Attending the festival and falling head over heels for Reykjavík
In the beginning of November, I headed to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves and had what might have been one of the best weekends of my life. I’m currently mourning the life I could’ve lived in that perfect little city, missing the friends I made there and eagerly awaiting the opportunity to go back. Here’s my account of just part of the experience, which is equal parts festival review and city recommendations, plus, on a personal note, a way for me to record and remember what a really nice time I had in Reykjavik.
While some music festivals seem to exist as universes in and of their own—as escapes from, or oases within, the cities, towns and suburbs in which locals live and fans with frequent flier miles flock—other events can’t be divorced from their settings. And, more than that, they aren’t intended to be.
Iceland Airwaves was founded in 1999, when three Icelandic bands played a Reykjavik aircraft hangar, and has since grown to a three-day event taking place in six official venues and two partner venues, all located downtown in the country’s capital. However, while the music is the focus of course—and what lured me in; bands make the best bait—it’s clear that Iceland Airwaves isn’t just a music festival but a means to show off the city, and the country, itself. To lure you in so you fall in love.,
And it worked. In just a few days, I became absolutely enamored with both.
As a result, this write-up turned out different than I had imagined. (And, obviously, as the time stamp notes, took me a lot longer to write.) Is it a music piece or a travel piece? I think in this case the two go hand in hand, making it less of a straight Airwaves review and more of an account of a truly magical time in Iceland, featuring music, culture, nature and more.
SO! That’s enough preamble. I start below with the travel elements before progressing to the account of the festival, because that’s the order in which I did things each day. Consider this your call to book a flight and grab a ticket for Iceland Airwaves 2023—and, while you’re there, make the most of your time in Reykjavik (and beyond). The location and the event are totally, beautifully intertwined.
Let’s begin with the dull but necessary note on logistics. Because while I’m well aware that the ability to go to Iceland for a music festival is definitely a luxury, it’s also far more doable than you might imagine.
When I moved to New York, everything I knew about time and distance went out the window. As we all know, going anywhere outside your neighborhood typically requires a budget of at least 45 minutes. Hell, if I’m heading up to Bushwick from Crown Heights, I cross the same river twice, and once when I was dating a guy who lived in Sunnyside, Queens, the trains were so screwed up that it took me two-and-a-half hours, the length of an actual Lord of the Rings movie, to get home.
However, while it’s often a pain getting around New York, one of the best parts about living here is how convenient it is to get everywhere else.
The flight from NYC to Iceland is just five hours and forty minutes, or the same amount of time (sometimes less than) it takes to fly to Seattle. In other words, while it feels a world away, it’s a lot closer and a lot easier to get there than you might imagine. Then, once you’ve landed at the Reykjavik airport and grabbed an espresso from Sbarro… a little taste of home shall you miss it already…you can hop on the Flybus—run by a company that also operates excursions—and be transported directly from baggage claim to a bus terminal downtown.
In addition to Iceland feeling extravagant and exotic, whenever I told anyone about my trip, one of the first responses I got from people (after “Jealous!!!”) was that they’d heard it was so expensive. However, the ticket cost itself, in my experience, wasn’t too bad—largely because, in convenient but dangerous-for-your-bank-account news, Priceline now accepts Afterpay. As for expenses once you get there, I’m happy to inform my Brooklyn-based readers that, after anxiously using a Krona-to-dollar online conversion tool for my first few purchases (breakfast, coffee, more coffee, lunch, wine), I realized that price-wise it’s actually no more expensive than eating and drinking in New York.
So: On the time and money fronts, in this specific circumstance, cheers to NYC for warping our perceptions and altering our standards in the absolute best way.
ATTRACTIONS & EXCURSIONS
In my aspirational quest to be a carefree, spontaneous type of traveler (who is really just more of a procrastinator), I told everyone who asked me what I was going to do in Iceland that I would figure it out when I got there. That all I had planned was the festival, where I would be guided by my eyes, my ears, my impulses, and the Iceland Airwaves Spotify playlist.
However, much like my unused yoga mat, pile of unread New Yorkers and drum kit that primarily serves as a drying rack for my delicates reminds me every day, there’s a big difference between who you want to be and who you actually are. And when I arrived at JFK, a far more inherent and on-brand feeling of FOMO, sprinkled with some light personal panic, immediately set in when I looked at the schedule… and realized music didn’t start until 7 p.m.
In other words, this festival was clearly designed so that visitors could enjoy the country’s wonders by day and music by night—an amazing structure that I had in no way properly planned to take advantage of. Surprisingly, but thankfully, I had a lot of one thing I hadn’t planned for when I was in Reykjavik: free time. And over the course of 4.5 days, I did my best to make the most of it.
(Note: I did okay, but I really should have done better. Time flies and excursions fill up, so please be a better planner… and less of an idiot… than I was to make the most of your time in this magnificent country.)
Icelandic Punk Museum
While Meet Me in the Bathroom borrows its title from a Strokes song, the command could be taken quite literally at Pönksafn Íslands–the Icelandic Punk Museum—which is housed in what was once a public bathroom.
In perfect punk fashion, you hear the museum before you see it—a soundtrack comprised of old concert footage, overhead music and the musical stylings of Black Elf, the maybe-50(?)-something punk working the museum, who only stopped going to town on his guitar to take my money, an admission fee what equated what equated to about $7 USD.
A small but mighty space, every square inch of the former bathroom (including the room equipped with the museum’s one working toilet) serves as exhibit, a self-guided tour through the stalls packed with facts, photos, instruments, old newspaper clippings and posters, spray-painted and studded jackets. To complete the sensory experience, there were also headphones hanging from the ceiling that you could yank down and pop on in order to properly blast your brain with a selection of Icelandic bands and get a real, visceral sense of what I learned was a very important, seriously iconic scene.
I read, I listened, I learned… and yes, indeed, I peed.
The Northern Lights
I’m here to tell you: whoever is running lights for Mother Nature up there is doing a damn good job.
Upon arrival, my first order of business and personal priority was seeing The Northern Lights, and I booked a tour through Reykjavik Excursions to do just that. The bus left at 9 p.m. from the main bus terminal in town, where it joined a fleet of vehicles as we headed out of the city to park on a designated strip of pavement in the middle of a field to stare at the sky and freeze for a few hours.
Admittedly, the primary part of the excursion didn’t yield many results. There were hints of lights here and there, which you could sort of, almost, make out when you squinted if a guide pointed directly at them and told you what you were looking at. I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed by the lack of intensity, but I know it’s not earth’s job to entertain, and I was also satisfied that on at least some level I had seen the Aurora Borealis.
But then, on our way home, we struck real glowing gold.
As our group headed back to the city, our guide caught a glimpse of green above and ordered the bus driver to pull over, where a few dozen of us once again piled out of the vehicle and looked up, up, up… where we were greeted by a sight that touched me on a deeply natural and extremely emotional level. I’m not lying when I tell you that the clear green streaks across the sky brought tears to my eyes, and I honestly can’t fully put into words what it means to have seen and experienced such a strange, beautiful thing.
For the record, I’m not sure how necessary the tour itself is. My friend Matt, who I met at the fest, showed me a photo of the lights that had been taken that weekend in the middle of town, outside of a bar. However I can say that the opportunity to catch this light show was one of the highlights of my trip, and probably my life. And, alone, absolutely worth the trip.
Because i hadn’t had enough of being outside and looking for things, the next afternoon, I decided to go whale watching. Admittedly, this isn’t an exclusive-to-Iceland activity (I’ve done it in the far less exotic of California and Washington), but it’s an adventure I truly enjoy because I believe there’s no better way to recognize, and appreciate, the non-human creatures that walk, fly and swim this earth than by getting out in the world and seeing them in the wild.
Also: boat rides rule.
After checking in at the Elding building by the water and digging into a candy dish of Dramamine to pop a pill to prevent potential seasickness, I donned a pair of provided waterproof overalls, bought the second-biggest beer from the boat bar and headed to the top deck. Soon we launched, and I spent three magical hours scoping out the scenery while listening to the knowledgable, and extremely cool guide, who delivered local myths, legends and lore, shared facts both fun and extremely upsetting about animals and the state of the environment and led us on a voyage where we did indeed see (and squeal over) many a humpback whale. An experience that reminded me once again how close we live to such magnificent creatures and how much our actions and habits impact their lives.
All in all, this was a lovely way to spend the afternoon (basically an educational and action-packed cruise with stunning views), an experience that reminded me once again how close we live to such magnificent creatures—and how much our actions and habits impact their lives—and a few hours during which I got to see the city from another perspective while being reminded of the incredible nature of… well, nature.
I may have come to Iceland alone, but it was less than six hours before I re-downloaded the dating apps I’d made a huge personal show of deleting at JFK the evening before and started swiping.
This felt like a cop-out, but it wasn’t so much a plot to find love or get laid (though Iceland does, I’m told, have a notorious hook-up culture). Rather, this was a way to… well, find someone fun to hang out with. And hopping on Feeld in a downtown coffeeshop was honestly the best decision I could have made, because it enabled me to experience Reykjavik with, and as, a local.
Stephen—the not-at-all-Icelandic alias I’m using because he reminded me every 10 minutes that our time together was off the record—was born and raised in Reykjavik. We hung out four times over four days, spending time sitting in bars, walking around and, most notably, at Laugardalslaug, a public pool.
Of everything, Laugardalslaug, I think, was what led me to fall absolutely in love with Reykjavik. Nestled in the city, the facility and its amenities felt simultaneously like an escape and, filed with what appeared to be locals, a real social hub. And for my new friend, going there was not so much an event but a daily routine, a real ritual.
Upon arriving, I paid the entrance fee (if you don’t have a towel or a suit, you can rent one) and headed to the women’s locker room for the mandatory pre-swim rinse where I stripped down and showered off amongst un-self-conscious and unbothered (so, clearly not American) females, ranging from giggling 9-year-old girls to wrinkled and relaxed 90-year-old women. Then I headed to the outdoor pool area, where Stephen and i rotated between hot tubs, cold tubs, pool and sauna, after which I emerged a more relaxed, invigorated and—miraculously—hangover-free version of myself.
These pools are conveniently located, they’re inexpensive and they’re a slice of real Icelandic life. More than anything else, this felt like experiencing Reykjavik like I really lived there, and gave me a feel for what I would do if I did.
While the famous Blue Lagoon—one of the wonders of the world and certainly, rightfully, one of the most Instagrammed—is a little ways outside Reykjavik, Sky Lagoon is a geothermal pool and spa within the city, just a short cab ride away, and offers a similarly relaxing experience in a truly awe-inspiring setting.
I had plans to fly back to New York the Sunday afternoon after the festival and made a reservation (you’ll want one of those) at Sky Lagoon for 10 a.m., as soon as it opened. Once the doors open, I checked in, rinsed off, eased in and spent two blissful hours in the steaming infinity pool, soaking against a rock, gliding through the water and gazing out at the sea and the city and enjoying a few glasses of prosecco from the swim-up bar.
While I had reservations for the Flybus, I opted to skip it in order to spend more time submerged (once you pay, you’re free to stay all day). Once when it was really time to leave (or risk missing my flight) and I’d rinsed and dressed, a Sky Lagoon employee retrieved my suitcase and pushed a button to call a cab. One had just pulled up so I was on my way within minutes and delivered to Keflavík a little less than an hour later, feeling more relaxed than I’ve ever been at an airport…and, quite honestly, maybe ever.
Alright, enough about the city, let’s get onto the main event! I have a lot of love for the festival and the amount of effort and care that clearly went into it. As we all know, just like a city, you must attend a fest to truly experience it for yourself, but here’s a brief breakdown of what was a truly wonderful weekend.
Let me start by saying I lived in Austin for nine years, and SXSW couldn’t and wouldn’t exist anywhere else. The entire city bends to accommodate the event, with every bar, restaurant, yoga studio, sidewalk, parking lot, etc. being temporarily taken over and transformed into a music venue or bought out by a tech company for an interactive installation. However, while it’s a distinctly Austin event, when visitors come for South By, they don’t really experience Austin. It’s an entirely different city for those 10 days, made up of an entirely different population. (417,000 people attended in 2019; Austin’s current population is 964,177.)
Airwaves, however, is different. With six official venues (including a museum and church) and two partner venues, all located in downtown Reykjavik, Iceland Airwaves is a similar setup as in it takes place in existing, and varying, venues. But unlike SXSW, this fest never felt like a total takeover. Instead it existed within, and in harmony with, the city itself.
The main venues were in a concentrated area of the city, all easily walkable so that you could (barring lines) easily bounce between stages, making it a far more navigable festival than many of this sort, and one where you spend most of your time enjoying rather than en route. You could catch an artist at one venue and a different band on another stage minutes later. You could make friends and actually meet up with (or run into) them again. And while there were certainly more people within the city limits than there would be during a typical weekend (8,000 people reportedly attended in 2021, and even the gyro spot where I grabbed a post-show snack was poppin’ at midnight), I still felt like I got a vibe for what Reykjavik itself was really like: undeniably charming and equal parts historic and hip, with enough interesting architecture to feel foreign, enough attractions and tourists to feel like a big city and enough cool bars, music venues and vegan restaurants to satisfy the most spoiled Brooklynite.
Not to harp on SX, but given its history, size and significance—how recognizable it is and how big it’s gotten—it’s a basic baseline from which to appraise other festivals. I’ve had a lot of fun there over the years (and written about it), but as time has gone on, I’ve honestly found myself to be increasingly fonder of smaller events, which feel more manageable, more personal and more interesting—like you’re part of something less obvious… in on something before the rest of the world (and the culture-chasing corporations that exist therein) have discovered it.
Last March I had the privilege of attending Treefort in Boise, Idaho, which even in its 10th year, with some huge headliners, hasn’t been overrun. My friends and I bounced between venues all day and night, skipping from show to show, high-fiving the wrist-banded hands of new friends and casually chatting (briefly!) with Doug from Built to Spill when he wasn’t playing, watching from the crowd or playing basketball off the back of a van.
My Iceland Airwaves experience felt similar to that wonderful weekend in that the festival lacks the pain and pretentiousness that often come with bigger, more commercial events. While it’s been around for 20+ years, it was still cool without trying, still oriented around discovery and still about bands—not brands. And this ethos, a mission based on music, can’t be faked. The love was evident in every person involved and came through on every front, from the excitement of the musicians to the attitude of the staff to the enthusiasm of the fans who’d come from down the street or across the world to attend.
Beyond passion, it was clear that the festival wasn’t just originally founded to draw attention to Icelandic acts but continues to run on local loyalty and city pride. Along with bringing in big and international artists to draw in attendees and entertain residents, the goal was still clearly to show off Iceland’s sweethearts to new, music-hungry audiences, helping these bands find new fans and achieve exposure that’s very much deserved.
While it’s probably the primary job of a writer at a music festival to record and report all the bands they see, I tend to get so absorbed in the action that I find the experience to be a total blur. Afterwards, I always find myself looking back over a packed 72-hour period, simultaneously sure I was busy and having a blast the entire time while struggling to remember what, exactly, I even did.
Having thoroughly surveyed the lineup and pre-gamed with the aforementioned playlist (above), I had a massive and ambitious band bucketlist, but—as is always the case at these events—I didn’t manage to come even close to seeing them all. What I did see, though, I loved, and a few highlights that stood out included FLOTT, a band my aforementioned new friend Matt described as Icelandic ABBA, whose frontwoman tossed out free Blue Lagoon facemasks, Oprah-style, into the crowd; sameheads, a group of local boys in button downs serving up the same kind of sick post-punk as my favorite Brooklyn bands; Metronomy, a headliner who played “The Look” and transported me back to 2010 in the most nostalgic, danceable, wonderful way; and Yot Club, an endearing darling (with, I’m told, a breakout TikTok hit) whose solo set gave me—to use a local project for comparison—some big Bummer Camp vibes.
Finally, the last band I’ll mention, and the note I want to end on, is Karma Brigade. On (I think) Saturday, I caught the dreamy pop-rock band comprised of incredibly talented (and sweet) 19/20 year olds playing a non-fest event at the non-fest space that is bookstore/bar/music venue/my new favorite place on the planet, Bókabúd Máls og Menningar. Where I was absolutely blown away.
Since introducing myself to the band after their set, we’ve been keeping in touch, and I’m stoked to report that we’re currently working on setting up three shows in NYC in March. (Details coming soon.) I can’t wait to import some Icelandic music for you all, and I hope their sets will allow you to sample just some of the amazing music coming out of the country—and to get you properly pumped for next year’s Airwaves.
It’s safe to say I’ll be there, and I really, really hope you’ll come with me.
Find more info on Iceland Airwaves here and follow the festival at @icelandairwaves.
Feature photo of Northern Lights taken from my iphone <3