Iceland's Capital Heats Up at Night
If you happen to be in Iceland’s lively capital of Reykjavik on a weekend, be sure to take a long nap and drink plenty of afternoon coffee (and water) in preparation for rúntur, the weekly Icelandic pub crawl that reaches its zenith between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. That’s when partiers -- often dressed fairly skimpily, no matter the time of year -- line up at the hottest bars and clubs along a main street called Laugavegur to throw down some serious krónur for the city’s notoriously pricey drinks. Beware that there’s a lot of random pushing and shoving inside the bars, but once you give in to the idea of bar-hopping as contact sport, you’ll find it much easier to navigate the thick crowds. If you make it to the wee hours, your reward is something hot and greasy from a nearby food truck or the city’s most beloved post-bar snack: a hot dog. Below are our top picks for where to fully experience rúntur.
For a Peek Into Hipster Heaven
Dolly caught on like wildfire after opening in August 2012, and its reputation as Reykjavik’s hottest bar hasn’t cooled a bit since. Looking at this old-timey, mustard-yellow building that shares the fairytale look of other downtown structures, you would never guess it houses 2 floors of electronic-leaning beats, racy red lights and a youthful crowd dancing into the early hours. Drinks here aren’t fancy: Think beer, as well as shots of tequila, gin and tonic. Vintage coffeehouse furniture and a red neon Dolly sign adorn the main floor, and the tongue-in-cheek wallpaper looks Victorian at first glance but reveals pictures of zoo animals on closer inspection -- hinting that Dolly wholly embraces the hipster ideal of irony.
What's Cool: Dolly has a sister bar in Copenhagen fittingly called Jolene, and both are owned by former Icelandic talk-show host Dora Takefusa.
For Music Junkies
Faktorý is, according to one Reykjavik resident, “almost the only live music venue with a consistent schedule daily,” with live acts upstairs most nights of the week -- although you might also find a DJ or a pub quiz going on in one of the bar’s 3 rooms if you wander in without checking the calendar. This colorful building is where Reykjavik’s pierced and tattooed kids come to misspend their youth, partying with friends, listening to music and drinking the night away. Faktorý is a main venue of the world-famous Iceland Airwaves music festival -- and don’t be surprised if the band you’re watching tonight is the next hot thing at Coachella or South by Southwest.
What's Cool: Out back, there is a giant table that resembles a pool table, where you can play pool – but with soccer balls.
For Serious Cocktails
In a city that can really hold its liquor, it’s surprising that the cocktail trend found in most American cities is really only just now catching on in Reykjavik. Perhaps that’s thanks in part to Slippbarinn, located on the first floor of Icelandair’s hotel Reykjavik Marina on the water in the up-and-coming harbor district. The restaurant, which is booked months in advance, turns into a super-hot bar after dinner, when yuppies are lured by the bar’s signature infusions and a dedication to outstanding craft cocktails. It’s always full to bursting despite being a fairly large space with several loungey nooks. The gorgeous modern room features sculptures, a fireplace that seems to float in midair and vintage touches like old-fashioned radios.
What's Cool: Our favorite cocktail was The Pippi Gonzales, a refreshing blend of tequila, dill-infused akvavit, lemon juice and simple syrup garnished with cucumber and gem-like islands of bright-green dill-infused olive oil. But the cocktail menu changes frequently, so you’ll have to do your own exploring.
The English Pub
For Sports-Bar Types
The English Pub may not be the hippest bar in town, nor is it the most Icelandic -- plus, it’s admittedly dude-heavy. But you can order a decent Guinness, musicians perform nightly and you can win free drinks by purchasing a spin on the Wheel-of-Fortune-like wheel behind the bar. It’s perfect for nights when you feel like absorbing the energy of the city without getting all dressed up. You’ll find Icelanders and tourists alike here; as one Reykjavik resident says, it’s a “strange atmosphere that somehow works.”
What's Cool: This bar puts you dangerously close to a cluster of late-night food trucks that might include a rock-themed burger shack or the roving offshoot of Hlolli sub shop, where you can order what’s called a pepperoni boat -- a miraculous toasted mixture of spiced meat, gooey cheese, pickles, lettuce and mayonnaise.
For the Artsy, Minimalist Set
You’ll hear the number 101 thrown around a lot when researching downtown Reykjavik -- that’s because it’s the zip code, if you will, of the main downtown area. And while 101 Bar, located in the 101 Hotel, has a decidedly international flavor, its name correctly signals that 101 Bar caters to the smart downtown crowd. There is no mistaking it when you step inside the ultra-modern space that features white walls, minimalist furniture and funky white blob sculptures emerging from the walls that evoke bubbles. Expansive windows stretch toward -- and include -- the ceiling. If you’re hungry, you can also partake of the small dishes on offer from the kitchen.
What's Cool: Since this place is only open till 1 a.m. on weekends, this is clearly the place to start your rúntur -- not the place to end it.
Where the Locals Go
There isn’t a list of Reykjavik clubs that doesn’t include the longstanding Kaffibarinn, which opened in the ’80s and is still going strong. Inside the barnlike building is a rustic space that has character in spades -- in other words, don’t expect a high-gloss dance spot filled with clubbers dressed to the nines. Like many of the city’s hot spots, this place dons a calm persona by day but comes alive each night with a rotating roster of DJs and local musicians, reasonably priced drinks and a quieter space upstairs. It’s the kind of well-lived-in place packed with regulars that everyone wishes they had in their neighborhood.
What's Cool: Damon Albarn of Blur is rumored to be a backer of Kaffibarinn, and there are occasional celebrity sightings due to the club’s longevity and history.