Tag Archives: iceland airwaves

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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