When we say Iceland, you probably think of the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. And there’s a good reason for that. The island nation is known as an ideal spot for viewing this natural phenomenon. But Iceland is also home to diverse landscapes and a rich history that often gets ignored in favor of “highly Instagrammable” photos of people enjoying outdoor hot tubs in freezing weather — and of course, the Northern Lights. But here are four interesting facts that you probably didn’t know about the “land of fire and ice.”
The First European Parliament
Most Americans assume that the concept of a parliament first began on the European mainland, or at least in England. But Iceland can take credit for having the oldest parliament in Europe. To understand how a nation that was founded in 1944 can claim this title, you need to go back in time. Historians agree that Iceland was first settled by Norwegian Vikings who founded Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) in the ninth century. In 930, they created a parliament, called Alþingi (pronounced Althing). To this day, Alþingi is still the country’s parliament although it is now located in the nation’s capital, Reykjavík.
“Game of Thrones” Was Filmed Here
If you watched “Game of Thrones” (“GoT”) you know that The Vale in Westeros was a major setting. But you might not know that the fantasy locale was actually filmed in Iceland. Thanks to the show, Þingvellir National Park saw a massive increase in tourism as visitors wanted to walk where their favorite “GoT” characters had also walked. But Þingvellir is important for more reasons than the popular show.
It is geologically important because it is the only place in the world where two major tectonic plates meet above sea level. Travelers can walk between the North American and Eurasian plates in Þingvellir National Park’s Almannagjá gorge. Bonus: This gorge was also a "GoT" set in season one of the show. You might know it as the landing site of The Vale's Moon Door. Other spaces in the park have also been transformed into locations for important battles and pivotal moments on the show.
The Country Once Didn’t Have Any Forests
Don’t get this confused with the idea that Iceland doesn’t have trees. The nation has plenty of those, but for a while, they weren't known for having forests. A funny saying was, “If you saw three trees together, you were looking at an Icelandic forest.” In truth, the story of Iceland’s forests is a classic case of what happens when people meddle with Mother Nature. When the Vikings first arrived in Iceland in the ninth century, the land was home to plenty of forests. There are fossils and written records proving that Iceland was richly forested. But people need shelter, and trees are a great source for building things such as homes and boats. In short, the Vikings contributed to Iceland’s deforestation with their rapid building. However, in 1900 Icelanders worked to promote reforestation. Today, there are plenty of true forests that you can explore on the island nation.
Every nation has its own cuisine, and Iceland is no different. From whale steaks to a drink ominously named Brennevin, there’s plenty of food to create an immersive experience on your next trip to Iceland. So what is Brennivín? According to locals, they also like to call it “Black Death” and view it as the signature national drink. With a name like that, you’re better off sipping than guzzling. But it is considered a schnapps and is spiced with caraway and dill. The drink traces its history to Iceland’s prohibition period because it was one of the few — strong — drinks Icelanders could get their hands on. Scary name aside, visitors are always encouraged to try Brennivín when they visit the nation.