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What Is Iceland Known for & Famous For?

People often refer to Iceland as the “Land of Fire and Ice,” known for its fantastic landscape of volcanoes and glaciers. But did you also know that Iceland is known all over the world for more than its natural beauty?

Called by the Vikings who discovered the country as “Snow Land,” Iceland is most known for its beautifully contrasting landscape of active volcanoes and snow-covered mountains. Iceland is also the most peaceful country in the world and the last patch of earth to have any human settlement.

There’s so much to know about this land of contrasts. Read on to find out more about this exciting country.

1. The Icelandic Flag

The flag of Iceland is composed of three colors: Blue, white, and red. Blue represents its mountains, white represents its snow, and red represents its volcanoes. The country had had this same flag since 1944 when they were declared an independent nation.

If you happen to be in Iceland, make sure you follow the country’s flag laws and show respect for the Icelandic flag, as Icelanders are known to take offense at the slightest gesture of disrespect towards it. The flag is a significant symbol of their freedom as a nation and their identity as a people.

2. Peace

Want to go somewhere you won’t have to worry about your safety? Iceland is the perfect destination. The country has been declared the most peaceful country in the world since 2008 when the Global Peace Index started.

The Global Peace Index takes the following factors into account when designating their status as the safest countries in the world:

  • Both the level of social safety and society at large
  • Both domestic and international conflict
  • The degree of militarization of a country. 

Since 2008, Iceland has held the number one spot, which says a lot about the country’s safety.

3. Reykjavik

The capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, literally means “Smoky Bay” and was named so because the place used to teem with hot springs, making steam appear everywhere. People also call Reykjavik the “Puffin Capital” because of the large number of seabirds, particularly the Atlantic puffin you can find in the area.

60% of the world’s total population of Atlantic puffins call Iceland home.

Dogs, however, were not so welcome in Reykjavik. Many years ago, dogs were not allowed in the city because residents believed that dogs belonged only on the farms and could not adapt to city life.

4. Alþingi

The Alþingi (sometimes also spelled “Althingi” or “Althing”) is the Icelandic Parliament. It is the oldest parliament in the world, established in 930, way back in the Viking Age. And back then, up until today, the Icelandic Parliament is still the supreme political body in the country, despite having gone through significant changes over the years.

The word “Alþingi” also literally means “Assembly of all,” This ancient parliament was founded in Pingvellir, near Reykjavik. Today, it’s called “The Fields of Parliament.”

5. History

The first actual settlers in Iceland were the Vikings. They discovered Iceland on a seafaring trip when they went off-course and landed in Iceland instead of their intended destination, the Faroe Islands. According to Iceland’s history, Naddodd the Viking first settled in the country in 830 CE.

However, it’s unlikely that the Viking raiders were the first to settle in Iceland, and there are reports that Irish monks lived there for a brief period, only to leave because of the land’s harsh environment and rugged terrains.

6. Vikings

Did you know that Vikings were seafarers and settlers from Scandinavia, Norway, and Denmark? They spread throughout many European territories, claiming lands for themselves and influencing much of European history as we know it today.

And Iceland is one of the many Viking conquests. Unlike other invasions, Vikings did not have to contend with competition as the country was unclaimed as a settlement before their arrival.

Since the Viking settlement, the Norse religion was predominant in the country, with Christianity a close second, owing to the imposition of King Olaf Tryggvason, who had converted Norway to Christianity.

7. The Prose Edda

The Prose Edda is a collection of Icelandic manuscripts on Skaldic poetics compiled into one textbook in the 13th century. It’s considered one of the (if not the) most important literary works in the history of Iceland. It is also a treasure trove of Skaldic myth and insights into the inner workings of ancient skaldic and Eddic poetry.

Sometimes called the Edda, it remains relevant to this day as the source of Norse mythology and tradition. It doesn’t only contain a comprehensive guide on poetics, but it also offers entertaining stories.

8. Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology arose during the Viking Age and spread throughout the colonies of the Viking raiders. It’s a belief system that doesn’t have a scriptural basis and, unlike many other belief systems and religions, wasn’t believed to have been passed down from gods to humans.

Though it’s known that Norse Mythology originated from Northern Germanic tribes, it’s not clear who exactly started it. Icelanders passed it on by oral traditions shared through stories and poems that shaped beliefs even during the advent of Christianity. 

9. Genealogy

Because of the Viking settlement in 830 CE, it’s not surprising that most Icelanders today are descended from the Vikings or are of Norse Descent. In fact, 60% of the total population in Ireland is of Norse Descent, who can trace their bloodlines back to the Vikings from Denmark, Ireland, Scotland, and Norway.

One interesting fact about the Icelandic genealogy, though, is that because the population in Ireland is relatively small, and most people are descendants of the same Celtic and Viking tribes, they are mostly related to each other.

10. The Icelandic Language

The Icelandic language is considered the most difficult language in the world. Although it has similarities with Norwegian and Faroese, there is no other language in the world that has the same unique characters that this language has. For example, it has the character “þ” or “thorn,” which locals pronounce as “th.”

Also, Icelandic syllables tend to be very long, and grammar is complicated. That’s why although English has obvious Germanic origins, it’s pretty challenging for English speakers to learn the language and much more to master fluency.

11. Hákarl – Fermented Shark

Hákarl is a traditional dish in Iceland. Often referred to as the national dish, locals make this delicacy from fermented or rotten Greenland sharks from a recipe one can trace back 700 years. This unusual dish is eaten by Icelanders today as a way of a continuing tradition. At the same time, tourists try to sample it out of curiosity.

If you’re planning to try it, make sure your stomach is ready for it. Hákarl isn’t for those with a weak stomach. Those who attempted it mostly describe it as tasting like long-forgotten blue cheese and having a pungent urine smell.

12. The Icelandic Horse

The Icelandic horse was the horse breed that Vikings initially rode. They are generally a smaller breed, but they are intelligent, capable of performing five gaits, friendly, and easy to train. Icelanders allow no other horse breeds on their land to protect the integrity of this beautiful horse breed.

And this is one of the reasons why Icelandic horses tend to live longer: they are immune to most equine diseases that occur in Iceland. Because Icelandic horses are an exclusive breed, with a few trainers and breeders, purchasing one comes at a high cost.

13. Goõafoss

Goõafoss means “Waterfall of the Gods,” and this natural wonder does not fall short of its name. This waterfall is located in Northern Iceland and is a popular tourist attraction for locals and foreigners. This stunning view of the waterfall surrounded by snow is open year-round.

Some say the waterfall got its name due to its ethereal beauty. Other locals tell of the legend of a Viking leader called Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, who was said to have thrown statues of his Pagan gods into the waterfall.

14. Dettifoss

You will find The Dettifoss Waterfall in the Vatnajökull National Park in Northwest Iceland is touted as the second most powerful waterfall in Europe, next to the Rhine Falls. Its waters come from the Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Europe, and fall into the largest canyon in Iceland, the Jokulsargljufur Canyon.

It’s also the widest waterfall in Iceland and the one with the highest hydroelectric potential in Europe.

If you want to visit the Detti Falls, make sure you don’t schedule a trip in winter, as roads leading to it may be closed due to heavy snow.

15. Álfhól

Did you know that Icelanders do believe in elves? Stories of elves may make for exciting folklore, but in Iceland, they’re considered real creatures that live in nature or tiny houses in Icelandic towns. They are mostly invisible but sometimes show themselves to people.

You may find the Álfhól can in public and private gardens throughout Iceland, but mainly in Reykjavik’s capital. Sometimes instead of tiny wooden houses, Icelanders draw doors on rocks, believing them elf-dwellings.

16. Jólasveinar

The Christmas spirit is very much alive in Iceland. Some may even say it’s even more active in the country. In Iceland, they don’t have just one Santa Claus to make the season merry–they have thirteen, whom they call the Jólasveinar or Yule Lads.

Locals believe these Yule Lads put candies in children’s shoes left out by eager children. They only give out sweets to good kids, though.

Today, the image of the Yule Lads is more of friendly and red-cheeked creatures with smiles on their faces. But did you know that they were traditionally scary-looking trolls who were the offspring of half-troll and half-ogres?

17. Jólabókaflóõ

Another endearing Christmas tradition in Iceland is the Jólabókaflóõ, or the Christmas Book Flood, which usually happens on Christmas Eve or a few days before Christmas. It’s when people give and receive books to each other, flooding each other with books to read!

This tradition started during World War II when paper wasn’t among the many rationed commodities.

The idea is that people would spend Christmas reading the books they received. So it’s not just about flooding each other with books, but reading!

18. Volcanoes

Iceland, the land of ice and snow, is also home to a good number of volcanoes. In fact, the country has 32 volcanic systems and 130 volcanoes! While most of these volcanoes are considered extinct, almost half of them are still active and have erupted over the years.

The country has so many volcanoes due to its location in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean, a point where tectonic plates are constantly moving.

19. The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal seawater spa, is one of the most popular spots in Iceland. This spa is the best place to have a relaxing dip–the ultimate spa experience in the best of nature. You can have a relaxing swim in the lagoon, but local authorities prohibit diving in any part of it.

An interesting fact about the lagoon is that due to the high sulfur content in the water, the lagoon has a distinct smell–something that may resemble boiled eggs. While the scent is not exactly pungent, it can be unpleasant to some.

20. Beer Prohibition

From 1915 to 1989, the authorities banned beer in Iceland. And even today, alcoholic beverages are carefully regulated, with most drinks with a higher alcohol content only sold in specific stores.

The ban was put in place back when the country was fighting for its independence from Denmark, where beer drinking is a massive part of culture and society.

The authorities lifted the ban on March 1, 1989, which is celebrated today in Iceland as Beer Day.

21. Curfews for Children

In Iceland, there are strict laws about the protection of young children. And part of the move to ensure the safety of children is the implementation of a curfew for children aged 13 to 16 years.

They are not allowed outside their homes past 10:00 p.m. unless accompanied by an adult. This curfew even extends to teens on their way to or from a school, youth, or sports event!

According to Article 92 of Iceland’s Child Protection Act, unaccompanied children found on the streets past the curfew will be brought to the police station. At the same time, authorities contact their parents or guardians.

22. Parenting Style

In Iceland, parents tend to be very inclusive towards their children and allow them to be involved in as many of their activities as possible to give their children valuable lessons through their experiences.

Families in Iceland also tend to have a powerful bond where different members of the family, not just the parents, are actively involved in helping raise children. While it’s uncommon for nuclear family members to live in the same home, they are usually very present in each other’s lives.

23. Cats

Many years ago, Icelanders believed that dogs had no place in their cities and had them only on farms to help with farm work. Also, the earlier settlers in Iceland preferred cats to dogs because of their fur and adeptness at catching rats.

Consequently, this led to an explosion in the cat population throughout the country. Today, cats are still the Icelanders’ pet of choice, and it’s common to find several cat breeds in the country. There are also quite several cat shelters in Iceland.

24. Icelandic Names

Icelandic names originate from the Nordic people who first settled in the country hundreds of years ago. Today, it’s common to find Nordic words still, though Western influences and Christian names have infiltrated Icelandic society and impacted how Iclenders name their children today.

An interesting thing about names in Iceland, though, is how last names work. Unlike in most countries where children take on their father’s surname, in Iceland, the father’s first name gets passed on, with slight differences depending on the child’s gender.

25. Protesting

Icelanders take freedom of assembly and freedom of expression quite seriously. In fact, they are very vocal about political and societal concerns. Some of the most widely known protests that the Icelandic people have done over the years are related to the government’s handling of the financial crisis and the Panama Papers.

The protests about the leak of the so-called Panama Papers, or the secret documents that exposed the illegal handling of money by then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, led to his stepping down from office.

26. Women’s Rights

If you’re reading this and you’re a woman, you would probably be excited to know that Iceland is considered the most gender-equal country in the world. In Iceland, there’s no difference between the salaries of men and women doing the same job. Men and women share equal rights to political and social participation.

The Icelandic government also supports working mothers through laws that give parental leaves to both fathers and mothers so that children can have equal access to both parents. They are also entitled to parental leave pay so that they continue to earn during their absence from work.

27. Sports

Icelanders are very enthusiastic about sports. Though they enjoy a wide variety of sports like football, basketball, and volleyball, most people say that the most popular sport in the country is handball. However, Iceland’s official national sport is body wrestling, called “Glima.”

The sport is also often referred to as Viking wrestling and is an all-male sport. Did you know wrestling was also a big deal during the Viking age? Hence the name of the sport today.

28. “Smelly” Shower Water

Many know that Iceland has over a hundred volcanoes. And because of this, the country is a geothermal powerhouse that often translates in everyday life as hot, sulfuric water that flows through the shower taps.

While sulfuric water is considered excellent for its healing properties, some may not find its smell very pleasant. In fact, Iceland has a reputation for “smelly” water because water high in sulfur can sometimes smell like fart. Yikes! Does anyone care for a hot shower?

29. Black Sand Beaches

Often, when we talk of trips to the beach, we speak of white sand beaches. But did you know that there’s such a thing as a black sand beach? Yes! There are quite a number of them in Iceland.

Of Iceland’s many black sand beaches, perhaps the most widely known is Diamond Beach. The stunning beach has velvety black sand dotted all over with ice crystals that look like diamonds, hence its name.

30. The Cod Wars

The Cod Wars are not exactly all-out battles but a series of clashes and disputes between Iceland and the U.K. over fishing rights in the North Atlantic Ocean. So yes, it’s a fight to determine who has the right to catch cod and other fish. These “wars” occurred between the 1950s and the 1970s, with Iceland as the victor.

31. Geothermal Energy

Amazingly, Iceland generates all of its power through sustainable sources, including geothermal energy, which also powers over 80% of the country’s hot water and heating systems. In short, the country has no national grid and does not need one, as they harness natural resources and renewable sources to generate power.

32. U.S. Infrastructure

The United States and Iceland enjoy an alliance that has dramatically benefited Iceland in terms of investments in infrastructure. Iceland is known to have good telecommunications infrastructure and is the first to be recognized by the U.S. for its advanced networks and systems.

33. Icelandic Financial Crisis

From 2017 through 2019, Iceland experienced a steadily declining economy resulting in a financial crisis that some believe was due to erroneous inflation targets. During the crisis, the value of the country’s currency dropped sharply, and the economy became highly unstable.

Thankfully, however, its economy recovered by 2021, and the country enjoys steady growth today.

Conclusion

The land of contrasts, of Fire and Ice, is indeed a mesmerizing one. From the stunning beauty of its volcanic, mountainous, and snowy terrains, to its black sand beaches, to its longstanding belief that elves exist, there seems to be nothing ordinary about Iceland.

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