By Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
There are many things Iceland is known for. Long summer days, snow-covered winters, fascinatingly beautiful landscapes, volcanoes, black sand beaches, waterfalls, glaciers, and the list goes on.
Each year, people travel to Iceland from all over the world to be able to see and experience the best attractions the country has to offer, but there’s also another reason why people make the trek to this little island nation in the North Atlantic. Iceland is also the home of some of the most incredible festivals in the world.
Each year, the land of fire and ice plays host to music, arts, cultural and film festivals that attract a great deal of international attention. So what kind of festivals does Iceland have? When are the best times to visit? Do they happen all year round? Read on to find out more.
When is the Best Time to Visit a Festival in Iceland?
The answer to this question really depends on what kind of festival you are coming to Iceland to see and how dependent on the weather the festival might be. Despite what most people might think, the climate of Iceland isn’t actually arctic.
Thanks to the gulf stream, this great tourist destination experiences a temperate maritime climate, which means pleasant but slightly chilly summers where the temperatures range from around 10 °C to 13°C (50°F to 55°F).
Although these summer temperatures might seem much lower than most of Europe, if there’s a lack of wind and clear skies, they’re actually quite pleasant if you are dressed well enough. For this reason, and the long days under the midnight sun, most of the outdoor-based festivals usually take place during the summer months.
The winters in Iceland are cold and often snowy, but the temperature doesn’t often go far below 0°C (32°F). However, the winter end of the calendar is still normally reserved for festivals that take place indoors.
Are Festivals All Year Round in Iceland?
If you planned to stay in Iceland until you had visited every single festival, you would need to take the entire year. There are festivals almost every month of the year. Some might say that this is a side-effect of the Icelandic need to innovate, entertain and keep up community spirit.
What Are the Biggest Festivals in Iceland?
There are a few different ways to look at this. One way of assessing the biggest festivals is to look at the number of people who attend them, but you can also break this down into local festival goers and those from out of town. There are three main kinds of festivals in Iceland; music festivals, cultural festivals, and municipal festivals.
Some of the most frequented festivals in Iceland tend to be music festivals. The country has a long history of becoming a temporary stomping ground for international acts as well as being a supportive home base for some of the most influential independent artists of the last 50 years. Iceland, after all, is the birthplace of Björk, Sigur Rós, Kaleo, Of Monsters and Men, Emilíana Torrini, Ásgeir and many more.
There are also a number of non-musical festivals that garner a lot of local and international attention due to the fact that they have been well-established for quite some time. In this category are things like fashion, art and film festivals.
The other group of big festivals in Iceland are the ones that have become absolute favourites for locals. These are often put on by municipalities for big celebrations, some of them uniquely Icelandic, like the Veslunarmannahelgi, which is a bank holiday long weekend in August.
During this weekend, many locals make a pilgrimage to the Westman Islands for a weekend of partying, drinking and music. This festival eventually led to the creation of another one. During this weekend, there is a festival in Reykjavík, especially for those locals who stayed behind and didn’t head to the Westman Islands; they affectionately called it ‘Innipuki‘, which means ‘Inner Demon,’ and is a bit of a pun making fun of the fact that even those who stay in can still have fun.
The Top 13 Festivals in Iceland
To the uninformed, it might seem overwhelming to pick which festivals are worth visiting in Iceland. There are so many to choose from, and they cover a broad range of experiences, activities and interests. To help you get a handle on the festival life that awaits you in the north, here’s a list of the 13 top festivals to visit.
Secret Solstice is one of the most popular music festivals in Iceland. The festival was initially the idea of its founder, who was drinking with friends one night in downtown Reykjavík and took note of the atmosphere created by partying under the midnight sun. At that moment he realised that this atmosphere would be perfect for a music festival.
The very first Secret Solstice was held in summer 2014, and what started as a relatively small but successful event has become the jam-packed mammoth it is today. Each year the festival curates an eclectic mix of musical styles and acts to create an experience everyone will both enjoy and remember.
Dancing to tunes next to a lava field or watching a band perform at the foot of an active volcano is not an experience you can get just anywhere.
Secret Solstice usually takes place during the summer solstice, between June 21 and 23. In recent years, due to the pandemic, they had to postpone but once things get back to normal, be sure to book ahead if you’re planning to experience this festival, tickets sell out fast.
Iceland Airwaves is another music festival, but it has a different vibe, aim and time of year to Secret Solstice. Airwaves takes place in November, and the main point of the festival is to showcase new music and emerging musicians, both local and international.
Airwaves was originally produced with support from the City of Reykjavík and Icelandair, and the very first festival was held in 1999 in an aeroplane hangar at Reykjavík Domestic Airport.
Airwaves is more of an immersive, multi-genre music festival, and because it takes place in winter, it’s located across several indoor venues throughout the city of Reykjavík.
Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF)
Iceland has a long history of appreciating film, and this has resulted in the country establishing its own international film festival. The Reykjavík International Film Festival takes place every year at the end of September for almost two weeks.
It’s an independently produced, non-profit festival that has aimed to celebrate and explore film since 2004. For the entire run of the festival, visitors are able to see films, listen to filmmakers speak about their art and even take the cinema experience to a new level, like, for instance, watching a movie while relaxing in a geothermal bath.
In the past, special guests have included Mads Mikkelsen, Shailene Woodley, Werner Herzog and Debbie Harry from Blondie.
RIFF is one of the biggest cultural festivals in Iceland, and it’s a great time of year to appreciate cinema and maybe even spot a few celebrities.
Reykjavik Pride Festival
This might be a surprise for such a small country, but the Reyjavík Pride Festival is one of the most attended events by Icelanders in the year. The festival has its origins in protest. Beginning in 1993, a group of Icelandic gays and lesbians started to march through the streets of Reykjavík, demanding freedom from discrimination.
The march was repeated year after year, and eventually, it became an official festival that celebrates diversity and inclusion while also paying tribute to the tireless individuals who helped make this possible.
Reykjavík Pride, or ‘Hinsegin Dagar’ as it is called locally, has been an official event since 2000, and every August, the week-long festival attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors and locals alike. The week is filled with different events, including workshops, theatre, film, stand-up comedy, concerts and even family activities.
Because of the popularity of Reykjavík Pride, it is often called ‘The biggest little festival in the world.’
Frostbiter Horror Film Festival
As far as Icelandic film festivals go, Frostbiter is one of the newest and definitely one of the most unique. This is an entire festival dedicated to the horror genre, and for more than seven years, it has brought a little bit of fright to the Western Icelandic town of Akranes.
Frostbiter really likes to capitalise on their grassroots conception and use it as a motif throughout the festival. Often screenings will take place in unconventional locations like a bowling alley, music school or even an abandoned factory.
Frostbiter takes place at the end of January, one of the coldest months of the year in Iceland, hence the delightful pun in its name.
Dark Days Music Festival
Dark Music Days is one of the oldest music festivals in Iceland. The festival’s main point of difference is that it focuses on showcasing innovative and experimental contemporary music.
It was established all the way back in 1980 and since then has become a powerhouse in presenting interesting composers to new audiences.
Dark Music Days takes place in late March.
Winter Lights Festival
Iceland is known for having long and relatively dark winters. To visit during this time can be a fun and novel experience, but for locals, winter can sometimes feel like it overstays its welcome. One way that Icelanders deal with the coldest parts of the year is to break them up with festivals that positively exploit the darkness; this is exactly what the Winter Lights Festival does.
The Winter Lights Festival is an initiative of the City of Reykjavík and takes place for three days every February. Throughout the festival, light shows are projected onto buildings and monuments around the capital from 18:30 to 22:00.
Winter Lights is a great way to embrace the winter by rugging up and heading out for a walk around town to see how different some of the most well-known buildings and sites can be given new life in the middle of darkness.
Different local artists are tasked with creating illuminations on some of the most interesting buildings in the country, like Hallgrímskirkja and Harpa Concert Hall. The program also usually includes performances, art exhibitions and family activities.
Reykjavik Fringe Festival
Visiting a city during a fringe festival is a great way to get to know its people and their interests, as well as offering an endless list of possibilities to keep you entertained throughout your stay. There are hundreds of fringe festivals all around the world, with one of the most famous being the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In 2018 a very dedicated Icelander named Nanna Gunnarsdóttir decided it was time for Iceland to join the world of fringe. She built up a team of like-minded individuals around her, and the result has become one of the most successful independent arts festivals in the country.
Each year in the middle of summer (July), the Reykjavík Fringe Festival (RFF) takes place for just over a week, and during this time, the city is the home to over 100 different performances, exhibitions, talks, and art installations.
RFF isn’t just a showcase of local talent; many performers and artists bring their works to Iceland, especially for this festival. Three important events to remember if you plan to visit during RFF are the opening party, the preview night and the awards ceremony. The preview night is particularly fun because each artist is given just two minutes to plug their show into a jam-packed crowd, so it’s a great way to select what you might be interested in seeing.
Iceland has a long history with Denmark; in fact, Iceland was actually under Danish rule from around 1814 to about 1944. Because of this, there are still many remnants of Danish culture in Iceland. Most Icelandic children learn Danish as well as English as second languages at school, and although Icelanders are quite unique, you could say that they and the Danes were cut from the same cloth.
There is a festival that celebrates all things Danish, and it takes place in the small western town of Stykkishólmur. This quaint village on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula has lived under such a strong Danish influence that in the days when it was a major trade hub with Denmark, the residents never spoke Icelandic on Sundays, only Danish.
Danish Days takes place over a weekend in mid-August and offers a variety of activities and concerts for all ages.
LungA Arts Festival
Over in the far east of Iceland, there is a picturesque town surrounded by mountain ranges that sits gracefully on a fjord. Seyðisfjörður is one of the main harbour access points to the east, but it’s also a town that has become synonymous with unique art and unique local artists.
Every summer, the LungA Arts Festival showcases the geographical and artistic beauty of this town with a festival dedicated to youth arts. The name of the fest is a combination of the Icelandic words for art, ‘list’ and young ‘unga.’ The festival runs for a few days and incorporates workshops, art, music and performance to celebrate the artists of the future.
Imagine Peace Tower
The 9th of October 2007 would have been John Lennon’s 67th birthday, and to celebrate it, his wife, artist Yoko Ono unveiled a lighthouse in the Reykjavík Harbour called the Imagine Peace Tower.
The tower sits on the island of Viðey and emits a powerful beam of light directly toward the sky. The Imagine Peace Tower is supposed to be a tribute to the late musician but also a reminder that peace and love connect all living things on earth.
The light is visible from Reykjavík, but it’s also possible to take a trip out to the island to see it. It was originally just lit around the time of John’s birthday, but there are now a variety of time periods when it can be seen throughout winter.
Reykjavik Culture Night
August is a big month in Reykjavík, it’s summer, but it also has two of the country’s biggest public festivals; Reykjavík Pride and also Menningarnótt, known in English as ‘Culture Night.’
Menningarnótt takes place on the first Saturday after the 18th of August and was originally put in place as a way to drive up local business sales in a month that was traditionally slow due to people being on vacation. Since its creation in 1996, it has been well and truly embraced by Icelanders, with record numbers of locals coming into town to spend the day checking out the events each year.
The entire festival begins early in the morning with the annual Reykjavík Marathon, and then the rest of the day is filled with concerts, activities and markets. The events are topped off with many displays of fireworks all over the city. If you want to experience locals in their element, Menningarnótt is the place to do it.
Food and Fun Festival
The Reykjavík Food and Fun Festival is an international culinary fest that takes place in Iceland’s capital each year in February or March. The aim of the fest is to highlight the incredibly high quality of chefs and cooks the country has to offer while also celebrating visiting professionals.
Although Iceland is an island nation, the people here love good food, and this festival is a great example of the high standard of food locals have at their doorsteps.
One of the main points of interest with the Food and Fun Fest is that chefs from all over the world are paired with Icelandic restaurants to compete in a special culinary competition. Their task is to create incredible dishes at affordable prices while only using produce and seafood that is produced locally.
Are the Festivals Family Friendly?
Most festivals in Iceland have some element of family-friendly entertainment; this is because most Icelanders have children, and families are very important in Icelandic society.
In general, festival programs will list which events are appropriate for children to make it easier for parents to plan activities.
How Many Days Do You Need to Spend in Iceland to Enjoy a Festival?
There’s no easy way to answer this question, but a good rule of thumb would be to remember that if you are planning on visiting a festival in Iceland, remember that festivals can be very immersive. It’s a good idea to add time to your stay on either side of the festival so you can actually enjoy some tourist activities and fit in some relaxation as well.
It’s not like anyone really needed more reasons to visit Iceland, but festivals are just another incredible piece of culture the country has to offer.
If you are planning on staying in Iceland during a festival, there are many different accommodation options to choose from, but if you’re looking for something that’s truly unique, you can’t go further than the Panorama Glass Lodge.
This one-of-a-kind concept takes the wonder of Icelandic nature and brings it inside to give you an incredibly luxury accommodation option you won’t ever forget.
Each luxury lodge uses large glass windows to give visitors spectacular views of the surrounding nature while still offering protection from the unpredictable Icelandic weather.
Panorama Glass Lodge has options available on the South Coast and very soon in the West. To find out more, check the lodges’ availabilities today.