A Walk Through Iceland’s Capital, Guided Only by Music

A journey through the world’s northernmost capital city

It had to have been around 2:45 AM when my seat-mate switched on his reading light. Sprawled on his tray table was an array of travel guides, maps, and snack wrappers. A Lonely Planet book, entitled Iceland, found itself at the top of the pile, filled with dog ears and highlighter markings. The man in the seat, who seemed to be in his late twenties, studied the page as if he had just finished a final exam and was checking over the answers. At the center of the glossy page a colorful, erupting geyser caught my attention. It was circled with pink marker, with the note “Must see!!” written adjacent.

Although I’ll admit I am enticed by Iceland’s natural wonders, this time I was going for another reason. On my tray table, the travel guides and pamphlets were replaced with a copy of the Reykjavik Grapevine and the address of a small shop on Skólavörðustígur. This time, I was going to Reykjavik to immerse myself in the music.

Landing in Keflavík, Iceland

My first stop was the Kex Hostel — a biscuit factory-turned-social-hangout kind of place — situated a minute’s walk from Reykjavik’s harbor, a minute’s car ride from Hallgrímskirkja, or a minute’s helicopter ride from the fishing boat just departing for Greenland’s Narsarsuaq port. It’s the type of hostel that makes you want to sell all your belongings and replace them with steampunk alternatives, and their website claims, “A gentleman is a man who can play the accordion but doesn’t.” Czech beer flows endlessly at the first-floor gastro pub while a group of Australians share Norwegian vodka with a German photographer at the second-floor lounge. The most unique feature of Kex, however, is that it doubles as a live music venue. Artists can be so unknown and peculiar that they don’t even have a name; however, nothing quite compares to the convenience of enjoying live music in the comfort of your own hostel.

After checking in and leaving my stuff in the 16-bed dorm, I returned to street level to find a cafe. Within minutes, I found myself at Reykjavik Roasters, in the shadow of Hallgrímskirkja. Before I could reach for the door it was opened from the inside, letting out a warm front of ground coffee and pastries. Inside, a Beach Boys vinyl was spinning on a phonograph, nearly drowned out by the sounds of coffee grinding and people socializing. I ordered the strongest coffee they had and placed a few coins on the table, sorted only by which type of fish was engraved on the head.

Beach Boys played out, and soon the sound of coffee grinding took priority. Before long, someone replaced the record with Toto IV. Great choice.

Can you tell why this is now my favorite coffee shop in the world?

Just down the street, I stumble upon a shop specialized in painting old vinyl records. Beautiful, yet frightening designs fill the wall, each piece telling a unique story of juxtaposition.

Secret Solstice

Iceland’s quintessential summer music festival has been growing dramatically over recent years, featuring headliners such as the Foo Fighters, Radiohead, and Die Antwoord. I was lucky enough to make it to the festival in 2016, where Of Monsters and Men, an Icelandic band, performed their new album. The festival was held just outside 101 Reykjavik, an easy walking distance from just about any point of the city. If you’re a music lover, which I can assume given the fact you’re reading this article, this festival is not to be missed. The most unique part? The sun doesn’t set.

Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir, Of Monsters and Men

My final stop is Iceland’s own 12 Tónar, a record shop/record label operating out of a cute two-story building on Skólavörðustígur. I take a seat in the listening area, and the friendly shopkeeper offers me a cup of coffee. I ask him for some local music recommendations, and he hands me a stack of albums, each by a different Icelandic band. There’s something unique about Icelandic music; you can hear the mythical inspiration, unavoidable for musicians from such a mythical land. The Sagas speak of mischievous trolls, and the Aurora Borealis speak of supernatural beings, and somehow, both are present in the stack of CDs. There’s something unique about Icelandic music, and there’s something sacred about listening to Icelandic music in 12 Tónar.

Written by

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Buddhist. Expert adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia.

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