Tell friends you’re going to Iceland, and some may wonder whether they’d even be able to place the little country on a map. Most people know only that it’s somewhere west of Europe—and close enough to clog the continent’s skies with ash should a volcano or two decide to awaken, as did Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and Bárðarbunga in 2015.
Iceland, dangling from the Arctic Circle between Greenland and Norway like a prickly Christmas decoration, is indeed a land of volcanoes. Eruptions are rare (on a tourist scale if not on a planetary one), but evidence of the country’s volcanic history abounds in the landscape—from moss-covered lava fields stretching as far as the eye can see to geysers and hot springs, black beaches and basalt-lined bays, and the craters and volcanic mountains themselves (often teasingly hidden away under glaciers).
In some places, houses half-swallowed by lava have been preserved for show. The Westman Islands showcase a port extension created during a 1973 eruption, when some quick-thinking locals decided to tame the lava stream, hosing it down from boats on one side so that it would flow into the sea to improve the shape of the existing harbor.
Amid Iceland’s rocky landscape are grassy meadows, multicolored mountains, torpid glacial tongues, waterfalls cascading from impossibly high cliffs into lush valleys, picturesque towns bordering the fjords, and one of the trendiest capitals in Europe. The towns boast roofs in rainbow shades, and almost every house has its own swimming pool and hot tubs.
The meadows and mountainsides are home to thousands of sheep—legally entitled to roam free during summer—and crisscrossed with all manner of stream, brook, spring, river, and lake. You see turf-roofed houses and stone-walled sheep-sorting pens, tiny churches, and, if you look carefully enough, even tinier elf houses embedded in hillocks, with brightly painted doors.
In this northern, tree-scarce land, the openness of the view is surprising and refreshing, and returning visitors immediately breathe in the crisp, invigorating polar air. It is no illusion—the eye really can see farther, the grass really is greener, the summer days are longer, and the spring water coming from your tap is cleaner. In winter, the darkness is celebrated with lights in every window and often in the sky, too, when the magical aurora borealis, or the northern lights, appear like ghosts dancing among the stars. Small children are pulled to school on toboggans, and people head to the ski areas on the weekend.
In addition to all its natural wonders, Iceland is also a modern nation with a rich culture and sense of history. Consistent with the diverse surroundings, the typical Icelander is a fisherman, a singer, a banker, a sheep farmer, and anything in between—even, quite often, two or three of these at once. You probably saw the 2010 volcanic eruption on TV, and you’ve probably listened to Björk’s music, but we hope you get the chance to see for yourself some of the rest of what this amazing island and its people have to offer.
Most Icelanders speak English, often with remarkable fluency -- especially among younger and more urban demographics. (In 1999, English replaced Danish as the first foreign language taught in every school.) You can easily get by without learning Icelandic, but it really pays to at least learn the rules of pronunciation. Asking for directions will go far more smoothly, and Icelanders are extremely appreciative when you say their names correctly.
If you do absorb some vocabulary, be aware that Icelandic words are notorious for constantly shifting in form. All nouns are gendered, and adjectives have to match the gender, number, and case of the nouns they modify. Even proper names have multiple forms: a restaurant on a street called Strandgata would give its address as Strandgötu, and a guesthouse run by a woman named Hanna Sigga is called Gistiheimili Hönnu Siggu.
Misnomer #1: Iceland Is Much Greener Than Icy Greenland
With a couple dozen glaciers and a white winter landscape that is further enhanced by the lack of trees, Iceland has no shortage of ice. But for the rest of the year Iceland is greener than green, literally: The lack of sunshine over the winter months means that grasses and mosses need to be super-photosynthesizers to survive here, so consequentially, they are greener than similar vegetation farther south of the Arctic. According to the saga of Erik the Red, when Erik set out exploring and came across the southeast tip of Greenland, it looked fertile enough to set up shop (climate scientists today theorize that it really was much more fertile then). So, Erik sent a ship back with word of the new settlement, hoping to attract enough people to make the venture worthwhile. But what to call this new land? Greenland had a more promising ring than Iceland, so that’s what he settled on. Incidentally, the settlement ultimately failed, though experts haven’t yet agreed as to what went wrong.
Misnomer #2: Smokeless Reykjavík Means “Smokey Bay”
When the first settlers sailed toward what we now know as Reykjavík dock, they noticed white plumes dotting the distant landscape, as though fires were lit in many of the valleys—hence the name “Smokey Bay.” Later, they found that the "smoke" was in fact wisps of steam from hot springs, but the name stuck. In modern times it's become even more of a misnomer, given the city’s welcome lack of pollution.
Icelanders: On a First-Name Basis -- Iceland is alone among Scandinavian countries in retaining the Old Norse system of patronymics as opposed to surnames. If a man named Einar has a son named Jón, the son's name is Jón Einarsson. If Einar has a daughter named Ásta, her name is Ásta Einarsdóttir. Women do not change names when they marry, so if a married couple has a son and a daughter, every family member has a different last name. Children are often named after their grandparents, further adding to the confusion. The upside is that when you speak to Icelanders, you always know which form of address to use. Icelanders all call each other by first name, no matter what their social relations. Even the country's single, slender phone book is alphabetized by first name.
Why Build a House with Turf?
By the mid-12th century, Iceland's climate had cooled considerably, and most of the country had been deforested. Turf housing became the norm and remained so even into the 20th century. Wood was scarce and expensive, and Icelanders roamed the coasts monogramming driftwood to claim it. Roof sod was supported by grids of flat stones and wood rafters. Icelandic grass, which is very thick, with enduring roots, held the turf together. A turf house could last as long as 100 years in areas with moderate rainfall. The roof slope was critical: too flat and it would leak, too steep and the grass would dry out. Glass was costly, too, so windows were often stretched animal skins or abdominal membranes. Turf construction lent itself to small rooms, maze-like interiors, and easy lateral expansion, but required constant repair. Even the best turf house was leaky, damp, dark, cold, and unventilated, with lingering smoke from the burning of peat and dried manure. Sleeping quarters were often directly over the stables, to take advantage of the animals' body heat.
Elves in the Icelandic Psyche
Of all the species of Iceland’s hidden people, elves are by far the most numerous and prominent. In fact, many 19th-century folk tales use “elves” and “hidden people” interchangeably. Generally, elves are said to be good-looking, and they dress in rustic styles prevalent in the early 20th century, sometimes with pointy hats. Male elves are skilled craftsmen and often work as farmers and smiths.
Elves are fiercely protective of their homes, which are usually inside rocks, hills, and cliffs, and even in underground wells or springs. Occasionally roads are diverted or building plans altered so as not to disturb them, as tales often tell of the bad luck that follows those who don’t respect their terrain. People have been lured into elf homes, never to return from the hidden world. Though elves are quite dangerous, especially if their homes are disturbed, they often help humans and are true to their word. Elf women have suddenly appeared to help women with difficult childbirths. On the other hand, elves have also been said to steal human babies in the night, replacing them with one of their own. To prevent this, Icelandic mothers would make a sign of the cross both above and below their babies after laying them in the cradle.
The term “Hidden People” (huldufólk) applies collectively to various humanoid creatures living in Iceland, including elves, dwarves, gnomes, trolls, and so on. When Viking ships first arrived in Iceland, dragon heads were removed from the prows so as not to disturb the guardian spirits of the land. These spirits are ancestral to the hidden people, who have always been strongly identified with features of the landscape. Hidden people are widely mentioned in sagas written during the first centuries of settlement. For the most part they have remained a folkloric phenomenon parallel to Christian belief, but sometimes they have been incorporated into Christian frameworks. In one accounting, Eve was washing her children to prepare them to meet God. God arrived sooner than expected, so she kept the unwashed children hidden, and God saw fit to keep them hidden forever.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.