Festivals and events in Iceland celebrate a variety of musical and cultural highlights, as well as the traditional Christmas and new year festive season, Easter, and Independence Day. Events take place mostly in Reykjavik, with some dating back to Viking times.
New Year’s Eve
As with everywhere else in the world, New Year’s Eve in Iceland is the time for celebrations, parties, meeting up with friends, and seeing in the New Year. Reykjavik is the hub of the country, with citizens either attending Mass at Reykjavik Cathedral or listening to it on the radio along with the rest of the nation. After a celebration dinner, each neighborhood gathers around a huge bonfire and parties along with music and dance. Downtown, the bars, pubs, and clubs become packed with revelers.
Held every January, this midwinter feast is one of Iceland’s oldest festivals and dates back to the Viking era. The cold, dark day sees traditional foods eaten at home and in restaurants, with many dishes using smoked or picked ingredients prepared the previous year, just as the Vikings did. The tradition demands only ancient Viking dishes are served, so this event isn’t for delicate eaters! The day ends with traditional poems, games, sagas, dance, and song, plus large quantities of the strong local schnapps.
Reykjavik Icelandic Horse Festival
Taking place in March/April, the Reykjavik Icelandic Horse Festival celebrates every aspect of these tough and extremely cute little horses. Various events and workshops take place around Reykjavik’s breeding ranches and horse clubs, with it all coming together on the final day at the city’s Family Park with horse shows and competitions.
Reykjavik Arts Festival
For two weeks in the middle of May, the capital is a hub for its Arts Festival, focusing on traditional Icelandic culture as well as on ballet, modern dance, opera, classical music, and theatre events. Exhibitions at art galleries and museums take place, and the event draws many famous performers to the city.
Bright Days Festival
Celebrating the arrival of summer every June, this cultural and musical event is held in Hafnarfjordur, a short drive from the capital. A variety of cultural performances, art shows, and musical events welcome the short summer.
Known locally as National Day, this is a major festival for all Icelanders, held on 17 June to mark the country’s emergence as an independent republic. Street parties and entertainers, parades, fireworks, sideshows, traditional music, and dance draw residents onto the streets and into the bars and restaurants until the sun rises the next morning.
June sees the Sjomannadagur Festival in Reykjavik, as well as in many other smaller towns if the weather allows. Vintage ships line the Old Harbour for the annual event, with local fishermen competing in rowing, swimming, and other events. Parades, music, fun things to do, and seafood are the orders of the day.
The longest day of the year is a mystical time, celebrated in June with Jonsmessa, the Midsummer Night festival which dates back to Icelandic Viking times. On this night, seals are believed to take human form, cows gain the power of speech, and elves seduce travelers at crossroads with gifts and other favors. Rolling naked on the dew-covered grassy mountain slopes is considered a healthy pursuit and bonfires compete with the glow of the midnight sun.
Reykjavik Cultural Festival
Twinned with the Reykjavik Marathon, the Cultural Festival kicks off in August and is the capital’s most-loved event. Over 100,000 people flock to the art exhibitions, Icelandic dance shows, fairs, concerts, and giant fireworks displays. Pubs, clubs, bars, and restaurants stay open literally all night, and everyone has a wonderful time under the midnight sun.
Reykjavik Gay Pride
One of the fastest-growing gay events on earth, Reykjavik Gay Pride takes place in August and draws 85,000 visitors to enjoy its offerings. Outdoor festivals, street parties, parades, entertainments, theatre shows, and music events go on all over the city and in its watering holes and restaurants.
Reykjavik Jazz Festival
September sees Iceland’s jazz festival of the year, held in the capital for five days. Famous jazz musicians arrive from across the world for this ever-popular event, and for fans there’s everything from traditional jazz to contemporary sounds at concerts and gigs all over the city.
The Christmas festivities begin on December 12 all over Iceland, with dancing, drinking, music, feasting on traditional foods, and the decorating of homes, streets, and town centers. Carol singers roam the streets and huge Christmas trees sparkle in the squares. The wearing of a piece of new clothing at Christmas protects Icelanders from being eaten by the Christmas Cat, a folkloric tradition going back centuries, and children leave their shoes on the windowsill to be filled with presents.