Iceland is a magical place, and not just because of its interesting and contrasting aesthetics. There are many fun facts about Iceland that will astound and amaze you and can sometimes even fringe on unbelievable.
In this article, we’ve compiled 15 of the weirdest and most wonderful facts about the island, and, who knows, you might want to come and visit us sooner.
15 Fun Facts About Iceland
There are many interesting things about Iceland, but the following are some of the most fun facts about Iceland. You can use these to get yourself excited over your upcoming trip, for pure entertainment, or to include in your arsenal of general knowledge just to win that next pub quiz:
1. Once Upon a Time, Iceland was Called Snæland
Directly translated, this means Snowland which, technically, is just a freeze away from its current name. So, how did Snowland come about, and why did it change? Well, it’s quite an interesting tale and one that can be found in our Saga Museum here on the island. A lost Viking called Naddodur, blown off course, was the first Norseman to set foot on the island.
We assume that he reached the island by fall, as he was met by snowfall that simply got worse and worse as the winter season started (hence why he named it Snowland). As blizzards became the order of the day and temperatures continued to plummet, Naddodur decided to get the heck out of dodge. After that, another (clearly more arrogant) Viking called Gardar landed on the island. He decided to name the island after himself; Gardarsholmur.
But it was a Norwegian Viking called Floki that ultimately changed the island’s fate. After settling on the island with his family, he climbed up a mountain. And when he looked over the landscape and saw a fjord with ice floating around, he aptly named it Iceland. Floki’s stay on the island was not that long, though, and he returned to Norway with some not-so-great memories.
He then continued to tell anyone who would listen how terrible Iceland is. Whether it was curiosity about this strange Iceland or whether people simply disregarded his concerns, we’ll never know. But within 50 years of Floki’s “word-of-mouth marketing campaign”, there were 20,000 Norwegians in Iceland.
2. Stats Reveal That 1 in Every 10 Icelanders Publish a Book
Icelanders are known for being an incredibly creative nation, but having 1 in every 10 being a published author is quite astounding. Icelanders absolutely love reading! And as such a literary-focused country since the 13th century, it’s no surprise to hear that Iceland produces so many books. The country even has a literary Nobel Prize winner, Halldor Laxness, under its belt.
And since books are such popular gifts for Christmas, we actually have a phenomenon called Jolabokaflod that translates to the Christmas Book Flood. That's due to the staggering number of books being published before the Christmas season to keep up with the demand. If you would like to experience this phenomenon first-hand, you simply need to visit the National Library of Iceland or attend the Reykjavik International Literary Festival.
3. We Have a Museum of Penises
No, really. You can find The Icelandic Phallological Museum in the capital city, and it’s probably one of the most fun facts about Reykjavik in Iceland. Here you will find a collection of penises of every mammal on the island (which equates to more than 200 of them). And if you thought staring at a horse or whale penis is pretty out there, you’ll need to brace yourself for the fact that the museum is also home to a penis of a man.
The museum also claims to have the penises of elves and trolls. So, if you want to hear the strange story of how a man’s penis ended up in a museum or whether there really are elf and troll penises on display, you’ll just have to come for a visit.
4. Iceland Babies Often Sleep Outside Irrespective of the Season
What would you do if you saw a lone baby in a stroller outside on the pavement in the middle of winter? Well, if you’re an Icelander, this is a very normal sight. Whether it’s on the porch of a residential property or outside of a coffee shop, you’ll find babies sleeping in strollers in freezing temperatures all across the country.
But don’t worry, the babies are adequately protected against the cold by being dressed warmly and wrapped up especially for the occasion. The reason why this is common practice on the island is because of the belief that babies get better sleep in the fresh air and that babies exposed to the chilly fresh air are less likely to get sick.
The strangest thing about this phenomenon is that the Icelanders might actually be on to something. This is one of the things researchers credit to their long life span (Icelanders generally live 10 years longer than the global average).
5. Reykjavik is Much More Than Just a Capital City
Reykjavik holds the title of “the northernmost city of any sovereign state in the world” which brings about another one of the Reykjavik fun facts. Usually, any place high up north will be pretty cold.
This assumption simply increases when considering that a place is called Iceland. But this is not the case with Reykjavik. In fact, if you compare the average temperature of New York and Reykjavik during the month of January, you’ll find that it’s almost the same.
6. Icelandic Surnames are Not Really Surnames
Icelanders technically only have first names. Even if you want to look up someone’s number in the phone book, you would do it by using their first name. The surnames as the rest of the world perceives them to be are merely a lucky coincidence based on Icelandic tradition.
Icelanders have names such as Sigurdur Elnarsson or Arnkatla Jonsdottir which actually translates to Sigurdur, Elnar’s son, and Arnkatla, Jon’s daughter. So, as you can see, the second part of an Icelander’s name is merely a genealogical record rather than an actual surname. But since the majority of the world requires a surname to get things done, this age-old tradition came in pretty handy.
7. Witch Trials with a Twist
In a country such as Iceland where myths and legends abound, it’s not strange to find out that we also had witch trials during the 17th century. Despite Iceland having such as small population, the island had roughly 120 recorded witch trials with 22 (official) executions.
But our witch trials were slightly different from those of the rest of the world. You see, most of our accused witches were men! One of our most prolific trials is known as the Kirkjubol Witch Trial during which a pastor, who had major health struggles, accused a father and son singing in his own church’s choir of bewitching him.
8. If Volcanic Activity Stops, Iceland Would Cease to Exist
Or, at least, the Iceland we currently know. If you were not aware, the Land of Fire and Ice still has many active volcanos, with an eruption occurring an average of every four years. These eruptions generally hold no real threat to the safety of the Icelanders, as they are well-prepared and experienced when it comes to “managing” the volcanoes on the island. In fact, an eruption usually leads to great excitement and an influx of tourists.
But what many don’t realize is that these eruptions are essential to keep Iceland together – literally. The island is situated on a rift where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pushing apart. Yet, the eruptions are causing enough magma to fill the gap just enough to keep the island from completely splitting in two. This means that if the volcanic activity on the island should ever completely stop, the countdown to Iceland’s demise would’ve officially started.
9. Iceland Actually Did Have a Railway Once
Iceland famously offers no train transport on the island. But unbeknownst to many, Iceland actually did have a railway once. It wasn’t a big railway (merely connecting the Reykjavik Harbor construction site with the quarry outside the city) and was only built to help with the construction project itself.
In fact, the trains themselves (there were two locomotives) were designed by a German company and were only meant to be used for mining or construction purposes over short distances, and not transporting goods or passengers over long distances. That’s why the trains ran on a very narrow 900 mm gauge railway track that was in the shape of a large circle, looping to and from the Reykjavik Harbor.
This track remained operational for 15 years. But during this time, the two trains had three accidents. One of which will probably go down in history as one of the funniest fun facts about Iceland. One day, the train, Pioner, derailed. But there was no technical issue or human error at fault – merely idiocracy. The guilty parties were a few individuals who had started to enjoy watching what these powerful machines could do.
So, at first, they put coins on the track to see how the train flattened them, then they put boards on the track to see how the train crushed them. And then, as if it was a sash at the finish line of a race, rigged a chain across the tracks. Although powerful, the tiny little construction/mining locomotive simply couldn’t break through the chain and the train derailed.
10. The Eruption of Laki was a Global Catastrophe
This story is simply incredible and gives one a new respect when it comes to the power nature holds. In the 1700s, one of the island’s volcanoes, Laki, erupted. It sent so much ash into the sky that it covered most of Europe and even reached Africa.
This gigantic ash cloud actually caused the global temperature to drop, which had many disastrous consequences. But none was quite as bad as the food shortage in France, which ultimately helped lead to the French Revolution!
11. We Have a Pair of Pants Made of Human Skin
If you think this sounds a bit witchy, you would be right. This pair of pants can be found in the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.
These pants were called Nabrok which literally translates to ‘corpse britches’ and were worn by Icelandic sorcerers who believed that they will make you rich. Clearly, these old get-rich-quick-schemes were not very successful, but you can still go and take a look at what these monstrosities used to look like by visiting the museum.
12. Everything You Think You Know About Icelanders and Whales are Wrong
For many, many years Icelanders have had a terrible reputation when it comes to whales. The narrative is usually that they are almost single-handedly responsible for a drastic decrease in the whale population because they eat them and make a lot of money from the whaling industry.
In reality, this belief could not be further from the truth. When or where the belief originated that the staple food of each and every Icelandic household is whale, is anyone’s guess. But, in reality, very few Icelanders eat whale meat. Even finding whale meat at the local restaurants is quite rare and only kept as an odd thing to try for tourists inquiring about it. Generally, eating whale meat is frowned upon by Icelanders these days.
Also, one of the island’s biggest streams of income revenue is not whaling, but whale tours. Without whales, there will be no whale tours, so we’re pretty sure the primary focus won’t be shifting from preservation to hunting any time soon.
13. You Won’t Find Any Strip Clubs on the Island
In 2010, an Icelandic law was passed that made it illegal for an employer to profit off of an employee’s nudity. Whilst this obviously includes numerous types of businesses, the most noticeable are strip clubs. This move was praised by feminists all across the world, and to this day, many believe it was because of the lesbian president that Iceland had at the time.
But, since Iceland is known for its fairness and equality, it was probably just another step in the right direction of leveling the playing field and getting rid of any trade that could be seen as exploitative and sexist.
14. Iceland Has a Very Strange Relationship With International Franchises
When visiting Iceland, you’ll be surprised to find that most of your favorite things back home are nowhere to be found here. This includes things such as Lift, Uber, and McDonalds. In fact, quite morbidly, the very last McDonald’s cheeseburger was placed on display in Iceland where people could literally view the decay of the company’s presence on the island.
And whilst it may seem like Iceland has some vendetta against the corporate machine of franchises, there are various and even completely unrelated reasons for why these brands cannot be found here. The Icelanders’ non-bias towards big corporate names becomes very clear when you take into account that the consumption of Coke is higher in Iceland per capita than anywhere else on Earth!
15. Iceland Once Banned TV
Icelanders don’t need an excuse to celebrate, so to say that they place a high value on socializing would be the understatement of the year. So, when TV arrived in the 60s, it was seen as a serious threat to great times and personal connection. That is why, even if you switched on your TV on a Thursday or the month of July, you would find nothing on your screen during what is now known as the Icelandic TV ban.
These extreme lengths were taken to encourage socializing on a Thursday and participation in outdoor activities during the height of the summer season (July). The Thursday and July TV bans started in the 60s and only ended in the 80s; the Thursday ban was called quits in 1983 and the July ban in 1987.
The Fun Has Merely Just Begun
If you think these few fun facts about Iceland are interesting, wait ‘till you actually get to the island. These fun facts are merely the tip of the iceberg (and we literally have those too) when it comes to interesting myths, legends, and historic happenings here on the island.
And with our locals being so sociable and always open to a chat, you’ll find many willing to share their own stories, memories, and knowledge with you. The most diverse way of discovering these intriguing facts and the many fictions from around the country is by renting a campervan in Reykjavik and properly exploring the island via road trip.
Come and find out for yourself why Akureyri is slightly colder than the capital city of Reykjavik, why construction is literally planned around elf territory and many other things that are so unique to Iceland.