Iceland is mostly famous for its nature

What is Iceland famous for? What has Iceland done before any other nation in the world? What did Iceland do first in the world?

Iceland is mostly famous for its beautiful and unspoiled nature, although recently Iceland has gained fame through musical talents, its football team, its financial crisis and its erupting volcanoes. But what about Iceland's political and natural history?

Icelanders are notorious for priding themselves of being 'the best in the world' (most often per capita) and are not afraid to tell people about all the great things this tiny but glorious nation in the north Atlantic has already achieved. Please note that many of those things are said in jest and Icelanders aren't all raging ego-maniacs, although they'd like to pretend they are. (And some of them may not actually be joking!)



The thing is, Iceland is a very small nation, perhaps with a small mentality (as Christiano Ronaldo so famously put it after the Portugal-Iceland match at EURO 2016), but because of its small size, it tends to get forgotten about by other, bigger nations.

So Icelanders may come across as always trying to be 'one up' on other nationalities in conversations, but there are a few things that Iceland has done first in the world that we'd like other nations to know about, and remember. Especially because we're pretty proud of these things, so it becomes a little annoying when no-one knows anything about it.

So here's a list of a few things Iceland did first.

1. Iceland discovered America

A statue of Leifur Eiríksson outside Hallgrímskirkja church in ReykjavíkThe statue of Leif the Lucky was a gift from America to Iceland. Photo by Sig Holm

When people talk about Christopher Columbus' discovery of America, Icelanders shake their head (or their fists!) in despair.

Christopher Columbus 'discovered' the 'New World' in 1492.

1492?! The Icelander Leifur Eiríksson (Leif the Lucky) was there 500 years earlier! (Exact year not known). Don't believe me? Look it up.

2. Iceland had the first democratically elected female president in the world

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former president of Iceland

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, born 15th of April 1930, was elected as Iceland's fourth president, back in 1980. She served as president for 16 years, until Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson became president in 1996. To this date, that also makes her the longest-serving, democratically elected female head of state worldwide.

The word elected is key here. There have been other, prior female presidents in the world obviously (Eva Perón and Lidia Gueiler Tejada), but they were not democratically elected into their positions.

Vigdís is now a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and still loved by the nation.

Today, Iceland's president is Guðni Th Jóhannesson.

3. Iceland's first all female political party

Kvennalistinn - Iceland's Women's Party in 1983, picture by Börkur Arnarson

Picture credit: Mbl.is/Börkur Arnarson. Third woman from the left is Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, who later became the Mayor of Reykjavík and then the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Not long after Vigdís became president, Iceland founded its first all female political party in 1983. Although it's hard to pinpoint what was the first all female political party in the world (there were a great number of them fighting for women's rights to vote for example), a number of sources mention this one being the first one that ran for seats in parliament.* That same year they got 5,5% votes and 3 women into parliament. Four years later they got 10,1% of the votes and 6 women into parliament.

In 1991 their popularity declined and they only got 8,3% of votes and 5 women into parliament, and in 1995 they got 4,9% and 3 women into parliament. The party then joined two other political parties in 1998 and formed a new party called Samfylkingin (Social Democratic Alliance).

See a timeline of Iceland's major historic events here.
*There have been a lot of other all female political parties, but not running for seats in parliament (according to our sources - please let us know if we are wrong! This has taken a lot of Googling!)

4. Iceland has first openly declared lesbian head of government

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, former prime minister of Iceland

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the first openly declared lesbian prime minister in the world. She was prime minister from 2009 to 2013 and was listed as one of the most powerful women in the world during that time.

In 2009 Iceland also had its first government with equal number of men and women. 

Jóhanna was succeeded by Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson who also received a bit of international fame recently, but for all the wrong reasons.



5. Iceland has the first known geyser in the world

The geyser Strokkur erupting in Iceland

The geyser Geysir (where the name comes from), was the first geyser to be described in a printed source, and the first known geyser in the world.

It's been active for around 10,000 years.

Geysir rarely erupts anymore, but it has a neighbouring geyser that erupts every few minutes, Strokkur. Geysir and Strokkur make up a part of the popular tourist route The Golden Circle.



6. The first nation under a million to win a medal at the Olympics in a group sport and to qualify to the finals for a major football tournament

The Icelandic handball team with their Olympic silver medals

This sentence could be rephrased in multiple ways.

Such as: Iceland is the first nation with less than 350 thousand people to win a medal in a group sport at the Olympics or to qualify for the European Championship in football. The second smallest nation to qualify for the European Championship was Slovenia, that has a population of just under 2 million people.

In 2008 Iceland won a silver medal in a group sport at the Olympics, and the national handball team became instant heroes.

Iceland's male team recently competed in the European Championship in football for the first time, where they made it to the round of 8!



Iceland's female football team has competed at the European Championship twice, and it looks likely that they'll do it once more in 2017.



7. First nation to legalise clinical abortion

Iceland allowed abortions in 1935

Iceland shows support to Polish women during plans to make abortion illegal in Poland. Picture by Iceland Monitor

You can argue that the Soviet Union and Mexico allowed abortions before Iceland, as the Soviet Union made abortions legal in 1920 (on women's request) and Mexico made them legal in 1931.

The Soviet Union's law however didn't last (and neither did the Soviet Union), they changed their mind and introduced a ban on abortions later on, and Mexico only made them legal in the case of a rape.

Iceland made abortions legal on January 28th in 1935. Abortions were legal in the case of rape, incest or simply by taking the women's health into consideration, and marked the way of modern abortion legalisation policy.

8. Iceland was the first to jail bankers after the 2008 crisis

27 bankers have been put in jail in Iceland

To this date, Iceland is both the first, and ONLY country to jail its bankers after the 2008 international banking crisis.

27 bankers have been put in jail in Iceland.

9. Iceland was first to recognise the independence of the Baltic States

Iceland was the first country in the world to recognise the Baltic States' independence

In 1990-1991 Iceland was the first country to recognise the independence of the Baltic States that were formerly occupied by the USSR. Those countries are Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. (By the way, if you haven't heard anything about the singing revolution that happened in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia prior to them regaining their independence, I encourage you to look it up!)

As a recognition, the square in front of the Estonian Foreign Ministry in Estonia's capital Tallinn is named 'Iceland Square' - and on the grounds of the Lithuanian parliament these words are inscribed in the stones "To Iceland - They dared when others remained silent".

But the Baltic states are not the only countries Iceland was the first to recognise, at the same time, Iceland was also first to recognise the independence of some of the Caucasus countries: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Iceland also recognised Montenegro's independence from its former union with Serbia, and the independence of Croatia first of all countries.

Furthermore, Iceland was the first Western state to recognise Palestine in 2011.

10. First nation to bankrupt McDonalds

Last McDonalds burger sold in Iceland in 2009

Last but not least: Iceland was the first nation to get rid of McDonalds, as the first McDonalds that arrived in Iceland got bankrupt in 2009.*

McDonalds has not returned to Iceland since - but one of McDonalds last burgers sold in Iceland can be seen in a display (and a live video feed) in one of Reykjavík's hostels, the Bus Hostel.

*This is to my knowledge. I haven't actually done any research about where McDonalds has gone bankrupt, please correct me if I'm wrong ;)

The future of firsts in Iceland?

Iceland leads the world in closing the gender gap

Iceland still wants to have a future of firsts, such as being the first nation to close the gender gap, or have the first gay president, or be the smallest nation ever to win gold at the Olympics, or World Cup - or even the first place in the Eurovision Song Contest (that one's probably Iceland's biggest dream!)

Perhaps Icelanders do have a small and/or naïve mentality, but as long as they keep on fighting for equality, that's ok with me.