Photo: evenfh/Shutterstock

15 Things You Didn't Know About Iceland

Iceland Culture
by KT Browne Nov 8, 2017

1. There’s a penis museum.

Some people come to Iceland for the landscape, some come for the… eh… for The Icelandic Phallological Museum, of course! Located in Reykjavík, the Icelandic Phallological Museum houses the world’s largest display of penises from over 90 different species — including a five-foot whale penis. There are also penises from seals, land mammals, and even the hidden people (huldufólk). Always striving for a bigger and better collection, the museum secured its first human donor in 2011, but the “detachment” was unsuccessful — the specimen shriveled and could not be displayed. But visitors didn’t judge (roughly 12,000 people visit the museum each year), and after all, it’s not about size, shape, or species — it’s about what you do with it!

2. Everyone’s named Magnús (almost).

Icelanders are firm believers that language is a basic element of national identity (Icelandic is one of the few languages that remains unchanged since its beginning), but they take this to an extreme in an attempt to preserve their cultural heritage. Icelanders can’t use family names, for example, or adopt their spouse’s last name upon marriage, and parents are required to choose from a list of 1,712 male names and 1,853 female names when their child is born. In a country with as small a population as Iceland, you can imagine what this means if you shout “Magnús!” (a popular male name) in a crowded mall (hint: everyone turns to look at you).

3. Beer was banned from the country until 1989.

A century ago, Iceland banned all alcoholic drinks for political reasons. Though red wine and spirits were eventually legalized, beer remained off-limits until March 1st, 1989. At the time, Iceland was struggling for independence from Denmark, and Icelanders associated beer with Danish lifestyles; hence the ban. Life has gotten much better since ‘89, and to this day Iceland celebrates Bjordagur (Beer Day) on the 1st of March every year. Oddly enough, alcohol remains highly regulated in Iceland; it can only be bought in one particular store “Vínbuðin.” Supermarkets carry what looks like cans of real beer, but don’t be fooled — the alcohol content of this is only 2.25%.

4. Radiators are filled with water.

Iceland is a pioneer of natural energy. Roughly 85% of energy use in Iceland comes from renewable resources, with 66% of that being from geothermal sources. Inside buildings and homes, there are clean-looking radiators — strange and wonderful contraptions — full of water. To up the heat, you turn a dial and the sound of liquid surges through the radiator’s inner avenues, heating the room with a moist, blanketing goodness. Contrary to what you’ve been told your whole life, in Iceland, one must always use the radiator as a drying rack. Since the energy is geothermal, placing clothes on the radiators to dry is not a fire hazard. I guarantee you will never have felt socks toastier socks.

5. There are no mosquitos.

I was terrified on my first camping trip in Iceland. Aside from the cold that I thought would solidify me into the surrounding volcanic terrain, I feared mosquitos. Perhaps spawned by the recent Zika outbreak, or West Nile Virus chaos, or from living in Taiwan — where the ever-present threat of malaria was difficult to ignore — my mosquito fear almost kept me from experiencing the wonders of Icelandic nature up close. On the morning after a night camping in the outer reaches of the Westfjords, I awoke to a brilliant copper-pink sunrise, the hiss of wind, and absolutely zero mosquitos. Iceland is a country that experiences dramatic (and rapid) weather changes. Because of this, mosquitos do not have sufficient time to complete their lifecycle, and they die under the harsh conditions. Sucks for them — they can’t suck us here!

6. There are no trees.

Iceland has no trees. Really. This hasn’t always been the case, though. Way back when, Viking settlers axed down most of Iceland’s forests for timber and to clear space for farmland. Since then, it’s been an uphill battle to reforest the country, although the Icelandic government has made a marked effort to do so. Trees are rather finicky, apparently; despite years of diligent replanting, there has been little progress and Iceland’s landscape continues to be largely barren (it’s exquisite, don’t get me wrong). The environment continues to attract millions of tourists, sure, but it remains a point of concern in the face of climate change.

7. There’s no railway system.

Maybe it’s not surprising that a small island nation doesn’t have a railway system. But when you’re stuck in your rental car on a mountain road without gas in 60 MPH winds, one’s thoughts tend to veer towards alternative modes of transportation, such as traveling by train as you leisurely watch the world pass by outside your window. In the past, Iceland has toyed with various railway proposals — there have been three small “test” railways, but none were introduced to the public — yet in all cases have arrived at the same conclusion: there’s no point in building a railway in a country with such a small population, harsh environment, and high percentage of car ownership. The most recent railway gossip involves the construction of a potential light railway system linking Reykjavík to the airport…but we’ll see.

8. It’s only a step/swim away from North America.

Only a thirty-minute drive from Reykjavík will get you to the intersection of North America and Europe. Seriously. In the summer of 2000, the South of Iceland experienced two severe earthquakes which resulted in the shifting of the Eurasian and North-American tectonic plates — which happen to run through Iceland. Today, you can visit Thingvellir and stand on the literal line dividing both continents and dive into the water that separates them. Besides being profoundly cool, Thingvellir is also the perfect spot for a European to pop the question to their North American fiancée-to-be — because what better place to mark the meeting of two hearts than the meeting of two continents?

9. There are very few fast-food restaurants.

Until just a few years ago, Iceland had three McDonald’s. Following the financial crisis, however, the country revamped their economy and ultimately decided to do away with the chain; McDonald’s stood no chance against the isolated island nation with a population of just over 300,000. Icelanders are also a very health-conscious people, using things like fish enzyme on their faces or spooning a daily dose of Omega-3 (“Lýsi”) into their morning cereal. But their health consciousness doesn’t stop there; I recently visited Iceland’s only remaining fast food restaurant: KFC. There was something wrong with this KFC — the chicken was good. It was supple, moist, real. It wasn’t the sodium-infused, xantham-gummed, half-rubber, half-sponge substance that KFC joints in the US procure. It was remarkable, disorienting, and undeniably enjoyable.

10. Iceland has a liberal take on marriage and divorce.

I recently attended what Icelanders call a “Ferming”, which is essentially a confirmation party that is held for children on their 14th birthday. One of the main events of the party is the family portrait. Parents, children, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and spouses (many spouses) all crowd together in front of a photographer. When it came time for me to be photographed with my family, I stood in front of the camera with my husband, his two children from a previous relationship, their mother, her partner, their son, his daughter from a previous relationship, and her mother. I tried to smile. The shutter snapped. The group dispersed. Life continued. Iceland has a very liberal take on marriage and divorce. In part, because the country has excellent social services, celebrates gender equality, and thrives within strong family structures whereby all family members (including ex-spouses!) remain an important part of most people’s lives, Icelanders see little reason to stay trapped in an unhappy marriage. And so saying “I do” in Iceland is more like saying, “I do…for now.”

11. There’s no meal without sauce.

In Iceland, sauce takes on an almost holy existence and eating food without it is seen as a culinary no-no. For this reason, it is incredibly difficult to find food that doesn’t come with a generous helping of sauce. The toppings for a mere hot dog, for example, typically include three types of sauces: ketchup, a special hot-dog mustard, and the mayonnaise-based “remúlaði” sauce. In addition, one can choose to top their sauce with either soft or crunchy onions. Ice cream has its own slew of toppings, as well. And meat. And bread. And crackers. Icelanders are on to something, though. Just take a bite of a hot dog drenched in a palate of colorful sauces — you’ll see.

12. Icelanders often speak on the in-breath.

One of my first conversations with an Icelander actually startled me. We were speaking about the weather (what else?), and I mentioned something about needing to get used to the way the wind swallows you whole without warning, then spits out a hollowed, battered version of yourself before doing it all over again. The Icelander nodded and gasped, “Jæja.” I asked them to clarify. “!” they gasped again, this time more loudly, gulping a spoonful of air in the process. Icelandic is a unique language; Icelanders speak on what’s called the “in-breath”, which means that they will sometimes say “” (yes) while inhaling. This quirk is done to emphasize agreement, or to encourage the speaker to keep talking. Oddly enough, it had the opposite effect on me; it straight up startled me, and my immediate reaction was to ask, “What’s wrong?!”

13. Year-round BBQs are normal.

Sometime in early February, my husband approached me with a bag of lamb meat. “For the barbeque,” he said. I stared at him all deer-in-headlights. Outside, snow fell soundlessly over the frozen, wintry land. What was he thinking? How could we possibly barbeque in the dead of winter? But I was unaware of Icelanders’ unbridled determination and sheer grit when it comes to barbequing. Perhaps because of the phenomenal quality of Icelandic lamb meat, Icelanders never turn down the opportunity to barbeque — rain, snow, hurricane, or shine. Later that day, my husband donned his orange jumpsuit and set up our small, portable barbeque just outside our house. I watched him cook through the window, not quite brave enough to face the weather or the cold. He had set up a beach chair just beside the barbeque and rested there between flipping the meat, enjoying the sharp winter air, the surging wind, and a bottle of Einstök beer like a true Viking.

14. Nakedness and cleanliness go hand in hand.

Upon landing for the first time at Keflavík Airport, I passed a massive lightbox advertisement in the terminal; a dreamy looking woman floated in a pool of milky blue water, and the text beneath her read: come swim with us! In the daze of my jet lag, I suddenly found myself desiring a crisp Icelandic swim. An hour later, I was in the locker room of Reykjavík’s oldest swimming pool, Sundhöllin, trying to decipher the poster that was pasted to the wall: a naked stick figure with red circles drawn around its armpits, feet, head, and privates. I ventured further into the locker room, and then it appeared: the mass nudity. Never in my life had I seen so many naked bodies at once. I realized then that despite Icelanders’ liberalism and open-mindedness, they are weirdly strict about cleanliness. Before you swim, you must shower — without clothing. No exceptions. If you try to get away with a quick slip beneath the shower with your suit already on, be prepared to be stopped on your way to the hot tub!

15. Iceland is not as tranquil as you think it is.

The tranquillity of living in a rural village in the north of Iceland is unparalleled; one wakes to the sound of ocean, wind, the occasional horse neigh… and the screaming motor of a souped-up Honda Civic as it careens down the street. In the absence of many activities, inhabitants of small rural villages in Iceland have taken it upon themselves to instill a different type of pastime: drag racing. As such, it is not uncommon to hear the throbbing noise of ongoing races at all times of the day. A closer look into this offbeat sect of Icelandic society reveals the people behind the wheel; many are young men who work on local trollers (large fishing boats) and spend a month at sea, then a month at home. Needing to find something to fill their off time, many have taken up the sport, turning their humble sedans into fiery drag-strip monsters.

Discover Matador