Iceland at a glance:
40 facts & figures around country, language, settlement history, cost of living, salary, and more
This article is the first of a three-part series to give you an extensive insight into this magnificent country I am happy to call home.
For your convenience (and to please my inner Monk) I organized those facts by topics and then had to split it all up into three articles. Otherwise, you would now have to read through way over 10k words. Ain't nobody got time for that. :)
Iceland is an astounding country. In those six years, that I have now lived here, I witnessed waterfalls freeze solid, mountains hide in and emerge from gigantic banks of fog, massive waves building up in even more massive storms, breathtaking winter sunrises and sunsets, and the equally magnificent midnight sun. Iceland offers plenty of natural beauty like lagoons filled with floating icebergs, impressive black sand beaches, an invasion of blooming lupines each summer, and almost equally many puffins hanging out on enormous cliffs.
I have been able to see the Northern Lights dance, countless times and witnessed even rarer spectacles, like iridescent clouds (also known also polar stratospheric clouds) or, my most favorite, an active volcanic eruption that I could not just see right from our balcony but also basically touch. (I at least touched the solidified lava :D.) I probably don’t have to tell you all of this since the country is known for exactly that: its incredible beauty and raw uniqueness. But Iceland is so much more than that. It is quirky, it is progressive, it is open-minded. It has an interesting history, the language is fascinating. And that’s what I want to talk about in this 'little' 3-part series:
The statistics (and myths) about Iceland you may or may not have heard about.
Chapter 1: Iceland at a glance // Chapter 2: Icelandic politics & environment (coming soon) // Chapter 3: Iceland (Fun) Facts (coming soon)
- Iceland is sparsely populated. Roughly 343.00 people inhabit this island, as of April 2021.
- Of those, almost 65% live in and around Reykjavik, which is the northernmost capital of a sovereign state, in the world.
- The median age is around 36 years and the life expectancy around 83 years old.
- There are quite a few Icelanders living outside of Iceland - 88,000 people of Icelandic descent live in Canada and more than 40,000 in the United States, for example.
- The red, white, and blue in the Icelandic flag represent volcanic fire, snow/ice, and the ocean.
- The country has a size of 40,000 square miles, which is approximately the same size as Portugal. It is the 18th largest island in the world and the second-largest in Europe.
- 80% of the country is uninhabited, which makes it the least populated country in Europe.
- 12,000 km2 of its landmass is comprised of glaciers (that makes mind-boggling 11% of the country). The largest one, not just in Iceland, but entire Europe, is Vatnajökull, which is approximately three times the size of Luxembourg and larger than all of Europe’s glaciers combined.
- More superlatives:
- Latrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords are the highest bird cliffs in Europe.
- Deildartunguhver is the most powerful hot spring in all of Europe.
- Dettifoss waterfall in the north of the country is the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
- By the way, there are so many waterfalls littered across the country that many of them don’t even have a name.
- The English word „geyser“ is actually derived from "Geysir", the geyser you can visit on the Golden Circle. Don’t mistake it for the active one, though - that one is called “Strokkur”. The initial Geysir is lying dormant. (Btw. Geysir comes from the Old Norse verb geysa ("to gush”).
- Iceland is one of the few places in the world where you can see the Northern Lights. From early September to late March you can witness the green lights of the Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky. There is a complex science behind how those lights come to be, the short version is that solar particles are interacting with the atmosphere in our planet’s magnetic field. The possibility of Northern Lights in the forecasts is expressed by something called the KP index. The higher the index, the greater the chances of witnessing them. (-> Find my article on how to best see/hunt the Northern Lights over here // coming soon)
- There are more amazing things happening in the sky of Iceland though. I, for example, was lucky enough to gaze at what Icelanders call glitský (“glittery cloud”), otherwise known as polar stratospheric clouds. Those iridescent clouds are even rarer than Aurora and need very special circumstances to come to be. They form in the stratosphere, approx. 15 - 25 km above sea level. You will also see lots of rainbows, sun pillars, midnight sun, and sun halos.
- The daylight dilemma. You most likely know this, already: Iceland has very short days in winter and midnight sun in summer. The shortest day of the year is the winter solstice on December 21st - the sun rises at 11:30 and sets around 15:30, giving you four hours of light. It makes for some dark days, don’t get me wrong but dusk and dawn during those times are breathtaking and last for hours. The longest day is June 21st when the sun rises before three in the morning and sets shortly after midnight. Even though the sun technically hides behind the horizon, it is still light outside. It’s basically three hours of an insane sunset/sunrise, merged together.
- Temperatures are way milder than people think, with average temperatures in January around -5°C and +15°C in summer. We do get some quite cold (-16°C) and nicely warm (+21°C) exceptions, as well. The warmest time of year is end of June to mid-August, the coldest months are January and February.
- Iceland is the most active volcanic area in the world, with an eruption every 4-5 years. The country has around 130 volcanos, at least 30 of which are active. 11,000 km2 of the island is covered in solidified lava. Icelanders are used to earthquakes and eruptions and quite relaxed about it. Throughout the history of the country, there have been some devastating eruptions, though. In 1783 the Laki eruption killed over 20% of the entire population. Iceland also is home to the only volcano on the planet you can actually go INTO! A special lift takes visitors into the depths of Thrihnukagigur where you can gaze at solidified magma chambers right at the heart of the volcano. As I am writing this, we have an ongoing eruption in Geldingadalur, which I can see from my balcony and have visited up close and personal six times, by now. (Find my article/photo collection on Geldingadalur over here. // coming soon)
- Iceland is one of only two places on the planet where you can see two tectonic plates meet, above the surface, and the only place where you can snorkel between them. You can do so in Þingvellir national park, where the Viking parliament used to meet and the Silfra fissure is located. You can actually walk between continents in various locations. Iceland sits on the Eurasian and North American plates, which are slowly drifting apart, causing the earth to shake on a regular basis. So geologically, Iceland “belongs” to both - Europe and America.
- The country is only 25 million years “young” - making it the youngest country in terms of new landmass on this planet. (So no dinosaur bones have ever been found here – as the last ones died out 66 million years ago.)
- Iceland was the last place in Europe to be settled by humans. Who exactly settled here first and which year, precisely, is a bit of a mystery.
- There are some findings that indicate the presence of Gaelic monks from Ireland before the infamous Vikings arrived but they eventually left since a) they considered the country as uninhabitable with its rough terrain and/or b) they did not want to share it with the Norwegian settlers that arrived (some say up to 200 years) later.
Recorded settlements date back to 874 when Ingólfur Arnarson sailed to Iceland with the actual intention to settle. It’s where he ‘founded’ what is Reykjavik, today.
- According to Icelandic history, though (namely sources like Landnámabók - “Book of the Settlements” and Íslendingabók - “Book of the Icelanders”) there were settlers before Ingólfur. Naddodd the Viking (c. 830 CE) and Gardar the Swede (c. 860s CE), both believed to be blown off their route and accidentally ending up on the shores of Iceland. Gardar established a small settlement before he sailed back home, leaving three people behind. And then there was Flóki (c. 868 CE) who is said to have given the country its name. He stayed for a while but returned back to Norway, eventually, telling people about this new world he had found (sounds like a TV show you may or may not have seen? ;P).
- Over 60% of Icelanders are of Norse descent, 40% are mostly of Scottish or Irish heritage.
- Icelanders have also been the first Europeans to encounter America - around 500 years before Columbus was born. Leifur Eiríksson (you find a statue of him in front of the famous Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik) settled on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland in Canada, L’Anse Aux Meadows. He named the country Vinland, the why is still a bit of a debate. Could be because he found grapes, some believe it is because it's an old Norse word for grassland. However, it is said that around 100 Vikings followed to settle but they seem to not have stayed for long. The wild part is, that the Viking’s arrival in North America used to be only referenced in ancient sagas until it was discovered in the 1960s that it was actually true. (If you want to read more about this topic, this is a brief article from a well-established source: https://www.britannica.com/story/did-the-vikings-discover-america)
- Icelandic sagas are medieval literature, believed to have been written in the 13th and 14th century. There are countless of them and they describe events among the Icelandic inhabitants in the 10th and 11th century. A lot of it is fantastical but, as it turns out, some are actually depicting real events. If you are interested in sagas, then https://sagadb.org/ (the Icelandic saga database) might be of interest to you.
- Icelanders don’t have traditional last names, they are named after their father’s (and by now also mother’s) first name. My husband’s dad's name is Rúnar so his last name is Rúnarson (literally Rúnar’s son). :) Some families additionally have family names, though. Typically when some of their ancestors came from Denmark. My husband's family also has the family name ‘Bergmann’ which they can choose to add to their names. My husband did. :) If you get married, you can not use your partner's last name since that would make you their mom’s or dad’s daughter or son. ;)
- Because of that, the phone book in Iceland is alphabetized by first names and everyone is on a first-name basis. You address everyone with their first name. Even your doctor. Even the president. And speaking of the president:
- You can visit the presidential residency. I am not talking about looking at it from afar, outside of gates. Nope, you can explore the property. In theory, you could even ring the doorbell. I once shook his hand which might be among the weirdest moments of my life. I roamed the residency, had lunch and wine and also needed to use the bathroom. Yes, you read that right. Coming from an 80 million people country, this absolutely blew my mind.
- You can not name your child however you feel since every new name (that has not been used before) must be approved by the naming committee.
- It is btw quite common to run into politicians, musicians, and actors at for example the grocery store or public pool. I saw Jónsi headed to the supermarket, Damien Rice waited in line, right behind me and Björk walked into the café I had breakfast at to get some orange juice to go. :)
- The Icelandic language is ridiculously difficult and often ranked among the hardest to learn languages, overall. Some examples? Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur is the longest Icelandic word. “Árni á Á á á á beit við á” is an insane sentences, that for some reason does make sense. (It translates to “Árni from Á, the farm, has a sheep grazing by a river”.) They also have a lot of words that can’t really be translated, like their 46 different words for snow.
- Icelanders also invent words for objects or slang that is new on the market - unlike other countries they don’t simply use the, for example, English term but figure out their own. There is a special committee for that.
- The Icelandic alphabet contains 32 letters, including two letters that are uniquely Icelandic and not used anywhere else in the world: Ð and Þ. The latter (thorn) derives from the ancient runic alphabets, like the Elder Futhark. Other fun letters are Ý and Æ. Letters you won’t find, at all, are c, q, w, and z. The Y, Æ, and Ö are also vowels, btw. Some vowels are furthermore used with a comma over them - which does not indicate an accent but makes for a whole new letter with a different sound - which gives you a total of 14 vowels.
- The Icelandic language is very old and did not change much over the centuries. That means that a lot of Icelanders can still read hundreds of years old Viking texts, back from when the country was first settled.
- Oh, and they also speak on the in-breath. Give it a try. :D
- Now for the grammar… the grammar is just as old as the alphabet and has some quirks on its own. Icelanders don’t just have cases, genders, and numbers for their nouns, they also have all those fun things for their verbs and adjectives. Therefore, you have to learn what feels like endless grammar.
- To sum this up on a personal note: my Icelandic is still basically non-existent.
- Iceland as a travel destination is EXPENSIVE! The Icelandic currency is Icelandic Krona (ISK) and can be roughly converted to 1$ = 124 ISK. It is the only accepted currency in the country. Iceland always ranks among the most expensive places to visit (and live in) - currently number four. Hotels are expensive, so are restaurants and tours. Prices in the grocery store vary and might surprise you. Female hygiene products are super cheap, so is, for example, apple sauce. Cheese and tomatoes on the other hand will cut deep into your budget. :D A simple sandwich at the gas station can cost you 10$. Dining out in the capital in a (casual, not fine-dine) restaurant can easily result in 100$ for two (tip is included, you are not expected to tip in Iceland). A simple cappuccino is more expensive than in metropoles like Paris and London. Let’s not forget about alcohol - you won’t believe the prices. A beer costs between 8-12$. Imported goods also mean that they may not be as fresh as you are used to (mainly fruit, some veggies). Iceland does have a wide selection of vegan products, btw.
- How much does a trip to Iceland cost? That widely varies - but it isn’t cheap. I have found various statistics on this topic during my research but it should be safe to say that consumer prices in Iceland are way over 50% higher than in the rest of Europe. Not because Iceland tries to rip off tourists but because it is a tiny island, far off-grid, close to the Arctic Circle. That means almost everything needs to be imported and what isn’t imported covers not even 70% of the population - and especially not 2 mil tourists, in addition. The more tourists, the more competition for the small number of products, the higher the prices. Farming in Iceland is furthermore tightly regulated but I don’t want bore you with the details.
- Fact is, some things are restricted for import meaning there is a limited amount available. The rest needs to come from abroad and importing to Iceland means high import taxes and hefty cargo fees. Also, the Krona is quite the powerful currency, despite the bank crisis in 2008 - that translates to exchange rates often being in favor of the Krona, thus adding onto your budget.
- On top of all that, Iceland has a VAT (value-added tax) of 24%. (You can get your VAT refunded at the airport, though!) Let’s face it, Iceland ranks among countries like Switzerland and Norway, and traveling to the land of ice and fire with a small(er) budget can be a real challenge. (Find my article/photo collection on how to travel Iceland on a small budget over here. // coming soon)
- How expensive is living in Iceland? You might already guess it - living here isn’t cheap, either. Living in Iceland is actually more expensive than in 95% of all countries on this planet. If you exclude rent, the average monthly need for a single person is around 1.000$ for food, doctors, recreation, transport, and communication.
- RENT: let’s put it like this: renting a one bedroom apartment in downtown Reykjavik (we are talking like 30m2) is more expensive than in Munich, Paris oder Tokyo and close to prices in London, meaning you can easily estimate 1.500$ per month. If you are willing to move to the outskirts you might get by with 1.200$ and if you are willing to share a bathroom then 800$ could be possible. Of course, renting in the countryside is way cheaper and can be half of the capital area’s prices.
- BUYING PROPERTY: Monthly mortgages are definitely cheaper than rent BUT if you want to buy then you need to pay 20% upfront (no 100% loans, ever) and the bank needs to verify you. After that, you might be paying around 800-1000$ per month (but of course that massively depends on the property price!). In any case, it’s most likely half of what renting a similar property costs. If you can’t come up with the initial 20% then you can take an extra loan that you have to pay off, way faster. That increases your monthly cost, significantly. In Iceland, you can only buy property if you are a citizen or at least have your legal residency in Iceland.
- UTILITIES: This might be one of the few things where Iceland actually is cheap. Electricity, Internet, heating, and water are all decently priced due to the natural geothermal sources and hydropower. 85% of Iceland's energy is clean and renewable - more about that in the second instalment of this series (coming soon). For an 85m2 home, you can calculate 90$ - if you share your home with others then expect to have really low cost (and very long hot showers).
- FOOD: Well, nothing different here! As mentioned earlier, import fees are high and so is the cost for groceries. In fact, a lot of our (personal) income ends up in groceries since we buy higher quality products and from the health food aisle. We usually end up somewhere around 150.000 ISK which is at least (!) a third more than what I used to spend in Germany. Of course, our dietary needs and wishes play into that since most vegan and healthy/clean goods are more expensive. (Though vegan ‘meat’ is way cheaper than real meat, the latter is really expensive in Iceland!)
- OTHER: Public transportation (Iceland has no trains or subways of any kind, the only public transportation are buses) is ok in price but buying a car is really expensive (due to import fees, yet again). Gas costs around 1.60$ per liter. A visit to the cinema is like 12$. Before I bore you with the cost of every single thing you can do/buy - this website probably has the answer to whatever you are curious about, cost-wise: https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/country_result.jsp?country=Iceland
- Let’s talk salaries! Obviously, living in Iceland must somehow be possible for Icelanders - and it is, because of their high salaries. For example, the minimum salary for general work is somewhat around 2.500$ per month. Compared to Germany, that is insanely high. A worker with specific education makes around 4.000$ a month and a professional around 7.500$ a month. Of course, these are absolute averages (and before tax) but it gives you an idea. Over 90% of all workers are part of different unions and therefore enjoy higher wages and benefits. Tax is bound to your income and starts at approx. 37%, all higher income gets taxed a little over 45%. Of course, the tax system is more complex than that but I am assuming you are not here to learn about that, in detail. :D
- Icelanders work 43.5 hours a week - having the longest workweeks in Europe. A lot of Icelanders also have two jobs or turn their hobbies into side jobs.
- In Iceland, you do not need cash, btw. You can use your card absolutely everywhere, from the bakery to a street vendor on a country fair or the tiniest store in the least populated corner of the country.
Well, I am gonna wrap this up for today and hope you learned a few facts that you did not know, yet. The next part of this little series will deal with Icelandic politics and environmental issues which I find HIGHLY interesting since Iceland is a very special country in those concerns, as well (mostly in a very very positive way). I will let you know when the second part drops on all of my socials, you can find me on Instagram / Facebook / Pinterest.
PS: I did EXTENSIVE research to provide as accurate information as possible. A lot of it comes from personal experience but I also browsed through government articles, statistical websites, and news outlets. I do not claim that everything is 100% correct and up to date (only to my knowledge but human error is, well - human.) If you find information to be outdated, want to add something, or have further questions - feel free to drop a comment!