A trip to Iceland holds endless potential for adventure. In Reykjavík and Akureyri, visitors can expect to find thriving art and music scenes, along with plenty of interesting gastronomical experiences – if you’ve never tasted fermented shark or puffin, this is your chance. The southern coast boasts black sand beaches, glaciers, and magnificent waterfalls. In fact, the entire country boasts magnificent waterfalls. Meanwhile, the north is home to the North Volcanic Zone: a hotbed of geysers, craters, and boiling sulfur pits. The interior highlands are only accessible in the summer and have beautiful multi-colored lava fields and trails well-suited to wilderness walks. Hot springs abound and visitors can bathe in the restorative waters all around the island, either in various manmade pools or directly in the springs themselves.
Discover the history of this Norse wonderland and see what makes the Icelandic spirit so resilient and dynamic.
The most northern capital in the world, Reykjavík is also home to more than 2/3 of Iceland’s population. Nowadays, the city is known for its gastronomical offerings, cutting-edge design, excellent museums, and a booming nightlife. The main street, Laugavegur, is pedestrian only in the summers and is lined in equal measure with hip cafes, trendy boutiques, and hot dog salesmen. Walking around is an excellent way to see the sights, and the size of the city makes it extremely manageable. Visitors should head down to the harbor to see the Harpa Concert Hall and tour the Grandi area, sometimes referred to as the old ‘fishpacking district,’ which has now turned into one of the areas with the city’s best restaurants. And, of course, a visit to Hallgrímskirkja – the famous, immense white church – is compulsory. The church was designed to imitate natural landscapes and intended to remind its viewers of core motifs in Iceland: basalt columns, lava flows, and mountains as far as the eye can see.
Roughly a 5-hour drive north of Reykjavík, Akureyri is fondly referred to as the Capital of the North. Although it is the second largest city in Iceland, the population is less than 20.000. Small but mighty is an appropriate phrase to describe the city – it offers charm and attractions that far exceed its size. There are sprawling, beautiful botanical gardens, a majestic church, and several museums focusing on art, photography, design, history, and life in the arctic. Visitors can also find contemporary cafes and delicious restaurants to enjoy, along with excellent hiking just a stone’s throw away.
Akureyri is known as the gateway to the north, as nearly all visitors will pass through it on their way to northern destinations like Lake Mývatn and Húsavík. Mývatn is generally referred to as a region which consists of the lake, a small town called Reykjahlíð, and several geological attractions, such as the Dimmuborgir lava field, the Hverfall crater, and the Námaskarð boiling mud pits. The lake is also home to an incredibly rich, diverse birdlife – in fact, in the summertime, more species of ducks are found on and around the lake than anywhere else in the world.
In the nearby vicinity of Mývatn lie the towns of Húsavík and Laugar. Húsavík is a town on the north shores of Iceland in the Skjálfandi Bay. The town boasts one of the highest whale-sighting rates in the entire world, causing it to be known as the Capital of Whale Watching. It also offers geothermal sea baths, museums, and cozy cafes. Laugar, meanwhile, has a more rural feel. Roughly halfway between Mývatn and Húsavík, this tiny town is home to just one restaurant, supermarket, and gas station. The community is nestled among beautiful hills, and the peaceful surroundings are the perfect to place to relax in between explorations in Húsavík and Mývatn.
Iceland is widely recognized as having been permanently settled by Viking explorers and their slaves between years 870 and 930 AD, although there is evidence that Gaelic monks were previously settled there and fled with the arrival of the Norsemen. The “Landnámabók” is a five-part medieval manuscript that details the Nordic discovery and settlement of the island, and provides mentions of these “Papars,” the Gaelic monks. The majority of settlers came from Norway, either fleeing conflict or seeking new land.
Ingólfur Arnarson and his family are credited as the first deliberate, permanent settlers. Legend holds that Ingólfur threw two carved pillars overboard and vowed to settle wherever they washed up – which turned out to be modern-day Reykjavík. Within a few decades, it is theorized that nearly all of Iceland’s arable land was settled.
This population influx led to the need for some form of governance. Small disputes over trade and settlements were being settled regionally, until Icelanders had the novel idea to form a national assembly, known as AlÞingi, which would become the first-known established parliamentary system. The name was later changed to Þingvellir – meaning Assembly Plains – and this remains the name today of the national park where the parliament once stood. The national assembly hosted an annual, two-week long convention where everything from marriages to business deals to duals were settled. This is also where it was decreed that Iceland would officially convert to Christianity (although pagans, at this time, were still allowed to practice in private) due to the influence of Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason.
In the early 13th century, Iceland entered a 40-year period known as the Sturlung Age, in which chaos reigned supreme and society deteriorated. Under constant pressure from the Norwegian monarchy, Iceland was officially absorbed into Norwegian rule in 1281. Unfortunately, this did not mark the end of the strife – between volcanic eruptions, the ensuing crop failures, and The Black Death, Iceland’s population was cut nearly in half.
All of the Nordic states were temporarily united under the Kalmar Union from 1397-1523, but upon its collapse Iceland found itself under Danish rule. The Danes imposed Lutheranism during the Reformation of 1550, as well as a crippling trade monopoly that devastated the economy throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In June 1783, a volcanic fissure in southern Iceland violently erupted and continued erupting for the next 8 months. In addition to global impacts, the eruptions killed nearly all of Iceland’s crops, more than half of their livestock, and roughly a quarter of the population. The resultant period of starvation is referred to as the “Móðuharðindin,” or “Mist Hardships.”
In line with the rest of Europe, an independence movement emerged in the early 1900s. The AlÞingi was temporarily suspended under Danish rule from 1799 to 1844, when it was reinstated. In 1874, Iceland wrote its own constitution and was granted home rule. Then, in 1918, it achieved sovereignty as the Kingdom of Iceland, although it was still joined to Denmark in a personal union. Full independence was achieved in 1944, shortly before the end of World War II.
As should be clear from their history, Iceland remained a relatively poor country up until the 20th century. And yet, today, it is one of the most developed countries in the world – how did it rise so quickly? Perhaps the first lasting, significant gain came from the occupation of the country by foreign powers (namely, the British and Americans) during WWII. The occupiers invested in infrastructure and virtually eliminated unemployment, raising wages and providing capital for projects.
Additionally, Iceland is rich in natural resources. While the country has long been dependent on the fishing industry, advances in green technology in the 20th century allowed Iceland to harness renewable energy sources, like geothermal and hydropower, to reduce their reliance on foreign fossil fuel imports. Today, nearly all of the country’s electricity comes from renewable sources, with the government continuously working to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels for other energy needs such as transport.
Finally, the banking industry in Iceland skyrocketed in the 90s and 00s, until the financial crisis hit in 2008. The banks in Iceland collapsed, leading to mass unemployment and a subsequent complete overhaul of the financial system. The volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 focused the world’s attention on this small island nation, and tourism began to boom shortly thereafter, helping with financial recovery and kickstarting a new major industry.
Today, Iceland is a representative democracy and a parliamentary constitutional republic. Although it not a part of the European Union (EU), it is a part of the European Economic Area (EEA) as well as the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The country has both a prime minister and a president. The president is the head of state, a largely ceremonial/diplomatic position, while the prime minister is the head of government. The legislative and executive branches consist of a parliament and a cabinet, respectively, and the Icelandic government has always been a coalition government – meaning that no single political party has ever received a majority of seats in the parliament in the history of the modern republic.
As mentioned, Iceland has a rich cultural scene. From art to music to sports, Icelandic names seem to be in the spotlight more and more often. The national football team has accumulated an adoring fanbase with their signature “viking thunder clap,” and Icelandic musicians such as Björk and Sigur Rós have become household names. The country also has a strong literary tradition dating all the way back to the ancient Sagas. Today, Icelandic authors publish more books per capita than any other country, and bookstores in the cities abound.
While the Sagas tell stories of feuds and families, folklore in Iceland is filled with Norse mythologies and creatures like elves and trolls. Remnants of these tales – particularly the presence of elves – are still quite present in modern discussions, and visitors will undoubtedly encounter such ideas in one way or another.
Finally, it should be noted that Iceland is, in general, a socially liberal society. Quality of life is high, as is literacy and education level. Icelandic people value community and egalitarianism, with the same flat hierarchical structure that is common in other Nordic countries.
As an island nation, it shouldn’t be a surprise that traditional Icelandic cuisine is centered around seafood. Staple ingredients include fish, potatoes, lamb, bread, and dairy. There are also novelties that Icelanders love, such as hot dogs. Hot dog stands populate the cities, and are deliciously topped with ingredients such as fried onions and sweet brown mustard. Ice cream is another national favorite – visitors will notice that Icelanders do not limit their ice cream intake in connection with the weather. Sun, rain, or blizzard, you can be sure to find a queue at the local ice cream stand.
For the more gastronomically curious traveler, there are plenty of delicacies to sample. One could taste, for example, fermented shark – and if you try it, make sure to follow it down with a shot of Brennivín, the traditional Icelandic liquor. Puffin and whale meat are common offerings, although the increased tourism in the past two decades has put undue pressure on the populations of these creatures.
Nowadays, the country imports a large amount of ingredients and international cuisine can be found nearly everywhere. Just keep in mind that due to import costs, the price level is comparatively high.
Geologically speaking, Iceland is a relatively young country. It is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a divergent plate boundary on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. In the northern hemisphere, this separates the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, and Iceland lies directly on this divide. It is the only place in the world where the rift is above sea-level, and the continental drift can actually be observed in Þingvellir National Park – you can even walk between the two continental plates! There are also fissures created by the slowly drifting plates, some of which have been filled with melting glacial water. Silfra, for example, is a deep fissure in the national park where visitors can snorkel or scuba dive in crystal clear water between the continental plates.
This geographical positioning makes Iceland a hotbed for geological activity. Volcanoes, geysers, and volcanic fissures are all par for the course in Iceland. Many of the volcanoes, suck as Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull, are still active. Other lie dormant or extinct, and visitors can walk lava fields, tour the rim of craters, and, at least in one place, descend down into the magma chamber itself (see Volcanoes & Waterfalls). The volcanic activity can be seen outside of the actual volcanoes, as well. For example, the southern coast of Iceland is famous for their black sand beaches, which are formed after magma flows, hardens, and then is eroded by rivers that carry the particles out to the coast.
This geological activity is also expressed in the form of geysers. As magma reserves heat groundwater, it begins to boil and this pressure builds up until it erupts through holes in the earth’s crust, shooting hot water and mist into the air. Geysir, of the Geysir Geothermal Area on the Golden Circle, is the most famous geyser in Iceland. The high concentration of geothermal activity translates to vast reserves of geothermal power – allowing Iceland to run largely on green energy – as well as hot springs that people can bathe in. Iceland also uses a great deal of hydropower, as melting glaciers form strong rivers that course through the island. These rivers frequently cascade over cliffs and down mountainsides, forming the waterfalls that the country is famous for.
Finally, note that Iceland is home to many fjords, which are created when glaciers retreat and seawater comes in to fill the vacant space. Glaciers still exist in Iceland, including one of the largest glaciers in all of Europe.
Flora & Fauna
The plants and animals in Iceland are unique. Around 75% of the island is barren – that is, no vegetation outside of grass grows. Iceland is thought to have been covered in trees when settlers first arrived, but deforestation occurred quickly, and deterioration of the vulnerable volcanic soil prevented much of the recovery. Today, delicate arctic moss covers much of the soil. Visitors are urged to be extremely cautious about disturbing the fragile ecosystems of the vegetation – once damaged, it can take decades or centuries to recover.
When humans first arrived in Iceland, the only native land mammal as the arctic fox. Now, there are large populations of sheep, cattle, horses, dogs, and reindeer, among others. Polar bears do not live in Iceland, although occasionally one will wander over from Greenland for a short stay. Seals and many different whale species can all be spotted out along Iceland’s coasts, especially in the summertime. Additionally, seabirds like puffins and skuas nest of sea cliffs around the country.