I first went to Iceland in 2005 inspired by the music of Sigur Rós and to experience the summer solstice. I fell in love – with the country, the natural beauty, the people, and the music scene. I had such a remarkable experience that I didn’t want to go back, thinking nothing could match the magic of that first trip.
Well, turns out I was wrong! I have been fortunate to go back many times, including for over a decade to broadcast live as part of our annual Iceland Airwaves broadcast, and each trip has had its own special magic. I get asked pretty much weekly for Iceland tips and recommendations, so here are a few, starting, of course, with record stores!
Much has been made of Iceland’s phenomenal music scene, and when you have a vibrant music scene, you tend to have some great record stores! Reykjavik happens to have two record stores that repeatedly end up on Top 10 lists of the Best Record Stores in the World—Lucky Records and 12 Tonar!
Lucky Records: The first time I entered Lucky Records I went through crates of rare jazz, soul, afrobeat, funk, and punk records and thought to myself, how the hell did all these amazing records end up in Iceland! The answer is storeowner Ingvar Geirsson, a sweetheart with a relentless passion for great music and community building. Their motto is “Love all, serve all” and that inclusiveness and sheer passion for music is felt. Massive selection. They host in-store performances and recently started releasing records on their own label.
12 Tónar Records: A cool, friendly store that specializes in Icelandic and Nordic music along with classical and experimental music. 12 Tónar is also a long-running Icelandic record label that has played a key role in championing Icelandic artists having released essential records from Jóhann Jóhannsson, Apparat Organ Quartet, Samaris, Mugison, Ólöf Arnalds, and more.
Reykjavík Record Shop: a small store with a beautifully curated selection of great albums—new and used rarities. They also have been releasing cool records lately like the latest from Grísalappalísu and the Pink Street Boys.
Smekkleysa: the store that spun out of the DIY art, poetry, literature, and music collective who in 1986 released the first Sugarcubes 7” which they financed by the printing of a postcard featuring a drawing of the Reagan and Gorbachev summit in Iceland. Since then they’ve put out many amazing records, including one of the most beautiful records ever created and the inspiration for my first trip to Iceland, Sigur Rós’ Ágætis Byrjun! Legendary!!!
Mengi: An art space, store, and record label that hosts events and releases music by some of Iceland’s most ambitious and experimental artists. For me, the type of place that it doesn’t matter who’s booked, or if I’ve heard of them before, I always find it interesting in challenging in the best ways.
The Golden Circle: This is pretty much a solid day trip. It's touristy, but that means very little in Iceland – the touristy spots are cool, for good reason. There are three main attractions on the Golden Circle, Geysir Geothermal area, Gullfoss, and Þingvellir. The earth is bubbling, smoking, and blowing off steam at the Geysir Geothermal area, and it is the site of the earliest documented geysir (and geysir namesake!), Gullfoss is a spectacular waterfall, and Þingvellir is a national park where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are splitting and the longest-running parliament of humankind, the Althingi, initially met (Viking tribes)--a swear there's a very spiritual vibe there. I try to go every time I go to Iceland. If you're up for it, I would recommend driving--it's fun to drive when you get out of the city.
The Blue Lagoon: a geothermal spa located in a lava field known for the milky blue color of the inviting water, which is due to the high silica and mineral content. Probably Iceland's biggest "tourist" attraction, it’s a “must do,” at least once--in part for the surreal nature of it, and also for the healing properties. It’s close to the airport, and a great way to decompress before or after a long flight.
Jökulsárlón: one of Iceland’s natural wonders, Jökulsárlón is a glacial lagoon, a lake, really, filled with icebergs breaking away from the Vatnajökull glacier and drifting out to sea. Stunning. One of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve been to. It's pushing it for a day drive from Reykjavik, you probably need two, but it’s a beautiful drive. Just do a google search on Jökulsárlón, look at the images, and you'll want to go.
Swimming in Iceland and Reykjavik is a must do--the geothermal water is incredible with legendary healing powers. And, it's where locals go to socialize so you’ll likely get into some interesting conversations.
Vesturbæjarlaug is in a west Reykjavik neighborhood and has a low-key kind of charm with a great sauna. There are a great coffee shop and bakery nearby, too.
Sundhöll Reykjavíkur: awesome art deco pool right downtown. They recently added an outdoor pool, too!
Laugardalslaug is a sports complex--but pretty awesome--you're swimming in like an Olympic pool, but filled with warm geothermal water! An Olympic sized hot tub!
Almost every neighborhood has a pool, so you should be able to find one near you. Find more info here.
Coming soon, tips and recommendations on running, eating, venues, coffee shops, shopping and more. In the meantime, if you’re going to Iceland and looking for something to do, the Reykjavik Grapevine is a good place to start.
Can't make it to Iceland right now? Follow along with KEXP's broadcast from Iceland and revisit performances from past Iceland Airwaves festivals here.
DJ Kevin Cole chats with the father of the late Icelandic composer in Reykjavik
KEXP shares videos and reflections from a tribute to the late Icelandic composer, filmed during our 2018 trek to Reykjavik.