25 Years of Celtic Connections – The Anniversary Festival 2018

This year was the 25th anniversary of Celtic Connections in Glasgow (18 January – 4 February 2018) and the festival has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Year after year it attracts a huge number of visitors not just from Scotland and the UK, but also from other parts of Europe and further afield. As most of the concerts happen in the evenings, lots of visitors use the festival as an excuse to explore other parts of Scotland on day trips, which are easily accessible by train or bus from the city. Celtic Connections also always manages to get a lot of fantastic musicians together on stage for special collaborations, e.g. various tribute nights (Tom Petty, Songs of the Gael, Scotland Sings Canada), usually with an impressive all star line-up.

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This year I’d also decided to make it a proper holiday and stayed eight nights in total. I was a volunteer artist liaison for three concerts on three consecutive days right after I arrived, which kept me busy pretty much 24/7. My first concert was a night of outstanding traditional music with The Fretless (pic below), a Juno award-winning quartet from Canada with support from Scottish musician Ewan Robertson and friends at St. Andrews in the Square church. Glasgow has quite a few churches turned music venues and this one is one of the nicest. The next day I looked after Corb Lund from Canada and Hayes Carll from Texas, both country music artists. They shared the stage for their performance in another beautiful former church, St. Luke’s near the Drygate Brewery, north east of the city centre and it was a great night of Americana intersected with brilliantly funny banter.

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Most people don’t realise when they are attending shows as an audience member just how much work goes into putting on live music events. From pre-planning it months in advance, sorting out accommodation, transport and food to dealing with tech issues, merch logistics and all sorts of other bigger and smaller last-minute requests, like unexpected schedule changes (e.g. additional performances at the festival club on the night of the concert), lots of things can happen, which might require a change of plan.

The artists themselves might have just flown in from another continent, jet lagged and maybe missing parts of their equipment, having to do interviews with various radio stations and journalists on the go. So we’re always trying to give them the best experience and make things as easy for them as possible. If all goes smoothly, the artists will step on stage with a smile on their face, a perfectly tuned instrument in their hands and everyone will have an enjoyable night. And as a volunteer, you breathe a big fat sigh of relief that all your efforts and those of the festival staff have been worthwile!

My third concert as an artist liaison was Cara Dillon with support by The Fretless, in the New Auditorium right in the Royal Concert Hall. I had only seen Cara at Cambridge Folk Festival once before and it was fantastic to experience her beautiful, moving songs in a hall with great acoustics for a change. Her excellent band on the night included Sam Lakeman, John Smith and, for a few songs, The Fretless as well.

The RCH is a huge multi-space venue in the centre of Glasgow with a large, confusing web of hallways and backstage areas connecting the different performance spaces behind the scenes. From preparing dressing rooms, sorting out riders (carrying food, drink and ice buckets around), liaising between bands who are sharing a stage, organising access keycards, sharpies and blue tack to getting set lists printed, there is always a long list of to do items to tackle on the day of a gig. But it’s also really fun to work together on something exciting and then sitting back and seeing it unfold in front of you once all the work is done. Plus you get to hear the sound checks and get a much more in-depth experience of an event.

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On my days off I finally made it to the medieval Glasgow Cathedral from 1136, which is a beautiful space, and to the multi-faith Victorian Necropolis on the hill beside it. The winter light was amazing that day and once you climb to the top, it has some fantastic views across the city. So does The Lighthouse museum and art centre near the Central Station, take the lift to the 6th floor viewing platform and enjoy (see first pic in the post). I also took lots and lots of pictures of Glasgow’s many stunning murals, my favourite being the Modern Day St. Mungo by Smug (see pic above) on High Street, but they are all over town and there is a proper Mural Trail to follow, if you fancy it.

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Another day I visited the small, but very informative Glasgow Police Museum staffed by friendly retired police officers. Glasgow had the first police force in Britain and as it’s a small two-room museum, you can easily add it to your schedule and learn some interesting facts about the city and its inhabitants past and present plus see a well-curated collection of uniforms through the ages and from quite a number of other countries, too.

I also attended more concerts. Dougie MacLean  (pic below) had a headline show (with support by Yvonne Lyon) in the Main auditorium of the Royal Concert Hall and I had made sure I had a first row seat for it. On Sunday night, I returned to St. Lukes to see The Barr Brothers from Montreal. They’ve had quite a few changes in their band line-up since I’ve last seen them and I’d also not heard their new songs live. But the beautiful church venue was the perfect backdrop and I especially enjoyed hearing favourites like Half Crazy and How The Heroine Dies. Andrew remarked how much they appreciated the quiet, respectful atmosphere, it was just a lovely night.

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Hazy Recollections at the O2 ABC is an afternoon show curated by Findlay Napier and there are always some interesting artists to discover, this time including James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band from Glasgow. Having been to it three years in a row now in this venue, I still enjoy finding new artists, I just really think it deserves to be moved to a more atmospheric place, such as one of the church venues, rather than a nightclub during daytime.

I also had a lot of fun at the BBC Alba ‘SEIRM’ recordings I attended and managed to make it to all three this year. What’s so nice about it is that the Hillhead Bookclub in Glasgow’s West End is such a cosy venue and once you have a table you can enjoy the show without having to worry about people chatting in the background as it’s being recorded for TV and everyone has to be quiet (!) during the performances – perfect!

There are usually around four or five artists on between 6pm and 11pm and every single one this year was pretty amazing. They included US mandolinist and bluegrass singer Sierra Hull, I’m With Her (Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins & Aoife O’Donovan), with wonderful harmonies on the first night and Lau (just as a trio, see pic below) on the second night. The third night was probably my favourite with Irish singer Declan O’Rourke & band, Scottish-English musicians Ross Couper & Tom Oakes, Senegalese-Lithuanian duo Solo & Indre (such a beautiful sound) as well as The Secret Sisters from Alabama. All three sessions will be on BBC Alba sometime this spring.

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On top of all this, I did extremely well this year catching four nights of the festival club at the Arts School. It’s a great way to wind down or (get dancing) with a pint after one of the official gigs and the line-up generally consists of a selection of that night’s festival artists, which was great as there is so much on every night, it gives you a chance to see artists you missed, such as the excellent Nashville-based Molly Tuttle & band.

Of course, the deepest winter is not the greatest time to visit Glasgow in terms of weather, but that is also your best excuse to while away many hours in great company listening to the crème de la crème of folk, Americana and other genres in some stunning venues. So put January 2019 in your calendar now for the 26th edition of Celtic Connections and you’ll practically be guaranteed the perfect antidote to post-Christmas blues!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with review tickets for some events. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

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Discover Glasgow During Celtic Connections Festival

I first visited Glasgow in 2016 as I had heard so many good things about Celtic Connections, a huge nearly three-week long midwinter multi-genre music festival, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Despite the admittedly terrible January weather, I fell in love with both the city and its people (their slogan ‘People Make Glasgow’ couldn’t be any more accurate) and have been excited about returning there ever since. This year it runs from 18 January until 4 February 2018.

Here is a wee guide for those of you who haven’t been to Glasgow or the festival before in order for you get the best out of this fabulous event and discover one of my favourite cities in the UK.logo 25th anniversary.jpgWhy visit during Celtic Connections?

Having travelled to festivals on various continents before, one thing a lot of cities have in common is that during festival time they are at their absolute best. There is usually a lively, buzzing atmosphere, lots of side events (sometimes even free of charge) and while heading out to see your favourite artists, you also get a great overview of all the best venues in the place you’re visiting. Don’t forget to get talking to other visitors and local festival goers and exchange recommendations, it’s a friendly city with many helpful locals.

What kind of music can I expect?

Celtic Connections is a fairly eclectic festival and has always been open to showcasing not just Folk and Americana (including some very big names on the scene as well as the most talented newcomers from the British Isles and overseas), but also world music, some jazz and quite a few indie bands. The 2018 artists include Frank Turner, Cara Dillon (pic below), The Lone BellowDougie Maclean, Oumou Sangare and some very exciting special collaborations, for instance a tribute concert to Tom Petty. You can take your pick from major historic and modern venues, such as the Royal Concert Hall, the Old Fruitmarket (see last picture) or the O2 ABC or attend a concert at a medium-sized or smaller venue, such as Oran Mor in the West End, the Tron Theatre, St. Andrews or Saint Luke’s a bit further east or The Glad Cafe on the Southside. They each have a unique atmosphere and some are seated, standing or both.

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Where should I stay and for how long?

I stayed in different places every year so far, hotels as well as B&Bs, and there are many budget-friendly options. The West End is a lovely area for eating out or staying in, just west of the city centre, but most gigs are taking place in more central venues. You can easily discover the best of Glasgow in a long weekend, but if you can manage to add a day or two, it will be even more relaxing and you can spend your days sightseeing, taking walks around different neighbourhoods, exploring the many excellent museums or whiling away a few hours in a cosy café (see the bottom of the post for foodie tips) until it’s time for the evening concerts.

Are there any additional events apart from the main concerts?

There are a number of lively evening ceilidhs and some family-friendly daytime ones, too. Plus, the very popular festival club nights at the Art School (right in city centre near the CCA) will again be taking place Thursdays through Sundays from 10.30pm til late and the secret line up of festival artists is always worth checking out. If you prefer a seated venue for your after-hour celebrations with old and new festival pals, then the late night sessions at the Drygate Brewery (east of the city centre near Glasgow Cathedral, from 11pm on the same nights) are ideal for you. You can also try your hand at playing music yourself at the many workshops for kids and adults throughout the festival.

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What kind of ticket options do I have?

Celtic Connections does not offer festival passes, so you do need to book each gig individually through their official website or hope for last minute tickets at the door (would not recommend this unless you’re fairly flexible). If you’re planning on attending quite a few concerts, you can join the Celtic Rover Scheme (currently from £20), which gives you a 15% discount per concert.

Apart from all the above, there are also stalls to buy instruments inside the RCH and lots of other festival happenings around the city during the duration of the event, all detailed online and in the free programmes available in all the venues. So don’t miss out and join me and over 100,000 friendly other punters at some of the 300 events across 26 stages for Celtic Connections 2018!

For Glasgow sightseeing and foodie tips see my previous festival reviews for Celtic Connections 2016 and Celtic Connections 2017. I will be live tweeting and instagramming during some of the festival, so keep an eye on @lifeisafestival (Twitter) and @lifeisafestivalblog (Instagram) for updates, pictures and videos. Glasgow’s official tourism website is at peoplemakeglasgow.com.

Disclaimer: All pictures in this post were provided by Celtic Connections (Old Fruitmarket picture credit: Louis DeCarlo). Opinions expressed are those of the author. 

Getting into the Festive Spirit with the Hyper Japan Winter Festival 2017

I attended Hyper Japan for the first time in July this year (review here) and loved everything about it, so I was keen to see what the Christmas edition would have in store. The Japan-themed event was again taking place at Tobacco Dock in London (24-26 November 2017) and was brimming with craft stalls, a Japanese food court, and lots of traditional Japanese products, such as handmade pottery, colourful chopsticks, speciality tea, sweets and clothes, including lots of cosplay outfits.

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Japan is a fascinating place to visit and after two visits I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to see. It was great that there were a lot of lesser known travel destinations represented at Hyper Japan and I enjoyed learning about them from their enthusiastic local representatives. The guys in the picture below, for instance, are from Susaki City on Shikoku Island and had mini versions of their mascot ‘Kochi’ with them plus the human-sized version appeared on the Hyper Live stage.

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Probably my favourite part of the winter edition of the festival was a fantastic Illuminight exhibition, a display of traditional and modern illuminated objects, which ranged from a room filled with giant paper fish (made by local residents and first displayed at the Yanai Goldfish Lantern Festival in Yanai in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Honshu Island) to tiny, fragile ‘akari’ (light) pieces made from real autumn leaves. It was just beautiful!

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I also loved the ‘geta’ (sandals) and other intricate ornaments made from glass.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be a Japanese event without lots of pastel-coloured ‘kawai’ (cute) items and it was great to see that even the staff working at the event – like these two Japan fans from Tofu Cute – were having a lot of fun.

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The food court was back, too, and fans of Japanese food were again spoilt for choice with numerous both savoury and sweet options available, from steaming bowls of ramen to ‘Takoyaki’ (ball-shaped snacks filled e.g. with squid) and even mulled sake as a winter warmer. There was also a chance to sample some sake concoctions created by professional mixologists as part of the Sake Cocktail Awards.

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Those who had a bit of time on their hands and who felt like creating some original Christmas presents for their loved ones, were able to join various paper craft and felting workshops with expert teachers. But don’t be fooled, it is a lot harder than it looks and takes a lot of patience and precision. The results look impressive though, like the framed artworks in this picture.

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When I visited on Friday, the opening day, the Hyper Live stage again hosted a variety of Japanese acts, from the very modern, Dream Stage Idol Competition Runner Up Aimi Ikenaga (if you’ve never heard of ‘Idols’ before, BBC Storyville recently did an interesting documentary called ‘Tokyo Girls’ on it), to the more traditional, but with a modern twist, e.g. a live performance by calligraphy artist Taro Fukushika.

If you missed Hyper Japan this time around, don’t worry, it will be back from 13-15 July 2018 and visits to the Japan Centre and various London-based Japanese restaurants and pop-ups should tide you over until then.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for Hyper Japan. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

This Way Up! Kendal Mountain Festival 2017

As far as I’m concerned, the best excuse to visit any place for the first time is attending a great festival. So I hopped on the train to Kendal – the gateway to the Lake District – for a weekend of mountain films and culture, readings by nature writers and a visit to the famous Lakes, of course.

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Kendal Mountain Festival (16-19 November 2017) is the largest festival of its kind in the world and brings together enthusiasts from various mountain sports, such as climbing, trail running, caving, snow sports and other outdoor pursuits. This year, they also had a literature festival, which was a welcome addition.

I arrived on Thursday afternoon in time for the opening ceremony, a procession in the dark from a little park outside a pub in Kendal to the Brewery Arts Centre led by a local traditional band. Once we got there, there was an introduction by the festival organisers and we got to see a few of the shorter festival entries and the pretty awesome festival trailer ‘A Spark in the Dark’ with a poem written by festival artistic director Claire Carter.

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The next day I explored the festival and the town properly. With Kendal being not such a big place, it was easy to walk between various festival venues, a church, the Town Hall, a film truck (very warm and cosy), community centres and a number of screens right at the Brewery. There were also sessions for local schools, ‘secret sessions’ (which were alas sold out by the time I figured out they existed) as well as baby and dementia friendly shows. Most films were packaged up into two-hour long sessions, so you picked a collection of films (called ‘Strive’, ‘Reach’, ‘Seek’ etc.) and each of them had a variety of shorter and longer material. I liked pretty much everything I saw.

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There was also a basecamp in the courtyard of the Brewery Arts Centre, where all the sponsors, such as Columbia and Mammut, as well as some outdoor charities, had stalls to explore. Inside the tent, which was decorated with colourful prayer flags, were also two bars, and the Marmot Café with lots of seats for people to hang out, have their lunch and listen to inspiring speakers, such as Chris Bonnington, Gemmita Samarra, Dan Milner and Steve McClure. The tiny Shackleton Tent, i.e. yurt, just outside offered free films and talks all day. Four-legged festival goers were not allowed inside the tents, but there were lots of dog-friendly cafes and pubs around town and in many other places in the Lake District.

In addition, there was a half-day film summit in the Town Hall for industry professionals with inspiring presentations by filmmakers and producers and a 10K trail run for those actually wanting to go out there and get some exercise done.

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While outdoor sports tend to be dominated by men, as most other types of sport, too, it was the female adventurers that I enjoyed listening to most. My favourite event all weekend was probably the Findra Women in Adventure session on Saturday morning. Four exceptional young women, Jenny Tough (e.g. ran solo across Kyrgyzstan and the Atlas Mountains), Emily Chapell (e.g. cycled alone through Iceland in winter), Megan Hine (TV scout for adventure shows and leads private expeditions) and Rickie Cott (who with Lee Craigie cycled from Canada to Mexico by bike). Each of them had amazing stories to tell of how they overcame obstacles, including people doubting their abilities, and how they pulled through by believing in themselves and becoming more and more resilient with every trip. Way to go!

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I also made it to a couple of author events. One was with Karen Lloyd talking about her book ‘The Blackbird Diaries’ charting encounters with birds and wildlife over a calendar year. The other was with Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley on his latest book ‘The Nature of Winter’. Both told of unforgettable wildlife experiences and discussed the future of national parks, the reintroduction of predatory species to UK forests, the impact of climate change, among some of them.

There were so many great films last weekend, here are a few I especially enjoyed:

My Irnik (family life in the Canadian Arctic), Weightless (fab humorous short paragliding film, won best adventure sport film), The Last Honey Hunter (following Nepali honey harvesters on their dangerous job, won best visual), My Big White Thighs and Me (moving film about womanhood and braving the elements), Skye’s the Limit (a woman circumnagivates the Isle of Skye on a paddle board), Stumped (brilliantly funny climbing film, won best climbing film), Ditch the Van (musician ditches the tour bus and bikes from gig to gig) and Becoming Who I Was (simply stunningly filmed and very moving story of a Tibetan boy searching for his destiny, won best culture).

These are the official winners of altogether 12 categories at this year’s festival.

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As it looked like it was going to be a beautiful, if crisp, day on Sunday, I decided to escape for a day trip around the Lake District. I went on a mini bus tour with Mountain Goat, which was absolutely brilliant. In around 7 hours we got taken to 10 lakes in the area, a slate mine, a viewing point high above one of the lakes, the Castleriggs stone circle, a waterfall (reminded me so much of my recent Iceland trip), stopped in the lively town of Keswick (which has an intriguing pencil museum, as it is the place where pencils were first invented, apparently) and also in Grasmere (where the grave of William Wordsworth can be visited for those with a literary interest and the special Grasmere gingerbread, only made in this village, can be purchased for those with a sweet tooth). Along the way we saw lots and lots of Herdwick sheep, a beautiful local breed, and passed through many lovely villages. While we did run into a bit of traffic towards the end of our tour, the quieter winter months are a great time to explore this beautiful part of the UK, the landscapes were impressive and we had them almost to ourselves.

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with tickets to select festival events by Kendal Mountain Festival. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Essential Tips For Making the Best of the Iceland Airwaves Off-Venue Gigs

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the past two decades, you’ve probably heard or read some rave reviews about Reykjavik’s Iceland Airwaves Festival, which took place from 1-5 November 2017. It’s a music lover’s indoor festival dream come true plus it takes place in one of Europe’s tourism hotspots (literally, given all the geothermal activity there!), so it’s the perfect combo for travellers with a love for live music. What you might not have heard of is that the festival has a large number of fringe events, half hour sessions taking place in venues around town, which don’t require a festival pass and are completely free. Amazing, right? In order to make the best of them though, you need to come prepared. I’ve done all the legwork for you this year and compiled this list of tips for getting the best out of the Airwaves off-venue gigs. Here we go:

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Pick a Strategic Place to Stay

As most of the off-venues are right in Reykjavik city centre, it makes a lot of sense for your temporary digs to be as central as possible, so you can get everywhere on foot, especially if the weather is terrible (I had four rainy days out of six with one proper storm). There are no options like Uber and taxis are dear, unless you can share with friends. After speaking to a couple of long-time festival goers, I opted for KEX Hostel, which is also one of the off-venues (see pic below, Högni) and has a self-catering kitchen. I had been a bit worried it would be more of a party hostel, but a lot of other folks where there for the festival, too, so everyone was friendly and laid-back plus the dorms had good heating and comfy beds. Loft Hostel (even more central) and Oddsson Hostel are other good alternatives and also off-venues. There are also plenty of airbnbs, hotels and apartments you can rent, but they get booked up really fast during this time and most of them are not exactly very budget-friendly.

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Come Prepared – Apps, Deals & Special Events

Download the excellent festival app, which lets you sort the schedule by all events or off-venues only, has maps and notifications for special deals and venue changes. The second app you need is Appy Hour, alerting you about the cheapest drink (and some food) deals around town as a pint is normally around 7-9 pounds and simple meals start at around 15 pounds. The Reykjavik Grapevine (English-speaking news about the city) also publish a great festival special, a free magazine, which you can pick up at venues around town with schedules and additional offers. This is also how I found out about a special venue on Laugavegur street run by Reykjavik Grapevine (keep an eye on the #GrapeWaves hashtag), which was like a pop-up art gallery, where they displayed festival magazine covers and organised special performances by cool musicians like Soley (pic below) plus a fridge with free beer (while stocks lasted) and goodie bag giveaways. Again, make sure you get there before it opens, which on the day I went was 5pm.

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Get recommendations From Those in the Know

As I knew zero of the off-venue bands, my strategy was to discover as many different venues as I could fit in and hopefully find some great bands along the way. I started (very conveniently!) by walking down the stairs to the KEX hostel bar where the fab Seattle radio station KEXP was live streaming gigs every day. All their sessions were excellent and I was glad I’d made the place my base. In between the half-hour shows, it was easy to get talking to music fans from around the world and asking them to help you figure out which bands to see next. So much fun!

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Awesome Music from All Sorts of Genres

In no particular order, these are some of the bands I discovered at Airwaves and really enjoyed listening to this year. Quite a few of the bands sang (at least some songs) in Icelandic, which sounded beautiful and I was also pleased to see that there were lots of great up-and-coming female musicians in the off-venue line-up.

Between Mountains (young female Icelandic duo, beautiful harmonies), Groa (three female Icelandic musicians rocking out),  Emiliana Torrini & The Colorist Orchestra (probably my fav performance all week, beautiful sound), HAM (if you’re a metal fan, one of the singers moonlights as Iceland’s health minister), Bangoura Band (world music, the first gig I caught, groovy and fun), Fox Train Safari (Icelandic Soul Music, so great), Hatari (crazy show, worth it just for that), I Am Soyuz (Swedish singer-songwriter), JFDR (experimental Icelandic pop), Myrra Ros (Icelandic singer-songwriter), Kiasmos (Icelandic electronic group), Mammut (great live show), Snorri Helgason (very humorous songwriter and storyteller), Soley (beautiful Icelandic alt-pop), Graveyard Club (American melodic synth-pop band), Högni (Icelandic singer-songwriter, also in electronic group GusGus).

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Great Quirky Venues from Book Shops to Cinemas

These are some of my favourite off-venues around Reykjavik:

KEX Hostel – beautiful bar setting and great sound
12 Tonar – tiny but great record shop (see pic above)
Boat Andrea – on an actual whalewatching boat in the harbour, seating and good sound, one of my fave venues, see pic below, stunning, right?
Solon Bar – stylish bar on first floor (restaurant downstairs)
Kaffibarinn – quite small bar, so arrive early
IDA Zimsen Bookshop Café – cosy bookshop café with seating
Aurora Reykjavik – by the harbour, gigs in room with Northern Lights video on giant screen behind musicians, quite magical, quieter music
Bruggjan Brugghus  – this place is quite big (by the harbour) and it was packed when I got there for a pretty popular band, a good place to have food while seeing a gig if you can grab a table early in the day
Loft Hostel – take the lift to the 4th floor and enjoy music and a nice Swiss mokka in one of the cosiest places in town (spent half a day there when the storm was raging outside)
Kaffi Vinyl – great vegan food, records and nice seating, arrive early
Bio Paradis – the lobby of a local cinema, always space to join for a gig a bit later, some seating, coffee/bar
Dillon – great attic space in a whiskey bar
Reykjavik City Library – I love libraries, so I made an effort to make it to this one, music on downstairs, some seating

The off-venue gigs usually ran from around lunchtime each day until about 8pm and most of the spaces had free wifi, hurrah. There are lots of additional venues I didn’t have time for, which even included kindergartens, fashion stores, gyms, barber shops, museums, churches, hotels etc., so it’s great fun to do a venue crawl!

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Hunt for Cool Souvenirs

In most countries, you can pick up a handful of small souvenirs for family and friends pretty cheaply. Not so in Iceland. While on Reykjavik’s high street Laugavegur every second shop seems to be selling overpriced puffin stuffed toys, magnets and Icelandic scarves, you’re much better off bringing home CDs or vinyl by a brilliant Icelandic band you just discovered, a 12 Tonar tote bag or some official Airwaves merch. That way you’re supporting independent musicians and help keeping the lively Icelandic music scene alive, which in turn helps them putting on great events like the one you’re attending. Win, win!

Extra Tips

If you want to see some of the official bands playing at an off-venue, get there super early! Seriously, most of the off-venues are tiny bars or cafes and they fill up extremely quickly. You don’t actually have to consume any drinks or food in the venues, but of course it makes sense to buy something here and there to support them. This year the festival also included two days in Aykureri, which is a nice excuse to explore the North of Iceland, too (about an hour’s flight away).

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What is the Festival Like for Solo Travellers?

My Airwaves visit was one of the easiest trips for getting to know other travellers. Everyone is a music lover and it’s like the United Nations, I met lots of people from the UK, the US and Canada (some very cheap stopover flights from there) but also festival goers from as far as Jordan, Ukraine and Israel. All the people I met were happy to share festival tips and pass on music recommendations and I kept messaging with people I’d met at shows or at the hostel about what bands to catch next.

Was it worth it and would I do it again?

Absolutely! Apart from finding lots of awesome new music, it was also a revelation for me to get exposed to live bands from genres I normally never listen to. It did feel a bit strange being at a festival and not actually attending any official gigs. Having said that, buying a full festival pass would have not been worth it this time around as I did sightseeing tours (Golden Circle, South Coast, Northern Lights) on all the good weather days. So you can have a great time at the official festival, just the off-venues or both. I’m definitely considering getting a full pass next time around, as they also had a conference with films, discussions on the Icelandic music industry and networking events.

Don’t forget to check out my other Iceland post for additional tips on outdoor activities, cold weather clothing, walking tours, eating out and how to save money during your first trip to Iceland.

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How to Save Money and What To See During Your First Trip to Iceland

In early November I visited Iceland for the first time and spent a week combining sightseeing with listening to great live music courtesy of the Iceland Airwaves Festival off-venues (see my essential tips). Here is a guide for your first visit to Reykjavik and beyond: how to choose tours, save money and have a whale of a time!

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Dress for every kind of weather 

The climate in Iceland is pretty unpredictable all year round and there are not a lot of reasonably priced options to buy extra gear, so come prepared. Pack your waterproofs (long insulated jacket and waterproof trousers), gloves (ideally touchscreen ones and maybe another warmer pair), base layers (merino long johns and long tops are great) and a tight-fitting woollen or fleece hat you can wear under your jacket hood. Forget about umbrellas, they will just get blown to shreds in two seconds. For my November trip (which seems to have been warmer than usual, ca. +2/-2 and almost no snow but one really big storm) I brought a pair of good quality waterproof hiking boots with good grip (I still slipped on some of the paths by the waterfalls, so be extremely careful and trust your intuition) and a pair of light, waterproof, insulated boots, which were great to use in the city and for the night-time Northern Lights tours. It’s a good idea to dress in layers and to bring plenty of t-shirts for indoors as most places are rather warm once you get inside. Make sure you have travel insurance and/or your E111 card with you (for EU citizens), it will make you just a lot less worried in case anything unexpected does happen.

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Bring as much food as your suitcase will hold

Obviously, this depends a lot on the kind of trip you are planning and the budget you are on. I was staying at a hostel with a self-catering kitchen, so I brought all my breakfast items (muesli and almond milk plus coffee and tea), pasta, pesto sauce, apples and bananas for a few days. I also packed enough energy bars and chocolate to last me for the week as I spent all my days on bus tours or at concerts and didn’t have much time to shop for food. There are supermarkets like Bonus and Kronan (and also the Icelandic equivalent of 7/11 called 10-11) in central Reykjavik and some of the other towns and touristy spots around the island, but they are all fairly expensive (roughly about double of what you’ll pay at home including for basic things like bread, cheese and milk) and they really made me appreciate (and miss) the choice we get in UK supermarkets – who would have thought?

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Shop around for day tours and Northern Lights trips

As I was travelling by myself, I decided to join some bus tours. There is a lot of competition and many combination offers available, e.g. horseriding, glacier-climbing, helicopter trips, caving and super jeep tours. I did some online research before my trip and compared the tour schedules for a few tours I was planning on taking. The prices vary considerably (ask for a discount if you’re doing more than one tour with one operator) and the bigger companies do a lot more advertising, which doesn’t mean they are necessarily better tours. I ended up going on three tours with Thule Travel and found them friendly and helpful. The most popular trips you can do in a day include:

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  • The Golden Circle tour with three main stops at Þingvellir National Park (walk between the North American and European tectonic plates), the geothermal area in Haukadalur (with the geysers Geysir and Strokkur) and the impressive Gullfoss waterfall. We also got to pet and take a selfie with some Icelandic horses on the way back, which was a great little bonus for me. All day/8 hour tour.
  • South Coast Tour: We stopped at Eyjafjallajökull (the famous volcano which erupted in 2010), the Solheimajökull glacier (you can walk up to it, so great), Seljandsfoss waterfall (possible to walk behind it if weather decent), for lunch in Vik town (also a nice beach with puffins flying around the cliffs), Reynisfjara beach (Iceland’s most dangerous beach with huge waves, so keep an eye on them when you’re taking pictures) and Skogafoss waterfall (you can climb up to the top). All day/10 hour tour. Probably my favourite day during my trip.
  • Northern Lights tour: I had not been sure if I should go on one of those, but even though we didn’t see very much when I went (they give you a free repeat ticket, if the lights don’t show), I quite enjoyed the ‘hunt’ being driven around lakes and fjords in the dark and met some nice other travellers on the bus. The one time I did see the lights more clearly was from my hostel window one night at around 1am, so you never know! The bus companies tell you around 5-6pm each night if the tour goes ahead (based on the likelihood of seeing the lights) and they depart between 8-9pm and bring you back to your hotel/hostel around midnight or 1am.
  • Blue Lagoon tour: I didn’t end up going there this time, but do book this well in advance, as it is super popular and the daytime slots go quickly. You can also go there on the way from or to the airport and lots of people seemed to bring waterproof cameras for the obligatory silica mud-caked selfies. There are also several popular outdoor pools around Reykjavik, where you’ll probably meet more locals and will still have a good time. Hotpot Iceland lists all of them with GPS details.

If you’re renting a car instead, make sure you check the weather forecast and follow the locals’ advice as well as take a look at Safetravel. My tour bus driver worked for the Icelandic search and rescue associaton ICE-SAR and told us many stories of people who got lost or had accidents and not all of them made it back home alive.

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Hunt for food and beer bargains to beat the inflated prices

Download an app called Appy Hour to get the best deals for drinks (and some food) at any given time around Reykjavik. Trust me, it’s worth it, as it will reduce the price of a pint (normally ca. 7-9 pounds) by up to a half and often lists food deals as well. If you’re vegetarian (like me) or vegan, there are a few options around town but I highly recommend bringing as much food with you as possible before you arrive. I really enjoyed the vegan lasagne plus salads at Glo Restaurant (2000 ISK/15 pounds). Meals with fish or meat can be considerably higher. Coffee and tea is about 3-5 pounds a pop, so bringing a thermos might come in really handy. As the fast food restaurants are nearly as expensive as regular restaurants, there is no reason to eat there unless you’re really craving a burger. You can drink the tap water, just make sure you don’t use the warm/hot tap as it is geothermal water and will taste of sulphur. Apart from nice local foods like Skyr (thick yoghurt) and ‘volcano’ rye bread, there will also be options for you to try all sorts of meat, but please think about what you consume and do not support the unnecessary killing of beautiful species such as whales, sharks or puffins and rather see them in their natural habitat and support organisations, such as Seeds, who work in nature conservation.

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Time your stay right and you’ll get to listen to great live music for free

My first visit to Iceland coincided with Iceland Airwaves Festival, which attracts around 7000 music lovers from around the world for a week every November (review coming up). They have a huge fringe programme (free events in off-venues around town), but even if you’re visiting during another time, the city’s bars and cafes often host live music, readings and other events. Some of my favourites included IDA Zimsen book café, Kaffibarinn and Kex Hostel (where I was staying). There are also other festivals (literature, beer, music) year-round, just make sure you book your accommodation well in advance during those peak times.

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Make an effort to meet the locals including Reykjavik’s most famous cat

When you’re walking around Reykjavik it can sometimes feel like there are no Icelanders left in the city as it’s such a popular tourist destination. So it’s definitely worth making an effort to meet and learn about the locals. As an animal lover, I always pet any dog or cat I come across and then talk to their owners. This time I was extra lucky as I crossed paths with Baktus (Reykjavik’s most famous cat, pictured below, with his own Instagram account) several times and also met up with an Instagram friend in real life to cuddle her cute older dog and cat. I also joined one of the free walking tours (pay what you can), which takes about 2 hours during which we not only learned about Icelandic history, but also met some high school students and visited a beautiful neighbourhood with historic wooden houses (see pic above).

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No matter whether you’re visiting Iceland on a stopover for a few nights, during a festival or have more time to expore the island, it’s a beautiful and quirky place to discover and you’re sure to have a great time. Iceland is a destination which has many different seasons (Northern Lights in the winter months, puffins and whales in spring and summer etc.) and you can easily combine nature with culture. The Reykjavik Grapewine and Iceland Review are two great English-speaking print and online publications to learn about local culture, news and events while you’re visiting. Just make sure you start saving now as you’ll definitely need more money than expected!

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Maritime Vibes at Hamburg on Tour Festival 2017 in London

The first thing that greeted me when I arrived for Hamburg on Tour in London last weekend were a couple of smiling, oversized sailor statues outside the Boiler House venue in Shoreditch. Hard to miss! As was this free festival put on by the marketing team of the German port city of Hamburg for the first time in the UK.

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I had been invited to Hamburg in September for a visit during Reeperbahn Festival and thoroughly enjoyed my time exploring the creative, down to earth Northern German city. The London event aimed to present the best of the city’s festivals, sport, film, street art and beer and coffee culture on 20 and 21 October 2017 and by Saturday night, I felt like I was back in Hamburg for the weekend, what a great party!

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But let’s start at the beginning, which, for me, was a speciality coffee cupping session with Speicherstadt Kaffeerösterei in the workshop corner of the Boiler House venue. At that time, there weren’t all that many visitors yet and it felt a bit like your usual travel trade show, with stalls to browse and tourist brochures to pick up.

As soon as the first band, the Nathan Ott jazz trio, got on stage, however, things started picking up and more and people came through the doors to celebrate Hamburg and its many cultural offerings. I had invited a number of friends (from the UK, Germany, USA) along and we had a great time tasting some German craft beer (them) and making my own lemonade from fresh limes (me) at a charity stall.

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One of the highlights of the weekend was Stefanie Hempel’s Beatles Tour, the London version (pic above). Her longer, actual tour takes you through the streets of Hamburg’s red light and music club district where the Beatles had their first break as a band and spent two years in their late teens in the early sixties. Stefanie soon had our group singing along to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and other Beatles hits, accompanied by herself on ukulele and we got talking to lots of other Hamburg fans from around the world afterwards.

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Hamburg and its surrounding area are also a great hub for festivals of all kinds: music, film, arts, literature. The London event included sample sets by bands such as Hundreds (see pic above), Odeville and UK-based To Kill a King. In addition, you could watch short films about Hamburg and get up-close to the brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall by putting on virtual reality glasses for a 360 degree tour, which impressed my friends, who hadn’t been there before. Definitely worth a visit on your next trip to Hamburg!

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Another fun session which was offered at Hamburg on Tour was a street art workshop with award-winning artist and illustrator Macha (pic above), who taught participants to create their own graffiti stencil designs, which were then transferred to a wall near the festival venue to add to a larger work created especially for the event.

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For those not so much into art and culture, football was another topic for the weekend. Hamburg on Tour had invited Ewald Lienen, FC St. Pauli’s technical director, as well as Nick Davidson, who has recently published the first English-speaking book on the famous and quirky Hamburg football club. There is even an FC St. Pauli fan club in London, so you can watch the games with other fans in a local pub.

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All in all a fantastic event, which goes to show that this creative approach to marketing a city to visitors in such a refreshingly different way is definitely a great idea. Don’t forget to check out my Reeperbahn Festival 2017 review and my Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg for more travel and festival tips. I’m already thinking about another visit for some more festival fun.