Iceland produces a wealth of incredible music far beyond what you’d expect of a country so small. Culture Trip tapped up a local promoter for his top tips on the best places to catch live music in Reykjavik.
Despite its tiny population, Iceland punches well above its weight on the world stage when it comes to music. Reykjavík is the centre of the island’s creative scene and the best place to catch local and international acts live – and who better to guide us around the capital’s venues than René Boonekamp of IÐNÓ, one of the city’s best new creative spaces?
“With venues coming and going, artists here have to constantly adapt,” Boonekamp says, “but Reykjavik has a strong and resilient music scene. It’s this flexible spirit that makes me love the music scene here; creativity flourishes through [an] open-minded culture of making things happen.” Here are Boonekamp’s picks of the best places to catch live music in Iceland’s capital.
Located in a former biscuit factory at the eastern end of downtown, the KEX Hostel regularly hosts all kinds of gigs. The large common bar area is where it all goes down – it’s a bright space overlooking the harbour, filled with bookshelves, vinyl records and vintage knick-knacks, with maps on the wall. “KEX has a lovely mix of locals and visitors and has a regular jazz night alongside concerts from Reykjavík’s coolest emerging bands,” says Boonekamp. The venue usually sells out, no matter what they put on.
If punk, death metal or hardcore is your thing, Gaukurinn is the place for you. Opposite the city library near the harbour, this bar regularly hosts bands from all over Iceland (where the death metal scene is thriving) as well as international acts. “This is your proper dark venue for all the loud music Reykjavík has to offer,” says Boonekamp. Despite their occasionally intimidating appearance, the clientele, like most metalheads, are always friendly, and the drinks are cheaper than average. “It also serves up some of the best greasy vegan fast food in Reykjavík,” adds Boonekamp.
Boonekamp’s list of favourite venues was always going to include his own bar, but IÐNÓ would have made it on its own merit. Equal parts cultural centre, café, creative workspace and live-music venue, it’s all happening here, all the time. The building itself, a renovated classical concert hall, is a cultural landmark in Reykjavík, according to Boonekamp. “Dating back to 1897, [it] combines history, traditions and culture in one place – the atmosphere is hard to beat.” Located next to the city pond Tjörnin in the middle of downtown, IÐNÓ not only hosts live shows from Reykjavík’s finest, it sells a mean cup of coffee, too.
A smoky saloon, Dillon Whiskey Bar is the best place to tap your feet along to the blues during the week. Located smack bang in the middle of Laugavegur, this upstairs room regularly morphs into a den of twanging guitars, hollering vocals and beating drums – so much so that people are drawn in from the street. “It’s definitely the place to be if you like your rock music topped off with a fine whiskey,” says Boonekamp. The atmospheric wooden bar has over 170 different varieties to choose from, with prices to suit every budget.
One of the newest venues on the Reykjavík scene, R6013 is a friendly, all-ages place that hosts the city’s youngest underground bands in a basement at Ingólfsstræti 20. “A tiny artist-run venue, R6013 has beautiful energy based on a do-it-yourself attitude and alternative music,” says Boonekamp. You can find out who’s playing on the painted door leaning against the brick wall out front, and then you pay what you want for the gigs, which sometimes include free vegan food. This venue is fast becoming an integral part of the live-music scene in Reykjavík.
Created and managed by a group of local artists, Mengi is an all-encompassing project that includes an art gallery, live-music venue and its own record label. Located on Óðinsgata, a quiet street adjacent to busy Skólavörðustígur, the space plays host to an eclectic and experimental crowd. “I love Mengi because it’s home to alternative music, improvisation and everything else that’s interesting enough not to be commercial,” says Boonekamp, adding that it offers “great insight into the creative and colourful music scene that Reykjavík has become famous for”.
Prikið is Reykjavík’s oldest café. Located at the intersection of Laugavegur, Bankastræti and Ingólfsstræti, it’s hard to miss this red house, which has long been a bastion of live music and counterculture. By day it’s a snug tavern serving up a delectable selection of pub food, but come Friday, this is one of Reykjavík’s feistiest nightlife venues. “This is the home of hip-hop and youth culture in Reykjavík,” says Boonekamp. “Anyone who’s anyone in the Icelandic hip-hop scene has held a wild gig here, and it’s also a regular spot for the city’s DJs.”
Hannesarholt is an unusual venue in that it’s located in the house of Iceland’s first prime minister, Hannes Hafstein. The owners of the building have restored the premises as a place where Icelanders can come and rediscover their roots as well as exploring newer, more modern aspects of their identity through live-music performances, lectures, courses and other events.“This venue is cosy, and the performances here provide visitors with a great sense of what the Icelandic people are like,” says Boonekamp. The first level is a restaurant and café, while the performances are held on the upper levels and in the assembly hall out the back.
There’s a lot to love about the Harpa Concert Hall, one of the city’s most distinguished landmarks. On top of offering unparalleled views over the harbour, the building, designed in part by the Icelandic artist Ólafur Éliasson, won the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture in 2013. “This state-of-the-art venue holds all kinds of cultural events and concerts,” says Boonekamp. “It’s where a lot of international artists play, as well as being home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.” If it’s live classical music you’re hoping to see in Reykjavik, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Lucky Records, located next to the Hlemmur Bus Station and food hall, is a hangout for vinyl aficionados and regularly hosts live gigs. Starting out as a small stall in the Kolaportið flea market downtown, it gained such a devout following that the owner opened these bricks-and-mortar premises in 2009. Inside you’ll find wall-to-wall records covering every genre, as well as turntables and plenty of merch. The stage in the corner hosts gigs by up-and-coming Reykjavik bands as well as more established outfits celebrating their new releases.