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11 of Reykjavik’s coolest bars
Sure they're in Iceland, but these watering holes are cool for more reasons than that
For a country that banned full-strength beer until 1989, Iceland sure knows how to party.
“Walking down the main drag of Reykjavik at 3 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night -- even in the middle of winter -- the sidewalk's still packed,” says Anna Andersen, editor of the local English newspaper Reykjavik Grapevine.
Beyond the traditional beer halls with pounding music, the 11 nightspots below let you sip craft cocktails in style or dance until dawn.
At the end of the list, you'll find some Reykjavik bar-hopping tips to help you fit in.
Kex Hostel -- the bar in a biscuit factory
One of the happier stories borne out of Iceland’s 2008 economic crisis, Kex is housed in an abandoned biscuit factory that escaped demolition when plans to build skyscrapers in its place ran out of cash.
The owners transformed the building into a chic hostel, bar and eatery, naming it after the Icelandic word for biscuit.
Travelers and Reykjavikers come here to drink beer and catch impromptu gigs.
Johannes Agustsson, founder of local indie record label 12 Tónar, says keep your eye out for up-and-coming female artist Mr Silla and three-piece band Samaris playing at Kex.
Kex Hostel, Skúlagata 28, +354 561 6060
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Kaffibarinn -- the institution
Established for so long that the current staff can’t remember the full story behind its London Underground-styled logo, Kaffibarinn remains one of Reykjavik’s most popular nightspots.
“We put a lot of energy into hiring good DJs and our staff are very close knit, which helps our customers feel engaged,” says a manager, Katherina Hauptmann.
By day it’s a cool coffee shop, but Kaffibarinn gets fiendishly busy at night, when it turns into a bar.
Worth trying are Topas or Ópal (local liquorice liqueurs) and Reyka, Icelandic vodka.
Kaffibarinn, Bergstaðastræti 1, +354 551 1588
Gallery Bar -- part art gallery, part gentleman's club
An example of a hotel bar you’d actually want to visit, the Hotel Holt’s Gallery Bar is one of the smartest spots in town to quaff a quality beverage in peace.
“The bartenders here really know how to make drinks -- not a given elsewhere in Reykjavík, where most people just drink beer,” Andersen says.
There are red leather club chairs to sink into and tempting cocktails of the day.
“You might have the place to yourself, but you’ll be in good company with paintings by some of Iceland’s most renowned artists on the walls.”
Gallery Bar, Bergstadastraeti 37; +354 552 5700
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Snaps -- comes with 'best goddamn restaurant'
Winner of the Reykjavik Grapevine’s “best goddamn restaurant” award for the past two years, Snaps is a top spot for a social drink and a good-value meal.
With its glass walls and hanging plants, the venue feels like a giant, cozy greenhouse -- people drop by for a quick beer and then find they have no reason to leave.
There’s a piano in the corner if you feel like banging out a tune.
Snaps, Þórsgata 1, +354 511 6677
Le Chateau des Dix Gouttes -- retro French with Icelandic wine
Known as Tiu Dropar (Ten Drops) by day, this intimate, grandma-chic basement cafe gets a mini-makeover from owner David Bensow every evening before he reopens the venue as a French-themed lounge bar.
One of a few dedicated wine bars emerging in Reykjavik, Le Chateau sells Iceland’s only wine brand, Kvöldsól, made from crowberries, rhubarb, blueberries and Icelandic herbs.
Le Chateau also serves cheese, waffles and charcuterie to the strains of Edith Piaf.
Le Chateau des Dix Gouttes, Laugarvegur 27; +354 551 9380
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Micro Bar -- for beer nerds
Iceland’s newest microbrewery bar, this funky city bolthole supports small brewers from all over Iceland and beyond.
With mountainous wall murals by the native cartoonist Hugleikur Dagsson, it’s a sweet space to pull up a stool and try anything from a local Kaldi draft to a Tactical Nuclear Penguin from Scotland.
Micro Bar is located in, but not affiliated to, the Center Hotel if you can’t be bothered walking home.
Micro Bar, Austurstræti 6; +354 847 9084
Slippbarinn -- Reykjavik’s first cocktail bar
It opened only a year ago, but this vintage-styled watering hole tucked into the foyer of the Scandi-chic Reykjavik Hotel Marina was the city’s first proper cocktail bar.
“Cocktail culture in Iceland is very young but catching up quickly,” explains Slippbarinn’s master mixologist, Ásgeir Má.
On any given night you’ll find as many Reykjavik residents as hotel guests sampling Má’s ever-changing creations, all mixed with house-made syrups and freshly squeezed juices.
Located right on the harbor, it’s possible to see the Northern Lights from your bar stool in the right conditions.
Slippbarinn, Mýragata 2; +354 560 8080
Loftið -- the place with a dress code
One of Reykjavik’s newer bars making a concerted move beyond beer, Loftið draws a mix of expats and mature, moneyed locals with its quality cocktails.
Being one of the only establishments in town to enforce a strict dress code helps Loftið maintain an added element of class -- but while you won’t find anyone dancing on tables here, the mood is far from stuffy.
Loftið, Austurstræti 9, +354 551 9400
Harlem -- the (street) arty place
Some visitors are pleasantly surprised by Reykjavik’s blossoming street art scene -- it can certainly lift the mood amid the city’s rather somber colors.
Sixteen street artists were commissioned to put their mark on the interior of Harlem, a gritty downtown bar that attracts an appropriately arty crowd along with some of the city’s best DJs.
“Come early, before the crowds arrive, to check out the amazing artwork and stay on to make shapes on the dance floor,” Agustsson suggests.
Harlem, Tryggvagötu 22
Kaldi -- has Icelandic beer on tap
Designed as a healthier alternative to the additive-heavy international beers widely consumed in Iceland since the end of prohibition, the country’s own Kaldi beer (brewed to a special Czech recipe) went down well with Icelanders on its 2005 launch and has sold well since.
Fortunately, you don’t have to head to its northern Icelandic brewery to drink it fresh -- this industrial-styled Reykjavik brew bar offers four varieties on tap, including the brand’s unfiltered crowd favorite.
Kaldi, Laugarvegur 20b
Ölstofa Kormáks og Skjaldar -- the low-key jewel
Known simply as Ölstofan, this nondescript city bar is frequented by artists, writers, musos and cool kids over 30 who like to keep things simple.
With no dance floor and a soundtrack you can hear yourself chat over, Reykjavik residents come here to cozy up in wooden booths and unwind with a cold pint of award-winning house brand Brió (it beat more than 4,000 other beers to top the World Beer Cup competition in 2012).
Ölstofan, Vegamótastig 4; +354 552 4687
Reykjavik bar rules -- there aren't many
Icelandic bars rarely impose a cover charge, unless it’s a special event.
Most Reykjavik bars don’t impose a dress code -- you can stumble into just about any bar wearing your Gore-Tex jacket and hiking boots, if you want to.
Most bars close by 1 a.m. from Sunday-Thursday and stay open until as late as 4.30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
The legal drinking age in Iceland is 20, but many bars impose their own age limit of 21 or 22.
Most city bars offer happy hour deals – download the Reykjavik Grapevine’s Appy Hour app to keep track.