Where is Iceland? Europe? North America? Is Iceland in the EU? Here’s everything you need to know about Iceland’s geography and geopolitics.

The ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ is a bridge between continents. Straddling both the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is a continent-spanning nation. You can even stand – or as I have, swim and snorkel – between these tectonic plates, as the great fissure between them has filled with pure glacial water as the continents slowly drift apart.

But like me, you might then be wondering, where the hell is Iceland? Is it in Europe? Is it in North America? Is it in both? It’s a difficult geographical question to answer, especially considering that culturally, Iceland is associated with Europe, and with the Nordic nations in particular.

Home to the world’s northernmost capital city, and ringed with fiery volcanoes and icy glaciers, Iceland’s location is a fascinating geographical study. In this article, we’ll take a look at the nation’s geography in more detail, as we answer the question, ‘Where is Iceland?’.

Where is Iceland?

Iceland is a North Atlantic island nation, and it’s somewhat known for its stark geological features, and Norse history. Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is approximately 320 kilometres east of Greenland and over 800 kilometres west of Norway. Its location just below the Arctic Circle contributes to its distinct climate and day-night patterns, with near-endless daylight in summer and limited daylight in winter.

Reykjavik, the capital, is the northernmost capital of a sovereign state, offering a unique urban setup where rugged, and often fiery, natural landscapes are just a stone’s throw away. Despite its name, much of Iceland’s terrain is green, especially in the summer, with its landscapes shaped by the forces of fire and ice – active volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and glaciers.

Iceland’s geological activity is a direct result of its position straddling the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This unique positioning not only forms its remarkable landscapes but also powers its significant geothermal energy resources. The country has harnessed this natural gift, and the Icelandic government estimates that 85% of its energy is derived, locally, from renewable energy sources.

Historically, Iceland has a rich Norse and Viking heritage, dating back to its settlement in the 9th century. Its culture has evolved from these roots, evident in its language, literature, and folk traditions. In terms of geopolitics, Iceland has been a member of NATO since its founding in 1949, though it maintains a non-militarised status. Its economy, once heavily reliant on fishing, has diversified into sectors such as tourism (which has grown massively, and now contributes to around 6% of total GDP), technology, and renewable energy.

Map of Iceland within Europe. By Hayden120 and NuclearVacuum.

Facts about Iceland

Here are the key facts to know about Iceland:

  • Official Name: Republic of Iceland
  • Geographical Location: North Atlantic Ocean, straddling the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.
  • Capital: Reykjavik
  • Population: Approximately 356,000
  • Area: 103,000 square kilometres
  • Official Language: Icelandic
  • Currency: Icelandic Króna (ISK)
  • Time Zone: Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)
  • Climate: Subarctic maritime, with cool summers and mild winters.
  • Major Landmarks:
  • Natural Resources: Fish, hydropower, geothermal power.
  • Economy: Mainly driven by fishing, tourism, and renewable energy.
  • Government Type: Unitary parliamentary republic.
  • Legislative Body: Althingi (the oldest surviving parliament in the world).
  • Membership in International Organisations: NATO, United Nations, European Economic Area, Schengen Area.
  • Environmental Challenges: Balancing tourism with environmental preservation, the impact of climate change on glaciers.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in North America? Everything You Need to Know.

What continent is Iceland on?

Iceland is geographically and geologically unique in that it straddles two continents: it lies on both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This positioning makes Iceland a country of two continents, although it is typically associated with Europe in terms of political, cultural, and historical contexts.

The boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs through Iceland, and this can be clearly seen at places like Þingvellir National Park, where the tectonic plates are visibly drifting apart. However, in most geopolitical and cultural discussions, Iceland is considered a part of Europe.

Iceland shares many historical, cultural, and political ties with European countries, including its participation in European agreements and organisations such as the European Economic Area (EEA) and the Schengen Agreement.

The Silfra Fissure. Photo by Nadine Bliedung on Unsplash.

Read more: I Snorkeled Between Tectonic Plates in Iceland

What’s the capital of Iceland?

The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik, a city set against a backdrop of volcanoes, waterfalls and icefields. Reykjavik is the northernmost capital of a sovereign state, and with a population of around 130,000, it forms the heart of Iceland’s cultural, economic and governmental activity.

Despite its small size, Reykjavik punches above its weight in terms of cultural significance. The iconic Hallgrímskirkja church, with its distinctive architecture inspired by Iceland’s volcanic landscapes, dominates the city’s skyline. Harpa, a stunning concert hall and conference centre by the harbour, is a testament to Iceland’s contemporary architectural ambition.

Reykjavik also serves as a gateway to Iceland’s natural attractions, including the nearby Golden Circle, and Silfra, where you can quite literally see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates drifting slowly apart.

Reykjavik. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

What’s Iceland’s geography like?

Iceland’s geography and climate are shaped by its position on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and near the Arctic Circle. Here are the key points to know about Icelandic geography:

  • Location: Iceland is an island nation in the North Atlantic Ocean, situated between Europe and North America.
  • Terrain: The country is known for its dramatic landscape, which includes rugged mountains, volcanic fields, and vast lava plains.
  • Volcanic Activity: Iceland is one of the most geologically active areas in the world, owing to its location on the divergent boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This results in frequent volcanic activity and earthquakes.
  • Glaciers: Despite its name, much of Iceland is green, but it also hosts significant glacier coverage, including Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe.
  • Water Bodies: The country is dotted with waterfalls, rivers, and lakes, and is surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean, creating a rich marine ecosystem.

Here are the most important things to know about Iceland’s climate:

  • Subarctic Maritime: Generally, Iceland experiences a subarctic maritime climate. This means cool summers and relatively mild but windy winters.
  • Temperature Variations: The average temperature in Reykjavik ranges from about 1°C in winter to around 11°C in summer. However, the weather can be quite variable.
  • Midnight Sun and Polar Nights: Due to its high latitude, Iceland experiences extreme variations in daylight. During the summer months, there is almost continuous daylight (the famous ‘midnight sun’), while in the depths of winter, the days are very short.
  • Precipitation and Winds: Iceland receives ample precipitation, mostly in the form of rain, sleet, or snow, depending on the season. The country is also known for its strong winds.
Topological map of Iceland.

Read more: Iceland Off the Beaten Track

How many regions are there in Iceland?

Iceland is divided into eight regions, each distinct in its geographical features and cultural aspects. These regions are:

  • Capital Region (Höfuðborgarsvæði): This region includes Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, and its surrounding areas. It’s the most populous region and the country’s cultural, economic, and political centre.
  • Southern Peninsula (Suðurnes): Known for its rugged coastline, lava fields, and the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. Keflavík International Airport, the main gateway to Iceland for international travellers, is located here.
  • West (Vesturland): Characterised by fjords, mountains, and a rich Viking history. The Snæfellsjökull glacier, which is a setting in Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, is a notable feature in this region.
  • Westfjords (Vestfirðir): A sparsely populated area with deep fjords and steep mountains. It is known for its dramatic landscapes and is one of the most remote regions in Iceland.
  • Northwest (Norðurland vestra): This area features diverse landscapes including the Skagafjörður Valley, known for horse breeding, and the Húnaflói Bay.
  • Northeast (Norðurland eystra): Home to Iceland’s second-largest urban area, Akureyri, this region is known for its diverse landscapes, including Lake Mývatn and the Dettifoss waterfall, Europe’s most powerful waterfall.
  • East (Austurland): Characterised by its rugged coastline, fjords, and small fishing villages. The region is also known for its rich folklore and arts.
  • South (Suðurland): Featuring some of Iceland’s most famous natural attractions, including the Golden Circle route, with the Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysir geothermal area, as well as the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Europe.
Iceland’s volcanic coastline. Photo by André Filipe on Unsplash.

How many different administrative regions are there?

In addition to its eight geographical regions, Iceland is further divided into smaller administrative units known as municipalities (Icelandic: ‘sveitarfélög‘). These municipalities are the primary units of local government in Iceland and handle local matters such as schools, transport, and zoning.

Historically, Iceland was divided into counties (Icelandic: ‘sýslur’), but this system has been phased out. The country’s current administrative divisions consist primarily of municipalities, which handle local governance.

There are currently 69 municipalities in Iceland. This number has fluctuated over the years due to mergers and boundary changes. These municipalities vary greatly in size and population, with Reykjavik being the largest by population.

These municipalities provide a more detailed level of administrative division than the broader regions and are significant for local governance and community services. They play a key role in managing the unique needs of their respective areas, especially in a country with such diverse landscapes and dispersed populations as Iceland.

The Westfjords. Photo by Cassie Boca on Unsplash.

Read more: Surviving an Icelandic Road Trip

Is Iceland in the European Union?

Iceland is not a member of the European Union (EU). However, it has close ties with the EU through its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) and the Schengen Agreement.

The European Economic Area agreement, which Iceland joined in 1994, allows it to participate in the EU’s Single Market without being an EU member state. This means Iceland is part of the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people within the EU, but it does not have a vote on EU laws and policies.

Additionally, Iceland is a member of the Schengen Area, which allows for passport-free travel across member countries. This further integrates Iceland with much of Europe in terms of ease of movement and travel.

Iceland’s relationship with the EU has been a subject of debate within the country, and it has considered EU membership at various times. However, Iceland has not yet pursued full EU membership, largely due to concerns about the impact on its fishing industry and the loss of control over its natural resources.

The Icelandic flag.

Is Iceland in Scandinavia?

Iceland is often associated with Scandinavia in terms of cultural and historical ties, but it is not part of the Scandinavian Peninsula geographically. Scandinavia traditionally refers to the countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.

However, when considering the broader cultural and linguistic connections, the term ‘Nordic countries’ is used, which includes Iceland along with Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and their associated territories such as the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

Iceland shares a significant Norse heritage with the Scandinavian countries, and the Icelandic language is closely related to Old Norse, the language spoken by the Scandinavian settlers in the Viking Age. This shared history and cultural affinity often lead to Iceland being included in discussions about Scandinavia and the Nordic region.

Vik, Iceland. Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash.

Is Iceland a Nordic nation?

Iceland is considered a Nordic nation. The term ‘Nordic countries’ encompasses Iceland, along with Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and their associated territories such as the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland Islands.

The Nordic countries share several cultural, historical, and linguistic ties. These nations have a common Norse heritage, and their languages, with the exception of Finnish, belong to the North Germanic language family. Iceland, in particular, maintains a language (Icelandic) that is closely related to Old Norse.

In addition to cultural and linguistic connections, the Nordic countries also collaborate closely in economic and political matters. They are members of the Nordic Council, a geopolitical forum that fosters cooperation among these nations. The Council addresses a wide range of issues from trade and welfare to environmental policies, reflecting the shared values and close ties among these countries.

In red, is Scandinavia. Orange and red represent the wider Nordic nations.

Is Iceland in the Arctic Circle?

Iceland is situated just south of the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is a line of latitude sitting at approximately 66.5° north of the Equator, marking the southernmost point at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours – these phenomena are known as the Midnight Sun in summer and Polar Night in winter.

While most of Iceland lies just below the Arctic Circle, there is a part of Iceland that crosses it: Grímsey Island. Grímsey, located about 40 kilometres off the north coast of the main island of Iceland, is the only part of Iceland that is within the Arctic Circle. This small island offers visitors the experience of the Midnight Sun and is known for its birdlife, especially puffins.

Photo by Rory Hennessey on Unsplash.

So, where is Iceland?

Iceland’s unique position on the globe has crafted a nation of extraordinary natural contrasts. Situated at the juncture of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland spans continents.

While not a part of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Iceland shares deep historical and cultural ties with the Nordic nations, contributing to its distinct identity within Europe. Iceland’s landscapes, shaped by the powerful forces of fire and ice, are a testament to its dynamic geological activity.

From the lava fields to the glacial peaks, and the hot springs to the rugged fjords, Iceland’s geography is as diverse as it is awe-inspiring. Its climate, influenced by its latitude and maritime location, adds to the country’s allure, offering experiences from the ethereal Northern Lights to the enchanting Midnight Sun.

FAQ: Where is Iceland?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic, ‘Where is Iceland?’:

Q1: What is the geographical location of Iceland?

Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, just south of the Arctic Circle. It lies between Greenland to the west and Norway and the British Isles to the east.

Q2: Is Iceland part of a continent?

Geologically, Iceland straddles the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, placing it on two continents. However, it is culturally and politically associated with Europe.

Q3: How far is Iceland from mainland Europe and North America?

Iceland is about 800 kilometres from the nearest point in Norway and approximately 320 kilometres east of Greenland.

Q4: What are the neighbouring countries of Iceland?

Iceland does not share land borders with any country. Its closest neighbours are Greenland to the west and the Faroe Islands and Norway to the east.

Q5: Is Iceland a part of the European Union?

No, Iceland is not a member of the European Union, but it is part of the European Economic Area and the Schengen Agreement.

Q6: What are the key geographical features of Iceland?

Iceland is known for its dramatic landscape featuring volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, glaciers, and black sand beaches.

Q7: What is the climate like in Iceland?

Iceland has a subarctic maritime climate, with cool summers and mild but windy winters. Its high latitude results in significant seasonal variations in daylight.

Q8: Can you see the Northern Lights from Iceland?

Yes, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to view the Northern Lights, particularly during the winter months.

Q9: What is the capital of Iceland?

The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik, which is also the largest city and the northernmost capital of a sovereign state in the world.