raging in reykjavik
It’s a weird feeling to leave a club and be met by blinding sunlight. Staggering out of a venue’s door post-sunrise means it’s been a hell of a night, most likely one for the record books. However, it’s another thing entirely to never see the blanket of darkness at all during a night out. Welcome to boozing in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city and unofficial home to sunny brightness 24/7 during summer months.
Before a recent jaunt to the beautiful Nordic isle, I’d heard rumors of the brutally long, well-lit days and stocked up on sleep masks and other accoutrements to aid in blissful slumber. While I expected substantial rest to be a difficult thing to come by, managing a night on the town proved far harder.
For one thing, in the States, I use the sky as a solid indicator as to when I should go home. Yes, I own a watch, but I know its time to call it quits when the first hints of light creep up over the horizon when I’m walking between venues. In Iceland, it’s as bright at 1:30 a.m. as if it were the middle of the afternoon. Because of this, it’s literally impossible to gauge the time based on the amount of daylight hitting your pupils.
Also, few Icelandic nightclubs and bars are built solely for the purpose of an evening retreat. The bulk of them are dual-function, meaning they’re either a popular restaurant or café during the day before removing the tables, adding a DJ and dimming the lights and turning over for the night rush. As such, most have enormous windows in the façade, which very few establishments cover. I’m used to being in places that are so dark I need to use the dim glow of my cell phone to see inches in front of my face. To see sunlight as I ordered yet another round of tequila shots was as shocking to my system as the agave in my glass.
For all of its detractors, the addition of sunlight to a night out actually had a few advantages I never considered. It energizes you, allowing you to stay out later (we called it quits one night close to 6:30 a.m.), and it means you can see just how attractive (or not) that member of the opposite sex you’re chatting with really is. It also makes “runtering” that much more of a party.
“Runter starts when you’re 17 or so. Since all the bars are located on one street, you drive up and down it very slowly and try to find the best clubs and bars that will let you in, even though the legal age for drinking here is 20. It’s a total mess, but it’s fun,” Jón Kári Hilmarsson explains.
Hilmarsson, just like the clubs he frequents, pulls double duty. During the days, he’s a flight attendant on Icelandair, but come nightfall (or simply 9 p.m., in this case) he’s The Nightlife Friend; a venerable tour guide for foreigners looking for the authentic nightlife experience in Reykjavik. For $500, he’ll take a group of five or six people out (mostly fellas) and make sure they get into the hottest venues, that the locals guys don’t hassle them and that they’re well looked after by the local ladies.
Because drinking in Iceland is a rather expensive proposition (few liquor stores exist and drink prices at bars are exorbitant — a Johnny Walker Black can be as high as $22) locals all drink at home until 1 a.m., meaning tourists who flock downtown at 11 p.m. will be broke and rather lonely in sparsely populated venues.
“After 1 a.m., everyone comes out and the long queues start at the popular places,” Hilmarsson shares. “That’s when you need someone like me to help you cut the line and make sure you make it in.”
Hilmarsson doesn’t make a dime from the bars he brings his clients to.
“It keeps me honest in my recommendations,” he explains.
There is a limited pool from which to recommend, however. Reykjavik is home only to four or five proper dance clubs that offer bottle service (bottles run about $300) and the full nightlife experience to which Americans are accustomed. Most of these venues are repurposed from banks, and the vaults and their heavy doors still are in use on lower levels, likely in the form of bathrooms or a VIP lounge. But there are a slew of small bars and cafes/clubs that keep the locals happy.
“Many bars and clubs are physically small, so you can’t have many people in them at once, so you bounce around from spot to spot. That’s why we have the runter,” he says.
B5, named for its address (Bankastraeti 5), is one of the more popular venues. B5 has a sparse design feel: white walls with no art, two chandeliers, a row of banquettes along each wall and a bar at the back. A small stand near the front is a makeshift DJ booth when the spot isn’t a bustling café during the daytime. A VIP lounge downstairs features bottle service. Until 1 a.m., it’s chock full of guys only.
“The girls are waiting until later,” Hilmarsson says. “Which is also why you need to hire me. I can tap into my network of local girls and have them meet you earlier for drinks,” he says, quickly adding these offered females aren’t escorts, but merely fun lasses who enjoy tourists.
That last bit is crucial because occasionally Icelandic women can be as frosty to outsiders as the air temperature. As a quartet of four gorgeous women settled in at the table next to my crew, Hilmarsson notices us checking them out and chuckles.
“The thing about the girls here is you get the chance,” he says slyly over his vodka tonic.
His words were met by our quizzical stares, so he elaborates: “We have the most beautiful women in the world here. But you can approach them. Go up to the hottest girl in the room in a club in NYC and try to talk to her. She’ll just turn around if she’s not interested. Here, go up, and you’ll get about 15 minutes to impress her.”
And if she’s still not interested? “At least you got your chance, right?” Hilmarsson grins.