Facts About Iceland
Here you can learn the most important facts about Iceland you might be interested in when planning a trip to this wonderful country.
With a total area of 103,000 km² (39,768 square miles), Iceland is the world’s 18th, and Europe’s 2nd largest island (following Great Britain). It is situated in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, directly under the Arctic Circle (66° N). The coastline is 6,000 km long; the distance between the North and South coasts is cca. 300 km, between East and West cca. 500 km.
The shortest distances to Iceland’s nearest neighbors are about 280 km to Greenland, 400 km to the Faroe Islands, 800 km to Scotland and 950 km to Norway. By air, Iceland is about 3 hours from western Europe and 5 hours from North America.
With a population of only 320,000, Iceland is the most lightly populated country in Europe.
Over half of the inhabitants live in the metropolitan area in and around Reykjavik and about 75% of the land is uninhabited — consisting mostly of sand and stone deserts, lava fields and glaciers.
Total area: 103,000 km²
Inhabited area: cca. 25 %
Total population: 320,000
Metropolitan area, population: 170,000
Time zone: Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) throughout the year.
Climate and weather
The climate in Iceland is milder than many people expect. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Iceland enjoys a cool temperate ocean climate with cool summers and relatively mild winters.
However, the weather is very changeable and one should always be prepared for unexpected changes. Travelers in Iceland should always bring along lightweight woolens, a sweater or cardigan, a rainproof coat and sturdy walking shoes. If you are traveling in wintertime or are heading into the interior, you will need warm underwear and socks, rubber boots and a warm sweater (fleece, wool). For weather forecasts see en.vedur.is
Due to the country’s location directly under the Arctic Circle, the nights are bright in all parts of Iceland during summertime. In the month of June the sun never fully sets in the northern part of the country.
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
The Northern Lights are caused by the interaction of particles from the sun with the upper atmosphere near the North Pole. That creates this wonderful light effect, known as the Aurora Borealis. The winter in Iceland brings the chance to see this spectacular phenomenon in the dark northern sky on a cold and clear night.
Nature and Landscape
Icelandic nature offers an incredible variety of different landscapes and natural phenomena in a relatively small country.
Volcanoes and Geothermal Activity
A geologically young land, Iceland is located on both the Iceland hotspot and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs right through it. This location means that the island is highly geologically active with many volcanoes.
Volcanoes and geothermal areas are important features of the Icelandic landscape. At least 30 Icelandic volcanoes are active and more than 160 eruptions have taken place since the first days of the settlement. In the last 10 years, there have been eruptions under the Vatnajökull ice-cap and in the Icelandic volcano Hekla; Iceland´s most recent volcanic event was the famous eruption under the Eyjafjallajökull in March/April 2010, which caused major disruption of international flight traffic, but no casualties in Iceland.
Geothermal activity can be found in nearly all parts of the Icelandic nature, in the form of mud pools, steam vents, sulfur pits, hot springs and the best known of all: geysers. Geothermal energy is also used to generate power and many hot springs are tapped for domestic and industrial use.
Icelandic glaciers and lakes cover 14.3% of the country; only 23% of them are vegetated. The uninhabited interior is a mountainous plateau with ice caps, bordered on the south by vast glacial outwash plains. The largest Icelandic glacier is Vatnajökull, which is 8,200 km² and up to 1,000 m thick in places.
Rivers, fjords and waterfalls bear witness to the landscape left by the last Ice Age. Powerful glacial torrents continue to shape the land, carving spectacular gorges into the lava landscape. Calmer freshwater rivers and lakes are plentiful with an abundance of salmon, trout and char, and the northern and eastern fjords are suited to deep-water fishing.
The main farming areas are around the coast, particularly in the south and west.
All land mammals, except the Arctic fox, have been brought by men into the country since the settlement. These include (besides domestic animals) reindeer, mink, mice and rats.
70 species of bird nest regularly in Iceland, including some that do not breed elsewhere in Europe. Huge numbers of sea birds can be found in the bird cliffs along the coast, and waders and wildfowl attract bird watchers from all over the world.
Rich coastal waters attract plentiful marine life such as whales, dolphins and seals.
There are no reptiles in Iceland, and biting insects are rare.
Only 25% of Iceland is continuously covered with vegetation and only 1% with woodland. Nevertheless, the landscape is never dull. Colorful arctic and alpine flora thrive even in the deserts of the interior highlands and at high altitudes, including many types of moss and lichens.
People and Culture
As a whole, Icelandic people are very open and progressive, creative and self-reliant. They are highly educated, well-read and they share a deep love for arts and music. Like anyone else, Icelandic people like to have fun. They work hard and play hard and love sharing their country with visitors. In general, Icelanders are very helpful. The standard of living in Iceland is among the highest in the world. Although they are technically advanced and modern in outlook, many people are justly proud of the cultural heritage of Norse mythology and the Icelandic sagas.
Origin of the Icelanders
Icelandic language and culture today reflects the predominantly Norse origin of the early population, but there is also evidence of Celtic blood and heritage. Although the first settlers of Iceland are supposed to have been Irish monks or hermits, they left the island when the heathen Vikings arrived the late 9th century. Most of the evidence indicates that of the first permanent settlers came from Norway and from parts of the British Isles where Viking settlements had been established and Scandinavian settlers had become partly assimilated into the Celtic population; they would also have been accompanied by Celtic slaves.
According to The Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), Ingólfur Arnarson was the first permanent settler of Iceland, establishing himself there in 874.
Icelandic language is one of the main characteristics of this proud nation. It belongs to the group of the North Germanic languages and is still closely similar to the language that the settlers brought with them in the ninth and tenth centuries (Old Norse). The Icelandic literature and sagas of the thirteenth century can still be read by modern Icelandic speakers with little difficulty. English is widely understood and spoken, especially among the younger generation, and many people have a working knowledge of Danish, German or other languages as well.
Medieval literature is probably Iceland’s most significant contribution to world culture, especially the sagas, a unique genre of realistic secular prose narratives dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Modern Icelandic literature has also gained international attention, not least since 1955, when the great novelist Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize. Today, authors such as Thor Vilhjálmsson, Einar Kárason, Arnaldur Indriðarson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and others are available to an international audience in translation.
The established religion in Iceland is Lutheran.
Iceland has a rich culture, and extremely resourceful and creative artists. There are numerous museums in the country, focusing on a wide variety of themes. For visitors, this opens up more opportunities to find out more about this unique island.
In Iceland you can find a variety of museums introducing you with the fascinating history of the country. Travel back in time to familiarize yourself about the settlement that started already in 874 AD, embrace the adventures of Icelandic Sagas or learn about Icelandic life on this active, volcanic island.
There are also countless folk museums all over the country which focus mainly on local history, largely artefacts dating from the late 19th century. You can obtain a very good impression of how people lived in those days by visiting any of these museums. Some include (or are actually housed in) old turf buildings, which were used as homes right down to the 20th century.
Many of the museums you find in Iceland are dedicated to a particular theme, such as fisheries, ghosts, witchcraft, whales, volcanoes, glaciers, photography, medicine, medieval manuscripts, seals, science, old buildings, horsemanship, rocks and semi-precious stones, natural history, etc.
Art and Handcrafts
There are countless museums and galleries which have both classical and modern art on display. Even in small villages and rural areas you can find exhibitions by local artists. In many of those places you can buy work by local Icelandic artists, such as paintings, small sculptures, exclusive postcards, ornaments, articles of clothing made of unusual materials such as reindeer or fish leather, toys and utensils.
Literature & Theatres
Literature has always been important to Icelandic people and it is astonishing how many books are published every year in such a tiny country. There are also many theatres in Iceland, including a National Theatre. In Reykjavík there is a symphony orchestra, an opera house and a ballet company. International performers make regular visits, especially to the Reykjavík Arts Festival.
Thorrablot Viking Celebration
Every winter at the end of January, Icelanders celebrate the old feast of Þorrablót. This very lively and joyful festivity includes a lot of singing, dancing, and of course the consumption of traditional Viking food, such as: smoked lamb, singed sheep heads (for most the eye is the best part), “harðfiskur” which is dried fish, cured shark, rye bread steamed in the hot ground, delicious “skyr” (a thick Icelandic yogurt made with rennet), washed down with “brennivín” (Icelandic schnapps, which is sometimes called svarti dauði – “black death”).
Reykjavik Jazz Festival
The annual Reykjavik Jazz Festival offers a colorful program of jazz events, performed by Icelandic and international artists. The Festival hosts international guests and has always made a priority of giving young and upcoming artists an opportunity to perform.
Reykjavik Art Festival
Iceland’s premier cultural festival since 1970 combines the best in local and international theater, dance, music, and visual art. A variety of selected exhibitions, concerts, dance, theater and opera performances are on the agenda. The focus of the festival is on the past and present of Icelandic culture, but there are also several great international artists and performers that you can see during the festival.
Festival of the Sea (first weekend in June)
The first weekend in June is a very special date in Iceland: it’s a celebration on how important the sea and sailors are to the history, economy and national life of the country. On this day, every ship in Iceland stays on port and sailors have a day off. In the harbors, one can see boats and ships of different sizes and taste local delicacies. There are also activities and entertainment suitable for the whole family.
Independence Day (17 June)
The National Day of Iceland has been celebrated since 1944 to commemorate the birthday of national hero Jón Sigurdsson (1811–1879). Festivities in Reykjavik include colorful parades, street theaters and music, sideshows and dancing. The day is a public holiday, and people gather downtown to enjoy the festive atmosphere with family and friends.
Midsummer Night (21 June)
The solstice is the apex of a long month of endless sunshine, during which the sun hangs determinedly in the sky, never setting. Unlike some other Scandinavian countries, formally organized events are rare in Iceland on this day, but visitors will find plenty of family get-togethers where the magic of the midnight sun on the longest day of the year is celebrated.
Viking Festival in Hafnarfjörður
In Viking times, the year was divided into summer and winter halves, with celebrations marking the climax of each. On June 21st the summer solstice was celebrated marking the longest day of the year. The Viking Village in Hafnarfjörður hosts a Solstice Festival with Viking clothing, instruments, jewelry, crafts, and of course food and drinks.
Bank Holiday Weekend (first weekend of August)
On the first weekend in August, almost everyone goes off to camp at festivals around the country – everything from family events to wild rock festivals.
This colorful event brings tens of thousands of people into the city center every year, to show solidarity and to have fun with the gay community in Reykjavik and to celebrate and support human rights for all.
Culture Night & Reykjavik Marathon
Reykjavik’s Culture Night has become an essential part of cultural life in Iceland with thousands of people enjoying a variety of activities, shows and exhibitions in the streets of Reykjavik.
From Iceland and abroad, thousands of people participate in the full Marathon, the half marathon or the “Fun Run”.
Reykjavik Jazz Festival
The Reykjavik Jazz Festival is held in August annually with a broad line-up of jazz artists from all over the world as well as Iceland’s leading Jazz musicians.
Reykjavik Film Festival – RIFF
The unique and exciting landscapes of Iceland have served as shooting locations for many films, both Icelandic and international. The Reykjavík International Film Festival, RIFF, was held for the first time in 2004 with the goal to make it an annual festival and to enrich the local film culture. Nowadays it is an international attraction with films of different styles from all over the world.
Iceland Airwaves, a festival gathering increasing international attention, has rocked Reykjavik every October since 1999. The festival has been referred to as “the most innovative music festival since CMJ” and “as responsible for all of Reykjavik’s recent positive press as Björk herself”. Thousands of fans from around the world show up to groove to cutting-edge music by alternative artists from both sides of the Atlantic.
By late November, streets and buildings are illuminated with Christmas lights and people start frequenting traditional Christmas buffets offered by many restaurants. Delicacies such as Hangikjot (smoked lamb served with potatoes, vegetables and a white sauce), Rjúpa (Icelandic Ptarmigan) or Reindeer are served for a traditional Icelandic Christmas Dinner.
On the first Sunday in the Advent, the lights are lit on a large Christmas tree on Austurvollur Square in Reykjavik’s city center, accompanied by music, choir singing and a visit by the 13 Icelandic Santa Clauses (Yule Lads e.g., Door-slammer, Spoon-licker, Candle Beggar and others).
Christmas is very important to Icelanders and is celebrated everywhere. Families, friends and colleagues make the season special by having Christmas parties, baking cookies, drinking jólaglögg (mulled wine) and decorating their homes. The main day of celebration for Icelanders is Christmas Eve (24 December), when the gifts are being exchanged.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve in Iceland is one spectacular celebration! The festivities usually start with a family dinner, followed by going to bonfires (brennur) where people gather to meet friends and neighbors.
Iceland does not have similar restrictions on fireworks as many other countries, and as a result the whole population of the Reykjavik Capital Area makes its own massive fireworks show from their gardens or some vantage points close to midnight. This amazing show is definitely something you don’t want to miss!
Everywhere in the country, and especially in Reykjavik, you will find an astounding variety of restaurants embracing both ethnic styles from around the world and also cuisine native to Iceland.
The food served in Icelandic homes and restaurants is excellent in quality and taste, the key being the freshness of the products. Fish comes fresh from the ocean surrounding the country, meat from animals that graze in meadows situated far from urban areas, sometimes deep in the uninhabited interior. It may come as a surprise to learn that a lot of vegetables are also grown in Iceland, some in the open air, others in greenhouses heated with natural hot water.
Iceland’s two main raw materials for quality cuisine are fish and lamb. At the other end of the culinary spectrum, you might like to try a distinctively Icelandic version of fast food: the “pylsa”. This is a hot dog with a topping of your choice: tomato ketchup, mustard, rémoulade and raw or fried onions.
In terms of ethnic cuisine, you will have no trouble satisfying a craving for Danish, Italian or French cuisine. For Asian delicacies, there are quite a number of Indian, Thai and Chinese restaurants.
Sushi is available from the many seafood restaurants and other restaurants downtown.
Generally, restaurants are open until midnight, but their kitchens normally close at ten o’clock. Coffee shops and bars are open until 1 o’clock during weekdays and until 6 o’clock at weekends.
Entertainment and Nightlife in Reykjavik
Reykjavik is a vibrant city with active and energetic inhabitants. This is reflected in the city’s nightlife which has long been renowned for its intensity, energy and special atmosphere. The focus of all this is in the main streets of Laugavegur and Aðalstræti (in the old town center), and the roads leading off them.
Cafes and bars in Reykjavik serve beer and coffee throughout the day, before transforming into buzzing drinking and dancing venues in the evening.
Opening times for the majority of coffee-bars are Sunday to Thursday from 10:00 to 01:00 and Friday and Saturday from 10:00 to 03:00. Nightclubs close around 04:00 or 05:00 and the dress code is strictly smart. Alcohol is available from licensed bars, restaurants and “Vínbúð” shops. The minimum drinking age is 20 years.
In terms of music, Iceland has everything from pop to classical, opera, rock and musicals. International artists often play in Iceland, while at the other end of the spectrum you will find that many pubs offer a wide variety of live music.
Theater is also popular, but is usually performed in Icelandic. In cinemas, however, all films are presented in the original language with Icelandic subtitles.