Welcome to Reykjavik, Iceland
Published: May 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
Wielding the energy and edginess of a city 100 times its size, Reykjavík, Iceland, has seized a spot among the world's cultural capitals. Young, cosmopolitan Icelanders are creating some of today's best (and strangest) pop music, quirky fashions, and simply the wildest nightlife in Europe. All this in a country of 270,000 people. Welcome to the next frontier . . .
Three o'clock, a Saturday afternoon in late fall. Already the sun is sinking into the Atlantic, casting a last faint glow on the red-roofed houses in the center of town. The streets are empty but for a few old fishermen returning from the harbor and a pair of handsome women pushing strollers past the supermarket. It's a quintessentially Scandinavian scene: scrubbed sidewalks, polished storefronts displaying wool sweaters and puffin dolls, clapboard Lutheran churches. A pervasive sense of order and calm. Even the toddlers are reserved.
At odd hours like this, when most of Reykjavík is home taking a nap, the city appears to be just another sleepy village on the edge of the Arctic Circle, too far from everywhere else for anything exciting to happen—a sort of Lake Wobegon with money.
You would have no idea.
Flash-forward 12 hours. We're jammed against the sleek, glowing bar at Ozio, shouting out drink orders above the chest-thrumming bass of Icelandic trip-hop. The woman behind the bar is devastatingly attractive, but by this point our party of two Americans and two Brits has ceased to comment on such things, since everyone around us seems to have stepped out of a Dolce & Gabbana ad. The crowd oscillates wildly on tabletops, chairs, shoulders, or whatever else they can find.
My photographer friend Martin has just landed in Reykjavík tonight, straight from an assignment in Ibiza documenting that island's famously wild club scene for a fashion magazine. He is dumbstruck by the mayhem before us. "What the hell," he shouts, "was I doing in Ibiza?"
That's when the six-and-a-half-foot blond man in the purple and gold Versace tuxedo enters the bar and delivers his alarming battle cry.
His friends return the greeting in unison. Just another patron, it turns out. Probably drives a Lexus, irons his socks. "YAAAAARRRRRRGGGH!!!" he roars again, bear-hugging his companions. Meanwhile, a girl dressed like the Cat in the Hat is running around dragging her giggling friend across the floor. By her feet.
Outside on Austurstræti—the prim street I strolled this afternoon—hundreds of young Icelanders are whooping their way to the next club, bursting into song, kissing random passersby. Vodka and beer bottles litter the sidewalks, and exhilarating dance beats spill out of every doorway.
"Some sort of holiday today?" Martin yells over the din. No, I tell him, just a typical weekend night in Reykjavík.
Twelve years ago, Iceland snuck up and took me by surprise: I was awake late with the radio when the DJ cued a song called "Birthday" by a band called the Sugarcubes. The lyrics were in English, yet the singer's inflected wail was definitely not from my world. The music swirled around a rumbling, primal bass line, with symphonic swells pulling the tune slightly off-key; all of it was held together by that strange and remarkable voice. It was an utterly baffling sound. The band, I soon discovered, was from Iceland, and the voice belonged to a 21-year-old woman named Björk.
Since then, of course, Björk has gone on to an international solo career, pushing pop music to its outer edge. For much of the world Björk has become synonymous with Iceland; she is her country's most famous export, and the tourist shops in Reykjavík now display her CD's in their windows. It makes for an odd tableau—Björk's startling techno-futurist album covers nestled among those sweaters and puffin dolls—but such juxtapositions are the very definition of Iceland. This is the world's 11th-wealthiest country, per capita, yet one of the planet's youngest and most primitive landscapes (a mere 21 percent of it is habitable). Exceedingly remote, yet proudly cosmopolitan; fiercely traditional, yet enviably progressive; inextricably linked to nature, yet embracing of technology—Iceland is nothing if not contradictory. Come to Reykjavík expecting a somnolent Scandinavian harbor town and you'll find it, but you'll also find a restaurant designed by Terence Conran, a bar owned by a British pop star, a vibrant and eclectic music scene, outrageous fashion, and Europe's most scintillating nightlife. While guidebooks focus on the ancient Viking sagas and the beauty of the countryside—making the people seem like incidental figures in a landscape painting—Reykjavík has earned its place not merely as a gateway to fjords and glaciers, but as a true city of the world.
I admit that my friend and I arrived in Iceland with a certain amount of dread. We'd seen enough of remote Scandinavia to know how bleak it could be. (Try being stranded for a week in Trondheim, Norway.) Not least, we worried about the food: our Lonely Planet guide promised such treats as "rams' testicles pickled in whey and pressed into a cake." Fantastic, we decided on the plane ride over, we just won't eat.
We couldn't have been more wrong, of course. I'm sure you can still dine on rams' testicles somewhere in Reykjavík, along with putrefied shark meat, sheep's eyes, and other ancestral favorites, but you don't have to; certainly not when you could go to Rex (the impossibly chic Terence Conran boîte on Austurstræti) and order a spicy coconut soup with lobster grilled on lemongrass skewers, a crab-mango salad with cilantro oil and cumin crisps, or the freshest sushi west of Osaka. Needless to say, this wasn't what we'd expected.
The transformation of Reykjavík from a tiny sub-Arctic backwater into a symbol of sophistication was blindingly fast. Björk described the changes in a 1997 TV interview: "It's been quite a mad century for Iceland. A hundred years ago, my grandparents' generation were brought up in mud houses. The lifestyle was like the Middle Ages. . . . Iceland developed in maybe eighty years what, say, England developed in four hundred years. It's so quick it's almost violent."
That Iceland has evolved so swiftly—and without violent upheaval or reaction—is testimony not just to its progressivism but to a strong sense of historical continuity: past and future merge almost seamlessly here. Technology is not viewed as a threat to tradition but as merely an extension of it. Björk may use digital samplers and beat boxes instead of lutes and goat-skin drums, yet in her view there's no difference. Electronic instruments, she has said, "are just tools—[like] wood or leather or metal and all that we so far have made music out of." As one of her lyrics puts it: "All the modern things / like cars and such / have always existed / They've just been waiting in a mountain / for the right moment . . . It's their turn now." Perhaps it's appropriate that the Icelandic term for computer, tölva, is a fusion of "number" (tala) and "prophet" (völva). And Icelanders do love their number prophets—and their pagers, minidisc players, Palm VII's, and all the many other gadgets they can buy in the high-end boutiques along Laugavegur street, next to bookshops displaying countless editions of the medieval sagas. The New York Times recently reported that neophilic Icelanders make more Internet connections per capita than any other nation on earth. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of Icelanders continue to believe in elves.
"You must get rid of it!" the pink man is telling me in slurred English. We're outside Vegamót, a velvet-swathed bistro and bar, and I've been stopped by a jovial clubgoer clad entirely in pink.
"Get rid of what?" I ask.
"All of it!" he cries with a fiendish grin. "Everything you have!" This he demonstrates by furiously shaking his hips. "You must . . . let it go."
I think I understand. "Free your mind and your ass will follow?"
"Exactly!" the pink man shouts. "Mind your ass and the free will follow!" Then he twirls down the block with his posse, hollering his newfound mantra to a fresh pack of converts.
A sense of desperate urgency unites the clubhoppers of Reykjavík. Thirty-four-year-old ad execs hit the town with the look of teenagers let loose for the first time, buzzing with adrenaline and rarely sitting down. Maybe there's a reason Icelanders call this weekend club-crawl a rúntur: everyone's whirling from one place to the next, so the real excitement is found on the street, en route to somewhere else. And for a town of just 108,000 people, Reykjavík has a dizzying number of somewhere elses.
The hypercharged pace is partly a remnant of the days when all bars and clubs had a mandatory 3 a.m. closing time. But Reykjavík's police grew weary of the three o'clock stampedes, when thousands of drunken clubgoers would spill onto the streets en masse, and the closing law was repealed last July. Now many bars stay open until seven or eight in the morning. (The cops, somehow, find this much more acceptable.)
Three a.m., kaffi thomsen: a glittering blonde spins off the dance floor and introduces herself as Miss Def Kung-Fu. Her Vietnamese silk tunic is drenched in sweat. She asks how we like her hometown, and we rave accordingly. Miss Def offers us a history lesson. "Two years ago everything in Iceland sucked," she shouts, with a vehemence that almost makes me believe her. "And now?Everything's brilliant!" I nearly laugh at the absurdity of it, but then I remember Björk's point: everything happens five times as fast here. Two years in Iceland might be 10 years anywhere else—and a lot can happen in 10 years.
Take, for instance, beer. For most of the century national laws allowed only a watery 2.2 percent brew, which pubs used to spike with vodka. Real beer was legalized only on March 1, 1989, an occasion Icelanders still celebrate as Bjórdagur—Beer Day. It's now hard to imagine Iceland as the puritanical land that also, for a time, outlawed Thursday-night television (to encourage family togetherness) and even banned dogs in Reykjavík. But it's true—and perhaps that memory accounts for the anxious mood of today's nightclubbers, who act as if they've finally been allowed to play, and that this all might end sooner than we think. Reykjavík, in other words, is in the throes of a decade-long coming-out party, and no one is about to let it end.
Seven-forty a.m.: seagulls are ascending into the coralline sky above Austurstræti, and the last of the hangers-on at Kaffi Thomsen emerge to stagger homeward in the sunrise. A lone hot-dog vendor calls out to the night's final customers, and a line forms beside his stand. The sidewalks are strewn with bottles and discarded admission tickets, candy wrappers and cigarette butts. A Vespa roars off toward the harbor, and then all is silent save the squawk of gulls and the whistle of an Arctic wind. I'm on a bench on Austurvöllur Square, too revved for sleep.
Finally they arrive: a convoy of street-sweeping machines, driven by a dozen men in royal blue jumpsuits. They glide around the square like Zambonis, picking up trash and polishing the cobblestones. From my bench I watch them sweep and scrub until every curb and corner is gleaming once again in the sunrise. As church bells sound from across the lake, a punk on a skateboard rumbles by—he's either up too early or out too late. The street-sweepers, finished for now, follow him down the block, around the corner and out of sight.
Only the most dedicated nightlife junkie (or the extremely photosensitive) would venture to Iceland in winter, when darkness dominates. Summer, of course, is the time to go, when the sun hardly sets and Reykjavík's streetlife is most vibrant. A note to prospective clubgoers: Weeknights are usually as sedate as weekend nights are wild, so plan your trip accordingly. Those not interested in the bar scene should consider skipping town on weekends and heading for the countryside.
Hótel Borg 9-11 Pósthússtræti; 354/551-1440, fax 354/551-1420; doubles from $184. Reykjavík's best-located and most attractive hotel, full of restored Deco details and warm 1930's ambience. Within walking distance of just about everything.
Radisson SAS Hotel Saga Vid Hagatorg; 354/525-9900, fax 354/525-9909; doubles from $179. Ten minutes' walk from the city center, just beyond the lake, this modern chain hotel has comfortable if bland rooms and the services you'd expect: spa, shops, decent restaurants, bars, business center.
restaurants & cafés
Rex 9 Austurstræti; 354/551-9111; dinner for two $111. This 18-month-old restaurant-bar is one of the city's best. Terence Conran's ultra-polished interior is stunning, and the food is fantastic (don't miss the grilled lamb). DJ on Thursday nights.
Naust 6-8 Vesturgata; 354/552-3030; dinner for two $83. An old-fashioned seafood restaurant housed in a former warehouse near the harbor. The cozy nautical-themed dining rooms are filled with dark wood and candlelight.
La Primavera 9 Austurstræti; 354/561-8555; dinner for two $100. Reykjavík's best Italian restaurant, located above Rex, and similar in look and attitude. Expensive but worth it.
Kaffi Brennslan 9 Pósthússtræti; 354/561-3600; lunch for two $33. Lively café and bar next to Hótel Borg, with friendly and cool waitstaff, great sandwiches, and 97 beers available.
Kaffi Reykjavík 2 Vesturgata; 354/562-5540; lunch for two $30. Terrific lunches—lightly fried haddock, lasagne, hearty soups—served in a historic building with exposed beams and bricks, heavy oak tables, and white lace. Transformed after dark into a noisy, crowded bar scene (but in Reykjavík, what isn't?).
bars, clubs, and discos Café Ozio 6A Lækjargata; 354/551-8811. By day a chic café, by night a thriving bar scene, with a dance club in the basement. Gorgeous staff, gorgeous patrons. Opened in July 1999, and an instant hit among Reykjavík's young and trendy.
Kaffibarinn 1 Bergstadastræti; 354/551-1588. Owned by Damon Albarn of the British band Blur, this always-packed bar-café (in a small two-story house) has the feel of an English pub. Popular with musicians, artists, actors, and, of course, Blur fanatics.
Vegamót 4 Vegamótastig; 354/511-3040. Sexy, dark bistro and nightclub with no room to dance but on the tabletops—and the soulful weekend DJ's make this an imperative.
Astro 22 Austurstræti; 354/552-9222. The granddaddy of Reykjavík nightlife: a sleek two-level dance club where the action starts only after 1 a.m. Good luck getting in with those shoes.
Skuggabarinn (Shadow Bar) In the Hótel Borg, 11 Pósthússtræti; 354/551-1247. Astro's main contender for Reykjavík's BCBG. The atmosphere is 1930's—grand Deco ballrooms, oil paintings, velvet curtains, chandeliers—but the rich, well-coiffed crowd and the music are as contemporary as it gets.
Kaffi Thomsen 17 Hafnarstræti; 354/561-5757. On the opposite end of the scale from Skuggabarinn, this rowdy bar draws a devoted dancing crowd with fast-and-furious house music in the cellar disco. Not for the faint of heart.
Additional research by James Wilk and Charles Dragazis.