Iceland is an astonishing country. Caught between continents, it retains – sometimes enforced by law – some of the culture and language of the Vikings who first settled here. It’s sparsely populated and most people live on the coast. Why? Because its interior is full of live volcanoes and colossal glaciers. Oh, and elves. Lots of elves.
20. Elves apparently share Iceland with people…
Many Icelanders still believe in magical beings called Huldufólk, or “hidden people.” According to a 1995 survey, as many as 70 percent of Icelanders thought that they coexisted with elves. A later survey in 2006 found that people were more doubtful – but not completely disabused – of their belief in hidden folk.
19. …and that’s not good news for planning permissions
Because of this belief in magical creatures, there are sometimes problems seeking planning permission in areas where they are thought to live. For example, Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, a kind of elf conservationist, protested the building of a major road for fear of vengeful elves and “very bad things” happening.
18. It straddles two continents
Þingvellir is a national park in the southwest of the country. And it’s full of the remnants of volcanic activity and a great lake. It’s a UNESCO site because it lies on the (very visible) place where two continental plates meet: the North American and the Eurasian. There are only two such places in the world; the other is in Africa.
17. It has front-row seats for Mother Nature’s most spectacular show
There’s something else about Iceland’s location that makes it special. It is northerly enough to see the northern lights. Furthermore, as it is positioned just south of the Arctic Circle, Icelanders experience the midnight sun during the summer months. In fact, the sun sets a little while later than midnight before rising at 3:00 a.m.
16. Incest-free dating? There’s an app for that
Um, so, Iceland has a really small population, at just over 300,000. It’s so small, in fact, that the threat of incest is a real concern for some people. For this reason ÍslendingaApp was launched in order to “bump the app before you bump in bed.” It uses a database to reveal how closely you’re related.
15. Icelanders eat putrefied shark for fun
Ever heard of a local delicacy that makes many people throw up? Even the name sounds like someone doing exactly that – hákarl. This is fermented shark – though the eco-conscious will be glad to know that it’s made with officially “not threatened” Greenland shark. The ammonia in its body gives the meat a potency that makes most first-time eaters gag.
14. Personal space really isn’t an issue
We’ve established that incest is a real concern for Icelanders because of the small population. To put this into perspective, spread out across the country there are just under two people per square mile. Meanwhile, in the U.K. it’s 167 and in Hong Kong almost 4,350.
13. Raw puffin heart is a delicacy
For our next food item, enjoy… a raw puffin’s heart. Puffin numbers elsewhere crashed during the 19th century due to over-hunting. As a result, Iceland is one of the few places on Earth where they’re still hunted. The birds are caught by “sky fishing,” which involves a net being used to snatch low-flying birds. In an episode of British TV show The F Word, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay caught a bird, gutted it and gobbled up the fresh, warm heart. Tasty.
12. Elves don’t just exist; they go to school, too
Icelanders are so fond of secretive spirits that they’ve given them their own school. Since the Álfaskólinn was founded in Reykjavik in 1991, the institution has mostly become a tourist trap. It does, however, offer certificates for completing short courses on “gnomes, dwarfs, fairies, trolls, [and] mountain spirits.” The lectures are even in English.
11. Iceland doesn’t really do trees
Wind, volcanic activity and Viking settlers decimated Iceland’s trees. And now, the country famously has “no forests.” While this isn’t exactly true thanks to reforestation projects, the island nation is still notably lacking in the tree department. Indeed, miles of miles of featureless hills enhance the sense of Iceland’s otherworldliness.
10. Ronald McDonald isn’t welcome anymore
There are no McDonald’s in Iceland. Once upon a time there were, but Iceland’s 2008 financial crash led to the last remaining McDonald’s shutting down. Amazingly, one of the very last burgers and fries, sold to one Hjortur Smarason, was put on public view in his garage. It was later displayed in Iceland’s National Museum and was last seen in Reykjavik’s Bus Hotel.
9. Last names aren’t needed
The Vikings arrived in Iceland during the ninth century. And as a result, Icelanders don’t have last names. Instead, sons have a first name and a last name, which is their father’s name ending with “-son.” Meanwhile, girls’ names end with “-dóttir.” Not only that, but it’s illegal in Iceland to give your child a silly name. In fact, all newly created names must be approved by the government first.
8. Almost a tenth of Iceland is one great big glacier
The largest glacier in the country covers 8 percent of the land – that’s at a whopping 5,200 square miles. This is Vatnajökull, or the Vatna glacier. In fact, it is the second largest in the world, and the biggest by volume. However, the glacier is retreating.
7. Iceland is beautiful in more ways than one
Iceland boasts more than just geological beauty, it seems. Indeed, this sparsely populated country has won Miss World four times. The country’s tourism website, Guide to Iceland, even promotes its women’s good genes with an annual “Top Ten Sexiest Women” list. There’s also one for men, just to keep things balanced.
6. It’s the lava capital of the world
More than a third of the lava emitted by Earth’s volcanoes over the last 500 years has been in Iceland. The country has 125 volcanoes, 30 of which are still active; a further 13 have erupted since its settlement. One, Laki, burst into life in 1783. It killed 80 per cent of the island’s livestock, which in turn led to the deaths of around a quarter of the human population. The period is referred to as Móðuharðindin, or “Mist Hardships,” presumably in reference to the fumes and ash that covered the land.
5. If Iceland were a human, she’d barely be out of diapers
Indeed, geologically, Iceland is positively sprightly in comparison to other landmasses. It was formed about 20 million years ago during the Miocene era. That may not sound young but Eurasia was formed 375 to 325 million years ago – and that’s just when Europe joined with Asia, not when the landmasses were created.
4. Volcanic eruptions are pretty frequent
Not only does Iceland have a lot of volcanoes – and indeed was formed by volcanoes – but they are still very active. On average, every five years there is an eruption, although they have become slightly more common over the last century. These eruptions are rarely catastrophic; most, in fact, are small, and tend to last just a few days.
3. There’s a reason it’s called the Land of Fire and Ice
Of course, there’s a valid reason that this country is nicknamed the Land of Fire and Ice. Besides its explosive, red-hot volcanoes, more than a tenth of Iceland is covered by glaciers. The largest is the aforementioned Vatnajökull in the southeast, but there are sizeable glaciers in the center and south of the island nation, too.
2. Sheep’s head for dinner?
We’ve talked about fermented shark, and about puffin heart, but have we mentioned the sheep’s head? Another of Iceland’s punishing national delicacies is the head of a sheep. Two things you ought to know about Svið: the eyes are considered the best part and the ears are thought to be bad luck.
1. Reykjavik is home to a really, really weird museum
Reykjavik, that quirkiest of capital cities, is home to the world’s most plentiful display of phalluses, which are housed at the Icelandic Phallological Museum. These range from hamster and human through to the tip of a blue whale’s penis. The owner claims to also have elf and troll penises “on display,” but they’re invisible, obviously.