Known as the island of "fire and ice," Iceland sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Scotland. While Iceland covers an area of approximately 40,000 square miles, the majority of its approximately 314,000 (2008 est.) residents live in Reykjavik, the capital and largest city. This western-most European country is famous for the 99% literacy rate of its citizens, its glaciers and active volcanoes, fishing industry, Viking history, geysers, spas and geothermal power. Possibly its most famous native is Grammy Award nominee and Academy Award nominee singer/actress Bjork.
Settled in the ninth and tenth centuries AD by people of Norwegian and Celtic descent, Iceland enjoyed over 300 years of independence before being ruled by the monarchies of Norway and then Denmark. After regaining its independence again in June of 1944, Iceland became a representative democracy and parliamentary republic. While Iceland has struggled recently economically, it maintains its place as a socially and technologically developed country.
The people of Iceland are descendants primarily of Norwegian and Celtic settlers from Scandinavia and speak Icelandic, the official language. Old Norse, a North Germanic language spoken by inhabitants of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, is the origin of the Icelandic language. Freedom of religion in Iceland is protected by the constitution and approximately 80% of Icelanders belong to the National Church of Iceland, a branch of the Lutheran Church. Icelanders also enjoy an exceptional educational system that provides for a post-secondary education. Long thought of as a genetically homogeneous society, those native to Iceland have quite often been the subjects of corporate and academic genetic studies.
The second-largest island in Europe after Great Britain, Iceland is relatively young having been formed by volcanic activity nearly 20 million years ago. The island is considered part of both the European continent and the North American, as it sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an underwater mountain range created by the diverging Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Hekla, located in southern Iceland along a fissure in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, is Iceland's most active and famous volcano. Approximately 11% of the surface of Iceland is covered with glaciers, of which Vatnajokull Glacier is the largest. Only about 1% of Iceland is cultivated.
Arriving from Norway, Ireland and Scotland in the ninth and tenth centuries, the first settlers of Iceland established a commonwealth with a representative and parliamentary government. The 13th century was dominated by conflict as power was centralized among a small number of families. Following civil war, Iceland was ruled by Norway then Denmark. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland home rule and the constitution was written. The 1918 Act of Union recognized Iceland as a sovereign state, and it became an independent republic in 1944. Following German occupation during World War II, Iceland became a charter member of NATO. Admission to the European Free Trade Association in 1970 began a territorial fishing dispute with the United Kingdom known as the "cod wars," which were resolved in 1976. Due to the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland nationalized its banks and in 2009 accepted $2 billion from the International Monetary Fund. Iceland recently elected its first female prime minister and the world's first openly gay head of state.
The most famous geyser in Iceland, Great Geyser, is said to have first erupted in the 14th century. While it erupted with regularity for centuries, it mysteriously stopped for several years until an earthquake in 2000. The Blue Lagoon, Iceland's most famous geothermal spa, contains silica and sulfur, which are believed to ease skin disorders. Located on the Reykjanes Peninsula, the water of the Blue Lagoon is heated by a nearby geothermal plant, Svartsengi. Vatnajokull Glacier is the largest in Iceland. Seven volcanoes, including Grimsvotn, are located underneath the glacier, which is why Iceland is called the "land of fire and ice." Because of its extreme northern position, The Northern Lights are visible in Iceland between September and March. Charged particles from solar wind crash through the earth's magnetic field and hit the gases in the atmosphere, resulting in brilliant, glowing, flowing waves of red, green or violet color across the night sky.
Nightlife in Reykjavik revolves mostly around dancing and live music. Because an evening out can be expensive, many partygoers start the evening at a house party or a cafe before heading out to a club. The nightlife doesn't get started much before midnight on the weekends. But after that, the pubs, dance clubs and wine bars can become very crowded. Most are open late, some until 5:00 a.m. on weekends. Nice weather on summer weekends seems to bring people out en masse, and lines into clubs can be long. Beer, which was banned in Iceland until 1989 but is rapidly becoming the beverage of choice, is said to taste very good because of the clean water.
Icelanders take great pride in their Viking heritage and work to preserve the language and culture. Painting, music and literature are deeply rooted in Nordic traditions. Landscape portraits record village life. Nordic music forms are the basis for Icelandic music. And Icelanders' Sagas are Iceland's best-known classic prose that takes place during the settlement of Iceland. Museums, art galleries and exhibitions are numerous throughout Iceland. Each region has its own local museum. Reykjavik also has several libraries, theatres for live performance and cinemas. Sports are also popular in Iceland, with most children and teenagers involved in some type of sports activity.
Traditional Icelandic cuisine was based on Scandinavian traditions and subsistence vegetable farming. Grains such as barley played an important role in feeding Icelanders for centuries. Standard Icelandic fare today, however, is more likely to include organic native raised dairy, lamb or fish. Domestic sheep roam free and cattle are grass-fed and raised without growth hormones or drugs. Fish swim in deep, cold, unpolluted waters and probably contribute to the health of Icelanders. Game meat, such as ptarmigan, is part of a traditional Christmas dinner. Eating dinner at a restaurant in Iceland can be expensive compared to other European cities. However, the larger cities of Reykjavik, Kopavogur and Akureyri offer a tremendous variety of culinary delights. Lamb is typically grilled while fish is baked, salted or prepared as part of a stew. Chefs prefer to cook with the best available ingredients to create a memorable dish. Exemplary service and the incredibly high quality of food are the standards of Icelandic restaurants.