The Reykjavík Weekender

by juli boggs

brennivinIf you’re heading to Iceland this year, you’ll likely want to explore the wild expanses that make the country a scenic-destination, but you would be remiss to pass over Reykjavík without giving it its due attention. Serene, creative, and effortlessly cool, the capital city of just 119,000 people is easily navigated by newcomers, while streets like Laugavegur offer more photogenic coffee shops, cafes and boutiques than the most dedicated connoisseur would have time to patronize. No matter what your intention is for your time in the city though, one activity is a non-negotiable: you must experience the surreal and wonderful world that reveals itself late on every Saturday night.

As part of Iceland’s painful prohibition period, hard liquor was illegal until 1935, and beer was not fully legal until 1989. Perhaps due in part to this, alcohol is still prohibitively expensive with a beer running you a crippling $9-$18 a pint depending on its ABV and mixed drinks similarly high in price. Well aware of this, Icelanders will begin their drinking at home, likely while watching the Eurovision Song Contest with which they are obsessed, until they’re roundly drunk at 1 AM and begin to head downtown. With an enormous array of destinations for every taste from queer 80’s dance-clubs and sleek speakeasies to Irish pubs and even a Big Lewboski themed bar, Saturday night begins in earnest after midnight. This is the hour when bars begin to fill up and cafes that earlier in the day proffered warm soup and coffee offer the late-night fare of DJs, dim lighting, and dancing with drinks in hand. By 3 AM everybody in Reykjavík has become friends. The floors are slick with spilled drinks, locals and tourists alike are dancing uninhibitedly on tables, and crowds sing along to whatever song is playing as if their allegiance to Iceland depended on it. By 5 AM, the worst for ware are asleep in the street, broken glass glints dully in the dim morning light, and new friends part way with promises to meet again for brunch after some rest.

It’s likely that you will meet for brunch the next day unless you happened to imbibe in Iceland’s national distillate, Brennivín. When it legally debuted in 1935 the locally crafted aquavit bore a black label with a skull indicating the danger of drinking, garnering it the nickname “black death.” Today Brennivín’s label carries an outline of the country rather than a skull, though the alcohol’s effect remains potent. Distilled from potato mash and flavored with caraway seeds, the herbal almost gin-like liquor an Icelandic joke in itself about surviving the long dark winter like a true Viking, and is a traditional libation worth your time. The one word you’ll need in the event a drink is offered: skál meaning “cheers.”

*Photo from