partying in iceland by óskar hallgrímsson

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 dress codes anywhere (although everyone is very aware of fashion!), there are no VIP rooms (with 1-2 exceptions) and the bars are open late (until 05:00 at weekends).

Picture from Iceland Airwaves

Photo credit: Alexander Matukhno, Iceland Airwaves Flickr

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!

Where are the bars in Reykjavik?

Laugavegur shopping street in Reykjavík. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

The nightlife in Reykjavík centres around the main shopping street; Laugavegur. There are also some on neighbouring street Hverfisgata, and Laugavegur becomes Bankastræti that becomes Austurstræti. Adjacent to Austurstræti is Hafnarstræti, and a few bars are located on Naustin as well.

None of the bars 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.

Do people go to bars, clubs or cafés?

nightlife in iceland by óskar hallgrímsson

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).

Dress code and age limits

nightlife in iceland can be crazy, by óskar hallgrímsson

Most places don’t have a dress code and you do need to be over 20 years old to gain entry, which is the legal drinking limit in Iceland. If you look younger than 20 you’ll be asked for ID so be sure to bring an ID with you that shows your date of birth and your picture.

Since there's no dress code it really doesn't matter what you wear, although people do tend to dress up. Guys might even wear suits and ties or bowties, or perhaps just a suit jacket along with jeans. Girls go for fancy tops or dresses, boots or high heels and leather, denim and fur is also always popular. In wintertime, it's more about bringing layers (it's warm indoors but probably freezing outside), so bring a warm jacket, gloves and a hat perhaps.

Some people do get ridiculously drunk, peeing on the streets or vomiting – and often breaking glass on the streets. It should go without saying that urinating on the streets, or anywhere in public, is illegal and you can get a hefty fine if caught doing it. There are also the inevitable occasional fights.

But most people are harmless and friendly 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

Nightlife in Reykjavík - picture from Secret Solstice festival

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, around 2 in the morning. And most of them close around 5 in the morning, although if you're lucky you might find an afterparty going on until much later than that.

Special events in Reykjavik's nightlife

There are plenty of festivals that take place in Reykjavík that affect the nightlife. The biggest music festivals are Sónar Reykjavík that takes place in Reykjavík's Concert Hall Harpa in February, Secret Solstice Festival that takes place in June around the summer solstice in Reykjavík's recreational area Laugardalur and Iceland Airwaves that takes place in November all over town and even in the Blue Lagoon.

There are also numerous other smaller festivals that boost the nightlife.

Culture Night by Harpa in Reykjavík

But besides the festivals, there are certain days of the year that get Icelanders to flock downtown. Those include the 1st of March, which is the Icelandic Beer Day, the 'official first day of summer' which is always on a Thursday in late April. Gay Pride Festival in early August also brings herds of LGBTQ as well as straights to the bars at night.

Culture Night is the 3rd Saturday in August when Reykjavík fills with free artistic activities and events, ending with a firework display at night. Boxing Day (26th of December) has also become a big party night. Actually any day before a national holiday is easily a great party night, such as the 16th of June, the day before Iceland's independence day.

In May the graduations from colleges and universities take place, when hundreds of college kids dress up in costumes during the daytime, but in the evening they flock out to the streets, identified by their white caps.

Another thing that happens in May that has a great effect on Iceland's nightlife, perhaps somewhat surprising to foreigners, is the night of the Eurovision Song Contest.

99% of Icelanders watch this international song competition, that runs from 19:00 to around 22:00 on a Saturday night at some point in May, and at this time the city centre will be dead quiet. However, shortly after, the town fills with people, many of which are quite drunk, some of which are in glittery outfits or have outrageous make-up and almost all of which will be singing along to Eurovision classics in the city's bars.

The location of bars and pubs in Reykjavík

Reykjavík city centre

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, Bravó, The Lebowski Bar, Prikið, Kofinn, B5, Den Danske Kro, Hverfisbarinn, Bar 11, Ský Lounge, Loft Hostel, Peterson Suite, Mikkeller & FriendsÍslenski Barinn (The Icelandic Bar) and Bar Ananas.

Below Lækjargata you can choose between these ones for example: Hressó, Húrra, Paloma, TívolíAusturThe English Pub, American Bar, The Dubliner, Drunk RabbitGaukurinn, Micro Bar, Skúli Craft Bar, Bryggjan Brewery or Slippbarinn. The newest addition here is Pablo Discobar, that opened in late 2016.

Craft beers in Reykjavík

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 often changes too. 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 unrecognisable. Besides all of these, there are also a number of cafés that serve beer that close early-ish (22:00 - midnight), upscale hotel bars that are open until 22-01 and a number of restaurants that serve tasty cocktails until around midnight.

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 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 Hverfisgata 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 a party atmosphere).

9. Bravó is a nice bar that tends to get packed with people, either sitting down for a beer and a chat, or even dancing on the tiny dance space. It's right below Club Kiki.

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. 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.

14. Paloma is on the top floor of a house that holds 3 venues. It gets packed with people dancing to local and international DJ's and even hanging of one of their wooden ceiling beams. Paloma states it's Reykjavík's only club.

15. Pablo Discobar is on the top floor, above the S-American restaurant Burro. Here you'll find delicious cocktails, funky décor and all the disco you need.

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!

And as a last word, 'Cheers' in Icelandic is 'Skál'!