Where are the best venues for live music in Iceland? What type of live music is regularly performed in Reykjavík? Read on to find out all there is to know about the best music venues in Iceland.
Icelanders cherish their reputation as naturally gifted musicians, but just as to exactly where this natural talent comes from is a mystery.
Many point to the dominating and open nature here, as well a literary history rich in communal poetry. Others consider it to be a direct result of the long Icelandic winters, forcing its inhabitants inside, close to their instruments, for extended periods of time.
What is it they say? "Practise makes perfect." No doubt, it seems to apply to the Icelanders' circumstance.
This isolation from the outside, no doubt, requires the Icelandic people to become excellent introverts, nurturing and ever-developing their potential for reflection and creativity.
Truthfully, it is likely an amalgamation of all three reasons. What is without doubt, however, is that when it comes to skilful instrumentation, composition and performance, as related to music, Iceland is internationally recognised as a creative powerhouse.
Whether it be Folk, rock n’ roll, hip-hop, techno, reggae, electronica, post-rock; Icelanders indulge in and celebrate their ability to easily flit from one genre to the other, often bringing about entirely new styles and approaches to genre music.
By now, the world is rightly aware of this.
Breakthrough Icelandic artists such as Björk, Sigur Rós, Kaleo and Of Monsters and Men are the names that first pop to mind as ambassadors of Icelandic music scene, clearly displaying the range of talents, influence and interests to be found here. Whether or not they are in Iceland at any given time is another matter entirely, however.
Of course, like anywhere else, Iceland is a hotbed of aspiring musical acts, each vying for stage time on their journey to melodic success. Who knows, perhaps you'll be the one to discover the next big Icelandic act?
If you're looking to catch some of the latest Icelandic artists in action, we urge you to do a little background research on the some of the best live music venues to be found in Iceland.
Húrra, a bar and music venue known for showcasing a wide breadth of talent, will often have a performance of some kind or another on any given night of the week. With so many artists competing for a spot on Húrra's stage, it is no accident that this dark, dank, yet wilfully charming establishment has made the top of the list.
Over the last few years, Húrra has hosted stand up comedy nights, book readings, drag performances, movie nights and countless musical events, everything from ambient electronica to screaming death metal, and is thus considered to be one of the staple venues in Iceland's capital.
Okay, so the clientele could be described as a little hipster (if one has a penchant for labelling people) but everyone, including the customers, bar and door staff, is generally a pleasure to be around. With ample seating and ample room to dance, Húrra manages to successfully meet what makes both a good bar and a good music venue.
Every Monday, Húrra hosts a jazz night; this, over time, has become one of the most popular events in Reykjavík, with the room coming alive with the sound of blaring trumpets, tinkling piano keys and bombastic drums. The event is entirely free, making it an excellent option for a relaxed Monday night down the pub.
To top it all off, Húrra has an excellent selection of local beers, further driving home the illusion whilst there that this is, truly, one of those secret venues beloved by the Icelandic Neopolitan.
Gaukurinn ("The Cuckoo") is a dim lit, second-floor bar opposite the National Gallery of Iceland (Listasafn Íslands). Close to the town's major amenities (namely, its convenience stores and fast food outlets - we are talking late night parties here), the bar is a fantastic location to begin your night, with shows of different variety often held up to three times a week.
It serves as a central hub for Iceland’s drag community, BDSM enthusiasts and for the country’s Heavy Metal fan base, managing to maintain and celebrate a unique and endearing balance between these wildly contrasting scenes.
In that sense, Gaukurinn might best be described as a rainbow, a plethora of viewpoints and talents, a bar that is very much dedicated to progress and the inter-connectivity of people.
Regular nights are hosted by these various communities; Drag-Súgur, the Queens of Iceland, split their performances between Drag-Lab (a show for aspiring drag kings and queens, and various holiday shows throughout the year. This high energy, loose-cannon cabaret show sees acts lip-sync, strip down and dance all inhibitions away, leading to parties in the late hour.
Recently, the Drag-Súgur spin-off show, "House of Strike", has also put on performances at Gaukurinn, as well as shows at Húrra, furthering expanding the already popular drag scene in the country.
In 2018, the recent edition of regular Singer-Songwriter nights has helped to cement Gaukurinn at the centre of Iceland’s underground music scene. Held twice each month, both experienced performers and newcomers alike have the opportunity to demonstrate their talents in an intimate and welcoming setting.
These nights are being run by the Icelandic artist, Dilicus, who recently returned from her first US tour.
With its glaring, glass-heavy architecture, jutting angles and position on the coast, Harpa has become such a symbol of change and reinvention in Iceland, such an example of Reykjavík’s rapid urban development, it is, in fact, hard to imagine the city before it.
This point is proven all the more when you consider the fact that Harpa Concert Hall very nearly did not exist. Originally intended as part of a redevelopment scheme focused on the Austurhöfn area, (then referred to as World Trade Centre Reykjavík), Harpa was to be just one building in a complex of hotels, retail units and restaurants. Construction began in 2007 but was halted as the Icelandic Banking Crisis took hold the next year.
Thankfully, with a sudden influx of tourists, Iceland managed to pull itself, somewhat, out of the financial quagmire. It was decided by the government that construction would continue on the half-built concert hall, despite the fact that it would, at that time, be the only construction happening in Iceland.
Consider, if you will, the difference walking around Iceland's capital today, where construction sites and cranes make up an essential part of the urban landscape.
Today, in full completion, Harpa holds four permanent residents; the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Iceland Opera, the Reykjavík Big Band and Maximus Musicus, an illustrated series about a musical man who inspires the younger generation of Icelanders to explore and experiment classical music.
You will however not only enjoy classical music here, as Harpa is the home for electronic and hip hop music festival Sónar Reykjavík, as well as the host for multiple genres of music, both by local and international visitors.
On the front page of Kex Hostel’s website sits a short, seemingly revealing quote; “A gentleman is a man who plays the accordion but doesn’t.”
This should be disregarded immediately… not only will you hear accordions and all manner of other instruments, you’ll be exposed to music that challenges even the most tasteful of aficionados. I speak, of course, of bebop, swing and boogie-woogie. I talk of the elusive, mysterious devil music that is Jazz.
Despite the fact that Kex is open as to the type of musical artists who play there, it seems that jazz music is closest to the patrons’ hearts, with a weekly show held there each Tuesday evening.
Kex Hostel has long been partnered with Seattle based radio station, KEXP, famed for their intimate video series of live musical artists. For Reykjavík based artists, there could be no better backdrop; the hostel is decorated with dusty books, large wall maps and creeping green ferns, creating a little slice of creative heaven right there on the bar’s floor.
As Iceland’s premier whiskey bar, there really is no other location other than Dillon that is quite so suited to a weekly Blues Jam. If you're a fan of blues, you better find yourself here; nowhere else in the country can match it for the sheer ambience.
Nestled upstairs in Dillon’s intimate, wood cabin interior, lovers of the twanging guitar congregate together, squeezing in as the house band begins to fit and squeeze itself into one, sultry corner of the room.
As the lights dim, the room comes alive with the boozy, dusky sounds of Americana swamp music. Feet begin to stomp, beer glasses are slammed rhythmically on the table, and for two hours a week, the very best of Iceland’s blues musicians own the room.
Aside from the music, of course, Dillon boasts a fantastic selection of whiskeys, including the authentically Icelandic liquor, Floki. Aside from whiskey, there is also a great selection of local beers, providing everything you'll need for a fun, muggy night out down the saloon.
Prikið is one of Iceland's bars, having served customers for nearly 60 years. Tight, musky and enclosed, with a bar space that takes up most of the building's lower level, Prikið is a favourite amongst locals thanks to its insider ambience, reputation for good music and its unique place in the city's history.
Lovers of hip hop, grime and cloud rap will quickly find Prikið to exceed their expectations. Frankly, anyone who's anyone in the Icelandic rap game has, at one time or another, demonstrated their lyrical mastery or talent behind the drum machine on this very stage, standing within touch distance to a crowd of jumping, hollering music fans.
IÐNÓ, a half cultural centre, half cafe/restaurant, sits in a building that dates back all the way to 1897 and is found right beside downtown's charming inner-city pond, Tjörnin.
With such prize real estate, it is little wonder that IÐNÓ has focused itself on providing a quality experience, be it in their range of quintessential Scandinavia dishes, or in the performances that are held there throughout the year.
The building houses an event space on 3 floors, a restaurant, café, coworking space and a music studio.
Performances vary greatly, from regular Reykjavík Poetry Brothel events to high school plays, regular tango and salsa dance nights to release concerts and music festivals. This is also a popular venue for wedding ceremonies and conferences, so you can't bet on there being live music daily. It's however well worth a look at their program to see what's going on each day as they have some of Iceland's most interesting artists performing here.
Since its construction in 1913, Tjarnarbíó House has taken on a number of different roles, including that of a cinema, ice storage facility and gymnasium. Positioned dead in the centre of town, the building has long been recognised as an architectural staple within the city, a fact made all the more important given its history and variety of uses over the last century.
Renovations occurred to the building from 2008 to 2010 in order to make space specifically catered to the performing arts. Although the space functions primarily as a theatre today, the establishment is comprised of a large venue used as a concert hall, cinema, conference centre or theatrical space along with a rehearsal space and a bar.
Housed in the original 1915 home of Iceland's prime minister, Hannes Hafstein, Hannesarholt was one of the first 15 concrete houses ever built in Iceland's capital city. First opened to the public in February 2013, after going through a number of serious renovations, Hannesarholt is rightfully considered one of the more sophisticated performance venues in the country.
Whilst the first floor is now a dedicated restaurant, café and bar space, the building's upper levels and adjacent auditorium are rented for private performances and parties throughout the year. Hannesarholt also runs a small apartment next door which is rented out for visiting musical artists and private travellers.
The building's assembly hall, Hljóðberg, is one of the premier music venues in the capital. One of its greatest draws is that it contains the very best Steinway 211 Grand pianos found in Iceland, a fitting tribute to an establishment that relishes in classical music and composition.
The Nordic House, found just beside the main University of Iceland building, is a cultural centre dedicated to preserving and expanding Scandinavian heritage between the Nordic countries: Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
The building's harmonious design is the brainchild of Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, one of his later works. Guests here will be able to see numerous examples of his style throughout, from the curving blue rooftop (made to reflect the profile of the background mountains) to the white tile/wooden interior.
Music is just one of the cultural outlets on which the Nordic House focuses on, showcasing examples of Scandinavian music that ranges anywhere from Norwegian Jazz to Nordic Folk Music.
A relatively new contribution to Reykjavík’s culinary scene, this industry colossus is, of course, known worldwide for blending music and food in an entertaining, family-friendly way, providing a strange, but an undeniably fun experience of eating a meal whilst feeling backstage at an arena concert.
Reykjavík's Hard Rock Cafe boasts three stylish floors, each with its own ambience and well-thought design. Be you in the Icelandic capital, or anywhere else around the world, one of the great pleasures of dining in a Hard Rock is the level of detail and care that seems to go into the building's interior decor.
Downstairs, one can find the Rock Shop®, perfect for purchasing souvenirs and hard rock collectables, whilst upstairs sees the primary dining area.
'The Cellar', where the main venue is, will on a routine day seat approximately ninety people for dining. There is also a larger stage where bigger concerts are held, which seats 36 at the bar. When truly enormous musical acts grace the stage, up to 250 people can be fit in the Cafe for the live show.
With fantastic American classics, the food here is an equal match to the establishment’s interior decor, classic, with legendary guitar replicas and rock 'n' roll memorabilia lining the walls. Those who have visited a Hard Rock Cafe before will, I'm sure, find little to no surprise here, save the Icelandic flavour that is brought not only to the establishment's dishes but also its performers.
Græni Hatturinn is not just one of the most popular concert venues in Akureyri, but it ranks amongst the best in the entire country. Those looking to experience this intimate, bluesy cellar-venue are recommended to arrive early in order to avoid queuing, and to secure a seat, otherwise expect to stand like everybody else. This place really is that popular.
Visiting musicians to Iceland have often claimed that Græni Hatturinn is among their favourite venues, succinctly indicating as to why the venue has lasted so long in a relatively small city. Because Græni Hatturinn is a staple stop on a night out for many Akureyri locals, it has become one with the community, as part of Akureyri as its famed Botanical Gardens and Church.
With a wildly ambitious programme that runs all year, this venue sees local and international acts alike bringing music and culture to Iceland's capital of the north. The venue is found beneath Bláa Kannan café on Akureyri's main high street, Hafnarstræti.
What Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre is to Reykjavík is what HOF is to Akureyri, an architecturally magnificent landmark that demonstrates Iceland's place in the 21st Century.
Opened in 2010, HOF meets a number of requirements for Akureyri locals; not only does it boast two large conference halls, but visitors will also find a restaurant and two auditoriums designed specifically for musical performance.
The larger of these auditoriums can fit up to 500 people and is built in such a way as to accommodate all heights. The smaller auditorium seats approximately 200 people and is of flat design, making it disadvantageous for shorter people.
HOF was just one of the cultural centres constructed after a 1999 decision by the Icelandic government to expand the arts outside of the capital. Like most iconic buildings in Iceland, the architecture is deeply rooted in Icelandic nature, with many aspects of the cultural centre's exterior being constructed from the Icelandic granite, Stuðlaberg.
The Freezer is both a music venue, theatre and hostel found on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, an area otherwise referred to as "Iceland in Miniature" thanks to its sheer variety of natural attractions and landscapes.
The Freezer is located in the village of Rif, between Hellissandur and Ólafsvík, and caters to visitors all year round, not just as a means of accommodation, but as a cultural venue, exhibiting numerous events and activities throughout the summer months. These can range from stand up shows, theatre and musical performance to pub quizzes, karaoke and movie screenings.
In the past, both acclaimed Icelandic and international artists have played The Freezer, including the likes of MAMMÚT, Digvalley, Kaleo and the jumping electronic duo, GusGus.
Alongside musical acts, The Freezer boasts its very own professional theatre, producing a variety of shows in English each year. Many of these performances are inspired by the sagas and folktales of West Iceland, in an attempt to bring this rich history alive in front of the younger generations. Performances are held in a renovated fish processing factory, providing an insight into this region's living, breathing history.
Dularfulla búðin ("The Mysterious Shop") is Iceland's one and only Steampunk store, coffeehouse/bar and museum, dedicated to bringing this sub-genre of science fiction and design into the hearts and minds of Icelanders across the country.
For those of you who are unaware as to the nuances of steampunk culture, imagine a stylistic retro-world, revolving around steam-powered technology, set in the near future. We're talking Victorian-era fashion mixed with mechanical clogs and crossbows. If you've ever played Bioshock, you get the idea...
Situated in the town of Akranes and run by steampunk enthusiast, Ingimar Oddsson, himself an accomplished musician, this strange little establishment provides a distinct voice in the pantheon of Icelandic music venues.
Ingimar himself provides guests with a short tour of the museum, plays live music, makes a damn fine coffee and even organises the annual Iceland Steampunk Festival. In short, Ingimar is a busy man, but not so busy as to ensure your visit to the Mysterious Shop is a memorable one.
Did you enjoy our article about the Best Music Venues in Iceland? Where did you check out during your holiday in Iceland, and were there any particular Icelandic musicians who have stayed with you? Make sure to leave your thoughts and queries in the Facebook comments box below.