Reykjavik is the planet’s most northerly capital city. Pretty in a no-nonsense way, it’s big enough to harbour some interesting cultural scenes but also small and remote enough to have developed a truly unique character, with sounds to match. Check out Prikið – the unassuming-looking café on the main drag of Laugavegur – to hang out with GKR and the other emerging stars of the Icelandic hip hop scene… or at least drink a hot chocolate in their presence.
It might struggle to match the buzz and bustle of other capitals, but Reykjavik is smart, stylish and well laid-out, with an outstanding tourist information centre (2 Aðalstræti) for booking all your trips. The Laundromat Cafe on Austurstræti is an easygoing local hang-out, with bookcases full of paperbacks arranged by colour. If it’s a book you’re after, or just some vintage Icelandic smut (highbrow stuff, for the collectors) try Bókakjallarinn off Laugarvegur. Of Reykjavik’s many great museums, the Settlement Exhibition on Aðalstræti is particularly good for a glimpse of Iceland’s Viking past. And you’ll also want to take a selfie in front of Hallgrimskirkja, the epic ’40s-built Lutheran church at the top of town.
No disrespect: the visuals at Sónar will be excellent, but it’s hard to better the Aurora Borealis. Check the Northern Lights forecast at en.vedur.is, then book a trip by boat or by bus to a remote location where you can view the green glow of particles dancing through the Earth’s atmosphere. Also popular from Reykjavik is a ‘Golden Circle’ tour, visiting a few of the country’s premium geological sites in just a day. These include the Gullfoss waterfall, and some diamond geysers in the area of geothermal activity by the Hvítá River.
Iceland’s orgasmic embarrassment of naturally occurring riches is enjoyed by just three people per kilometre – that’s the lowest population density in Europe. Given how much of the world’s most hauntingly beautiful music comes from this country, it’s safe to assume that anyone you meet is in some sort of boundary-pushing post-rock band.
After crafting ethereal lullabies to make you weep tears of pure joy, Icelanders’ favourite pastime is sitting quietly in some very hot water. And what a great idea that is, especially as the island’s geothermal potential means the landscape abounds with steaming pools of nutritionally-rich Earth juice. The most popular of these is the Blue Lagoon – a site a short coach ride away from Reykjavik where you can spend hours bathing in a setting that has to be seen to be believed (think: ‘Jurassic World’). There are plenty of swimming pools to visit in the city, also. Why not stew awhile in the 42 degrees celsius ‘hot pot’ at no frills pool Sundhöllin in the centre.
Don’t be put off by the price of Nordic beer – the locals aren’t. And on Saturday night Laugavegur is teeming with good time party people wearing surprisingly thin jackets. Bravó is a nice low-key bar to warm up in, while Prikið really heats up after-hours – expect to find a queue outside. The beautiful people seem to end up at Kaffibarinn, nearby on Bergstaðastræti, where a cool crowd (literally, if the door’s left open) dance to house and techno till 5am. If you’re looking to pre-load, superb freesheet The Reykjavik Grapevine lists all the local happy hours. Pick it up from most tourist information offices.
In fact, Reykjavik’s got a strong restaurant game. If you’re looking to go local, places such as the Old Iceland Restaurant on Laugavegur will dish up cured fish and meaty soups. For snacks, you can’t go wrong with a heavily sauced ‘pylsur’ hot dog, sold at stands all over the city but most famously at the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur shack on Tryggvatagata.
The Icelandic wooly jumper is a thing of rare beauty. In autumnal shades, and always with a diamond pattern surrounding the collar, it’s not just a gimmicky tourist gift – everyone wears one. And who doesn’t want to party in a city that appreciates a good knit? Get yours immediately from the Handknitting Association of Iceland at 19 Skólavörðustígur.
Harpa Concert Hall, where Sónar Reykjavik takes place, is a futuristic-looking glass and steel structure, with corners that jut out proudly like the hulls of the ships in the harbour next door. It’s a grand location for a festival, and even better if you stay in the understatedly cool Icelandair Reykjavik Hotel Marina just a short stagger down the road. Bonus: the hotel’s home to one of the city’s better bars, Slippbarinn.
An offshoot of the massive electronic music get-together held annually in Barcelona, Sónar Reykjavik is a no-less progressive and enticing event. Producers Hudson Mohawke, Squarepusher, Holly Herdon, Floating Points and Oneohtrix Point Never will be pushing the avant-garde over the event’s three days, supported by Icelandic hip hop newcomers, such as GKR, and a intriguing cross-section of the island’s best talent. Unspeakable beauty mixed up with heavy, heavy beats – even Willy Wonka didn’t offer that.
Jonny flew from London Heathrow with Icelandair.
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