10 reasons this Icelandic music festival should be on your radar

Getting inspired in the land of fire & ice

By Corinne Whiting,

In recent years, visitors from around the globe have flocked to Iceland for its dramatic natural wonders and wide open, rainbow-arched skies. Fun fact: the country’s also home to an inspiring November festival that unites passionate artists and music lovers from around the world.

From November 1 through 5, Iceland Airwaves returns to our favorite Nordic island for a celebration of arts, culture and community. Here are 10 reasons our curiosity is piqued.

1. Uplifting, unique gatherings

Tonik Ensemble (IS) played at Harpa Silfurberg during Iceland Airwaves 2016 — Photo courtesy of Alexander Matukhno/Courtesy Iceland Airwaves

Since this grassroots event's modest launch in 1999 in an airplane hangar, Iceland Airwaves has come a long way. Today, its capacity maxes at 7,500 attendees. Festival Manager Grímur Atlason praises the fest for "the music and surroundings.

"This rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean sets the perfect frame for the great talents we present every year. Food, people, pools, music, volcanoes = good vibe."

When asked what makes this event so special, Kevin Cole – Chief Content Officer and Host of the Afternoon Show for Seattle's KEXP radio station – exclaims, "Everything! It’s in Iceland, first of all, which is an amazing culture and country with an equally amazing music scene.

"The festival is beautifully curated; it’s a showcase festival for Icelandic, Nordic, and new and emerging artists from around the world, alongside compelling headliners. So, musically, it’s unlike your typical festival." 

2. Awe-inspiring lineups

PJ Harvey (UK) played at Valshöllinn during last year's Airwaves — Photo courtesy of Alexander Matukhno/Courtesy Iceland Airwaves

This November, 204 artists will take the stage at Airwaves, an event now recognized for spotlighting talents on the cusp of stardom. Past years have boasted headliners like Björk and Sigur Rós. Other local and global acts have ranged from Fatboy Slim, Flaming Lips and Florence and the Machine to Hot Chip and the Icelandic sensation, Of Monsters and Men. 

When asked who should be on our radar this year, Atlason replies, "There are so many. Guests should check out the Icelandic hip-hop for sure. Acts like Sturla Atlas, Reykjavikurdætur and JóiPé. Other acts (not from the hip-hop scene) worth mentioning are Mammút, RuGl and Hatar." 

Cole has his own recommendations to share, "From Iceland, check out GusGus – a legendary electronic band whose live shows are pretty much perfect! Also from Iceland, you don’t want to miss the exquisite Sóley, experimental soundscape songwriter JFDR, the moody Goth-tinged Mammút and up-and-comers Between Mountains.

"For international acts, I recommend Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, New Zealand’s Fazerdaze, who has put out one of the best debut albums of 2017, and Mikko Joensuu, whose live shows are transcendent."

3. Variety of venues

Icelandic performers proudly take the spotlight, for example, RuGl (IS) at Valshöllinn — Photo courtesy of Alexander Matukhno/Courtesy Iceland Airwaves

The 2017 fest has 13 venues in Reykjavik and three in northern Iceland's Akureyri, which joins the excitement for the first time as a second festival hub. The official venues range from the smallest (Hard Rock Café, 250 max) to the biggest (Valur Hall, 3,000 max) and everything in between. Direct flights can be booked between Keflavík and Akureyri via Air Iceland Connect. 

4. Free events around town

Venues range from mellow and intimate to refreshingly rockin' — Photo courtesy of Ariana Gillrie/Courtesy KEX Hostel

Music lovers will also find about 500 off-venue shows (no wristband necessary). The festivities spill over into bars, cafes, churches, cinemas, stores, hotels and local residences, too. And even though this year's program isn't quite set, the team promises "good fun everywhere."

"When I attended Iceland Airwaves for the first time as a guest, this was a huge part of my experience," says Móheiður Guðmundsdóttir. "During the days of the festival, music fills the city. That's why I encourage newcomers to just walk around and see what they find, have a happy surprise and discover new music."

5. Exposure to local culture

Icelandic cuisine consists of seasonal, hearty dishes and plenty of fresh fish — Photo courtesy of Ariana Gillrie/Courtesy KEX Hostel

With three-quarters of the lineup representing Icelandic artists, this event is no doubt a great way to immerse oneself in local culture. Atlason comments, "Probably the vibe at the shows is very Icelandic, though half of the guests are foreigners."

While in town, get to know friendly and hearty Icelandic folks, and enjoy their cuisine that, in many ways, still links back to Viking days (think succulent mountain lamb, skyr, potatoes and ocean-fresh seafood). Soak in the local arts scene, and be sure to take a dip in one of Reykjavík's many public thermal pools – a popular activity for locals year-round.

Cole comments, "Music is a reflection of the culture and landscape of the country, and as a result, the Icelandic music scene is incredibly unique, dynamic and vibrant. Unlike anything you’re going to experience somewhere else. Layer on top of that being immersed in the cosmopolitan, but distinctly Icelandic Reykjavik, in the dark days of November, and you can’t escape an Icelandic experience. Plus, if you’re lucky, you might even see the Northern Lights or a few elves."

6. Broadcasting by KEXP

KEX Hostel fosters a sense of community for locals as well as global travelers — Photo courtesy of Ariana Gillrie/Courtesy KEX Hostel

For the seventh year, KEXP, which "exists to enrich lives championing music and discovery," will broadcast live from Iceland Airwaves.

After Hlynur Guðjónsson, Consul General and Trade Commissioner for Iceland in North America, attended one of KEXP's broadcasts in New York, the Seattle-based arts organization built a partnership with Iceland Airwaves, Iceland Naturally and Iceland Music Export.

To date, KEXP has recorded more than 223 Icelandic performances, and videos of these performances have been viewed 50 million-plus times. Cole marvels, "Pretty impressive for a country of 300,000 people!"

DJs Kevin Cole and Cheryl Waters will record their shows live from KEX Hostel, Wednesday through Friday, as well as webcasts on Saturday. Each day they'll host (and live video stream) four to five performances, from some of the big international artists to the best of the Icelandic music scene.

Additionally, they'll capture live performances from unique locations before and after the festival (likely up to 30 unique performances that can later be viewed on KEXP's YouTube channel).

Cole concludes, "This will be our seventh year broadcasting, so we’ve established some deep bonds with our Icelandic friends, so each year is like being reunited with family...I’m excited about the work we’ll do and all the amazing music we’ll be sharing with music lovers worldwide, which is supremely satisfying!"

7. Range of ticket options

Icelandair offers festival packages; this is the company's newest Vatnajokull plane model — Photo courtesy of Icelandair

Fest goers find three types of tickets:

A) Grants access to everything (subject to capacity) in both Akureyri and Reykjavik. Price 21.900 isk.

B) Grants access to Akureyri November 2 and 3 plus Reykjavik on November 4 and 5 (subject to capacity). Price 15.900 isk.

C) Grants access to Akureyri only (subject to capacity). Price 8.900 isk.

All tickets need to be exchanged for wristbands at the Iceland Airwaves media center in Harpa (in Reykjavik) or at Hof in Akureyri. Be sure to check out festival packages offered by Icelandair, too. 

8. Glimpses of Northern Lights

The Northern Lights dazzle above KEX Hostel — Photo courtesy of Benjamin Hardman/Courtesy KEX Hostel

If the stars align, you might be fortunate enough to mix the music magic with some Aurora Borealis awe. Although glimpsing this phenomena is more likely when positioned away from city lights, Reykjavik sightings can happen, too. Try viewing from slightly removed spots like the Grotta Lighthouse, or book an out-of-town excursion with smaller tour companies like Superjeep.

9. Chance to explore Iceland

The Blue Lagoon remains a must-see stop while in Iceland – and for good reason — Photo courtesy of Visit Reykjanes

Anchoring your visit with Airwaves also means the chance to explore incredible Reykjavik and beyond. Take CityWalk's free (tip-based), two-hour walking tour to get your bearings around town. Hotel Holt plays host to many fest guests and serves as a perfect home base – one that's a few steps from the city center but also tucked away on a quiet street. 

Cole advises, "If possible, spend a few extra days in Iceland to explore the country a bit. Take the Golden Circle tour, or hit the Blue Lagoon. Definitely go swimming – the geothermal pools are a part of the culture and experience of Iceland."

Also on his list for this year's visit: "Going to Þingvellir, a magical historic site known for the gathering of Iceland's parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries and where the tectonic plates are splitting."

Cole also recommends record shopping at Reykjavik's 12 Tónar and Lucky Records. He says, "12 Tónar is a smaller shop and independent record label that specializes in Icelandic and Nordic music. You’ll be able to pick up everything from Steindór Andersen reciting Rímur poetry set to the music of film composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, to the latest cutting-edge electronica from Samaris.

"And Lucky Records is a record collector’s paradise – with an incredible selection of cool, hard-to-find vinyl releases across all genres."

10. Excuse for European stopovers

Icelandair allows for quick stopovers while en route to other phenomenal destinations — Photo courtesy of Snorri Thor Tryggvason/Visit Reykjanes

With Icelandair's alluring stopover program, travelers can visit Iceland for up to seven days at no extra cost – while en route to 36 European cities. Icelandair boasts friendly service, a decadent Saga Lounge at Keflavík airport and in-flight perks that range from seasonal menus to fascinating entertainment programming.

When asked for tips for first-time attendees, Atlason advises, "Do the pools, eat the fish, see shows with acts you've never heard of before and make babies!"