Iceland is known for its beautiful landscapes, astounding museums, and superb hiking trails, but for many Icelandophiles, it’s still the music and art scene that is the biggest draw. Iceland has in recent years produced artist such as Of Monsters and Men, Sigur Rós, and Björk, of course. In order to showcase the best Iceland has to offer, as well as newer artists taking their first steps, Iceland hosts several music festivals each year. Ranging from intimate one-venue festivals to incredible multi-venue happenings, community-building festivals, and a three-day nonstop solstice party that includes a gig in a glacier, there’s something for everyone. There are too many great festivals to list them all year, especially since there are new and exciting musical extravaganzas popping up every year, but here are the Top Ten Icelandic music festivals you shouldn’t miss.
Dark Music Days
(28 – 30 January)
They say that living in the North, with its long winter nights, can take its toll on people’s mood. To counteract the effects of the constant darkness, The Society of Icelandic Composers started the Dark Music Days, a festival of contemporary music aimed at improving the mood during the long, dark winter months. It was held for the first time in 1980 making it one of the oldest festivals in Iceland, dedicated to music. It takes place in the impressive Harpa concert hall and provides a beautiful opportunity to enjoy the newest works of the Iceland Composer Society’s finest composers. If that doesn’t brighten up your winter, I don’t know what will.
(28 – 30 January)
Located on five stages in a single venue, Sónar Reykjavík is a weekend packed with some of the best musicians of the electronic music landscape, along with up-and-coming artists we’re sure to hear about in the future. The festival itself originated in Barcelona, in 1994, but has expanded to multiple locations due to its popularity. Sónar takes place in Harpa, the Reykjavík concert hall, and more than 60 artists, both Icelandic and international will perform. Among the performers are Icelandic “machine rock&roll” Apparat Organ Quartet, US composer Oneohtrix Point Never, with his stunning mixes of experimental and mainstream music, Icelandic hip-hop band Úlfur Úlfur, Holly Herndon, Black Madonna, AV AV AV, and many more. If you decide to visit Sónar Reykjavík in 2016, prepare for an unforgettable blast of electronic, hip-hop, and experimental music.
Aldrei Fór Ég Suður – I Never Went South
The name of the festival comes from a song by Icelandic music legend Bubbi Morthens. Going south in Iceland usually means going to Reykjavík, and Aldrei fór ég suður is proudly rooted in Ísafjörður, a town in the north part of the Westfjords. It’s held in an old fishing warehouse every Easter and since it’s all about showcasing the local talents, along with popular bands “from the south”. The program ends up being a rather chaotic mix of folk, rock, funk, punk, and electronic music and the atmosphere is inclusive. The audience includes most of the people in town and hordes of people that travel north specifically for the festival. There are some rules, each band gets 20 minutes, there are no sound checks and there are no headliners. The most attractive part of the festival is the atmosphere that is created in this town of 2500 people. It is about equality, encouragement, and support for everyone and anyone that steps on the stage. The entire experience has been described as surreal, adventurous, and incredibly entertaining. Oh, did we mention that it is free? There are no commercials, no queues, no tickets, just pure fun!
If you’re looking for a unique experience, the Saga Fest is a festival of unity that has people working, eating, meditating, and doing yoga together, as well as performing, on a farm near Selfoss. Other than music, there are many other activities, including community development workshops, storytelling circles, and art installations. The main goal behind this transformative festival is to promote social and environmental change. The most amazing thing about it is that everyone is on the same level, participants and organizers, artists and musicians, working together to create a community of openness, creativity and change.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend three days of uninterrupted sunlight listening to all sorts of music from all over the world surrounded by awe-inspiring landscape? Speaking from experience, I’d recommend it! Secret Solstice will be held for the third time this year around the time of the summer solstice. The midnight sun alone is enough to set the stage for a memorable event, but coupled with geothermal pool parties, incredible artists, both Icelandic and international and the only gig ever happening inside a glacier, this festival is sure to be unforgettable. The festival takes place in the Laugardalur valley in the Reykjavík area and one of the great ways to experience this festival is to camp at the nearby campsite, meaning you never have to leave the party.
The line-up for 2016 features Of Monsters And Men, Kerri Chandler, Deftones, Youandewan and Lady Leshurr, among others. If you are lucky to snag the Super-VIP Óðinn pass, you will be supplied with meals and alcohol, included in staff and artist after parties and a boat party, along with other treats. Only 50 Óðinn passes are available!
The line-up for 2016 features Of Monsters And Men, Kerri Chandler, Deftones, Youandewan and Lady Leshurr, among others. If you are lucky to snag the Super-VIP Óðinn pass, you will be supplied with meals and alcohol, included in staff-, and artist- afterparties as well as a boat party, along with other treats. Only 50 Óðinn passes are available!
Every second weekend of July, thousands of people gather in the small town of Neskaupstaður for the metal festival Eistnaflug. The 30 to 40 bands that participate are Iceland’s top artists in the genre, and well-known foreign groups have also been known to make an appearance. The festival is not limited to metal; everything from rock and punk to black metal is accepted and celebrated at this incredible event. If you are into rock, metal, and Vikings, don’t miss Eistnaflug. The people are incredible, camping is fun, and the setting in the remote East Fjords, with its imposing black mountains all around, couldn’t be a better fit.
LungA Art Festival is held in Seyðisfjörður, a small town on the east coast of Iceland surrounded by breathtaking landscapes. At Lunga, art and music fuse together creating a unique experience of creativity. The festival consists of a week of art and music workshops that culminate in a “harvest weekend” with concerts, art exhibitions and events. The festival was started by a group of local young people who wanted to bring something new to their town. It soon went from its humble 20-participants origins to a sold-out festival in the last few years, becoming one of the most interesting events happening in Iceland. In these seven days, you will not only experience music, art, and various workshops but forge friendships and experience the unforgettable feeling of unity the festival brings.
(Last weekend of July)
Bræðslan is known for its intimate atmosphere and awesome music. It’s held in an old herring plant on the third weekend of July and not only does it offer a chance to hear some great music, it’s also a perfect chance to visit the small fishing village of Borgarfjörður eystri. The lineup is mostly folk, country, and indie-rock musicians and tickets usually sell out in the blink of an eye. If you miss the chance to get a ticket, I recommend going anyway. The whole week before, there are off-venue concerts leading up to the main event and the village is bustling with life. There is camping, incredible music, beautiful landscape and it’s all organized by a group of locals with the purpose of providing fun and entertainment for visitors and locals alike. If you decide to visit the Bræðslan festival, prepare yourself for a stunning display of local hospitality as well as great music!
Þjóðhátíð í Eyjum (The National Festival of the Westman Islands)
(29 July – 1 August)
“Go to a tiny island off the south coast, which has a volcano that’s been known to erupt without a warning and partially cover the town in mountains of lava.” It’s not the answer you’d expect when you ask about the best place to party. During the first weekend of August in Iceland, however, that’s exactly what you get. A camping festival to end all others, Þjóðhátíð is an incredible experience. The festival took place for the first time in Herjólfsdalur valley in 1874 when Icelanders celebrated the 1.000th anniversary of Iceland’s settlement. It’s since taken place in the same location every year, except for a few years in the ‘70s when the valley was covered in pumice from the volcanic eruption that almost destroyed the town. Expect music from some of Iceland’s most popular artists that will keep you dancing all night long, along with heavy drinking and debauchery. Warm clothes, good boots, and a sturdy tent are a must-have, as weather in Iceland is notoriously fickle, even in summer. In fact, fishermen’s suits of water-resistant material are a popular attire for this Viking party.
This is the big one. If you only have time for one of these fantastic Icelandic music festivals, make Iceland Airwaves the one. Not only does it feel like an autumnal harvest festival that showcases all the best music the vibrant Icelandic music scene has to offer, but every year the line-up features some of the most exciting artists from all around the world. Iceland Airwaves is a huge festival with venues ranging from intimate to football stadiums, and more than 200 artists playing over the course of five days, and offers a unique chance to experience a year’s worth of concerts in just a few days. The festival is usually sold out, but even if you don’t have a ticket, do not despair. The off-venue schedule alone is enough to keep you busy all week. This is a festival you will remember in decades to come.