Ever since Iceland started becoming an incredibly popular destination for international visitors, most people who live here have gotten used to being asked the question: “So where do the locals hang out?”
We’re going to attempt to answer that question for you. Before we get into specific local watering holes, it’s important to understand some of the local habits when it comes to having a night on the town.
To start, let’s demystify something. There isn’t a secret, hidden bar somewhere in Reykjavík. There’s no place where the entry is in the back of a small corner store; where you are greeted by a doorman who’s missing fingers and has clearly lived a hard life; to whom you must utter a password which changes every 6 hours to gain access. There’s no place in Iceland where the locals are hiding from tourists.
This would make no sense for many reasons. The first is that such a place wouldn’t be financially viable, secondly, if all the locals hid from tourists, the only bedfellows left would be their cousins.
The locals are hanging out at the same places you are, they just have a different way of approaching a night out. Here’s a couple of things to take into consideration.
Icelanders go out late
In the rest of the world, it’s very common to come home from work on a Friday, get yourself ready and meet your friends downtown by 9.30 so you can get into your favourite places before they’re too crowded, or worse yet before you have to pay a cover charge. Things are different in Iceland.
Icelanders are more likely to meet at a friends apartment and have pre-drinks there before going out. This concept is called ‘fyrirparty’ which roughly translates to before party. The main reason for this is to save money. Alcohol is expensive here, so it’s much cheaper to ‘load up’ at home before hitting the town. As a result of this, on Friday, Saturday and other party nights, locals don’t really head into the main bar areas till at least midnight.
Many tourists have wandered into a bar at 9 PM on a Friday and said to the bartender, ‘why is it so dead today?’ The answer is almost always, ‘just wait till midnight.’
Hot tip: In Iceland, you can only buy liquor from government-owned alcohol stores called ‘Vínbúðin’. The cheapest place to buy booze is at Duty-Free when you enter the country. If you want to get the most bang for your booze buck, stock up when you get here. It’s exactly what everyone who lives here does whenever they touchdown from abroad.
Bar hopping is normal
No bar in Iceland charges a cover. When you add this to the relatively small size of downtown Reykjavík, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend the evening going from one place to the next.
A local might start out with a happy hour at one place, grab dinner somewhere else, settle for drinks and a show at another, head for a dance somewhere else, then grab a cocktail somewhere different.
This also means that the city has a variety of bars, restaurants and clubs to suit a number of tastes.
Icelanders are bad at lining up
They’re just not used to queuing up for anything. Most of the people who are of legal drinking age (20 years old) grew up during a time when the country was still relatively ignored, before the tourism boom. Almost everyone who lives here knows at least someone who works at a bar so Icelanders will do whatever they can to skip the queue.
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If you see an Icelander skip the line to have a chat with the door person, only to be let in immediately while 50 people are still waiting, don’t get offended, just add what you witnessed to your list of cultural experiences in Iceland; and feel snug in the fact that you probably don’t freak out half as much as they do going through border security in another country.
With all of the above in mind, we’ve put together a list of some places that we know are local hangouts. In the list, we describe a little bit about the vibe, crowd and events that happen there.
Good to know: Most bars in Reyjavík are legally required to close at 1am Monday to Thursday and on Sundays. Friday and Saturdays, bars are allowed to stay open till 4.30am.
On some days of the year when a public holiday follows, bars can be open till later than 1am regardless of what day it is. These nights are called ‘Party Nights’, and the majority of bars will advertise the extended hours through signage or on their Facebook pages.
We’ll start with a list of local places to grab a cold one.
A staple on the Reykjavík bar scene for years. The best way to describe this bar is if your arty friend from college who’s also in several indie bands bought a bar. The bar has a cosy front room and a large back room that’s complete with a stage and DJ booth. Live performances are on most nights of the week, mainly music but occasionally comedy, burlesque and the odd podcast taping. Many famous Icelandic bands have had their first gigs here.
Back in the day this used to be called Trúnó (the Icelandic term for when you have a drunken, meaningful chat with a friend) and was attached to the bar that is now Kiki. Although Bravó isn’t a gay bar, it’s a common place for local LGBT people to meet up before heading to Reykjavík’s primary queer bar Kiki (next door). The atmosphere is relaxed and cosy. They also have one of the longest happy hours in the country.
The oldest bar in Reykjavík, Prikið is a common hangover cure location for locals and even features something called ‘The Hangover Killer’ on their menu. During the day their breakfast and lunch menu attract people from all around. At night time, DJ’s and live performances turn it into a party venue. It’s a popular hang out for musicians in the rap and hip hop scene in Reykjavík, and during the weekend there’s often a long line to get in.
This place serves unique cocktails including an enormous margarita that will surely get the party started. They specialise in cocktails with a South American twist. It is worth noting that there is an age limit here, you have to be over 25 to get in, or at least look over 25.
Was originally a blues bar and still retains that charm in its interior. Today Dillon is a whiskey bar, but also serves all the regular drinks. It’s a no-frills place where people love to hang out, chat and listen to live music or dance to a DJ later in the night.
During the 74-year beer ban in Iceland (that ended in 1989) this was the first bar to serve bjórliki, a beer substitute. Today Gaukurinn serves a diverse range of customers. This venue is a favourite of metalheads, electro swing enthusiasts, Iceland’s BDSM scene (on nights they reserve the venue) and it’s also the home of Reykjavíks premier drag night Drag Súgur. On Mondays there’s a comedy show in English and Tuesdays are always reserved for karaoke. In 2018 Gaukurinn also added a vegan restaurant to the premises, Veganæs.
Kaldi Bar is an extension of the Kaldi Brewing Company, so an added benefit is that all the beer sold here, they brew themselves. The typical crowd is artsy. Kaldi is a favourite for a lot of people in Icelandic film and television. During happy hour it tends to attract a 30 plus crowd, but throughout the night almost anyone can be seen there.
Tucked away in a basement, this bar is a beer drinker’s paradise. They specialise in microbrews, showcasing some of the most unique beers on offer in Iceland. Their draft beer menu is always changing, so it’s a great place to visit if you want to taste something new while having a chat with friends.
Veður has a classy appearance without looking like a hotel lobby you’re afraid you’ll be asked to leave. It has a small upstairs area and a larger downstairs area which is wheelchair accessible. It’s a good all round bar for beer, wine and cocktails that does attract an older crowd. It’s a great place to have a happy hour chat with friends or an after-dinner nightcap.
Kaffibarinn is an institution. It’s always packed every weekend of the year. If bars were people, Kaffibarinn would be that person who has always had fantastic success without ever needing to try. It’s effortlessly cool. When asking other members of our staff to describe Kaffibarinn, one person in our office said, “One night I was there and so were the Prodigy and Julia Stiles.”
These are the places in Reykjavík you’re most likely to burn up that dancefloor.
This is Iceland’s oldest queer bar (and currently one of only two), but it is adored and enjoyed by everyone. Kiki wins the ‘best dance bar in Reykjavik’ every year. It’s a place to grab a drink and sweat it all out on the dance floor. The music here covers the top 40, forgotten dancefloor hits and there’s often a fair few Eurovision bangers throughout the night too.
Paloma is Iceland’s only dedicated dance club, and it’s usually only open on the weekends. Although open from 11 PM, things don’t really get going here until after 2 AM. The crowd here is always a mix, as the guest DJs bring in the loyal electro-fans and anyone else who feels an itch in their feet at the weekends. A bit of a dive, the bar is a no-frills affair and sells beer on tap as well as in bottles (recommended for fewer spills!) and basic mixers or alcopops. Paloma is the last stop for many on a night out in Reykjavík so expect a variety of people at different stages of wasted.
Dinner and Drinks
Feeling Hungry? We got you covered.
This place is the only one of its kind in the entire country. The menu offers a fusion of Japanese and South American food. The interior design alone is worth the visit. They have set menus at incredibly reasonable prices but make sure you come with an empty stomach, the last thing you want is to get halfway through and not have enough space for dessert.
Situated above Pablo Discobar this place specialises in tapas and steaks. The vibe is chilled, and it’s a great place to catch up with friends. They also have a tasting menu at a very reasonable price. All of this is set in a place that has clearly had a lot of thought put into the design.
Public House Gastropub is an Icelandic/Japanese fusion restaurant and bar that serves eye-catching and delicious tapas-sized dishes. It’s recommended you get between 2-3 dishes per person to leave feeling full and don’t leave without trying the dumplings. During the weekend, Public House presents their ‘Bottomless Brunch’ where you can choose an unlimited number of courses for a fixed price. Choose to pay a little extra, and you can enjoy bottomless drinks from a bar that prides itself on its impressive selection of wines and beer as well as scrumptious cocktails.
The easiest way to describe Sæta Svínið is by calling it an upscale pub. They’re known for their incredible burgers and great beer, but they also have quite an extensive wine list. The venue also hosts a lot of fun events like party bingo and karaoke when the kitchen closes.
If you want to taste the rich and delicate flavours of Icelandic lamb and seafood but with a Middle Eastern twist, Sumac is the place for you. This modern and stylish restaurant is relatively new to the Icelandic culinary scene but it’s already made a name for itself, and on weekends you can expect it to be fully booked in advance. The ‘Meze’ is highly recommended; for a certain price per head, the table gets 7-courses to share, and nearly all the dishes have vegetarian and vegan options. Not only does Sumac offer excellent fusion dishes, but the innovative and well-stocked bar also has a fantastic selection of cocktails on offer. If you have space after your main, try the date cake, it’s incredible!
This upmarket restaurant is a long-standing member of the Reykjavík culinary community, and it’s a well-established place to go if you want to treat yourself! Apotek’s bartenders and cocktails repeatedly win awards, and the restaurant itself boasts one of the most beautiful interiors in Downtown Reykjavík. Interesting fact, the building was designed by the same architect responsible for the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church, Guðjón Samúelsson.
Frederiksen Ale House
Frederiksen is an excellent place to go if you feel like eating out, but you’re not in the mood for anything too fancy. The warm wooden interiors of this bar and restaurant create a relaxed and inclusive atmosphere drawing a balanced mixture of locals and visitors alike. Be sure to try the mozzarella sticks made on site from scratch and place your trust in the award-winning bartenders to make you something nice to wash them down with.