Iceland’s Home Turf

Stone houses with moss-covered roofs are among the traditional image of the Icelandic countryside. These quaint turf homes stand amid landscapes of rocks, dirt paths, patches of grass and gray skies. It’s a scene of serenity that makes them so enticing to explore when visiting Iceland.

Vikings dwelled in turf houses to protect themselves from the challenging climate within the isolated regions of the land. They built and lived in these homes for 1,100 years before contemporary homes started to take over with the arrival of the industrial revolution.

Because Iceland’s weather and environment are constantly changing and can be extreme, most of their infrastructure was built to be disposable. Coupled with a lack of durable building materials, it means that very few turf houses have survived the test of time. This is also why, even though Iceland was settled as far back as 930 BCE, so few buildings remain from before the 19th century when industrialization started to take over.

Iceland’s turf houses are simple constructs made from birch or driftwood and stacked stones, often built semi-underground. They derive their name from what they made their roofs: grass. While birch didn’t offer a sturdy foundation, turf served as insulation, an absolute necessity throughout the colder climates. These grassy roofs over stone walls make them resemble the Hobbit holes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world.

Turf was even used to build churches, which are an important part of Iceland’s culture, being highly devout. You can still find some of these turf churches in northern Iceland, as well as a replica in Reykjavík. The Árbær Open Air Museum in the country’s capital contains 20 buildings, each with a story of Iceland’s farming past.

Near the famed Skogafoss waterfall you can find a farm cluster known as the Skogar turf house. More turf houses can be found in Heimay, Vestmannaeyjar, an island of Iceland’s Westman Islands. Close to the Isafjordur Bay lies Litlibaer, “Little Farm,” one of the most charming examples of turf houses.

Make a trek to find the turf houses of Iceland on our “13-Night Longyearbyen to Edinburgh” luxe-adventure expedition.

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