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How People Party in Reykjavik (and Why You Can't Hang)

Reykjavík Restaurants + Bars Insider Guides
by Alex Baumhardt Dec 11, 2013

If you’ve ever lived in a college town, the drinking norms and social practices of going out in Reykjavik will seem familiar. For one, all of your action will take place within an eight-block bubble in the 101 area of downtown, though downtown is a loaded word to use in what is, essentially, a village pretending to be a city.

Your crowd will be equal parts dressed to the nines or rocking the uniform lopapeysa wool sweater and, after a few days, you’ll begin to see the same faces crop up everywhere. You’ll see the same guy at a café that you saw at the supermarket that you saw at a bar and all of the sudden, by sheer observation, you know he’s a vegan, speaks German, and is writing a book. Everyone here is writing a book.

Goal-oriented drinkers

Icelanders and the preponderance of Danes in Iceland will encourage heavy drinking like your grandmother might tell you you’re not eating enough: “Why don’t you have a beer in your hand?” a friend will ask. “Is something wrong?”

This is both to break the social ice that pervades Nordic culture and because Icelanders in particular have waited a long time for the right to enjoy a beer. Up until 1989, brewing or serving beer was outlawed in the country — the closest thing to a beer that bars could sell was bjórlíki, a mixture of vodka and Pilsner that courts deemed a cocktail. Icelanders’ access to spirits and restrictions on beer made them pre-disposed to what one notable beer historian posits as ‘goal-oriented drinking’: drinking to get knockout drunk and stir up a fight.

When you go out in Reykjavik today, you’ll likely see more loving than fighting. Alcohol is a tonic to Scandi stoicism and reserve, and the moment noses start turning red and smiles begin to crack, it will be way past midnight and there will be no turning back. If you make it to your own bed, it won’t be before 4 or 5am.

The happiest hours

Partying in Reykjavik may also leave you as broke as you were in college — Iceland ranks as the third most expensive country in the world to buy a drink. The city’s unconventional happy hours are to the rescue, however. Typical late-afternoon, mercifully priced drinks can be purchased up until 11pm or midnight at some bars, meaning going out at 9 or 10pm is way early. I’ve had friends laugh when I suggested going out at 10:30 on a Saturday night, the general response being, “So you just want to go sit in an empty bar?”

Some Icelanders and many foreigners will ‘pregame’ at someone’s place with what’s left of the duty-free liquor from their last trip to the airport, but otherwise, this practice isn’t as common as you might think. When I’m at a residence and around several bottles of alcohol, I find myself attacking it as anxiously as a kid would a melting ice cream cone on a hot day.

Letting things get weird

Once you get out onto Laugavegur, the main drag, and the streets of 101, your party experience largely hinges on what type of themed bar you choose to start the night at — and there are many of them. If you visit one of the foreign-country themed pubs (e.g., Danish Pub, English Pub, Dubliner), brace yourself for strange conversation with the possibly alcoholic regular.

If you’re at a hip, Euro-themed bar or hipster-kitsch-throwback cafe (i.e., looks like your grandmother’s living room), brace yourself for a conversation with ‘the visiting professor.’ I mean ‘the visiting professor’ in two ways: A euphemism for the omnipresent philosophy student (foreign or not, there are many in Reykjavik) who launches into a lecture of regurgitated material they heard in class that day. I also mean this in the literal ‘visiting professor,’ who is likely there to hit on his/her students.

Icelanders are notorious for an inability to get loose until they’ve heavily imbibed, so if you find your way to a dance club or bar with live music (like alt-hip Harlem or refined-indie Kaffibarinn), people won’t start dancing (or moving) until about midnight or 1am. If you’re that rogue who always tries to get people moving, I applaud you, but I’ll warn that trying to do this anytime before midnight will be fruitless.

While things are picking up, order a shot of the Icelandic schnapps Brennivín, which is made from potatoes. If you’re feeling super swank and want to drink the most delicious vodka you may ever taste, try a little Reyka vodka, which is made about an hour outside of Reykjavik and is filtered through lava rocks.

The messiest hours

After allowing time for blood-alcohol levels to rise, a performance of fine, messy shows starts to unfold. Someone may try to light a cigarette indoors, someone may try to pee off of a bar patio, that guy that’s been there slightly longer than you may be asleep atop the bar counter. All of these will pepper your now cloudy memory and shrouded judgment with laughable flashbacks. No one will talk about these things the next day.

Because most everyone in the village of Reykjavik knows one another, no bartender is going to cut off his highly intoxicated friend, cousin, boss, or neighbor. Thus, the patron that would have been forced to leave at your average bar in most countries is allowed to stay and continue drinking, for better or for worse — mostly for worse.

Somewhere between 2 and 4am, a palpable urge to shack up creeps across the bar and/or dance floor. Either people are falling upright and face-first into one another, or you’re seeing blatant mack-outs and, if you’re at the receiving end of an Icelander’s lip-lock at this time, you might consider taking it elsewhere.

Hopefully you live or are staying in 101 and close to the downtown bar scene. If not, you will be hoping he/she lives somewhere near that bar in 101 and, if both of you are commuting to the watering holes, perhaps his/her mom will pick you up (true story, happened to a friend of mine). Beware the veritable two-night-stand (sleeping with same whimsical Icelander again), because now you’re dating.

The after party

The range of potential after parties runs a gamut that spans playing Mario Kart at some guy’s apartment to drinking at a museum. Because it’s a small community, you have great potential to rub elbows with a touring band living in a van, the owner of a record store, or the Minister of something.

One winter night (er, morning?), the owner of the Northern Lights museum brought some friends and me to watch the aurora projected onto the walls of the museum while drinking his beer. Another memorable after-bars was emptying endless boxes of red wine at a Mammút listening party while a girl told Icelandic ghost stories.

After parties are the spots where you’re most apt to be offered a spliff, so if you can handle drinking loads of alcohol followed by potent blends of weed and tobacco, by all means, take a toke. Universal etiquette prevails and it will be assumed that you honor the puff, puff, pass.

On the way to the after party, stop and grab a pylsa (hot dog), Iceland’s most treasured processed food made from pork, beef, and lamb and topped with raw onion, crispy fried onions, ketchup, spicy mustard, and an unidentified brown sauce.

The day after

I like to roll out of bed and jump into the nearest hot pot. There are two pools located pretty close to the center of town and they’re outdoors. Listen to the birds chirp, sop up your gravy brain, and catch up with friends. Icelanders treat pools like many countries treat café culture, and they’ll stay for hours talking.

Icelanders do most of their heavy drinking (actually, most of their drinking, period) on the weekends. Because of this, Saturday and Sunday are lazy days and it’s okay to wake up late, go for a casual stroll, drink loads of coffee, read, and veg out a bit. If you’re not still digesting the pylsa, have a big pancake-y breakfast at the infamous Prikið and go for a stroll down Laugavegur, taking in the other haggard faces that may have seen you at your finest the night before.

***Explore the world party scene with Matador’s own nightlife guide 101 PLACES TO GET F*CKED UP BEFORE YOU DIE.

Part travel guide, part drunken social commentary, 101 Places may have some of the most hilarious scenes and straight-up observations of youth culture of any book you’ve ever read.***

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