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 鈥渇or free鈥, women left their desks and went to Austurvollur square in Reykjav铆k.

26. “Smelly” shower water

IcelandRiver

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

iceland black beach

You wouldn鈥檛 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鈥檚 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 Reykjav铆k. At the end of the Sn忙fellsnes peninsula, you can visit Black Lava Pearl Beach, famous for its hiking path called Nautast铆gur in Icelandic, “the path of the bull”.

blue lagoon iceland

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!

Fancy bingeing on Nordic country trivia? Check out our guides to Finland, Norway and Denmark.

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6 thoughts on “27 Things Iceland is Known and Famous For”

  1. Thank you author for such a nice explanation. Small countries are always amazing but Iceland is something different. Love this country its nature and culture, hope to go sometimes.

    Reply
  2. I fell in love with the name, Reykjavik, in my high school geography class. I finally got to visit in 2003 and thought, 鈥淚celand is like a beautiful bride with whom a bridegroom could never stop having a honeymoon!鈥
    I drove alone for 10 days, tried the fermented shark, rode a horse, saw waterfalls, Blue Lagoon and even attended the Pride celebrations in the rain! Lol. Bought and read many of the sagas. I cannot wait to return!

    Reply
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  4. Thank you for the beautiful guide of Iceland. Am hoping to go there but now fear eating the fermented shark and puffin heart!! Will tell you when I come back.

    Reply
  5. My mother was born in Reykjavik and told me stories of Iceland鈥檚 culture, traditions and people. I have been fortunate enough to have visited Iceland on 3 different occasions and would highly recommend it. My only regret is not having spent more time there! Wonderful people.

    Reply

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