Every November, the cozy downtown of Reykjavík in Iceland is taken over by the annual Iceland Airwaves Festival. Started back in 1999, this multi-genre showcase fest boasts 100+ artists representing a multitude of genres and has become Iceland’s longest-running music festival. Events and shows take place indoors across 15+ unique venues and are all within walking distance of each other.
Back in 2009, when we started Music Festival Wizard, Iceland Airwaves was one of the first European festivals we added to our calendar. I never imagined that someday I would get to travel here as a member of the press, but here we are, thirteen years later and I’m covering our first Icelandic music festival. Let’s take a look at what went down at IA this year.
Table Of Contents
1. Running the Numbers
Dates: November 2-4, 2023
Attendance: 2250 est. per day
MFW Beer Index: €14.02/500ml
Highest/Lowest Temperature: 5C/-1C (41F/28F)
2. The Scene
From bars to records stores to churches, Iceland Airwaves will take you on a tour of this idyllic city as you chase the music around town. The Reykjavík Art Museum featured some of the more well-known international acts like Bombay Bicycle Club and Yard Act along with one of the larger spaces of the fest. If you needed a space to chill for a bit, the Fríkirkjan church highlighted some incredible instrumental work even if the space was a bit uncomfortable to sit in. The KEX Hostel not only offered some of the cheaper lodging in the city but also two floors of music, while my favorite spot was Gamla Bíó, a spacious event space that used to be an old cinema.
Tips For Venues:
- Get there early. If the venue is full, you will have to wait in line.
- Bring a coat, mittens, and a hat. It’s cold in Iceland.
- Consider posting up at one spot for the evening, especially after 9:00 pm.
- The VIP wristband allows you to get into a separate line and skip ahead of the GA people for most of the official venues.
One of the upsides to Iceland Airwaves is the sheer amount of music – we are talking well over a hundred artists performing throughout the weekend. With so many shows happening at the same time, it’s possible to run into more than a few schedule conflicts so a little planning before each day is helpful. There’s a strong emphasis on highlighting Icelandic performers and new talent so be prepared to come with an open mind and enjoy the show.
This is a cozy-sized festival with an attendance of roughly 7,000 festies for the weekend. Some of the venues do reach capacity and can be a bit packed late at night, but otherwise, most of the venues had enough room to comfortably enjoy the shows. The crowd is mainly Icelandic although I heard lots of American and British in the crowd including a few people like myself who have had Iceland Airwaves on their bucket list for years.
3. Music Highlights
Acts I Caught and the Unofficial Order in Which I Enjoyed Them
- Bombay Bicycle Club
- Yard Act
- Dadi Freyr
- Ari Arelius
Festival MVP: Squid
This post-punk five-person band from Brighton caught my attention. It was weird. It was loud. It rocked.
First Time For Festival Wizards: Bombay Bicycle Club
Not sure how we have never photographed this perennial festival fan favorite, but I’m happy to rectify the situation here at Iceland Airwaves.
Maybe Next Time: Celebs/Mugison
I had the unfortunate timing to walk in on both these acts during their last song, with each one putting out enough energy to light up the room. Mugison is an Icelandic artist who had the room rocking with a full band in honky-tonk mode, while Celebs, a self-declared party band, went wild with glitter bombs and on-stage chaos.
4. Stray Observations
How About Those Sunsets?
Iceland is well known for its natural beauty, and the festival leaves plenty of time open during the day for exploration, but for a festival reporter recovering from a massive cold and a red-eye flight, I didn’t get a chance to leave the city. We will change that next year.
This Building Took 40 Years To Build
This has nothing to do with the festival, but the Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church finished in 1986, is just epic and dominates the city.
Blast From The Past
Caught a glimpse of this old-school poster art from All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival on the ceiling of Lucky Records.
I just love inflatables on stage, but the crowd seemed to love 4th place Eurovision Song Contest participant Daði Freyr even more.
5. Practical Info
What’s the weather like? It’s early winter in Iceland which means cold weather during the day and even chillier at night. All events are indoors so you only need to bundle up to get from venue to venue. But be forewarned, as the evening goes on (and gets colder), the lines to get inside venues can get quite long. I recommend having some mittens and a hat tucked into the pocket of your warm coat.
What are the prime hours for music? Events and shows happen across the city beginning in the early afternoon, but most of the music takes place from 8:00 pm to around 1:00 am.
Where did you sleep? Iceland is not cheap. I stayed a 10-minute scooter ride away at the Brim Hotel (€138/$147 per night), which was self-service lodging with shared bathrooms.
How do you get there and away? I flew to Iceland on Wizz Air from outside Luton (€26 OW). Most flights land at the remote Keflavík Airport about an hour away from the city where I caught a transfer into town that cost as much as my flight (€25/$27 OW). For my return trip to Boston, I tried out Iceland’s newest discount airline, Play Airlines (€234/$250) which offered direct flights for under 6 hours and one of the most cramped seats I’ve ever seen on a plane.
Travel Tip: If you have two or more people in the group, it’s not that much more to rent a car at the airport for the weekend which would allow more daily excursions around the island and easier access to flying in and out.
How do you get around town? Like everybody else in town, I used Hopp, a local scooter service (roughly €3-5 for a one-way trip) that was usually cheaper and faster than the bus. Bundle up. Those late-night scooter rides home are frigid. There is a local bus service (€3.75 one-way), but drivers don’t accept cash or credit cards – you have to download an app.
6. Final Thoughts
Showcase music festivals like Iceland Airwaves are one of the best ways to experience a new city and new music. Reykjavík, a cosmopolitan city with small-town charm, is worth the trip alone, but factor in the incredible scenery surrounding the city, a chance to see the Northern Lights, and supporting a classic independent festival makes this worth a trip to Iceland. The next edition of Iceland Airwaves has already been announced for November 7-9, 2024. You can pick up early bird tickets for under €100/$100 right now at the official website.