Iceland: Top 10 things to do in Reykjavik after dark
Capital of cool
There's more to Reykjavik's nightlife than the Northern Lights and Golden Circle. Here's your need-to-know.
"Iceland is now cool," says Ásgeir Jónsson, an economist at the University of Iceland. "Even Beyonce and Jay-Z holiday here."
Along with hip hop’s first couple, more than 1.5m foreign visitors - five times Iceland’s entire population - landed at Keflavik Airport in 2015.
Once you visit, you understand why. It's like nowhere else on earth.
Justly adored for its bleak beauty - all undulating lava fields and jaw-dropping waterfalls – there is more to Iceland than its natural wonders. There’s a thriving music and food scene to enjoy in its easily navigable capital.
It’s the place that shaped Bjork and Sigur Ros, as Enric Palau, the founder of Barcelona music festival Sonar, points out – two of the many reasons he decided to launch an Icelandic outpost of the event there.
The forth Sonar Reykjavik took place in March, in the spectacular Harpa Concert Hall in the centre of Reykjavik with Ben UFO, Hudson Mohawk, Annie Mac and others taking to the various stages and underground car parks.
We asked the people behind the festival for their tips...
1. Catch some culture at Harpa
The eerily beautiful Harpa concert hall, perched on the edge of the North Atlantic, opened in 2011 and quickly became the city’s cultural hub – and a symbol of its post-financial crisis recovery.
You can’t miss this hulking Reykjavik landmark: at night, the hall pulses with lights, which illuminate its crystalline, honeycombed exterior, inspired by the island’s geology. The facade is the work of Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, the man behind the Weather Project installation displayed at the Tate Modern in 2003.
You’ve missed this year’s festival, but check the website (en.harpa.is) for a dazzlingly eclectic programme of events, which ranges from electronic dance acts to opera, ballet and jazz.
2. Pre-show pitstop at Kolabrautin
This stylish, airy restaurant at the top of the Harpa offers a menu which mixes the best of Icelandic produce with a Mediterranean sensibility – think wood-oven roasted cod with apples, bottarga and whey-yoghurt sauce - as well as panoramic views over the port, sea and mountains silhouetted beyond the bay.
Request a table beside the far windows to make the most of the Icelandic skyline. It was the perfect pre-Sonar pitstop but also offers pre-show set menus all year round. Do try the cocktails if you don’t have time for a meal. Whisky sours all round.
3. Sip a pint at Kaffibarinn
Rumoured to have once been owned by Blur frontman Damon Albarn, Kaffebarinn has been a Reykjavik institution since the Nineties. Sonar director Eldar Astthorsson says: “It’s a stronghold of good music with a friendly atmosphere and DJs from the Reykjavik scene playing every night.” The place is busy all week, but really gets going on Fridays and Saturdays, when chairs are pushed aside to create a makeshift dancefloor.
4. Dine at DILL
DILL is regarded by many as the city’s best restaurant - but it’s tiny (and only open evenings from Wednesday – Saturday), so make sure you book well in advance. For traditional Icelandic food with a twist, try Matur og Drykkur. Also recommended: Fish Company and Apotek.
5. Dance at Paloma
Paloma is the place to go for underground music, and has been going from strength to strength in the last year, says DJ and party promoter Anna Ásthildur Thorsteinsson: “There’s always a really good dancey vibe with a focus on electronic music.”
- Roz Purcell’s Iceland: Six amazing adventures in the Land of Fire and Ice
- Iceland: Hot springs and cool bars now just a direct flight away
6. Catch a band at Hurra
This is the best place in town for live music with a packed program every week, says Astthorsson. It also hosts stand-up comedy nights and DJs on weekdays. Stumble next door and you'll find Gaukurinn, another top spot for local and visiting bands.
7. Have a burger at KEX Hostel
Not only a stylish hostel, but a quirky diner and bar, too, the venue also offers cleverly curated live music around some of the city's music festivals. KEX has hosted the pre-party for Sónar, with local DJs and live bands getting punters into the festival mood, for the last two years. They also run their own annual beer festival in February which is worth checking out.
8. Eat pizza at Hverfisgata 12
This pizza parlour is so fashionable it doesn’t even have a name - yet still manages to attract hordes of stylish locals and slightly less well-dressed tourists. We settled into one of the warren of cosy, dimly-lit inter-connecting rooms, decked with eccentric trinkets and paintings, for a long, lazy meal.
Toppings are adventurous - pizza purists, beware – and the potato and truffle and spicy sausage are recommended. Stop off at buzzing Mikkeler & Friends micro-brewery on the floor above to continue the night.
9. Go on a pub crawl
Start at the recently opened and rapturously received Bryggjan Brugghus, where bar taps channel beers directly from the on-site brewery. The micro-brewery is located by the harbour in the up-and-coming "fishpacking district".
Craft beer fans should also check out Kaldi Bar and Skúli Kraftbar. If all that booze leaves you feeling a little fragile, Thorsteinsson recommends a visit to Prikið for lunch the next day – one of the city’s oldest cafes, it offers the “the hangover killer”, a juicy burger with a side order of painkillers. Revived? Stay on till after dark when the mood shifts and it becomes a “very cool bar”.
Details: bryggjanbrugghus.is; kaldibar.com
10. Try Bill Clinton’s favourite Icelandic hot dog
Any night of drinking in Reykjavik must be punctuated by a hot dog. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – which translates as “the best hotdog in town” – reached global fame in 2004, after Bill Clinton popped in for a ‘dog.
The stand has been going since 1937 - its owner, Guðrún Kristmundsdóttir, believes that the majority of Icelanders have eaten a hotdog at one of her four kiosks. Bill likes his plain with just a squirt of mustard.
NB: ‘Early bird’ tickets for Sonar Reykjavik 2017 cost €78 at sonarreykjavik.com