In recent years, Iceland’s gained a reputation among backpackers, hikers and travelers seeking a little bit more adventure. From the outside, it can be hard to understand the attraction: what’s so great about this island in the North Atlantic, battered by rough seas and inhabited by fewer than 350,000 people? Talk to anyone who’s been to Iceland, though, and you’ll discover an entirely new perspective: Iceland is one of the most unique experiences available to travelers precisely because of its small population, harsh climate and northerly latitudes. These 10 interesting facts will help you get to know Iceland a little better.
10. A Land of Extremes
Perhaps the first thing anyone will note about Iceland is its harsh climate. The island lies in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Greenland. The island is battered by rough seas and the northerly clime make Iceland less than forgiving. The island was formed by a volcanic hotspot beneath the ocean, and, due to its age, most of the volcanoes are still active. Glaciers also cover much of the island; visitors flock to see some of the more famous ones. Iceland also has fjords and some of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe, as well as geysers. In the south, rocky basalt formations and black sand beaches appeal to tourists. The northern lights are visible during the long winter nights and in the summer the sun sets for just a few hours. The small population means much of the landscape is still wild, making for great hiking and camping.
9. Powered from the Inside Out
Icelanders have had to make do with their surroundings since they arrived on the island over a millennia ago. Often, that has meant being relatively resourceful. One of the things Iceland is abundant in is geothermal heat, as evidenced by continued volcanic activity on the island. Since the island sits over an ocean hotspot, there’s plenty of energy to be harnessed. These days, pretty much the entire island is run on geothermal energy (although hydroelectricity is also generated from some of the island’s waterfalls). A full 85% of Iceland’s energy is renewable and the country is also the world’s largest energy per-capita producer. Iceland is also one of few nations that has hydrogen filling stations for cars powered by fuel cells, lessening the transportation industry’s reliance on imported fossil fuels. Iceland’s energy sector could continue to expand, as many resources have yet to be developed.
8. Viking Heritage
Iceland was settled by Norse explorers traveling west from Norway and Denmark. While the climate wasn’t exactly forgiving, what with the volcanoes and whatnot, the vikings settled permanently. For a long time, Iceland wasn’t a very attractive prospect for people looking to emigrate from Europe, with the result that today, the Icelandic population is still very homogenous—and almost everyone on the island can trace their family history back to one of the original viking settlers. Since the population is also relatively small—just over 300,000 people—many Icelanders have personal ties that have been maintained over generations. You can even look up the phone numbers for the prime minister and the president in the phone book. Iceland’s viking heritage is evident in other ways too: many historic sites show evidence of Norse cultural practices and modern Icelandic is very closely related to Old Norse.
7. Keep Warm with Icelandic Wool
One thing Iceland is known for is its wool industry. While cultivating crops on the island is difficult thanks to the harsh climate, there is plenty of grazing land for herbivores like the Icelandic sheep. Sheep were brought with the first settlers and have been bred for over a millennia now. The sheep has a dual coat: a long outer coat and a fine inner coat. When processed together, the 2 coats make lopi, a type of wool only produced from Icelandic sheep. Lopi is used to make lopapeysa, traditional Icelandic sweaters, which are renowned for being light and warm—even when wet. Lopapeysa are popular souvenirs for visitors—and they can be a great investment at the start of your trip if you plan to backpack around the country. Other products, such as mittens, hats, scarves, socks and even blankets can be made of lopi.
6. A Cuisine Like No Other
Few people would laud Icelandic cuisine; in fact, many people have no idea what Icelanders eat. Unlike countries with world-renowned cuisines, Icelandic fare has its roots in survival and is more likely to seem like homey comfort food than a five-star gourmet meal. Fish, lamb and dairy products feature prominently in the traditional Icelandic diet. Potatoes, pickled cabbage and green beans are often served, along with hearty rye bread. If you’re brave, you can try harkarl, fermented shark that is considered by some to be Iceland’s “national dish.” Wash it down with brennevin, a potent type of vodka flavored with caraway seeds or angelica. If you happen to be in town in January, you can enjoy Þorramatur, a buffet meal of traditional dishes served during that month. Not feeling quite as bold? Try skyr, an Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt, but with a milder flavor.
5. Influential Music
Iceland may be a small country, but the effect of their music industry has been felt far and wide. While Iceland doesn’t produce many stars, Icelandic music itself is known around the world, thanks to performers like Björk, Of Monsters and Men and Sigur Rós. Other Icelandic artists have made contributions to the international jazz scene and you know that, with strong viking heritage, viking metal is also a popular genre. The independent music scene is strong in the country and the country’s most important music festival is Iceland Airwaves, an annual event that sees homegrown and international artists take to the clubs of Reykjavik during the course of a week. One reason for music’s importance in Icelandic culture may be its roots in rimur, rhyming ballads that can be traced back to the tradition of skaldic poetry of the 12th and 13th centuries.
4. Internet Culture
Icelanders have wholeheartedly embraced the internet. Given the relatively limited geography of the island and the fact the population is less than 350,000, it might not be surprising that 95% of Icelanders have internet access, the highest proportion of any country in the world. Iceland has consistently improved their rankings on development of their telecommunications sector, ranking 12th on a Network Readiness Index and 3rd in the UN International Telecommunication Union. CCP Games, the developer of the MMOs EVE Online and Dust 514, is based in Iceland, and almost all Icelandic businesses use the internet to conduct their activities. Five submarine communications cables connect Iceland to the rest of the world, and almost all internet connections in the country are broadband, with most using DSL. Iceland has exceptionally strong protections for freedom of speech, which extend to the internet, and were strengthened by the 2010 Icelandic Modern Media Initiative.
3. Drivers’ Nation
It’s easy to imagine that Iceland, like other European countries, relies heavily on public transportation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Given the small size of the island and the relative lack of urbanization, along with the small population, there just isn’t the demand. In fact, Iceland currently has no railways and personal car is the way to travel; car ownership is approximately 1.5 vehicles per person. Outside of Reykjavik, there are relatively few urban areas; much of Iceland remains rural, with small towns and villages scattered around the shores of the island. Further inland, the interior of the island is practically uninhabited. About two thirds of the island’s 8,000+ miles of road remain unpaved, as the great majority are little-used rural roads. Route 1, or Ring Road, is paved and traverses the island’s perimeter, making it easy to hop in your car and tour the country.
2. Nightlife in Reykjavik
As Iceland’s capital and, really, its only major city, Reykjavik is the de facto center for all cultural happenings in Iceland. Bars and clubs are a major part of the vibrant Icelandic music scene and nightlife is centered on Reykjavik. We’ve mentioned before that Icelanders tend to go out late and stay out even later; clubs often don’t fill up until around midnight, even on weekends, when bars and clubs will stay open until 4:30 a.m. Many bars and clubs function as cafes during the day, then transform in the evening. One reason Icelanders may not head out until late is that most people “predrink” at home, enjoying a drink or two (or several) with friends before heading out to the clubs where alcohol is a good deal more expensive. The Iceland Airwaves music festival takes place each fall in local venues.
1. Coastline Lives
Although it’s the largest city in the country, Reykjavik isn’t the only place Icelanders live; a good many of them (almost 1/3 of the population, actually) live outside of Reyjavik and the Capital Region. Outside of this region, however, most of the places people live are small towns and villages; Iceland is highly rural. For many villages, fishing is the main industry, which helps to explain why so many establishments are located near to the ocean, leaving Iceland’s interior rather uninhabited. Many of Iceland’s “biggest” population centers have fewer than 30,000 people; depending on the region you’re in, some of the “biggest” towns have around 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants! Fishing has been a more reliable source of food and income for Icelanders than agriculture, which helps explain the apparent preference for coastal locations.