The Beginner’s Guide to Iceland Airwaves

Iceland Airwaves 2016 is right around the corner, running from November 2-6 and with all the action taking place in the heart of downtown Reykjavik.  This will be our eighth Airwaves, and over the we’ve gotten to know some pretty cool spots in the city for eating, drinking, and getting into general nonsense, so with that in mind we thought we’d share some of our favorite spots with you.

Coffee

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You can’t do a five-day festival like Airwaves without copious amounts of coffee.  At least I can’t.  And fortunately Icelanders seem to love their java.  The best latte in town is definitely at Reykjavik Roasters (Kárastígur 1), and given that it’s two blocks from the apartment we stay at you can expect to find us starting most days there.  However, if we’re jonseing for cappuccinos, we’ll walk a little further and get them at the fantastic bakery Sandholt (Laugavegur 36 – above), and probably pick up a pastry while we’re there.  If I’m record shopping at Lucky I’ll pop into the cool Café Roma (corner of Laugavegur and Rauðarárstígur), which also offers a great selection of juices for your non-coffee-driking friends.  In the afternoon we prefer the quirky Café Babalú (Skólavörðustígur 22) and it’s fantastic selection of freshly baked cakes.

Food

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Having a hot dog should be mandatory if you’re in Reykjavik, and the best spot to get one is the hole-in-the-wall stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Tryggvatagata 1 – right).  It’s not uncommon for there to be a line, especially if you’re looking for a post-show dog on Friday or Saturday night.  If you’re more of a burger fan, Hamborgarabullan (Geirsgata 1) offers the best fast-food style munchies, served complete in red plastic baskets.  If you prefer a more gourmet style burger, check out Íslenski Barinn (1a, Ingólfsstræti), which also boasts a decent beer selection.

No festival goer will want to be without some pizza at some point.  Our favorite spot to order a pie is Eldsmiðjan, which has multiple locations though we usually hit the one at Bragagata 38.  Sometimes you just need a slice, though, and if that’s the case head in to either The Deli (Bankastræti 14) or Devito’s (Laugavegur 126), both of which are generally open late to help put some grease and dough into all that beer in your stomach.  Just watch out for the drunks, who are usually more an annoyance than an actual problem.

There are plenty of places for a nice sit-down meal as well.  Every year we make a point of hitting up the great Pakistani cuisine at Shalimar (Austurstræti 4), which also offers a decent selection of import beers.  If you’re craving Italian then Ítalía (Laugavegur 11) is a no-brainer offering the gamut of Italian deliciousness.  Probably our favorite “nice” restaurant is Cafe Solon (Bankastræti 7a), a slightly more formal setting that has some decent wine on offer.

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We usually don’t go out for breakfast, but when we do we go to Café Paris (Austurstræti 14 – left), and it never disappoints.  One place we’ve tried to hit up a number of times over the years is Prikið (Bankastræti 12), but it’s always so packed that we can’t get in (which is, of course, a good sign).  Prikið also has a food truck for your late night snacking needs.  And speaking of food trucks, some nights a number of them set up at Lækjartorg for concert goers and random drinkers.  I particularly recommend the waffle truck if it’s there.

A couple of other random recommendations include the insanely delicious lobster bisque at Seabaron (Geirsgata 4a), which truly is a must-have when you’re in Reykjavik.  And while the weather is guaranteed to be cold, if you feel the need for ice cream then head to Valdís (Grandagarður) down at the harbor, because it’s absolutely fantastic.

Drinks

There are all kinds of places where you can get a drink, and while we’re usually getting ours at a venue or when sitting down for a meal, there are a few spots we’ll go to just to sit down and enjoy a beverage.  Slippbarinn (Mýrargata 2 – below) may have the best stocked bar in Reykjavik and always has some unique cocktails on offer as well as some nice food plates for sharing with your drinking companions.  The previously mentioned Íslenski Barinn (1a, Ingólfsstræti) has a pretty solid beer selection, but for beers I’d be most likely to walk over to the great bar at KEX Hostel (Skúlagata 28), which is also a pretty hopping off-venue that also the base of operations for KEXP and their live broadcasts from Airwaves.

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There are lots of other places that look pretty cool, but that we’ve just never visited.  Finding a drink in Reykjavik isn’t a hard thing to do, and you generally won’t have to walk far.

Views

There are a few great spots for views of the city.  The closest to the action is the bell tower of the national cathedral, Hallgrimskirkja (Hallgrímstorg 101).  Not sure if they’re still charging a fee to get up there, but it was pretty nominal and the tower offers a great 360 degree view of the city.  If you don’t mind a bit of a walk, you can stroll to Perlan where you’ll probably see some rabbits on the trail and can get a nice vantage point from the roof-top observation deck.  If you’re out at night and lucky enough to catch the northern lights, there’s no place better to watch them than along the Sculpture & Shore Walk away from the city lights, particularly at the Sun Voyager sculpture.

Music Shopping

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I’m assuming you’re a music fan if you’re flying all the way to Iceland for a music festival, which means you’re probably going to want to pick up some CDs, records, and tapes of all the great new bands you’re going to discover.  Well, during Airwaves music is for sale seemingly everywhere – bars, bookstores, record shops, artist spaces… you name it.  From a selection standpoint, nobody can beat my favorite stop Lucky Records (Rauðarárstígur 10 – above) with it’s massive offerings of both new and used vinyl and CDs.  If you’re a vinyl junkie like me than you definitely need to stop by and see Reynir at Reykjavik Record Shop (Klapparstígur 35) as his nicely curated selection that includes a lot of old school Icelandic performers.  Label/record store Smekkleysa (Laugavegur 35), aka “Bad Taste” is a good quick stop, as is 12 Tónar (Skólavörðustígur 15), especially if you’re primarily interested in CDs.  If you want the used stuff, go check out the flea market Kolaportið (Tryggvagata 19) where you’ll find a number of stalls selling music as well as all kinds of other odds and ends.  There are a few other shops in town as well, including at least a couple of new ones, so trust me, you won’t have any trouble finding music to buy.

Other Stuff

You may want to do some non-music related stuff while in Reykjavik.  We’ve done horseback riding tours and ATV tours, both of which offer an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon and get out of the city (though keep the weather in mind…).  There’s also the Golden Circle bus tour that will take you out to see geysers and waterfalls and other cool natural features.  The world-famous Blue Lagoon spa is a great place to spend a few hours as well, especially now that there’s a walk-up bar right in the water.  My tip for there is to skip the crowds on Saturday and go Sunday morning – it’s a great way to relax after four hard days of festival-going and sweat out your hangover, plus there generally isn’t a lot of off-venue action on Sunday anyway.  The Icelandic Punk Museum (Bankastræti 2) is scheduled to open just before Airwaves and is located in an old public restroom below the sidewalk, and promises to be cool as hell.  And if you want to see some cool art, pop over to Dead Gallery (Laugavegur 29) – you’ll have to look to find it because it’s kind of hidden, but well worth the visit.

… Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the music!

I have two pieces of advice here.  One is to take advantage of that packed off-venue schedule.  A lot of tremendous bands will play some very small, intimate venues, and some of the very best shows we’ve seen have been in clothing stores or restaurants or in someone’s living room.  And the second is to get outside of your own musical comfort zone.  Don’t like hip hop?  Well, you should check out Reykjavíkurdætur.  Don’t like electronica?  Then you probably haven’t heard Kiasmos before.  Hate metal?  Go see HAM or DIMMA.  Try some new and different stuff while you’re in town.  There’s just so much great music happening all over the place.

Most of all, make sure to talk to people and just have fun!