12 things you didn’t know about Iceland

12 things you didn't know about IcelandOne thing a travel lover can never answer is the question that pops up all the time. ‘Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?’

I’m asked this all the time and usually refuse to answer because there are just too many options. It depends on your mood, who you’re with, your budget, the season and a million other things. It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m ridiculously indecisive and could never choose…honest.

But, if someone were to hold a gun to my head and insist that I chose my favourite autumn destination, I’d have to cave and say it’s Iceland.

I visited Iceland last October and immediately fell in love with country. Sam and I hired a car for 6 days and road tripped through the gorgeous countryside. October was a perfect time to visit as the light sprinkling of snow gave it a magical feel but we could still travel around without any problems.

While I was in Iceland I discovered a few little-known truths about the country. If you’ve visiting Iceland soon, make sure you note these down so you can impress people with your random and completely pointless knowledge.

 

1. Icelandic ponies aren’t ponies

Yes, really! You see these beautiful and unique horses all over Iceland and everyone refers to them as ‘Icelandic ponies’ but they’re actually horses. They’re one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world and were brought over by the Vikings more than 1,000 years ago.

They have gradually become smaller to help them to stay warm and help conserve heat.

12 things you didn't know about Iceland
Who are you calling a pony?

 

2. Iceland the cashless society

Iceland is pretty much a cashless society. Whoop! People like me who are forever running out of cash will love this.

It does mean you’re going to need a good travel card that won’t charge you for transactions abroad or you’re going to come home to a hefty bill. You can use cash but it’s fairly uncommon to do so and will cause lots of eye rolling and huffing and puffing in busy bars. Even if you’re paying the equivalent of 50p to use an un-manned public toilet you can use your card.

 

3. Beer Day is March 1st

Who wouldn’t love a country that has a Beer Day?

Beer was illegal for 75 years but the prohibition was overturned on March 1st 1989. Since then, Beer Day has been celebrated in the best way they know how, by drinking lots and lots and lots of beer. Reykjavik is a good place to be on March 1st.

It’s funny because Iceland now has a great craft beer scene and the locals sure know how to put it away.

Icelandic Beer

4. Black Death

While we’re on the topic of alcohol, I might as well tell you all about Black Death. The official name is Brennivín which translates to ‘Burning Wine’ and I can assure you it’s as hideous as it sounds. It’s an unsweetened schnapps kind of drink and is a bright green colour. It’s gets its name thanks to the black label and the fact that it’s 80% proof. This stuff really warms you up on a chilly evening!

 

5. A nation of caffeine addicts

Here’s another completely random one for you.

Icelanders drink more Coca-Cola per capita than any other country in the world. When they’re not drinking coke they’re drinking coffee, and a hell of a lot of it.

When they’re not drinking coffee they’re probably drunk.

12 things you didn't know about Iceland

6. Ladies first

Iceland was the first democracy to elect a female president way back in 1980. Equal rights doesn’t really seem to be a thing in Iceland because men and women are exactly that, totally equal, so they don’t need to have the never-ending conversations about equality.

 

7. Husband’s Day

Like I said, the sexes in Iceland are totally equal so I think it’s lovely they celebrate Husband’s Day. At the end of January all the ladies treat their partner’s to a slap-up meal and spoil them rotten for the day.

12 things you didn't know about Iceland

8. The most peaceful country on earth

You’ve probably already guessed that due to the small population and beautiful nature, Iceland is a very peaceful place. But did you know that, according to the 2012 Global Peace Index, Iceland is officially the most peaceful country in the world. The index looks at things like violent crime, political instability and the percentage of people in prison.

Locals are so comfortable with how safe their country is that they’re more than happy to leave their babies outside shops and restaurants while they’re inside.

 

9. Icelandic names

There’s lots of superstition and unusual rules around naming babies.

There’s an official list of names that Icelanders can use for their new-borns and if they’d like a name that isn’t on the list they have the get it approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee. It’s unusual to reveal a baby’s name before its christening because it’s thought to be bad luck. So a baby could end up being called ‘Baby’ for a few months.

Surnames are created by using their father’s name – or sometimes their mother’s but this is rare -followed by suffix dottir for a girl and son for a boy. So my name would be Monica Colindottir (my dad is called Colin). Not a great name.

Because of this, people don’t address each other as Mr or Mrs (Colindottir), they just use first names. Even in official circumstances you’d be addressed by your first name.

Icelandic man holding ice

 

10. Knitting is taught in schools

Knitting may not be the most productive use of your time (it took me 5 months to knit a scarf once) but it has so many other benefits. Creativity, appreciating homemade products, relaxation and slowing down, traditional skills and using all that wool Iceland produces are just some of those benefits.

You will find so many gorgeous woollen products in Iceland and I can guarantee you’ll go home with at least one woolly jumper.

Travel tip: Everything is really expensive in Iceland, particularly the woollen jumpers. But, like everything in life, you get what you pay for and the quality of these jumpers is amazing.

 

11. For the love of books

Iceland has a literacy rate of 100% and they’re big on their books. They have an old saying that translates to, “It’s better to be barefoot than bookless”. For such a cold country, you can see how much they must love books! Iceland publishes the greatest number of books per capita in the world.

Iceland actually has a great cultural scene too – maybe to pass those long, dark, winters. Virtually every Icelander seems to play in a band and most can play a musical instrument. It’s unsurprising that Reykjavik became a UNESCO City of Literature in 2011.

12 things you didn't know about Iceland

12. Whaling in Iceland

Commercial whaling resumed in Iceland in 2006, much to the consternation of environmentalists and most people worldwide. Much of the whale meat is exported or goes towards feeding curious tourists. Most locals do support whaling as whales are thought to have a negative impact on the fishing industry which is so important to many people’s livelihoods.

There is a strong ‘Meet us don’t eat us’ campaign launched by the Icelandic Whale Watching Association in an attempt to put a stop to the whaling.


 

If you’d like to find out more, check out my other blog posts from Iceland.

 

TheTravelHack

Monica is the founder and editor of The Travel Hack. She began the blog in 2009 when she left the UK to travel around Asia and Australia for two years. She's now a professional blogger and has travelled around the world in search of stylish adventure travel. Monica has recently had her second baby and is determined to prove that travelling with a baby is possible!

SHOWHIDE Comments (46)
  1. These are such fascinating facts! It must be rare for evolution to cause a species to get smaller (those ponies…I mean horses!), can’t say I’ve ever heard of that! So, Iceland is a bunch of peaceful, caffeine addicted, literate, knitting drunks! This post makes me want to go there in a bad way!

  2. After visiting Iceland last year, I’m pretty sure it’s my spiritual home and some of these just prove it even more. Knitting in school? I would have been so down with that.

  3. Fabulous post!! Even though I’ve been reading up quite a bit on Iceland ready for our trip next year I didn’t know most of this stuff – I love that knitting is taught in school!!

    1. Me too. I’d be a whizz at knitting if I’d been taught in school. Although I think my grandma did try to teach me and I didn’t have the attention span so maybe that’s why it hasn’t caught on over here.

  4. I seriously need to go to Iceland. Like, now! I can’t think of a better place than one that’s addicted to caffeine, teaches knitting in schools (imagine being able to make all your winter clothes!), and has cute HORSES as a mascot. I’m not sure I’d be up for the Black Death, though….

  5. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland for quite a while, and this post really made me want to go even more! We go pretty much cashless here in Finland, too – cannot remember when was the last time I used cash here. Such a contrast to Italy, where I live part time.

    Icelandic horses are the cutest horses and so calm that even children can ride them! There’s also a law in Iceland that forbids any horses from returning back to the island once they’ve left, and no other horses can be imported either. Their way to keep the breed “clean” 🙂

    1. I love the cashless society. London is like that but nowhere else in the UK has caught on and I’m constantly being caught out when I’m trying to pay for things. I’m sure it’ll change soon.

  6. Love how you qualified that Iceland is your favorite autumn destination. There are so many amazing places we’ve also visited. Faves? Egypt for blow-your-socks-off temples and underground tombs. Croatia for medieval walled cities. Antarctica for incredible iceberg scenery. Bora Bora for floating in that beautiful lagoon. But we’ve heard from friends too that Iceland is quite spectactular. (But we’ll pass on that “Black Death” drink). BTW, your pony pic is precious :-).

  7. Husbands day really made me laugh…Thanks

  8. I stumbled across your blog while researching my trip to Iceland. Thank you for making an intelligent list of 12 things about Iceland! I’ve been researching for months now and nowhere else have I seen it listed that Iceland is primarily a cashless society. My husband and I pretty much only use cash here in the States, so it is so helpful for you to give a heads up on that! We would have just exchanged a bunch of cash and found ourselves to be “those people” at the shops and pubs we go to. Thank you for sparing us from such utter shame.

    Also, it’ll be neat to have some conversation pieces with any locals we may interact with. Although, in America we talk to strangers all the time so I’m not sure if this is normal in Iceland; I’ve certainly noticed that people tend to keep more to themselves in the UK and other parts of Europe. I’d love to know more about the evolution of their equal society as well as how they feel about having to have a name “approved” before their child is born!

    I’m rambling. So again, thank you for posting both intelligent and culturally insightful facts. I love your blog and your humor – at the risk of sounding creepy, I think we’d definitely be friends if we ever met!

    Keep up the fabulous work, happy travels!

    1. Hi Jess. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post and I hope some things come in useful!

      You’re right, we Brits aren’t that chatty with strangers and Icelandic people even more so. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to chat though, we usually just don’t want to make the first move!

      I hope you have an amazing time in Iceland 🙂

  9. In my experience Iceland certainly isn’t a ‘cashless’ society – I rarely used my card even though I used that for everything at home. I think foreigners couldn’t use our cards at some petrol stations? I will confirm after I’m back there next month. Anyway, up in the north in Akureyri it is good to have cash on hand. We didn’t really go out drinking so not sure about bars.

    In the UK many cities can actually be considered cashless, certainly where I am in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I haven’t taken out any cash in about a month! The Metro system takes cards, vast majority of shops and restaurants do (very rare to find any who don’t), small newsagents and indie shops. Petrol stations all take cards.

    I was talking to an amazing company called North Sailing when we did whale watching in Husavik up north – they are extremely against whale hunting and their whale expert was telling us over 40% of whale meat ended up with tourists who think it’s the thing to do in Iceland – in fact most locals we spoke to never ate it and didn’t want to, many younger ones never had, and agreed that tourism should replace hunting. As I agreed with the whale expert, just because something was tradition doesn’t make it right. I hope all tourists see sense and don’t try whale meat just because it’s different or you think you’re being ‘adventurous’. They are a massively intelligent species and many are in danger. Hunting them is a slow and horrible death, they don’t die quickly. (I also recommend North Sailing for their knowledge and hard work; a brilliant trip.)

    I would definitely recommend visiting North Iceland if anyone gets the chance – less populated, amazing scenery in winter and such lovely people. Akureyri was a lovely little town and so friendly. Blaa Kan cafe has the best meringue cake I have EVER had, in fact the best cake ever 🙂

    We are back next month to visit Thingvellir and the south, I can’t wait. Planning our journeys now!

    1. You can use card everywhere in Iceland (I´m local). But it´s one card you can be in big problem with and that it American Express. Many places don´t take it because the rate are so high that it is very different from other brands of cards.

      But this is fabulous post! Husband day are absolute must to do, We, men, are looking for it each year!

  10. Beer day is now marked in the calendar. I’ll probably won’t be on Iceland that specific date, but I’ll be with them in spirit, and drinking a beer for them =)
    Also, don’t forget that Iceland is one o the most friendly places in the world.

  11. I am of Icelandic descent on my mother’s side. While growing up we were taught Icelandic traditions, sayings, and even phrases in Icelandic. One of the things I’m very familiar with is the patronymic naming, and I have to correct you: your last name would be Colinsdóttir. They always make the father’s name possessive and then add the suffix (Colin’s daughter). It’s the same with -son; Colinsson, for example. Just a little FYI!

  12. thanks for these facts! I’m going to Iceland next summer. I’m reading some of your other blog post on the topic as well, there super useful!!!!

  13. I spent a magical 10 days in Iceland and absolutely loved it. I certainly didn’t find it to be “cashless”, though. I was very happy to have cash for the many small villages we visited. Also, the Brennevin “Black Death” you describe is nothing like what I had (and still have a bottle in my freezer). It is a clear Schnapps-type drink, not sweet, with a slight anise taste. We didn’t see any green Brennevin while shopping for it in the liquor stores or duty free. I, like a previous comment, highly recommend North Sailing for whale/puffin watching. I also highly recommend taking one of Myflug Air’s tours. Seeing this beautiful, diverse landscape from the air is an unforgettable experience and the 6 seater plane (5 passengers) gives a personal experience where all you questions are answered. They fly out of Myvatn airport in the north. Icelandic people are delightful and Iceland is truly incredible!

  14. For me October is the best time to visit Iceland. I spent three weeks travelling around Iceland in October 2014 and a week in October 2015. Apart from that I travelled a lot in other months too. In total I’ve spent on this fascinating island a year so far. And I’m coming back this year too, for another 6 months. I simply got addicted!

    And why is October my favourite time to go to Iceland? Because it gets very quite then, not so many tourists are coming like in June-August. You don’t have to book accomodation. When you go on a hike, you can meet nobody. Imagine that – just you and amazing nature. And Icelandic autumn is so beautiful! This year I plan to travel for 2 weeks in the Westfjords, in October, of course!

  15. A few other things people may not know 🙂
    – More than half of Icelandic people believe in the possibility of elves, trolls, and hidden people.
    – Babies in Iceland are left outside to nap as it is thought to improve their immune systems.
    – There are no polar bears in Iceland. Every ten years or so a polar bear may arrive as an accidental tourist on an ice flow from Greenland, however they aren’t invited to stay.

  16. I am from Iceland and I am learning to knitt along with other artforms in school. And my neighbours sometimes keep their “ponies” in their garden.

  17. Nice post! My boyfriend and I are going to Iceland on Halloween! We cannot wait! We are Travel Photographers and the images we see make us crave the trip even more!! Thanks!

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