Iceland is home to incredible landscapes and ancient legends. Learn more about this island Nordic country below.
Facts About Iceland
The Vital Stats:
Official Name: Ísland
Population: 364,134 (2020)
Area: 102,775 sq km (106th in the world)
Largest City: Reykjavík
National Language: Icelandic
Say Hello: Halló
Currency: Icelandic króna
Driving Side: Right
Time Zone: UTC (Greenwich Mean Time)
GDP per capita: $75,700 (5th in the world)
Human Development Index: 0.938 (very high – 6th in the world)
The Flag of Iceland
DID YOU KNOW?
On the flag of Iceland, the red stands for the fire produced by the island's volcanoes, the white for the ice and snow, and the blue is for the mountains.
The northern lights (aurora borealis) over Reykjavik. The northern lights are a natural light display in the sky around the Arctic and Antarctic which are caused by solar wind.
Welcome to Iceland!
Iceland is an island nation located north-west of Europe. It has a population of only 364,000 people making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.
The largest city and capital of Iceland is Reykjavik (“RECK-YA-VEK”). About two-thirds of Icelanders live there.
Iceland is particularly well-known for its incredible landscapes. There are volcanoes, glaciers, and geysers, and some of the most spectacular glacial rivers and waterfalls flowing to the sea. But maybe Iceland is most famous as being one of the best countries in the world to view the northern lights (aurora borealis).
Iceland was settled in the 8th and 9th centuries by explorers from Scandinavia. The country was governed by the Althing which survives to this day and is one of the world’s oldest government assemblies. Iceland was under Norwegian rule from the 14th to the 16th century and fell under Danish rule from 1523 until they claimed their independence in 1918.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Iceland has become one of the most successful and prosperous countries in the world. There is a good social welfare system for people who need help from the government and health care and education are available to everyone.
Keep reading to learn more about this stunning island country!
Reykjavik, the largest and capital city of Iceland.
A brief history of Iceland
The earliest known settlers of Iceland were a group of monks from Scotland who lived there probably around 800 CE. In 870 CE, the Swedish Viking explorer Garðar Svavarsson was the first to sail all the way around Iceland and he stayed there for a year with his people. Four years later, the Norwegian-Norse chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson arrived and built his homestead in Reykjavík. Ingólfr was followed by many people – mainly from Scandinavia. They brought with them their slaves who were mostly Irish and Scottish.
By 930 CE, most of the liveable land in Iceland had been claimed and a government body (the Althing) was set up to help run the new country. We know quite a bit about Iceland’s history since the middle ages as it is well documented in a book called the Landnámabók (or just ‘Landnama’).
After getting himself in trouble with the law, in the late 10th Century, a famous Icelander known as Erik the Red sailed with 500 people across the ocean to Greenland and eventually a settlement of about 5,000 people grew. They lived there for over 500 years and some of them even travelled to America to try and set up a colony there!
Iceland was part of the Kingdom of Norway from 872 until 1397. In 1415, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden united briefly under the Kalmar Union but this broke up in 1523 and Iceland became part of Denmark. Around this time, the Black Death was sweeping through Europe, and Iceland was hard-hit with 50-60% of the population being wiped out. Iceland had some difficult times in the following few centuries with trade restrictions from Denmark, pirate raids, a massive volcanic eruption which caused a famine, and a smallpox epidemic that killed about a third of the population.
By the 19th Century, Iceland has begun to become independent from Denmark and they finally signed the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union in 1918 which made them an independent state. Following a public vote, Iceland formally became a republic on 17 June 1944, with Sveinn Björnsson as its first president.
More recently, in 1994 Iceland joined the European Economic Area, and the country began to make a lot of money from using its banks to lend money to the rest of the world. However, in 2008 this all came crashing down as the global economy crashed and Iceland’s banks took a big hit. Iceland’s economy has mostly recovered now and tourism is booming. There has been a huge surge in tourist numbers since 2000, and today there are an estimated two million visitors to Iceland every year. The money that tourists spend now makes up about 10% of Iceland’s economy.
Our 'TOP SPOTS' Map of Iceland
The Geography of Iceland
Iceland is the second largest island in Europe (after Great Britain) and sits on the border of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It lies north-west of Europe and is only 290km from Greenland. Iceland has about 30 islands including the northerly Grimsey with a population of just 61 people!
Iceland is on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge of undersea mountains which means it has a lot of volcanic activity. There are many geysers including Geysir (where the word comes from!) and the famous Strokkur, which erupts every 8–10 minutes. Iceland gets most of its electricity from geothermal power stations, but also from hydropower stations from rivers and waterfalls.
Glaciers cover about 14% of Iceland and only 25% of the land has any vegetation. Iceland has hundreds of fjords – which are long, narrow waterways to the sea that are created by glaciers.
The climate in Iceland is ‘sub-arctic’ and generally very cold. It tends to be warmer and wetter in the south, but the interior of the island is cold and dry. The average high temperature for the year is around 7˚C (45˚F). Most people in Iceland live in coastal towns and cities as the island's interior is not suitable for living
The major lakes in Iceland are Þórisvatn (Thorisvatn) at 88 sq km, and Þingvallavatn (Thingvallavatn) at 84 sq km. The major active volcanoes are Hekla, Eldgjá, and Herðubreið.
This pic shows a 'tongue' of the Vatnajökull glacier (sometimes called Vatna Glacier). It's the largest ice cap in Iceland, and the second largest in Europe. It is in the south-east of Iceland and covers 8% of the country.
DID YOU KNOW?
Iceland is sometimes called 'The Land of Fire and Ice'
The Iceland Environment
About 75% of the land in Iceland is barren – meaning very little grows there. When people arrived in Iceland it was around a third covered with trees, but now few remain. The land is mostly grass but because of human activity, farming, and cutting down trees, there is a big problem with soil erosion.
There are no native amphibian or reptiles on Iceland and the only native mammal there when humans arrived was the Arctic Fox. Today, there are many introduced farm animals including the iconic and sturdy Icelandic horses. Other wild mammals include minks, rabbits, and reindeer. Fishing is a major part of Iceland’s history and an important contributor to their economy. Seabirds like puffins and kittiwakes like to nest on its sea cliffs and polar bears sometimes visit from Greenland!
The sturdy Icelandic horses have been bred over the centuries to handle the harsh climate and difficult terrain in Iceland.
The Icelandic People
Iceland is the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy, which is a country where the people vote to elect their government. They have a president, a prime minister, and a parliament who run the country.
The Icelandic people are Nordic and Gaelic in origin and the population ranged between 40,000 to 60,000 up until the 19th century. Today the population is around 360,000 and overall is relatively young with 20% of people being under 14. Most of the population is clustered in the south-west, near the capital Reykjavik which is the northern-most capital city in the world.
In Iceland, the people speak Icelandic, a language which comes from Old Norse. Icelandic is the only living language to still use the runic letter Þ (‘thorn’ - makes the sound ‘TH’). They have a remarkably interesting naming system where, rather than using family names, they use patronymic or matronymic last names. These are based on first names, so a person called Birgitta Jónsdóttir is "Birgitta, Jón's daughter" (Jón being the father) or Ólafur Katrínarson is "Ólafur, Katrín's son" (Katrín being the mother).
According to the OECD, Icelanders are some of the happiest people on the planet and have a strong sense of community. Icelanders believe in and practice equality among their people, with wages and rights being very even across their society.
When you visit Iceland you could:
Visit the Blue Lagoons
Visit the Thingvellir national park
Go inside a traditional Icelandic Turf House
See a glacier
Check out Gulfoss, a spectacular waterfall!
Visit Perlan – a superb museum in Reykjavik
The Blue Lagoons near Reykjavik are fed by water from the nearby geothermal vents. The lagoon's blue colour is from the high silica content. The silica creates a soft white mud on the bottom of the lagoons which you can rub into your skin as a beauty treatment!
Fun facts about Iceland
The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik, which means ‘Smoke Cove’. The name is said to come from the steam rising from the hot springs in the area.
The world’s first democratically elected female president was Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland. She was in charge for 16 years from 1980 to 1996.
Icelanders are a nation of bookworms! According to a 2013 study by Bifröst University, 50% of Icelanders read at least 8 books per year. And, according to BBC Magazine, one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime!
The national sport of Iceland is Handball.
Iceland has no army. They do have a coast guard which patrols the waters and performs search and rescue.
One odd traditional food in Iceland is Hakarl – which can best be described as rotten fermented shark meat!
100% of the electricity in Iceland is made from renewal sources - geothermal and hydropower. Iceland produces more energy per person than anywhere else on the planet!
There are trolls, elves, and hidden people in Iceland! The Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavik teaches about the Huldufólk (hidden people) and the 13 different kinds of elves that they believe live in Iceland.
There are no McDonald’s restaurants in Iceland.
There are no trains in Iceland that carry passengers.
During road construction in Kópavogur in 1971, a bulldozer broke down. The driver placed the blame on elves living in a large rock nearby. This started a myth that Icelandic road construction was often impeded by elves!
These are just a few of our fun facts about Iceland. To get them all, grab your copy of the Explore-the-World-from-Home Guide to Iceland from the shop.
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Iceland: Explore-the-World-from-Home Guide