Partying in Reykjavík
Reykjavík’s renowned djammið is the lively surge of drinkers and partyers through central Reykjavík's streets, pubs and dance clubs. Thanks to the high price of alcohol, things generally don’t get going until late. Icelanders brave the melee at government alcohol store Vínbúðin, then toddle home for a prepub party before hitting the streets.
Djammið should not be confused with the countryside rúntur, which involves Icelandic youth driving around their town in one big automotive party. For a tamer version of djammið you could say pöbbarölt, meaning ‘pub stroll’.
The action is concentrated near Laugavegur and Austurstræti. Places stay open until 1am Sunday to Thursday (4am or 5am on Friday and Saturday). You’ll pay 1200kr to 1600kr per pint of beer, and cocktails are 2000kr to 2800kr. Some venues have cover charges (about 1000kr) after midnight; many have early happy hours saving 500kr to 800kr per beer. Download smartphone app Reykjavík Appy Hour, and check Grapevine (www.grapevine.is) for the latest listings.
Swig some of these like a local to help the evening go with a swing:
- Brennivín Caraway-flavoured ‘black death’ schnapps; Ölgerðin (www.olgerdin.is) is a leading producer.
- Opal Flavoured vodka in several menthol and liquorice varieties.
- Flóki Whisky (www.flokiwhisky.is) Icelandic single malt whisky.
- 64° Reykjavík Distillery (www.reykjavikdistillery.is) Microdistillery producing Katla vodka, aquavit, herbal liqueurs and schnapps.
- Reyka Vodka (www.reyka.com) Iceland’s first distillery, in Borgarnes.
Egils, Gull, Thule and Viking are the most common beers (typically lagers) in Iceland. But craft breweries have taken the scene by storm.
- Bryggjan Brugghús (www.bryggjanbrugghus.is) Has a microbrewery at Reykjavík's Old Harbour.
- Bruggsmiðjan–Kaldi (www.bruggsmidjan.is) Produced using Czech techniques, and with a dedicated bar in Reykjavík.
- Borg Brugghús Award-winning craft brewery with tasty beers from Bríó pilsner to Garún stout.
- Einstök Brewing Company (www.einstokbeer.com) Akureyri-based craft brewery with a distinctive Icelandic pale ale, among other ales and porters.
- Steðji Brugghús (www.stedji.com) Brewhouse offering lager and seasonal beers
- Ölvisholt Brugghús (www.brugghus.is) Microbrews from South Iceland, including eye-catching Lava beer.
Iceland’s pop music scene is one of its great gifts to the world. Internationally famous Icelandic musicians include (of course) Björk and her former band, the Sugarcubes. Sigur Rós followed Björk to stardom; their concert movie Heima (2007) is a must-see. Indie-folk Of Monsters and Men stormed the US charts in 2011 with My Head Is an Animal; their latest album is Beneath the Skin (2015). Ásgeir had a breakout hit with In the Silence (2014) and Afterglow followed in 2017.
Reykjavík’s flourishing music landscape is constantly changing – visit www.icelandmusic.is and www.grapevine.is for news and listings. Just a few examples of local groups include Seabear, an indie-folk band, which spawned top acts like Sin Fang (Flowers, 2013; Spaceland, 2016) and Sóley (We Sink, 2012; Ask the Deep, 2015; Endless Summer, 2017). Árstíðir record minimalist indie-folk, and released Verloren Verleden with Anneke van Giersbergen in 2016.
Other local bands include pop-electronica act GusGus (Lies Are More Flexible, 2018), FM Belfast (Island Broadcast, 2017; electronica) and Múm (experimental electronica mixed with traditional instruments). Check out Singapore Sling for straight-up rock and roll, while dream-pop band Vök have won legions of local fans with their indy-electronica tunes. If your visit coincides with one of Iceland’s many music festivals, go!
Icelandic Settlement & Sagas
Rumour, myth and fantastic tales of fierce storms and barbaric dog-headed people kept most explorers away from the great northern ocean, oceanus innavigabilis. Irish monks who regularly sailed to the Faroe Islands looking for seclusion were probably the first to stumble upon Iceland. It’s thought that they settled around the year 700 but fled when Norsemen began to arrive in the early 9th century. This kicked off the intense settlement of Iceland and later fuelled the sagas describing the adventures and feuds of these early inhabitants.
The Age of Settlement
The Age of Settlement is traditionally defined as between 870 and 930, when political strife on the Scandinavian mainland caused many to flee. Most North Atlantic Norse settlers were ordinary citizens: farmers and merchants who settled across Western Europe, marrying Britons, Westmen (Irish) and Scots.
Among Iceland’s first Norse visitors was Norwegian Flóki Vilgerðarson, who uprooted his farm and headed for Snæland around 860. He navigated with ravens, which, after some trial and error, led him to his destination and provided his nickname, Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Flóki). Hrafna-Flóki sailed to Vatnsfjörður on the west coast but became disenchanted with the conditions. On seeing the icebergs in the fjord he dubbed the country Ísland (Iceland) and returned to Norway. He did eventually settle in Iceland’s Skagafjörður district.
According to the 12th-century Íslendingabók (a historical narrative of the Settlement Era), Ingólfur Arnarson fled Norway with his blood brother Hjörleifur, landing at Ingólfshöfði (southeast Iceland) in 871. They continued around the coast, and Ingólfur was then led to Reykjavík by a pagan ritual: he tossed his high-seat pillars (a symbol of authority) into the sea as they approached land. Wherever the gods brought the pillars ashore would be the new home of the settlers. Ingólfur named Reykjavík (Smoky Bay) after the steam from its thermal springs. Hjörleifur settled near the present town of Vík, but was murdered by his slaves shortly thereafter.
The Saga Age
The late 12th century kicked off the Saga Age, when the epic tales of the earlier 9th- to 10th-century settlement were recorded by historians and writers. These sweeping prose epics, or ‘sagas’, detail the family struggles, romance, vendettas and colourful characters of Settlement, and are the backbone of medieval Icelandic literature, and a rich source for historical understanding.
Once you see the vast lava fields, eerie natural formations and isolated farms that characterise much of the Icelandic landscape, it should come as no surprise that many Icelanders’ beliefs go beyond the scientific. It's easy to envision hidden people (huldufólk), ghosts and trolls roaming the landscape and shores.
Ghosts & Trolls
As for Icelandic ghosts, they’re substantial beings – not the wafting shadows found elsewhere in Europe. Írafell-Móri (móri and skotta are used for male and female ghosts, respectively) needed to eat supper every night, and one of the country’s most famous spooks, Sel-Móri, got seasick when he stowed away in a boat. Rock stacks and certain lava formations are often said to be trolls, caught out at sunrise and turned forever to stone.
Finding Out More
Surveys suggest that more than half of Icelanders at least entertain the possibility of the existence of huldufólk. But a word of warning: many Icelanders get sick of visitors asking, and they don’t enjoy the ‘Those cute Icelanders! They believe in pixies!’ attitude. Even if they don’t entirely disbelieve, they’re unlikely to admit it to a stranger.
To ask all the questions you want, join a tour in Hafnarfjörður, 10km south of Reykjavík, or take a course at the Icelandic Elf School (Álfaskólinn; www.elfmuseum.com) in Reykjavík. Yes, there really is such a place, and it runs four-hour introductory classes most Fridays.