10 Things you didn't know about Iceland

Written by
Terri Dunbar-Curran

Iceland is a country of red-hot lava fields, glacial lakes, icebergs, and quaint villages. In recent years it's become a more popular destination for those looking for fresh adventures. Volcanic landscapes, fascinating folklore and mighty waterfalls aside, we've rounded up ten things you might not have know about this spectacular country.

No forests
Newest place
More sheep than people

What’s in a name?

When it comes to unusual facts about this remarkable country, you may have heard it bandied about that there are no surnames in Iceland. Strictly speaking, people do have last names, but they don’t take the same form as those in the Western world. Instead of a family name being passed down through the generations and assumed in marriage, a person’s surname is traditionally formed by taking the father’s first name (sometimes the mother’s) and adding -son or -dóttir (son or daughter) to it. Flip open a phone book and you’ll find the entries are listed alphabetically by first name, and profession.

Saddle up

Stout and hardy, Icelandic horses are a small breed unique to the country, developed from ponies taken to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. While some would still confuse them for ponies, their feisty natures have placed them firmly in the horse category. They are known for having two more gaits than other breeds. In Iceland, they are often used in sheepherding, showing and racing. Icelandic law states that horses cannot be imported, and once a creature is exported, it cannot be brought back.

Oldest European parliament

Back in the year 930, Europe’s oldest parliament was born in Iceland. The Alþingi (Althingi) would see the most powerful leaders in the country gather to pass laws and see that justice was carried out in various matters. Large crowds of farmers, craftsmen. Traders, travellers and their families to also attend, and The Alþingi was considered by many to be one of the social highlights of a year. At the centre of it all the lögsögumaður (lawspeaker) would preside over the assembly from the lögberg (law rock). The present-day parliamentary buildings were constructed in 1881.

Gender equality forerunners

For several years running Iceland has ranked number one out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s survey for gender equality, followed closely by Norway, Finland and Rwanda. This comes as a direct result of concerted efforts to achieve equality between men and women in all areas of life. Huge progress was made after the 2008 financial crash which saw jailed bank leaders replaced by women, and the entire government resign, and the prime minister was also replaced by a woman.

Little folk lore

Huldufólk (secret folk) or elves play an important role in the traditional folklore of Iceland, and as a result a variety of surveys have been undertaken to gauge belief in the magical beings.  Some sources hold that over half the country believes in elves, but it’s probably more accurate to claim that over 50% of those surveyed, weren’t keen to deny their existence. Perhaps it’s a case of better safe than sorry, especially when Icelanders have grown up with warning tales of the elves and trolls out in the wilds. In fact, some construction projects, like Álfhóll (Elf Hill), have been stalled or adjusted for fear of encroaching on elf turf.

Sheep outnumber people

This small country is home to almost twice the number of sheep as people. Like the horses, Icelandic sheep are unique to the island and have adapted so well to the harsh conditions that they are incredibly resilient. Data from recent years suggest that there are around 323,000 people in the country, and a staggering 800,000 sheep. The Icelandic sheep’s wool comprises two layers: the long other coat is the tog, and the finer internal layer is called the Þel. Together they are woven into a special durable and warm yarn called “lopi”.


New ground

Surtsey Island, off the southern coast of Iceland, was formed in a volcanic eruption which started 130 metres below sea level, and reached the surface in November 1963, making it the youngest place on Earth. It is named after Surtr, a giant from Norse mythology. It is gradually being eroded by the sea, but it is estimated that the island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site will remain above the waves for over 100 years.

Land of few trees

Flip through postcards from Iceland and you’ll spot dramatic waterfalls, snow covered peaks and magical skyscapes, but very very few trees. Some say there are none at all, but in truth you will spot some trees on your travels, just no forests. Despite the harsh climate and landscape, trees are resilient and can set down roots. It doesn’t help, though, that when the Vikings arrived they decimated the existing forests for the timber and to make space for their settlements. In recent years efforts have been made to reintroduce forests but it will be a while before the endeavour pays off.

Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago Iceland

Celebrate with a pint

From 1915 to 1989 beer was illegal in Iceland. The ban on alcohol was partially lifted in 1921 when Spain decided not to buy Iceland’s fish unless they bought Spanish wine in return, but the ban on beer remained for several more decades, on the grounds that its cheaper price would lead to far more immorality than spirits. The eventual overturning of the prohibition is marked with Beer Day on March 1 annually, so if you happen to be visiting at the time, be sure to raise a glass.

Mosquito free!

If the spectacular scenery and fascinating culture weren’t enough to convince you, then perhaps the fact that you definitely won’t be chomped by mosquitos while visiting will be the last little shove you need to pack that suitcase. There’s still much debate in scientific circles as to why there are no mosquitos in Iceland while there are in its close neighbours, but who is really complaining? For the record, the most popular theory is that the rapid climate changes in the country interfere with the delicate lifecycle of the insect.

Feeling inspired? Speak to one of our expert travel designers today and start planning your trip of a lifetime to Iceland.