Reykjavík is a city with its heart, and liver, in the right place, boasting over fifty bars that proudly discount their tipple with daily Happy Hours. Read on to discover all the greatest and cheapest spots for wetting your whistle during your stay in Iceland’s capital city.
Alcohol, enjoyed by humans and animals alike since the Neolithic period, enjoyed by yours truly since long before my soggy brain can recall. It is the drug of choice, the pinnacle of mankind’s genius, a means of escape and a battle cry for the degenerate and the divine. It is a sweet friend, a confidante, a lovemaker; my own personal tenderness for it is so rich, full of soul and high-percentage spirit that, without it, I can only picture myself lost, alone and, dare I say it, stone-cold sober.
Given Iceland’s prior, historical confusion when it comes to distilled delights—astonishingly, beer prohibition lasted from 1918 to 1989!—it seems crucial to semi-regularly remind Iceland and its visitors as to why alcohol means so damn much.
It is why this article, and the opportunity to write it, means so much to me. I am duty bound, an ambassador of this great, border-defying culture, obliged and predestined to defend the consummate joys of inebriation. Let me tell you, I feel positively intoxicated putting the words to the page.
Now, please don’t get me wrong, we’ve all felt that deep, hollow despair that comes the morning after a ‘heavy one’, but apart from the obvious negatives (ie; a temptation towards lingering physical dependence, arterial conditions, unstable sexual impulses etc.) it seems rather difficult, if not impossible, to wholly criticise drinking.
If there are any judgements to be heard, I resoundingly refuse to acknowledge them. No one likes to drink with a teetotaller, after all, and besides, I hitched my wagon to this rather sodden and wonky pack mule a long time ago.
So tell me, who else could or even should write an article about the capital’s bar scene except for a true enthusiast? Drinkers, and I mean true connoisseurs, can only trust a fellow nightcrawler, a brother who too delights in the stale, smoky musk of a beer garden, who finds indescribable beauty in the sticky leather seats, the dusty drink shelves and the eclectic clientele.
Bars are a second home, a place to eat, drink, be merry, sleep and be evicted from.
Believe me when I say, (and you’ll read many others across the internet trying to persuade you equally of this), that there is no-one, and I mean no-one, who can better guide you through the glorious dimension of Reykjavík’s bar scene.
That’s enough of the pre-drinks. Let’s move on to the good stuff!
Bravo is first on the list. Why do you ask? For the very simple reason that this bar boasts the longest Happy Hour in the city. Aside from that all-important fact, the bar itself is rich in atmosphere; the cosy darkness, the gentle ambient lighting, the soft-patterned cushions lining the room, all create a venue that lends itself to a long session sipping the golden nectar.
Bravo is one of the most popular bars in Reykjavík, due largely to its easily accessible location on the Laugavegur shopping street. People tend to squeeze themselves in, making for an intimate and, at times, overcrowded night.
The hustle and bustle are perfectly energetic after a few drinks, however, and if you decide to leave, you’re only a stone throw away from some of Reykjavík’s other most popular bars; Lebowski Bar, Bar Ananas, KiKis, Dillon!
If, for reasons best known to yourself, you have somehow managed to avoid watching The Big Lebowski since its release nearly twenty years ago, I suggest you first watch the film before heading to this bar. Only then will you be able to fully appreciate the amount of time, care and expense that went into designing this unique and memorable venue.
As a fan, Lebowski Bar is the closest you can come to experiencing the film’s universe without having actually starred alongside Jeff Bridges himself. The rugs, stretched out decoratively across the bar, really do hold the room together, as does the ten-pin bowling alley positioned along the bar’s right wall.
In the background, timeless tunes such as Kenny Rogers’ Just Dropped In (to see what Condition my Condition was in) and Dylan’s The Man in Me complement the cinematic atmosphere. Out of character, I have heard The Eagles played numerous times.
The details are everywhere. One sultry glance at the menu and you’ll instantly recognise over thirty different types of White Russian cocktail, for instance. As you descend to the bathroom, you will look into mirrors declaring you TIME’s Man of the Year.
If you keep a close eye on the decor, you can even spot Saddam Hussein leering at you, as if from withing some strange and hallucinogenic dream.
Lebowski Bar often has something going on, be it a movie showing, a computer games quiz, an open dance floor and new DJ sets. Attractions such as these keep the bar a popular spot, with its most popular hours over the weekend nights.
Photo by Blake Wisz
Unfortunately, The Dude’s favourite substance is not for sale, but changing one’s consciousness is still an easy affair to manage at Lebowski’s, especially during Happy Hour or if you’re lucky enough to win ten free beers on the Spin the Wheel.
Unsurprisingly, this bar is a favourite amongst visitors and therefore lacks for Icelandic authenticity. But hey, you go to Lebowski’s to meet nice people, sip some vodka and milk and experience the novelty.
There is just one overbearing cardinal rule at this bar: no peeing on the rug.
Kaffibarinn is instantly recognisable from the street; against the maroon, corrugated iron, a large London Underground symbol rests over the entrance of this hip bar. On the weekend, expect a struggle trying to slip yourself inside; the bar, more often than not, is filled to the brim.
The reasons for this are clear; it is here where the fashion and musical tastes of 101 were born. Kaffibarinn was home to the trendsetters, musicians, artists and early hipsters who gathered there throughout the nineties to secure Reykjavík's reputation as a party city.
The bar was once part-owned by Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn (according to rumour, he could often be found stretched out across the bar). Spouting an early obsession with Iceland, Damon spent much time in the country, especially Kaffibarinn, and was one of the many names who helped to elevate the country's image abroad.
Of the country, Damon said at the time; "I used to have a recurring dream, as a child, of a black sand beach. And one hazy, lazy day , I was watching the TV and I saw a programme about Iceland, and they had black beaches.
So I got on a plane, and booked into the Saga hotel. I didn't know it meant Saga holidays, for older people—I thought it was Saga as in Nordic sagas. But it was actually an OAP cruise hotel. I was on my own: I didn't know anybody. I went into the street, Laugavegur, where the bars are, and that was it."
Photo by Pradnyal Gandhi
In truth, however, Albarn's "ownership" was a highly effective marketing move of the bar; Damon was given a 1% stake in the bar, meaning he owned a few square centimetres. Still, Kaffibarinn served as the titular location in one of Iceland’s most popular cinematic accomplishments, 101 Reykjavik (2000), forever cementing itself as the spiritual heart of Reykjavik's nightlife.
On weekdays, Kaffibarinn is the perfect bar for an evening of intellectual discussion and even romance. The tables are small and candlelit, and there is a small loft upstairs for even more privacy.
At the top of the elevator, one will find Loft Hostel, one of the most popular accommodation and bar combos in the whole city. As you enter, you will be welcomed into a cosy reception area leading onto the bar and seating area.
Surrounding you will be posters of various bands and live events happening in the near future, as well as shelves and shelves of books.
Loft also regularly participates in community events, such as yoga classes, clothes swaps and communal painting. These are easy to avoid if uninterrupted and undistracted drinking is your quest; Loft’s bar is large, all-encompassing and open plan.
The outside balcony makes for one of the prettiest smoking areas in Reykjavik; there are excellent views of the main street below, as well as of mountains, the ocean and multiple cultural landmarks that dot the horizon.
Hlemmur Square is my favourite bar to go to, largely because it is the closest to my flat. Inside, the decor is minimalist, sophisticated and comfortable, with two large areas in which to enjoy a range of drinks and meal options.
Adjoined to the hostel, this bar sees a wide variety of foreign guests, meaning conversation is easy to spark up if, for some reason, you happen to be there on your own. I have been to the rooms and they're pretty delicious in themselves—not a bad location to stay during your stop over, for instance.
Hlemmur Square is directly beside the Reykjavík bus terminal but further away from the centre of town, making it an easily accessible watering hole part-way through your journey—interesting side note; I've heard many people come into Hlemmur Square asking if there are other bars in the area. Clearly new faces to Reykjavík! And though, thankfully, people are often pointed in the right direction, I have witnessed lost and confused looking guests head distractedly off into the residential areas of our fine city.
Be wary, Hlemmur Square is at the edge of downtown, not central.
Photo by Thais Do Rio
There is another reason why Hlemmur Square is my favourite. Their choice of books is minimal—I’m making my way through a WWII romantic epic, currently—but the bar is almost always quiet enough for a little privacy.
Over the last year, I have spent many, many happy hours quietly sipping cold ones and reading at Hlemmur, watching over the top of the page as streams of new guests depart their transfer and make their way excitedly into the hotel.
On a personal note, I'd also like to say the bar staff are wonderful. Though forgive me, I don't know the lady's name (right in the above picture), every time I order a drink, she makes me feel as though I've won a national lottery. I just thought I'd mention that!
The Dubliner! Oh, the times we've had... Some good, some bad, always interesting, but most certainly not appropriate for this medium.
This charmingly traditional Irish Pub is something of an enigma. It is, after all, nothing to look at particularly with its large and off-putting black banner and dusky interior decor. Through the week, the bar will run a steady business and makes for a homey stop at the end of your day.
On the weekend, however, that quickly changes. The bar is housed in the same building as the rollicking nightclub Paloma. This means that, throughout Friday and Saturday evening, the Dubliner will be a constant and heaving mass of feel-good, sexual energy. We're talking dark, we're talking loud.
Photo by Rinat T
I have enjoyed many a Tuborg sitting on those green leather seats, soaking in the dark wooden atmosphere, nodding my head along to the sweet melody of Dirty Old Town.
Still, given the wide choice of bars to visit in Reykjavík , it often strikes me as peculiar that foreign guests choose to spend their time in one of the city's less kept establishments.
Perhaps it is something to do with what we’ve been talking about - The Dubliner feels like a real drinker’s pub, the sort of place my grandfather might have routinely perched himself.
There is a darts board, sports on the television, a football table and plenty of drinks on offer, including some fine Irish whisky.
Ah, the English Pub, an institution unto itself.
This particularly Icelandic breed of the English pub (handily named the English Pub) has a lovely seating area out back, adjoined to Austurvöllur square, and a wide range of drinks on offer.
There is often football on the television and live music almost every night. The pub encourages musical requests and patrons to dance along, making for a potentially energetic evening every night of the week.
Perhaps best well known for its premium ales, the founders of the pub spent six long years collating forty of the best brands available. Their dedication paid off; today, The English Pub is famous for its selection.
Photo by Jouwen Wang
One of the most memorable times I spent here was watching England’s humiliating and overwhelmingly pathetic 2-1 defeat at the hands of the courageous and, at that moment, superior Icelandic football team.
As can be imagined, the English Pub secured a fine amount of business from me that night, though not for the same reason as the majority of other patrons.
Photo by Claus Grünstäudl
A few doors down from the English Pub is the American Bar. The American Bar is loud, a little garish and full of energy; wholeheartedly a Yankee Sportsbar.
The Stars and Stripes hangs proud across the bar’s main room whilst the walls are decked out with NFL helmets and sportswear. The atmosphere varies from chilled and relaxed to fairly energetic at the weekends.
Personally, I might recommend the bar for food (I’ve heard their meat is to die for), but I wouldn’t quite so enthusiastically advise the bar's drinking culture.
Unfortunately, and perhaps this is just me, but it seems our US cousins seem to lack the cynicism, creeping self-doubt and dusty outlook that makes drinking amongst Europeans so bloody delicious (I have heard from many accounts that certain bars in the states have 'a three drink limit'...)
But even if it's not that - the American Bar feels a touch corporate, as though there should be one residing in every town across Iceland.
Photo by Bermix Studio
If you're an American looking for a slice of home, this bar is probably the perfect choice. For everyone else, there are other bars across the city that are more authentically Icelandic, or at the very least... less full on.
Dillon is one of the most popular bars along the Reykjavík main strip; with a large outdoor seating area, a selection of over 150 different types of whisky and regular musical performances, Dillon is almost always a guaranteed good time out!
This whisky-rock bar attracts a mixture of ages, locals and tourists alike, all looking to 'get their drink on', listen to some rhythm and blues and soak up the party atmosphere.
Inside, Dillon has two dark-lit levels, both of which are pretty small and enclosed. This means that on a rowdy weekend night, the bar itself actually gets pretty hot inside, with patrons dancing and moving around.
If you're looking to spend the majority of your weekend night at this famous whisky bar, I recommend getting there early to up your chances of finding a table.
Thankfully, the staff at Dillon are polite, well-rounded and professional, as are the bouncers who dutifully act upon drunk or disruptive customers.
Photo by Evan Dvorkin
Upstairs, in the building just neighbouring Dillon, one can find the charming bar, Boston.
Boston is another favourite of mine, for no particular reason other than that I am seemingly drawn to it at the beginning of any night out. It might have something to do with the bar’s reputation; this is a venue for professional drinkers, and I like to believe I’m that.
Unlike many of the other city bars easily profiting off the country's tourism boom, Boston has managed to maintain its calm and inviting atmosphere.
If you do happen to stop off at Boston, I recommend not a drink but instead the large tabletop book that displays photographs of the bar and its patrons over the last two decades. Inside are hundreds of black and white portraits showing the full range of characters who continue to call Boston their home away from their home.
Simply flicking through it gives you the chance to appreciate an excellent photographer, as well as the opportunity to gain an insight into the history of the bar itself.
Gaukurinn is an LGBT-friendly, heavy metal dive bar, famous for its eclectic cabaret acts, drag shows, stand-up comedians and live bands. The bar is a tad shady, both in decoration and clientele, making it one of the bars in which I’ve spent the most time.
Gaukurinn tends to attract a mixed crowd, though the conservatives amongst you might find the place a little too open and full of love for your liking.
When my father came to visit, for example, he became dangerously confused by the all-gender bathrooms (I believe he was confused as to what gender he was), and the locals can be a tad, well, rowdy (I’m sure by now you have read the vitriolic filth that comes out of our regular contributor, Wanda Star.)
Weekdays at Gaukurinn are surprisingly quiet; in the corner of the room, you might find customers playing video games, chess or even reading. Come the weekend, however, the place quickly livens up to become a heaving and sweaty mass.
Kiki’s is Iceland’s only current gay club, continuing to carry the torch for Iceland’s ‘gayest corner’; Laugavegur 22. The club attracts everyone; all ages, sexualities and tastes, and is a staple visit amongst many on a weekend night.
Given Iceland's safety, it should be stated that LGBT travellers will be safe wherever they wish to drink, with Kiki's even coming off as a little 'straight' for a gay club (or so I hear.) Regardless, entrance to the bar is usually free, making the establishment more and more attractive the more you drink...
Photo by David Bill
Very quickly, you are bound to succumb to the positive energy of the bar, dancing away to the bouncy eighties hits, sipping on the cocktails upstairs, conversing happily and making new friends on your travels.
Photo by Rirri
Bar Ananas is a tropical themed bar found in downtown Reykjavík and has some of the friendliest staff you’ll find in the city.
The establishment has two levels; downstairs, a small and more rarely used bar surrounded by cosy seating; and upstairs where you’ll find the main bar, bathrooms and DJ booth often blaring head-bobbing electronic beats.
The walls are painted with large tiki illustrations, colourful birds, exotic fruits and hula dancers - in many respects, having a drink at Bar Ananas is like a small holiday, a break from the often sub-arctic weather so typical of Iceland.
As the name suggests, Bar Ananas is an establishment focused on pineapples; they cover the walls, they lend their shape to the bar's lighting and glasses, they make up an integral part of the cocktails for which the bar is so famous.
The "Basil-Gin" cocktail, the "Flamingophant" and the "Smokey Bay" are all delicious and deserve a night's attention alone.
Despite its fairly expensive pricing outside of Happy Hour, KEX Hostel is one the finest places to stop for a drink in the city. The bar is housed in a former biscuit factory and decorated with a higgledy-piggledy array of found household items.
KEX has a number of benefits. It has a lovely beer garden, complimentary bread, interesting visuals and, more often than not, live events. This year, Reykjavík Folk Festival chose KEX’s Gin & Tonic Room as their venue, a perfectly matched venue for the festival’s artists.
Every Tuesday evening, the bar fills up with people to watch an intimate jazz session with local musicians.
If you’re looking to extend your stay in the bars, please do be aware that the prices specified here will likely double. If you’re anything like me, however, you’ll know that the financial cost matters less the more pints you consume. Who can put a price, after all, on six shots of Jager? I’ll tell you who—the bar, but that’s their job, not yours. You just relax and enjoy yourself; the night is still young.
I should also take a short moment to clear up any misunderstandings that may have arisen from this session. Happy Hour is, naturally, the cheapest time to head to the bars, but if you’re hoping for a Friday/Saturday with a little more juice, pizzaz and energy, keep in mind that Icelanders themselves tend to the avoid the expensive downtown prices by heading out much later.
From across my desk, I just heard that 01:00 AM is witching hour to many people. If you wish to act like the Icelanders, but still feel the necessity to drink throughout the evening, you will need to visit a little place called Vínbúðin, the state-run liquor store.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Danninja
Now, my feelings on Vínbúðin are mixed. On the one hand, thank you, thank you and thank you again. On the other, liquor of any kind cannot be bought from any other corner shops or supermarkets in Iceland (unless you count 2.25% beer as beer, which of course, you don’t.)
This leaves Vínbúðin as the sole option for a stay-at-home drinker, which naturally means a strong awareness of the opening times. Most are open from 11:00 to 18:00, though there are a couple licensed to stay open until 20:00.
Vínbúðin is closed all day Sunday, making Sunday the saddest day of the week. If you feel the need to drink on God’s Day, and by God I do, heading out on the town is really your only option.
And while we’re still on the topic of gut rot, firewater, booze, John Barleycorn, Dutch Courage and hooch, allow me to recommend to you the drinks you’ll find most interesting during your stay.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Paglop
Brennivín, an Icelandic unsweetened schnapps, literally translates to ‘burnt wine’, and in many respects has such an effect. Otherwise called ‘Black Death’, the liquor bottle’s label was designed to put Icelanders off consuming the product.
This had quite the opposite effect, however, and today the drink is one of Iceland’s most popular distilled liquors, normally accompanied by the fermented shark delicacy, Hákarl.
The drink has also leaked its way into pop culture; the Foo Fighters mention it in their song "Skin and Bones", Michael Madsen sips at it in Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Volume II" and late-night host Jimmy Fallon picked it as the drink of choice to toast his engagement.
You will also want to sample the most renown beers in Iceland; Gull, Brio, Viking Lager, Einstök White Ale, Skaði Farmhouse Ale, Garún Imperial Stout, Leifur Nordic Saison, Úlfur, Móri, Viking Stout and Kaldi Lager, to name only a handful.
If I were promoting a connoisseur's attitude, I might go into each beer and detail them, but somehow I can't escape the feeling that drinking beer is too similar to sex in that regard; describing it doesn't quite match up to the experience itself. I suggest purchasing a beer platter; that way, nothing has to be missed.
To make life easier, it’s a wise idea to download the ‘Appy Hour’, an android application that efficiently lists all available Happy Hours in the city at any given time, as well as drink prices and a short description of the bar. If you happen to fancy a cheap drink whilst out in town, there is nothing handier than being able to flick out your phone, check the map and make your merry way.
And so, from me to you; a toast to your successes, to the adventures ahead, and to Happy Hour itself!
Cheers and Skál!