Though much about Iceland is known thanks to the recent tourism boom, there’s still a lot about the island that surprises visitors. Here are 10 facts you probably didn’t know about this stunning country:

Iceland is the size of a single Midwest U.S. state

Photo by Polina Brzhezinskaya

The entire country covers only about 39,000 square miles, making it roughly the size of the state of Ohio. While this means it’s possible to drive around the country in a single day, you’ll definitely want to spend more than 24 hours in Iceland! The island is comprised entirely of Basaltic rock, as it sits atop the volcano that formed it — a much different environment than corn-field-filled Ohio.

The name of the game is … confusing

In Icelandic culture, there are no “family names.” Following Norse traditions, Icelandic last names are formed by combining either a father or mother’s first name, plus the feminine “dottir” ending (for daughter) or -son. First names are also subject to rules. If parents wish to call their child a name not previously used in Iceland, the name must first be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee. Traditional names include Aðalfríður, Þjóðann, and Zóphanías.

Learning to lava the volcanoes

If you’re a resident of Iceland, volcano drills quickly become part of your everyday routine. Once every four years, the country experiences a volcanic eruption, the most recent of which occurred in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull erupted and disrupted flights across Europe and, consequently, the rest of the world. Iceland boasts 130 volcanoes, 30 of which are considered active, meaning they have the potential to erupt at any time.

Modern-day prohibition

Iceland has limited access to popular indulgences, including fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, strip clubs, and, until recently, beer. Though both beer and mead were thought to be commonplace in early times, a 20th-century prohibition made the drinks illegal until 1989. But now, Icelanders can enjoy the alcoholic beverages just like anywhere else, and Reykjavik is even home to a few local breweries.

Don’t worry, be happy

Many visitors report how safe they feel in the north Arctic country, and there’s something to be said for this sense of security. In a largely placid society like this one, there is little strife between members of different economic groups and little organized crime and drug use. This encourages a decreased presence in police force. Icelandic police don’t even carry guns, and violent crime in Iceland is almost completely unheard of. Furthermore, this island nation doesn’t have an air force, a navy, or even an army — there’s no need!

Baby, it’s cold outside

Visitors to Iceland are often shocked by this common sight: a line of baby strollers outside cafés and restaurants — with sleeping babies inside. Iceland is so safe that parents feel completely comfortable leaving their little one outside to snooze. Many even claim that the cool temperatures help support the growing child’s immune system.

Cleanin’ up the competition

Iceland is a leading user of clean energy — 85 percent of the island nation’s energy comes from completely renewable resources. Half of the country’s energy needs are met through geothermal energy, which is due to the island’s high concentration of volcanoes. During the winter, the pavement in Iceland’s major cities are even heated to combat the snow and ice that make roads treacherous.  

Pet Prohibition

Icelandic rules dictate much about life on the island nation, including which animals citizens can and cannot keep as pets. In the 1990s, owning snakes, lizards, or turtles as pets was outlawed, as it was widely feared that an outbreak of a disease like salmonella (contracted from one of these animals) would wipe out the entire island. And these reptiles weren’t the first to face strict laws in Iceland! In the 1900s, dogs were outlawed in an attempt to limit cases of echinococcosis, a type of tapeworm disease that caused blindness. Dogs have since been allowed as pets again, but the ban encouraged many Icelandic families to choose cats as their household pets instead.

On the island of bibliophiles

With less than half a million inhabitants, one could hardly expect Iceland to top a global market in anything. Yet the island nation boasts one of the highest rates of books published per capita — there are nearly five titles published per every 1,000 inhabitants. At least 50 percent of the Icelandic population will read at least eight books in a year, and 93 percent will finish one annually. What’s even more fascinating is that one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book of their own over the course of their lifetime.

Last, but not least

Settled by Ingólfur Arnarson in 874 A.D., Iceland was one of the last places on Earth to be inhabited by humans. It’s no surprise, as the island’s terrain seems uninhabitable at first glance, and it’s surrounded by cold and uninviting seas. Interestingly, though it was settled so late, it was home to one of the world’s first democracies — founded way back in 930.

Header image by Štefan Štefancik