Paste's Guide to Iceland Airwaves

Travel Features Iceland Airwaves
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Paste's Guide to Iceland Airwaves

Festival season might be over, but the (semi) arctic doesn’t play by the rules.

Iceland Airwaves started in 1999 as a party sponsored by Iceland airline, Icelandair. What began as a music concert in an airplane hangar is now a multi-venue five day festival that hosts acts from Iceland, Europe and the Americas.

Expecting 9,000 people this year between Nov. 2 and 6, the festival turns downtown Reykjavik into an artist’s colony every fall, with fashion and art playing a part in the fun.

While the majority of attendees are locals, if you’re into acts like Björk, Santigold, Sigur Ros and PJ Harvey and have a thing for intimate gigs (even though you can attend bigger shows during this festival thanks to the city’s famous concert hall, Harpa) you might want to pack your bags and head north.

To help you traveling festivalgoers plan, we’ve compiled everything you need to know from how to get tickets last minute to what shows not to miss and where to stay.

Getting Tickets

For all you last minute planners, festival passes are still available. A pass is 19.900 kr., which is approximately $175 USD. The Iceland Airwaves Festival Pass, or wristband, is valid for all five festival days and grants access to all shows that are part of the festival. Do note that this is subject to venue capacity, so you might want to show up to the heavy hitters early.

If you want to see Björk, PJ Harvey, MÚM Kronos or Bedroom Community, you’ll have to buy separate tickets. Unfortunately, Björk sold out before the tickets were even open to the public, so good luck with that one. Luckily, MÚM Kronos and Bedroom Community don’t actually cost extra, they are just distributed separately and in person. Make your way to the Media Centre in Harpa Wednesday, Nov. 2, to get your hands on tickets to either of those shows.

The same goes for PJ Harvey; those tickets will be distributed Friday, Nov. 4, at noon at Harpa on a first-come-first-served basis. If you love PJ Harvey too much to risk not getting tickets, you do have the option of purchasing these in advance online for about $80.

Icelandair is offering flight and festival packages, and while they started at $615, this late in the juncture, the cheapest flight/festival package is about $800 from Montreal. You can add a hotel to bring the package to $1774.

Any packages from U.S. cities are over $1000.

Where to Stay

Most of the venues and off venues are in downtown Reykjavik close to the waterfront. At this point in the game, it will be hard to find a hotel that can host you for all four nights of the festival, but the following options have some availability as of now, and if you hotel hop a bit, you’ll be able to figure out lodging for all nights.

But just because this is the city’s biggest annual event doesn’t mean you have to break bank on accommodations. Hostels like Reykjavik Downtown Hostel and Loft Hostel offer low prices and acceptable sleeping arrangements. If you are willing to be a cab ride away from the venues, Oddsson Hostel will provide a place to rest your head in between acts for as low as $32/night.

If you’d prefer a homey vibe, there are some Airbnbs available.

As mentioned, you can purchase a flight/hotel/festival package from Icelandair. The cheapest hotel is Hotel Cabin, a two-star property on the outskirts of downtown. If you want to be a bit closer, splurge for a three star like the CenterHotel Plaza.

Who to See

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Photo by Alexander Matukhno

Of Monsters and Men: If you didn’t manage to catch them at Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo or Coachella, take advantage of this opportunity to see Of Monsters and Men (pictured above) in their hometown. They’re bound to play hits like “Little Talks” and “Dirty Paws,” and open your ears to their unknown songs. Their anthemic indie and alternative music has been featured on soundtracks like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and their latest album, Beneath the Skin, debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ Overall Top Albums Chart.
NASA, Friday, Nov. 4, 11:30 p.m.

Reykjavikurdaetur: Last week, thousands of women protested the gender pay gap in Iceland, so this seems like the perfect time to see a rap collective of 17 women rallying against misogyny and discrimination. Reykjavikurdaetur, which translates to “Daughters of Reykjavik,” have become known as the faces of Icelandic feminism.
Valshollin, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 10:30 p.m.

sóley: This multi-instrumentalist only realized her singing abilities recently, which is when left her band Seabear and set out on her own. Introspective and absorbing, sóley’s live show is “set to be like a dark dream,” according to the organizers.
Mengi, Thursday, Nov. 3, 7 and 9 p.m.

Mugison: If you’re going all the way to Iceland, you should probably see the musician billed as the top-selling Icelandic artist of all time. Besides, after countless electronica shows, his original classic-rock-type tunes will be a welcome respite.
Fríkirkjan, Friday, Nov. 4, 9 p.m.

Ben Frost: If you like a creative combo when it comes to tunes, Ben Frost is your guy. He is known to fuse intensely structured sound with militant post-classical electronic music. The festival organizers describe it as “concentrated minimalism with fierce, rupturing metal.” We’re not sure what that means, but we definitely want to find out.
Harpa Silfurberg, Saturday, Nov. 5, 10 p.m.

Björk: If you happened to get a ticket before they sold out, or stumble across an extra, don’t miss out on this homecoming performance from Iceland’s most prized possession.
Harpa Eldborg, Saturday, Nov. 5, 5 p.m.

Santigold: Of the few American musicians making appearances at Iceland Airwaves 2016, Santigold is one performer we won’t miss. She somehow fuses punk, reggae, grime, and indie rock with electro and has worked with artists like Björk, M.I.A., Coldplay, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and the Beastie Boys.
Harpa Silfurberg, Friday, Nov. 4, 11:50 p.m.

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Venues to Visit

No matter what you do or whom you see, make sure you hit the following venues.

Harpa: Dubbed the “glittering crown” of Reykjavík’s music venues, Harpa (pictured above) is home to the Icelandic Opera and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, but every fall it gets a little funky as all four of its spaces play host to Airwaves acts. Try to get into a show at the grand seated concert hall of Eldborg, at least. But once you’re there, you can wander between the halls pretty easily. If anything, go for the unparalleled views of the surrounding mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean from this prismatic structure.

Mengi: This tiny, tucked-away concert space is on the official program for the first time this year. With only two shows on the schedule, both Thursday, Mengi is an extremely intimate setting that is also home to an art gallery and shop.

Gamla Bíó: A historic home in Reykjavik, Gamla Bíó looks old fashioned on the outside (thanks to original design) but is hip and lively on the inside. This year, the cavernous space will host a slew of closing acts, all Icelandic.

What Else to Do

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Most of the official Iceland Airwaves shows are at night, which leaves you with plenty of daytime—and a bit of daylight—to fill. Since the shows take place in some of Reykjavik’s landmarks (including the Reykjavik Art Museum and Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík church), we suggest venturing outside of the city during your free time.

The Blue Lagoon is an obvious choice for visitors, as it’s the most popular attraction in the country. Usually “most popular” means crowds and high prices, but luckily, you will have a few weekdays free, when prices are cheaper (from 40 euros a ticket) and crowds are thinner. Of course, the Blue Lagoon is never empty, but the geothermal waters are worth it. And, if you’re hungover from last night’s shenanigans, sitting in the 100 degree pools or the sauna will be just what the doctor ordered.

If you want to balance the nights of packed clubs with a little physical exertion out in the open, save a day for the glaciers. Mountain Guides’ Walk on the Ice Side might have a corny name, but the activity is no joke. They take you to Sólheimajökull, an outlet glacier from Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s fourth-largest glacier, where you embark on an easy hike onto the ice field past ice sculptures, ridges and deep crevasses. It’s the most hands on way to learn about Iceland’s unique geology. And the best part is it’s way off the beaten path of the Golden Circle so you really can find some much needed peace and quiet before returning to the city for more beat thumping.

If you’re lucky, the non-musical stars will align, allowing the Northern Lights to shine bright during your stay. You can venture out of the city and hunt them down on your own, but if you don’t trust your gut, book an excursion with a company like Gray Line. Their Northern Lights Mystery Tour is not as hokey as it sounds; it simply takes you out of the city on a hunt for the Northern Lights with educated guides as you learn about the science behind this phenomenon. If you don’t see the Aurora Borealis on your scheduled tour, they will give you a tour another night free of charge.

Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel editor.