10 Fun Facts About Iceland That Will Surprise You
Updated: May 12
Iceland’s popularity with visitors has a lot to do with its unique natural environment and its rich cultural heritage. But how much do you really know about this North Atlantic island nation? We’ve put together these fun Iceland facts to give you a better insight into this fascinating country as you tour the island in your camper van.
Most surprising facts about Iceland
1. Iceland’s landscape is constantly changing
Iceland has been dubbed the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’ as both elements are responsible for sculpting its landscape. Erosion by ice has created the dramatic mountain scenery you can see from the country’s main route, The Ring Road, and led to unique formations such as Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. How? Sudden glacial floods called jökulhlaups deposit sediments that alter the topography of the lowlands and meltwater carries glacial till along rivers, turning them a brilliant turquoise.
Iceland is also home to around 130 active volcanoes, some of which are hidden beneath the country’s largest glaciers. From time to time, eruptions of magma and ash transfix and transform the land, leaving behind rugged lava fields stained yellow with sulfur deposits that eventually turn green due to colonizing mosses.
2. The country is a world leader in renewable energy
Considering that Icelandic weather is cold and damp outside of the summer months, you'd be forgiven for thinking that heating an Icelandic home costs an astronomical amount. That’s not the case though, and it’s thanks to the country’s abundant geothermal energy. In Reykjavík, the cost of heating an apartment is five times cheaper than the equivalent space in Helsinki, for instance.
In fact, fossil fuels account for only 0.01% of energy production in Iceland. Hydropower is the most important energy source, providing 71.03% of the country’s electricity. Geothermal energy and wind turbines make up for the remaining 28.96%. There are other benefits too, such as the warm water of the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa being a by-product of the power station next door.
3. It’s a common misconception that there are no trees in Iceland
When Iceland was first settled over a thousand years ago, trees covered somewhere between 25% and 40% of the country. In the years that followed, much of Iceland’s birch woodland was cut down. It was used to make charcoal, for fuel and building materials, but mostly deforestation took place to create grazing land for the growing population of sheep.
Given Iceland is famous for its vast glaciers and barren lava fields, many tourists are surprised to see trees as they drive around the country. Want to see for yourself? Take a stop at Hallormsstaður National Forest, the largest in Iceland, covering an area of 740 hectares. Eleven hiking trails crisscross the woodland, making it easy to explore on foot.
4. Many Icelandic horses have a fifth gait
If you’ve ridden a horse before, chances are you’ll have experienced walking and trotting. Even as a beginner, you might have progressed to a canter, though you may not have been brave enough to attempt a gallop. In Iceland, horses learn to tölt, a smoother ride than a gallop that you could just as easily dub ‘armchair mode’. Some horses can manage a faster fifth gait, nicknamed ‘flying pace’.
For over a thousand years, importing horses to Iceland has been strictly forbidden, which has enabled the authorities to breed selectively and maintain the integrity of the breed. They’re strong, stocky horses – small too, though never call them ponies – with a longer life expectancy than the equine average.
5. Iceland has one of the oldest democracies in the world
If you visit Þingvellir National Park, a short stroll into the gorge will take you to the site where the country’s lawmakers came together. The Alþingi, sometimes spelt Althing, dates from 930 AD and is the oldest surviving parliament on the planet until the Danes dissolved it in 1800. It was reinstated in 1843 and continues to meet regularly.
Today, the business of the Alþingi takes place in the Alþingishús in Reykjavík. This solidly constructed stone building was finished in 1881 though there have been a couple of extensions since then. Look up when you visit it: above the upper story windows you’ll see depictions of Iceland's guardians: a giant, a bull, a great bird, and a dragon.
6. Most Icelanders don’t have a family name
Unlike in other countries, where you might have a given name and a surname, most Icelanders don’t have a family name. Instead, they often use the name of their father followed by either –son if they are male, – dóttir if they are female or –bur if they identify as non-binary. This name stays with them for life; there’s no requirement to change a name when you get married.
Icelandic first names have to meet the approval of an official naming committee. There are several criteria, one of which is that the name won’t cause embarrassment to the person who bears it. Jón and Guðrún were the most popular male and female names in 2019, but if you hoped to call a child Sven or Borghild you’d be disappointed. However, refusing a name on the basis of gender is now a thing of the past as gender restrictions are no longer applied.
7. The traditional sweater you see wasn’t around before the 20th century
Another fun fact about Iceland concerns clothing. Icelanders like to wear a wool sweater called lopapeysa. The name’s apt: lopi means wool and peysa means sweater. There are many conflicting stories about the garment’s origins, one of which is that Icelandic writer Auður Laxness came up with the design. Regardless, it’s come to symbolize the Icelandic national identity.
The lopapeysa is ideally suited to Iceland’s often harsh weather. It’s knitted by hand using two or three different colors of yarn. Typically, these were the natural colors of the sheep’s wool (black, brown, gray, and white), though these days you’ll find lopapeysas in a much wider range of shades.
8. Icelanders love to read
For a country with such a small population, Iceland publishes a lot of books. In 2020, that figure was 1509, which for a population of 366,000 is pretty impressive. Writers are respected – perhaps as many as 1 in 10 Icelanders have written and published a book themselves.
Since 1944, Iceland has enjoyed a seasonal tradition known as Jólabókaflóð. In November, everyone receives a free book catalog, so they know which new titles will appear in bookshops, supermarkets, and even petrol stations over the coming months. Most people receive at least one book as a present on Christmas Eve – crime fiction is one of the most popular genres – and spend the night quietly reading it near the lit chimney.
9. Elves play an interesting role in Icelandic society
Icelanders call elves huldufólk. The name translates to ‘hidden folk’, representing mythical creatures that are part of Icelandic folklore. While some residents stop short of saying they believe in elves themselves, few are prepared to deny their existence altogether, and some claim to have seen or spoken to them. Across the country, but especially in Hafnarfjörður, you’ll see miniature elf houses in gardens.
Even public officials bend over backward to accommodate the elves. For example, they’ve adapted road construction projects to avoid interfering with rocks that are believed to be elf homes. Visitors are welcome to enroll in Reykjavik’s Elf School, where Headteacher Magnús Skarphéðinsson will happily discuss the stories associated with Iceland’s elves over coffee and pancakes.
10. Akureyri’s traffic lights are a little unusual
Look closely when driving through Akureyri and you might notice something a little different. Instead of the usual figure of a person, the city’s traffic lights have red hearts on them. The “Brostu Með Hjartanu” (Smile with your Heart) campaign kicked off around the time of the 2008 financial crisis. Its aim? To cheer people up!
Across Akureyri, heart decals consisting of tiny forget-me-not flowers adorned shops, businesses, and public buildings. Bakeries sold heart-shaped cookies. Even the hillside across the fjord, Mount Vaðlaheiði, bore a giant lit-up heart for a time, thanks to the local electricity company. Akureyri’s traffic light hearts are a reminder that no matter how tough things get, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.
Want to know more about Iceland?
Now that you’ve read these fun facts, you must be excited and ready to discover Iceland for yourself! For a tiny country, this North Atlantic nation is a fascinating place. Book your camper van and leave no stone unturned!