Reykjavik boasts one of the most vibrant music scenes in Europe with a happening gig circuit and well-regarded club nights. I had come to explore the nocturnal scene against the backdrop of the Iceland Airwaves festival, an annual event held in intimate venues across Reykjavik, which showcases the very best in new music. Moreover, I wanted
to understand the relationship between the country and its music – what shapes the Icelandic sound?

Iceland is home to some of the world’s most unique, atmospheric and at times downright weird tunes. From The Sugarcubes to Gus Gus, Icelandic music sounds like nothing else on earth.

Icelandic bands are now breaking into the mainstream with Sigur Rós’ other-worldly soundtrack headlining the Latitude Festival this July and their concert film, Heima, now on general release. But their music still retains an ethereal, fairy-tale quality. It conjures up images of travelling through the country’s lava-strewn, volcanic landscape.
“I think Icelandic bands like Sigur Rós have a spiritual connection with the landscape, and that is reflected in their music,” says Thorsteinn Stephensen, the founder of Mr Destiny and promoter of Iceland Airwaves among other events.

“It’s the same when you go to Brazil. You can almost smell the sugar cane in the music,” he adds.

The Airwaves festival is essentially one huge bar crawl. So Friday night in downtown Reykjavik finds me queuing three deep at the bar at Kaffibarrin, the bar co-founded by Blur’s Damon Albarn and easily identified by the London Underground sign hanging outside. Candles flicker on the tables, cool tunes by Mum provide a hip, Nordic vibe, and the impossibly good-looking, blonde-locked locals are out in force with designer garb and a serious thirst to get the weekend off to a flyer.

Most of the venues are strung out along Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main drag, making the city a great place for a bar crawl: compact, friendly and with a huge variety of venues for jazz, DJs, indie rock and avant-garde warbling all within easy staggering distance.

As the mercury plummets outside, I get up close and personal with the crowd gathering inside the Bad Taste record shop for an in-store session by local favourites Skakkamanage. After a rousing version of the crowd-pleasing C’mon On, taken from their album Lab Of Love, I grab a few words with elfin keyboard player and vocalist Berglind Häsler.

“Reykjavik is a very creative place. I think we all stay home and learn to play music because the weather is so bad here,” she laughs. “But when we do go out, we love the crazy nightlife. There’s something going on every night.”

But it’s only when I strike out into the countryside outside the capital the next day that I really start to get a sense of the way nature and landscape continue to shape Iceland’s cultural output. Just 30 minutes outside Reykjavik the surroundings look like a cross between western Ireland and the moon with glaciers, geysers and thermal springs.
As I head out by bus into the country’s rural heartland I find myself cruising through the untouched lava fields en route to Hafnarfjordur, a fishing village built on lava and lay lines. The brightly painted, weather-beaten houses cower in the wind, while a woodland-sprinkled hill looms over the harbour. As I hike up to catch the view, I can feel the raw forces of nature swirling around me.

Today tour options increasingly combine the nightlife of Reykjavik with an excursion out into the countryside. To get back to nature, riding Icelandic horses (they look like Shetland ponies) and snorkelling the lakes are among the options currently favoured by local tour operators. The most popular excursion by far, though, is whale watching.
The Icelandic waters are home to over 20 different types of whale, including minke, humpback and killer whales. The whale-watching season starts in May and lasts until the end of September, although the various currents and light conditions during the summer months offer the best conditions for feeding.

Back in Reykjavik for the last night of the festival, I sink a few pints while catching a performance from the hotly tipped band Leaves at the Reykjavik Art Museum. During the weekend I’ve seen Iceland at its most hedonistic with the festival in full swing, and at its most raw with an excursion out into the countryside, where nature and the elements are still the dominant force.

Tonight it’s cold and dark outside, but everyone in the venue is too busy having a good time to worry about that. “This is the third time I’ve been to Airwaves,” says Gida, who’s visiting from Denmark for the festival. “I keep coming back because Icelandic music is so powerful and sophisticated.”

She pauses a minute to drain her pint. “It’s like you can get lost in the landscape by just listening to a song.”

Budget eats in Iceland’s capital city

Iceland is not a cheap holiday destination, with some of the highest alcohol taxes in Europe. A pint of beer will set you back about 700 Kronur (£4.60), while a two-course meal comes in at about 2500 Kronur (£17).

There are ways to keep costs down and save your Kronur for beer money, however. The café-bars along Laugavegur serve good-value set menus from 5pm, with soup and mains for 1800 Kronur (£12). Also try Prikio at Bankastræti 12. It’s one of the best, and oldest, coffee shops in Reykjavik, and turns into a club after dark.

Your best bet for a cheap and hearty supper is tucked away by the old harbour. The Seabaron restaurant is a local institution for low-fi aesthetics and piping-hot servings of Icelandic lobster soup, best served with bread and a shot of Brennivín schnapps, the local hooch. It costs just 750 Kronur (£5).

A sky-blue shack with a tin roof and a Christmas-lights ‘open’ sign, it hardly looks like the best secret address in town. Venture inside and pull up a plastic stool at one of the communal tables, however, and you’re in for a uniquely Nordic treat – the tastiest and cheapest comfort food this side of the North Atlantic. And, if the soup isn’t filling enough, there’s also a selection of seafood kebabs, including whale meat, all priced at a bargain 700 Kronur each (£4.60).

Where to see live music in Reykjavik

What: Reykjavik’s premier live music venue has three floors with an eclectic mix of dance, electronica and indie.
Who: Icelandic favourites such as Gus Gus and Benni Hemm Hemm.
Where: Austurvöllur;

What: Iceland’s very own rock dive is the place where locals come for cheap drinks until the last man standing keels over. It’s also the place to catch the next big thing on the live circuit.
Who: Future stars Minus and Brian Police.
Where: Tryggvagata 22.

What: The coolest place to see and be seen has bars on both floors and a regular clientele of beautiful people. DJ sets pack in a loyal following.
Who to catch there: DJ Baldur and Thor.
Where: Austurstræti 22.

What: This tiny and heaving venue, featured in a Bjork video directed by Spike Jonze, is the place for dance music and sweaty encounters on the dancefloor.
Who: DJ Oli Ofur.
Where: Klapparstígur 31.

Grand Rokk
What: A more grungey venue, upstairs from a normal-looking pub, this place is in a similar vein to the north London pub circuit, where new bands get their first break.
Who: Up-and-coming acts such as Jacobinarina and Mammut.
Where: Smiojustígur 6.