Common Questions About Iceland

The Icelandic flag

Where is Iceland?

Iceland is an island located in the North Atlantic Ocean. It sits directly on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and comprises two major tectonic plates, the Eurasian and North American. Coupled with the volcanic hotspot underneath the island, this results in frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

How big is Iceland, and how many people live there? 

In terms of area, Iceland is about 103,000 square kilometres [39,769 square miles]. In population numbers, Iceland is the size of an average European city, with around 400.000 inhabitants. Most of those live in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, or the surrounding area. 

How Do I Get to Iceland?

There are two ways to travel to Iceland. You can fly with one of the numerous airlines that fly there or you can sail with M/S Norröna, a ferry that offers weekly fares from Denmark to the east of Iceland. Additionally, numerous cruise ships offer trips to and around the island. 

Is Iceland Expensive?

For most people, Iceland will be more expensive than their home country. The cost of living is high, and there are some things in particular, such as alcohol, eating out, and planned tours, that are very expensive. The good news is that there are also many free attractions to enjoy! If you‘re here on a budget, skip the planned tours and just head out on your own. Couple that with an Airbnb, where you can cook your own meals, and you‘ll save yourself considerable amounts.  

Do people tip in Iceland? 

It‘s not the custom in Iceland to tip. Some restaurants and coffee shops have jars for tipping, but as customer service wages in Iceland are good, this is not something you should feel obligated to do.

Is Iceland cold? 

Judging by the name, one might think Iceland is extremely cold and covered in snow all year round. This is not the case at all! Over the year, temperatures usually fluctuate between -10 °C [14 °F] and 20 °C [68 °F], with the coldest month being January and the warmest July. Storms, often accompanied by snow or rain, are frequent from September to March. Wind and precipitation are less common during summer, and if you‘re lucky, you might even catch some excellent sunny, warm weather days.

Is Iceland safe? 

Yes, it is. In fact, for 14 years in a row, Iceland has been ranked number one on the Global Peace Index

Are Icelanders LGBTQ+ Friendly?

Iceland is considered among the most LGBTQ+ friendly countries to visit, and the Icelandic people are usually very open and accepting towards LGBTQ+ communities. Reykjavík Pride, a week-long annual celebration held in August, attracts tens of thousands of people. 

What is the best time of year to visit Iceland?

Well, it depends on your preferences. Do you crave bright and magical summer nights or the cosy darkness of winter? Would you like a chance to encounter a blizzard and see the northern lights, or do you wish to experience the extraordinary Highland, spot some whales and visit remote fjords? In Iceland, each season has something unique to offer!


Rainbow Flag Defaced on Reykjavík’s Skólavörðustígur

Skólavörðustígur rainbow flag

In an act of vandalism, the rainbow flag adorning the Skólavörðustígur street in Reykjavík was defaced with white paint early Sunday morning. A resident of Skólavörðustígur told RÚV that he was saddened by the act.

Saddened by the sight

The Reykjavík police received a report of the incident early Sunday after resident Óttarr Makuch discovered the damage around 8 AM. “I woke up, poured some coffee, and saw our beautiful rainbow defaced,” Óttarr told RÚV. “This must have been done between 6 and 7 this morning. From now on, I’m going to wake up at 6!”

The rainbow painted on the street had been splashed with white paint; the derogatory phrase “LGBT LOSER” marred the symbol of inclusivity. Óttarr urged the community not to dwell on the incident. “The colours are much brighter than the vandalism, so the joy really shines through. But the individual responsible clearly needs help.”

Óttarr added that he had heard tourists outside his house passing through Skólavörðustígur, many of whom were surprised by the incident. “They are surprised that there are such acts of vandalism on a rainbow in Iceland, where everything is supposed to be so peaceful and great.”

City of Reykjavík employees arrived at Skólavörðustígur Sunday morning to begin cleaning, according to Óttarr. “Örn with the City of Reykjavík is going to clean up this mess and make our rainbow beautiful again.”

The white paint has since been removed.

Icelanders Get Angry Over “Grandparent”

Crowds gathered at Austurvöllur to show solidarity with Norway.

The National Queer Organisation of Iceland (Samtökin ’78) is asking the public to help it coin new Icelandic words to reflect the reality of queer people, including a general neutral term for grandparent, which exists in English but not in Icelandic. The competition is being held for the third time but has sparked harsh reactions as many believed its intention was to replace the Icelandic words “grandma” and “grandpa” with a gender-neutral term. National Broadcaster RÚV has been criticised for its coverage of the controversy, which many assert did not clear up this misunderstanding and made room for bigotry towards queer people.

Only want what English and Danish already have

The English language already has a gender-neutral alternative to the words “grandma” and “grandpa:” the word “grandparent,” as do many languages even more closely related to Icelandic, such as Danish. Although Icelandic, like English, does have gender-neutral terms for other family members, such as parent (foreldri) and sibling (systkini), the Icelandic language currently only has the gendered terms afi (grandpa) and amma (grandma) to refer to the parents of someone’s parents. (You can also build gendered compound words to refer to grandparents such as móðurmóðir, mother’s mother.) The Queer Association’s competition calls on the public to submit suggestions for a gender-netural term such as grandparent that could be adopted into the Icelandic language. It also asks for submissions for other terms that are lacking in Icelandic but exist in other languages to reflect the lived experience of the LGBTQ+ community.

No intention to replace “grandma” and “grandpa”

An article on the competition engendered some 1,000 comments on social media, many in protest of the initiative. A closer look revealed that many authors misunderstood the nature of the competition and believed the Queer Association was looking to replace the words “grandma” and “grandpa,” amma and afi, in Icelandic. “This isn’t about changing the way people talk,” Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir, one of the competition’s judges and an Assistant Professor of Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland told RÚV. “It’s just about the language needing more words.” Asked why she thinks the competition has received negative reactions, she stated: “I think it’s about some sort of fear that someone’s trying to change the language without people being able to have a say in it.”

RÚV criticised for not correcting misunderstanding

Ásta later criticised RÚV’s editing of her interview, however, saying it had left out the key points she made on the issue. Others from the queer community criticised RÚV’s coverage of the issue as well, pointing out that the broadcaster prioritised asking people on the street what they thought about the competition rather than clarifying what it was about and prioritising expert analysis. “It is not especially responsible, especially now that there is a backlash against queer rights, to use news space to talk about the reactions rather than using the opportunity to correct a misunderstanding that seems to have made a lot of people quite upset,” stated Samtökin ’78 Vice-Chair Bjarndís Helga Tómasdóttir.

In Focus: Hate Speech in Iceland

hate speech iceland

When an offensive effigy of Icelandic journalist, athlete, and influencer Edda Falak surfaced at a recent parade in the Westman Islands, it reignited a conversation about misogyny and racism in Iceland. Taking place against the background of a public discourse that seems to be deteriorating, the incident was only one of a series of high-profile […]

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Large Income Gap in Iceland Based on Sexual Orientation

Crowds gathered at Austurvöllur to show solidarity with Norway.

Despite being on average more educated, homosexual men in Iceland make roughly 33% less than heterosexual men, a new study has found. The new data gives the country an opportunity to make improvements, the chairman of the Icelandic Confederation of University Graduates (BHM) says. RÚV reported first.

The study was conducted by BHM in collaboration with The Federation of State and Municipal Employees (BSRB), the Confederation of Labour (ASÍ), the National Queer Organisation of Iceland (Samtökin ’78), and the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies. It involved a survey as well as analysis of jointly-taxed men and jointly-taxed women’s tax returns for the year 2019.

Job insecurity higher among LGBTQ+ community

While the study found that gay men made around a third less than straight men, it also found that lesbians made around 13% more than straight women. Vilhjálmur Hilmarsson, an economist at BHM, wondered why this was the case. “What people consider masculinity, is there a premium for that on the Icelandic labour market?”

Of the groups that were compared, gay men fared worst in the COVID-19 pandemic: nearly four out of every ten received unemployment benefits during the pandemic, which the study’s authors contributed to the fact that many homosexual men work in the service industries.

The study also showed that trans people experienced higher job insecurity: seven out of ten stated that they had experienced unemployment.

BHM Chairman Friðrik Jónsson stated that the new data made the problem impossible to deny. “We need to respond, we need to take action. That’s the main thing this work shows, for me. Having the evidence gives us the weapons and tools to say, alright, how can we solve this? How can we improve our society? Because at the end of the day, that’s what we all want. We want to live in a better society, for everyone.”

Hateful Graffiti on Church’s Pride Flag Now Matter for the Police

Hateful, anti-LGBTQIA+ messages have twice been spray-painted on the Pride flag adorning the steps leading up to Grafarvogskirkja, a Lutheran church in the district of Grafarvogur on the eastern outskirts of Reykjavík. There have been two separate incidents of anti-LGBTQIA+ messages being sprayed on the flag. RÚV reports that the incidents have now been referred to the police.

The first message, reading “ANTICHRIST,” was sprayed on the church’s stairway last Saturday. “This was the path up to the church this morning,” wrote Pastor Guðrún Karls Helgudóttir in a Facebook post that day. “It shows how important the rainbow’s message is. This rainbow clearly needs to stand in front of the church and remind us of fellowship, that all people are equally precious, and that love is love.” Pastor Guðrún ended her post with a rainbow of emoji hearts, as well as the Pride and Trans flags.

A photo uploaded in the comments of the original post showed people painting over the hateful graffiti later that morning. Per the caption: “A Swedish family who came to see the church offered to paint over [the message] immediately.”

Family volunteers to paint over hateful graffiti. Image via Grafarvogskirkja Grafarvogi, Facebook

Only days later, on Monday, a different message was tagged on Grafarvogskirkja’s rainbow flag. This time, it read “LEVITICUS 20:13,” referencing a verse from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible which says that men who have sexual relations with other men should be put to death.

Grafarvogskirkja Grafarvogi, FB

“Our beautiful flag has been scribbled on again,” Pastor Guðrún wrote on Facebook. She added that the same chapter in Leviticus also lists off other people who should be put to death, including (but certainly not limited to): anyone who curses their mother and/or father, people who commit adultery, and men who have sex with women who are on their periods.

“We at Grafarvogskirkja choose rather to follow the message of Jesus Christ, who told us to love one another. We believe that each and every person is one of God’s beloved creations and is allowed to live the life that has been predestined for her/them/him.”

The post continued: “The message of Jesus Christ is in full accordance with human rights declarations, and we at Grafarvogskirkja stand for human rights and fight against hatred and prejudice.”

Long Waits for Gender Confirmation Surgery in Iceland

No gender confirmation surgeries have been performed in Iceland since 2020, Fréttablaðið reports. Trans people in the country who request surgery face a long wait. Bríet Blær Jóhannsdóttir, a 27-year-old trans woman who has been on the waitlist for 65 weeks, argues that gender confirmation surgery should be formally classified as urgent.

Bríet requested to be placed on the waiting list for gender confirmation surgery in November 2020. “I [was] told that no surgeries had been performed that year, 2020. But they were working on performing four surgeries in December, I get this information in November.” In January 2022, Bríet learned that no further gender confirmation surgeries had been performed in Iceland since December 2020, meaning her wait would be extended even further. The news was hard to bear.

“In my opinion, trans people are very vulnerable, this is a very vulnerable group in society, based on what we have had to endure throughout our lives and how difficult this process is,” Bríet says. “Then to get this slap in the face, that after a year of waiting there is still a two-year wait – the only thing that comes to mind is a gut punch.”

Waiting periods stretch process to three years

Bríet says that the whole gender transitioning process in Iceland is very long and full of obstacles in Iceland, and has been so since before the pandemic. “It starts with six months of doctor’s appointments to confirm that the individual is physically, mentally, and socially in a good enough place to start the process in the first place,” she stated. “That’s followed by a pointless six-month waiting period before you can start on hormones. Then a year after that you go on a waiting list for surgery, a wait that takes a year. So it takes three whole years, before COVID.”

“Can I live for two more years?”

Bríet says that gender confirmation surgery is not formally defined as urgent in Iceland, but says that classification is wrong. “From the point of view of mental health, it’s something that has to happen. I can only speak for myself when it comes to this, but when I got the news [about the additional two-year wait], I just thought: Can I live for two more years? It’s really difficult, to have to wait like this.”

Not receiving the surgery affects her relationships, what activities she participates in, and travel abroad, Bríet says, in addition to increasing the chances of experiencing harassment and assault. “There are so many things that are difficult for trans people to live with today. But surgery is something that is possible to act on, now. It’s not possible to change how people view trans people all at once, but it’s possible to help with [surgery].”

Living Art Museum Aims to Reflect Iceland’s Diversity

Nýlistasafnið/The Living Art Museum

The Living Art Museum in Reykjavík, Iceland, has sent out an open call for its autumn exhibition for the year 2021. The call is particularly directed at individuals and groups who have traditionally been excluded from fine art institutions in Iceland, such as the LGBT+ community, Icelanders of foreign origin, mixed Icelanders, immigrants, and “people who find themselves voiceless within the socio-political structure.”

“With this open application process, we want to counteract any kind of discrimination that takes place in our society today, such as racial inequality, and the suppression of marginalized groups and cultures,” a press release from the Museum reads.

The idea to direct the open call to marginalised groups and individuals came from the Museum’s staff and board earlier this year in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests occurring around the world. “This struggle […] led to a great deal of introspection by the board of the Living Art Museum. As a result, it has become clear to the museum’s management that we have not been able to fully reflect the diverse growth that characterizes art and human life in Iceland.”

“It is important that all cultural institutions in the country undergo a substantial self-examination. What kind of space are these institutions creating? And for whom?” the Museum states, and the project representatives say they hope the initiative serves as a guiding light for other institutions in Iceland

To go over the open call submissions, the Museum’s board is putting together a special selection committee “in order to ensure diversity and counteract hidden bias.” The deadline for submissions is October 4. All the application details, including translation of the text to Arabic, Polish, and Icelandic can be found here.

Ten Years Since Iceland Legalised Same-Sex Marriage

It has been ten years since Iceland passed the law that made it legal for same-sex couples to wed, RÚV reports.

Iceland had previously legalised domestic partnerships for same-sex couples in 1996. These partnerships carried the same rights and obligations as marriage. Adoption for same-sex couples was then legalised in 2006.

Former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and her wife, author and playwright Jónína Leósdóttir, were among the first LGBTQ+ couples to wed once the marriage law passed; the couple married the day the new law went into effect. The passage of this law did not, however, remove all hurdles to same-sex couples in Iceland marrying. Indeed, clergy in the National Church of Iceland were legally allowed to refuse same-sex couples on the basis of their personal convictions until 2015.

Iceland was the ninth nation in the world to legalise same-sex marriage; The Netherlands was the first, in 2001, followed by Belgium (2003), Spain (2005), Canada (2005), South Africa (2006), Norway (2009), Sweden (2009), Portugal (2010). There are currently only 29 countries in which same-sex marriage is legal.

Impending Mike Pence Visit Criticized by LGBTQ Organization

The impending visit of USA Vice President Mike Pence has been criticized by the director of LGBTQ organization Samtökin 78. Samtökin 78 president Þorbjörg Þorvaldsdóttir penned an op-ed in online news outlet Ví titled “Not a chance, Mike Pence”, in which she criticized Mike Pence’s history of hate speech and actions against LGBTQ people. Þorbjörg called for Icelandic authorities to reconsider their stance on Pence’s visit, as it is disrespectful towards LGBTQ people in Iceland.

USA-Iceland relationship strengthens
The White House has confirmed that Mike Pence will arrive in Iceland on September 3 for an official visit, before heading to the United Kingdom and Ireland. Pence’s visit will focus on the geographical importance of Iceland in regards to the Arctic. Pence will also place emphasis on NATO operations to quell Russian activity in the area, as well as fostering and strengthening the business and investment relationship between Iceland and the USA.

It was revealed recently that the United States Air Force will increase their activities significantly in Iceland, investing in facilities at Keflavík airport for around ISK 7 billion (€50m, $56m). The construction means that the US Air Force has facilities to operate two fighter squadrons at all times, ensuring that there are 18 to 24 fighter jets ready for operation. It is believed that this is to increase submarine surveillance in the North Atlantic and the Arctic. Along with this, Icelandic authorities will invest ISK 300 million (€2.1m, $2.4m) for maintenance of NATO facilities at Keflavík airport. Iceland was a founding member of NATO in 1949.

A VP against queers?
Samtökin 78 have taken a clear stance against the official visit. According to Þorbjörg, Pence has more or less spent his whole political career working against queer rights. “Mike Pence is against our marriages. He was so wholeheartedly against them that in 2013, he signed laws as the governor of Indiana which made it a criminal offence to apply for a marriage certificate.” Þorbjörg also mentions actions such as Pence having signed a law in 2015 which allowed for discrimination of LGBTQ people based on religious opinions, criticizing laws intended to protect LGBTQ people from hate-crimes, as well publishing articles as editor of Indiana Policy Review encouraging businesses to not hire LGBTQ people. Furthermore, Mike Pence sat on the board of the Indiana Family Institute which recommends de-gaying. “Now the government of Iceland intends to receive Mike Pence, and talk courteously with him about business alliances and in doing so strengthening the alliance with USA. All such plans are disrespectful to the LBTQ people in Iceland. We will not sit quietly over the fact that he is invited to the country. Not a chance,” the article ended. The whole of Þorbjörg’s op-ed can be found here:

Previously, queer figure skater Adam Rippon criticized the fact that Mike Pence was to represent American authorities in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeochang. Currently, the 20th anniversary of Reykjavík Pride festival is taking place, ending on August 17.