Exploring the Enchanting Landscapes of Iceland: 5 Cultural Highlights
Iceland is famous for its sweeping landscapes, natural wonders and thriving music scene – so we went exploring.
What comes to mind when you think of Iceland? The country has been appearing in the news as of late with reports of tremors erupting across the town of Grindavik. Evacuations have been carried out and a volcanic eruption, as the predictions say, is imminent.
Iceland is one of the world’s most volcanically active regions – a fact that’s been a source of intrigue for the country, pulling in an abundance of travellers to visit its natural wonders year-on-year. The population of Iceland clocks in at over 376,000 while around 2.1 million people travel there to explore its landscapes. It’s certainly a small population in contrast to the masses of visitors it receives.
And there are various other contrasts within Iceland too; after all, it’s known as the land of fire and ice. From hot, steamy springs to percolating mud and sharp winds circulating across its vast fields, we explored its many facets this month. November marks the annual celebration of Iceland Airwaves, a music festival with a programme that leans heavily towards local artists in the region. For its 23rd edition, we travelled to the event, which takes place in Reykjavik, and went road tripping at the same time. Here are our five cultural highlights.
The lava tunnel at Raufarhólshellir
Reports of Iceland’s music scene often link it to location. So much so that this is the subject of Tore Storvøld’s book Dissonant Landscapes, released this year. Storvøld challenges the exoticisation of Iceland’s music scene and probes its stereotype: that it arises from its wild lands. Nature is certainly full of wonders in Iceland, with sights that are unique to the country’s landscapes, and this relationship is explored in some measure by Iceland Airwaves.
What the festival succeeds in doing is retaining a local presence across its programme, heavily leaning towards Icelandic artists. It shows a breadth in its line-up too, championing indie groups, composers and pop artists from Iceland. However, it does also explore Iceland’s natural beauty in some ways too, by incorporating a secret performance into the lava tunnel at Raufarhólshellir. The festival markets itself as a hub for music in addition to being a travel experience. By doing so, some of the more exploratory travel aspects of Iceland are tied into the event.
We ventured into the lava tunnel, across its slippery rocks and stairs. It’s inside this dripping wet, dark space – complete with a red, rocky ceiling – that Reykjavik-based singer-songwriter Elín Hall performed two tracks. The holes of our stone surroundings absorbed the sound, meaning there was no echo to her music, the tones sounding crisp and clear. With no light on, humans can go blind in the lava tunnel after six minutes. There were lights on during the performance and our journey there, of course, but what makes for a more unique performance space than that?
With the festival’s programming primarily taking place across the evenings and nights, event-goers are encouraged to see the sights of Iceland by day. The travel company Gray Line was recommended by the event, and while this features local knowledge that can be useful, an organised coach journey doesn’t quite replace the magic of a road trip that can lead to unexpected moments. So make sure to put aside time for a road trip.
We hired a car and drove to the Highlands along the South Coast. We pushed ourselves against the gale-force winds that attempted to prevent us from walking forwards, and reached the Iceland’s oldest swimming pool: Seljavallalaug. Warm at one end and cool at the other, the geothermal pool is situated next to a stream with fresh water and nestled amongst the green, mountainous land. While it’s not unknown, it’s not a tourist trap either.
Vík í Mýrdal
Located in the south of Iceland, Vík í Mýrdal is home to Reynisfjara – the famous black sand beach. The gothic beauty of the beach is unparalleled, accented by the frothy white and topaz blue waters crashing against the dark shoreline. However, the remote seafront village is a sight in itself with its picturesque buildings and a church – with white walls and a red roof – viewable from a distance away from Reynisfjara. Nearby is an empty running track surrounded by neatly trimmed green grass and wooden bleachers. Situated against the vast expanse of a green, mountainous landscape, it’s a sight to behold; as though you’d stepped backwards in time to a retro film set.
The Icelandic horse
The Icelandic horse is a source of national pride, and they’re a specific breed that’s unique to the country. Short in stature, these horses are pony-sized in appearance and are generally friendly to visitors. Remember the mention of unexpected moments?
We pulled up to walk around plumes of hissing steam billowing from the ground; the pockmarked land; pools of bubbling mud. The dramatic landscapes of Iceland often appear in music videos (Björk has used many in her visuals), and it's easy to see why with its natural setting of smokey land.
We also pulled up to a field to watch the horses from the side of the road. After a few moments, two came to visit, the sun beaming behind them and illuminating the fields with golden lighting as they made their way over.
A tour of Reykjavik’s music venues and spaces
What better way is there to experience a music scene in a city than during a cultural highlight? With its first beginnings in 1999, Iceland Airwaves celebrated its 23rd edition this year. As a city-wide festival, it makes use of various different types of spaces for the annual celebration. For those new to the event, the festival is an opportunity to experience the city’s music venues, record stores and architecture via DJ sets, intimate listening sessions and performances from Icelandic composers. One highlight is the Lutheran church Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík, which enhanced the performances inside with the traditional feel of its interiors and architecture.