In Iceland, you can buy friends. Well, at least you can rent them.
For a town of 180,000, Reykjavik has an amazing reputation for wild nightlife. Sometimes it seems like every Icelander between the ages of 20 and 50 takes to the streets on Friday and Saturday nights, cheerfully caterwauling Icelandic folk songs in the city's main square until four in the morning.
Flocks of tourists cruise the streets, too, attracted to Reykjavik's walkable size, the city's notoriously beautiful people, and how friendly Icelanders get when they're drunk. I've been out several times in Reykjavik and always gotten swept up in the crowd, shanghaied by locals into their favorite bars. It just takes some willingness to be outgoing.
Or it could take a friend. That's where Jon Kari Hilmarsson, the Icelandic Nightlife Friend, comes in. A tremendously jolly blond giant in his late 30s, Hilmarsson is a fixture on Reykjavik's nightlife scene. He knows all the clubs in town, and most of the people you'll meet in 'em. And for a mere $350 for a group of up to four people, he'll show you a full night on the town, from 8 pm until you drop.
"Wait a minute," you say. "$350?" Well, yeah, sure, it's a lot of money, unless you're the guys he took around in early May who managed to drop $7,000 at a local strip club.
For your $350, you get past all the lines at club doors, which can be pretty long, and you get to dodge cover charges at the Pravda and NASA discos, which can be hefty. More importantly, though, you get taken around to places where you're guaranteed to find folk like you, whether you're a 40-something couple who wants to sip wine with sophisticates or a single, 25-year-old guy looking for college students in extremely short skirts. You get a guy looking out for you in case you get bored. And you get introduced to Jon Kari's friends. Most of Reykjavik seems to be Jon Kari's friends.
In other words, you get a social safety net for $350. A sense of ease. It's more than a guided tour; it's an entrée into a scene.
I was taken around by Jon Kari on a rather dead Friday night, and he deftly made the best he could of the situation. We hit a few bars before settling on Café Thorvaldsen, one of his favorite joints, a hangout for a college-educated crowd mostly in their 30s. He explained he'd have taken me somewhere different if I was 24, or 44, or wanted a major dance floor. As he's a bit of a distance from 24 himself, he shanghaies younger friends along to accompany younger guests, or brings along female friends to help give women tips.
Along the way, he introduced me to his friends. Jon Kari's personal glow guarantees about ten or fifteen minutes of conversation anywhere you go, but from there on in it's up to your social skills. I ended up talking until 3 AM with two producers for the national TV station who, horrifyingly, had to be at work by 9 the next morning.
With the confidence and knowledge Jon Kari gave me, I ended up venturing out the next night on my own. I fell in with a bunch of college students who spirited me past lines into their favorite bar, and I then bounced back on my own from there to a place I'd been the previous evening. A gift of nightlife knowledge, it seemed, just kept on giving.
To get in touch with Jon Kari, go to www.nightlifefriend.is.
A Quick Tour of Reykjavik Nightlife
One of the big advantages of going out in Reykjavik is that there's literally something for everyone, and it's all within a very small area. A few blocks' walk takes you from a happening dance floor to a mellow pub. Curious where to go? The scene seems to change every few months, so ask the friendly folks out on the street. Some bars I saw, and the way I judged them (with Jon Kari's help):
Kaffi Brenneslan, Posthusstræti 9 (next to the Hotel Borg). Get ready for the night at this cozy, popular bar, which has a great beer list.
Solon, Bankastræti 7a. The top place for students and 20somethings to meet and mingle, with a huge dancefloor upstairs. Glossy, with lots of floor space.
Kaffibarinn, Bergstadastræti 1. Famously part-owned by Damon Albarn of the Brit-pop group Blur, this crowded little pub is a favorite of artists and artist wannabes.
The Dubliner, Hafnarstræti 4. For that comforting feeling of being surrounded by British and American tourists, this Irish pub offers a haven for non-Icelanders out for the night.
Thorvaldsen, Austurstræti 8. A sophisticated, educated 30-something crowd hangs out here until late. There's a small dancefloor.
Pravda, Austurstræti 22. The music here is heart-stoppingly loud, so all you've got to do is dance. Dance, dance, dance.
Nasa, on the main square opposite the Hotel Borg. Iceland's biggest dance club, with live music on weekends. Don't even try to show up before 1 AM.
Bar 101, Hverfisgata 10. The snob factor can be intolerable, but here's where you'll find Iceland's wealthiest jet set.
For listings of pretty much every nightclub in Reykjavik, see www.infoiceland.is/infoiceland/nightlife/reykjavik_nightlife/nightclubs_in_reykjavik.
Icy Myths Exploded!
Reykjavik nightlife is so notorious that many myths have grown up around the scene. Some truths:
- Yes, many Icelanders are indeed very pretty. But no, they're not all blond, and no, they're not all skinny. Something about that geothermal hot water, though, gives even the chubby brown-haired folk an attractive glow.
- Yes, alcohol in Reykjavik costs insane amounts of money: think $8 for a beer or mixed drink.
- Get ready to stay up late. Nothing really gets going in Reykjavik until 1 AM; on weekends, 1-5 AM are the prime partying hours. Saturdays are generally busier than Fridays.
- Icelanders may be bright and friendly inside, but black is the color they wear on the outside. You can't go wrong with a sharp, black outfit.
- "Pretty and friendly" does not mean "lacking any discernment." Sorry, guys, Icelandic girls are just as likely or unlikely to go home with you as girls in Chicago or New York.
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