What is the nightlife in Reykjavík like? When does the nightlife start in Iceland and where are the best bars and clubs to go to?
What makes the nightlife in Iceland special?
In recent years, Reykjavík has become known for its nightlife and is praised by tourist and travel magazines all over the world.
At first when I was told by a foreigner that Reykjavík had great nightlife I was quite surprised, it’s such a small city and there are so few places to go, compared to huge metropolitan cities like London and New York. After having lived abroad, in a few countries, I now understand the appeal of the Icelandic nightlife.
It’s all in one place, everyone knows everyone, bars are within walking distances, there are no entry fees, the queues are small, hardly dresscodes anywhere (although everyone is very aware of fashion!), there are no VIP rooms (with 1-2 exceptions) and the bars are open late.
The bars get packed and nobody raises an eyebrow if people start dancing on top of tables or chairs or start playing instruments along with the songs.
And that’s just on the average weekend, during festivals or New Years Eve you can throw in crazy outfits, lots of singing and even more alcohol!
How does the nightlife in Iceland work?
All the bars in Reykjavík are located in and around the main shopping street; Laugavegur. None of them charge entry fees (unless there is a live band playing or something special going on). This means that you can casually stroll from one bar to another, changing your location if you don’t like a song in the bar you’re currently in (or if you're looking for love!).
It literally takes from about 10 seconds up to a minute to walk to the next bar (or maybe 10 minutes from the 2 bars that are the furthest apart).
Therefore the streets are always filled with people and if you’re local, you are bound to bump into someone you know.
So if the weather isn’t too bad and you have to queue outside a place, the queue doesn’t have to be that boring.
People tend to have a few favourite bars and bar-hop between them. It’s very rare that people go out and stay in the same bar the entire night. This way you meet a lot of people and listen to different genres of music. Don’t panic if you lose your friends, the scene is small and you’re bound to find them again – or make new friends.
There are hardly any ‘clubs’ in Iceland. At least not in the same sense as in the rest of the world. You will NOT find a club on 3 floors with 7 different spacious rooms, all decorated separately with different genres of music and a big veranda, or anything similar. The only place that rightly could’ve been branded as a ‘club’ was NASA (that only had one big room and an upstairs lounge) that closed a few years ago.
Instead, you’ll mostly find café's that turn into bars that turn into dance venues as the night goes on (and the alcohol flows).
Most places don’t have a dresscode and you need to be over 20 years old to gain entry. If you look younger than 20 you’ll be asked for ID.
Some people do get ridiculously drunk, peeing on the streets or vomiting – and often breaking glass on the streets. There are also the occasional fights. But most people are harmless and you should feel perfectly safe out on the streets of Reykjavík late at night, even if you’re by yourself.
Opening hours of bars and pubs in Reykjavík
From Sundays to Thursdays all the bars will close at 1am. That’s when the bars stop serving drinks but maybe they won’t be able to kick the last people out until close to 2am.
Recently, Thursday nights (and Sunday nights!) have become known as ‘little Saturdays’, with more and more people frequenting the bars.
But like in most countries, it’s the Friday and Saturday nights when the nightlife really kicks in. Although most of the bars are open all day, or from the afternoon – they don’t get busy until after midnight, more like 2am. And most of them close around 5am.
The location of bars and pubs in Reykjavík
Downtown Reykjavík area (postcode 101) is divided into two sections by the locals when it comes to the nightlife, above Lækjargata and below Lækjargata.
Most of the pubs and bars are on Laugavegur and the continuing streets from Laugavegur: Bankastræti and Austurstræti. The rest of them are on side-streets (and Hverfisgata), visible from the main streets.
Above Lækjargata you can choose between various bars and clubs, for example: Kex Hostel, Dillon, Boston, Vegamót, Ölstofa Kormáks og Skjaldar, Kaffibarinn, Rósenberg, Club Kiki, Bunk Bar (Reykjavík Backpackers Hostel), Bravó, The Lebowski Bar, Prikið, Kofinn, B5, Den Danske Kro, The Celtic Cross, Bar 11, Ský Lounge and Íslenski Barinn (The Icelandic Bar). The newest addition (from November 2014) is Bar Ananas - Reykjavík's first beach bar.
Names of bars and locations change very quickly, although some of them have existed for years. Most of the times the location remains the same for a bar – but with new owners, new name, new music and new decorations the crowd that is attracted will change. This list will be updated as often as possible.
So if you came to Iceland some years ago, it is very likely that your favourite bar no longer exists, or it has been changed so much that it is completely unrecognizable. Besides all of these, there are also a number of cafés that close early-ish (10pm - midnight) but serve beer!
The best bars and pubs in Reykjavík
Obviously it depends on your taste in music and crowd what you think are the best bars and nightclubs. Here are some of the most popular places in town:
1. Kaffibarinn (KB for short) is by far the most known bar in Reykjavík, being heavily featured in the movie 101 Reykjavík and co-owned by Damon Albarn. This place is packed with people all the time (sometimes too packed). Frequented by musicians and 'hipsters'. Mainly alternative and electro pop music.
2. Húrra is not very old but it's in a place that previously housed Harlem, another popular venue. Húrra has established itself as a great venue for live music and great DJ’s and is constantly doing new things (such as movie nights). And on Monday nights their awesome houseband plays jazz with free entry. They play all kinds of music but mainly live music and electro DJ's.
3. Club Kiki is the newest gay club in town, located where many former gay bars have been, at Laugavegur 22. The music is mainly top of the charts pop as well as disco.
4. Ölstofa Kormáks og Skjaldar (‘Ölstofan’ for short) is great to sit down, have a beer and talk to your friends, normally there’s no music played or it is played at low volume.
5. Rósenberg normally has an entry fee – but that’s because they always have live bands playing, mainly jazz. You can see some of Iceland’s greatest musicians playing here.
6. Prikið is dedicated to playing old school hip hop on most nights – and they serve great grub food in the daytime. The crowd is normally rather young.
7. Bar 11 sometimes stays open a little later than other places (until 5:30-6am), playing rock music.
8. Kex Hostel often puts on live music events and is a nice bar to sit down and enjoy good music and nice food (try the baconwrapped dates!). It is a hostel bar so it doesn’t stay open until late and closes at 10 or 11pm. Kex Hostel is located in an old biscuit factory on a street that's adjacent to Laugavegur and is a 5 minute walk away from the main hub of bar activity in the city. On the way downtown it is good to make a stop at Dillon (rock bar) or Boston (a lounge bar with trendy décor but chilled atmosphere).
10. The English Pub is a good all-round pub. They have a big wheel of fortune where you can win a meter worth of beer and there are often acoustic guitar players around. Good in the early evening or on weekdays, not so great for dancing.
11. Although it's new and has yet to experience summertime in Reykjavík, Bar Ananas entered the city's nightlife like a warm breeze of summer, sipping on a fruity cocktail in here is an excellent escapism when the weather outside is nothing like the Bahamas. There's even sand on the floor!
12. Vegamót has an 'unofficial' dresscode - so if you don't mind going out in heels then check it out! It is very popular as a café in the daytime with good selection of food and used to turn into a posh hip hop dance venue at night, although now they focus more on food and close down at 2am.
13. B5 is very popular amongst the glossy VIP crowd. This is one of very few places in Reykjavík with a strict dresscode and 2 VIP lounges. Put on a suit or dress and heels and expect top of the charts music.
Seeing as there is no entry fee to most of these bars, make sure you check out most of them before you pick out your favourite ones!
Big Parties in Reykjavík
Besides all this, then there are often music festivals taking place in Reykjavík and all over Iceland. The biggest one is Iceland Airwaves, where additional venues include Harpa (Reykjavík’s concert and conference hall), The National Theatre, Iðnó (by the Reykjavík pond) and even in the Blue Lagoon.
And as a last word, 'Cheers' in Icelandic is 'Skál'!