The sky above Reykjavik was as dark as black ice, save for a handful of diamond stars. As a cutting wind whipped off the frigid sea and blew down the narrow streets lined with brightly painted storefronts, shivering pedestrians tightened their scarves and scurried into cozy bars and restaurants to find warmth.
It was only 4:30 on a late November afternoon, but the Nordic night had already set in. And at this time of year it was set to stretch on for another 20 hours or so. My cellphone buzzed, and I reached for it with chilled fingers.
“Why on earth are you vacationing in Iceland?" a friend texted.
For people looking to escape the cold of winter, heading to an Arctic city where evening spans most of the clock and the temperature hovers around freezing may not seem an obvious choice. But this is Reykjavik, where Icelanders turn their backs on hibernation and luxuriate in a drawn-out night life that revs up as the sun goes down. Indeed, with every step I took in this cosmopolitan city of just over 120,000 people, a litany of surprising experiences would soon unfold, hidden behind closed doors in warm interiors or laid bare under the frigid majesty of the volcanic landscape.
A friend and I had come here to sample Iceland’s natural wonders: thundering geysers, powerful waterfalls and the therapeutic waters of the Blue Lagoon, a vast thermal lake half an hour south of Reykjavik with a turquoise hue so impossibly bright that it looks Photoshopped. We wanted to spot the glowing green ribbons of the aurora borealis, which were reported to be especially luminescent this year because of sunspots casting a wide spectral aura over the North Pole. But it wasn’t just Iceland’s natural splendors that lured us: We also wanted to get a taste of the rollicking midnight club scene that Reykjavik has been known for since Bjork put it on the map.
What we stumbled upon instead was another slice of nocturnal, urban Iceland: a diverse milieu of funky cafes, cutting-edge restaurants and Icelandic-chic bars, all catering to a cozy chat society that hummed late into the infinite night.
Laundry and conversation
I slipped the phone into my pocket — an answer to my friend would have to wait — and ducked into the Laundromat Cafe on Austurstraeti Street, one of several offbeat cafes where locals kick off the evening in front of a row of beers. Here, tourists find refuge after the brief window of daylight that allows them to explore the astounding panoramas of black lava and crystalline mountains outside Reykjavik.
The polished wooden bar was lined with shelves containing hundreds of used novels and a clutch of red leather high-backed stools. Several suited banker-types had already quit the business district and were hovering over wine and smoked salmon, while twenty-somethings in boots and expensive sweaters nursed juices and nibbled on cakes. Downstairs there was an actual laundromat, where people talked over cappuccinos at a stout wooden table near a toddlers’ playroom as their clothes spun dry.
Icelanders, we quickly learned, are efficient and direct, especially in conversation. Ask if the northern lights have been brighter this year and you get a terse yes — followed by silence. Waiters answer questions about the menu with monosyllabic precision, as was the case at Laundromat.
But with a little banter people become warm and eager to chat about their country — especially the nation’s lingering economic crisis, a theme that poked its way into almost every discussion. Since 2009, when a financial crash was followed by a plunge in its currency, Iceland has been on sale for tourists. But the weak krona is still hobbling spending power for Icelanders, as one young waiter at Laundromat grumbled, adding that headlines suggesting that the nation has entered a miraculous recovery don’t entirely ring true.
Get an Icelander started on the ruggedness of the land, and more tales pour forth about how winter’s constant darkness and the summer’s midnight sun forge the national character. Eventually, someone will whisper that the island’s snowcapped mountains are protected by trolls and elves, mystical creatures that, it turns out, many Icelanders still firmly believe exist today. One loquacious guide on a tour outside the city told us of a fairway on the outskirts of Reykjavik that was diverted around a pair of large boulders believed to be the homestead of a troll who did not want his habitat disturbed by modernity.
Fashion and food
Our hands duly de-iced, we bundled up again and left Laundromat to prowl the lengthening evening, pausing on the animated shopping streets of Bankastraeti, Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur in the heart of town. Clutches of red, green and white wooden storefronts edged the sidewalks, and young people dressed in designer parkas and fur hats lingered over eyebrow-arching price tags.
There are no H&Ms or Zara’s here; instead, charming boutiques displayed streamlined Icelandic fashions made by local designers. At KronKron, on Laugavegur, Marie Antoinette shoes on steroids lined a window, with frilly leather and punctured suede atop multicolored stacked heels. They were expensive at up to 65,000 kronur ($514) a pop, and hardly seemed functional, but they would look fabulous on the streets of New York or Paris.
The wind was picking up, so we headed for an early dinner at Fish Market, an upscale Icelandic-Asian fusion restaurant on Adalstraeti near the waterfront. Bamboo flourished against a dark wall, and the tables were carved from hunks of Norwegian oak. Beside us, there were only two other couples.
“It’s very cold outside," observed the waitress, scanning the empty room.
And besides, she added, with the crisis, fewer Icelanders could afford fine dining.
We studied the menu and pointed to the puffin and mink whale appetizers, Icelandic delicacies. The puffin (harvested locally, the waitress promised) was sliced thin, its gaminess muted with litchi and fig. The mink whale, also finely carved, tasted like beef tenderloin with a faint metallic finish; it was savory and delicate when paired with an airy wasabi cream.
Staying out late
Our meal at Fish Market was no less remarkable. We finished with a pungent chocolate gateau with hand-creamed peanut sauce. When we left there around midnight, the sky was blacker, and the streets were empty. Life seemed to have petered out, but in fact, it was now bubbling inside a score of mod cafes. As we neared Reykjavik’s oldest, a 1950s throwback called Prikid, on Bankastraeti, the sound of a booming bass thumped through the wooden door. Inside, a DJ with dreadlocks spun LPs and white lights from a mirrored ball overhead skittered across the room. Patrons in stylish knit hoodies swayed to the rhythm of a saxophone. The bar turns into a soothing refuge for all-night partyers around 8 a.m., when a “Hangover Killer" breakfast is served — a french fry-laden sandwich and vanilla milkshake dosed with Jack Daniels — complete with a side of two Treo painkiller tablets.
At about 12:30, up the street at Kaffe Koffin on Laugavegur, it was a different scene. A coterie of twenty-something blond women drank coffee and nibbled on dessert cakes. Young men in scarves hovered over laptops on large couches strewn with patchwork pillows, basking in the warm glow of orange candles. A highchair signaled that toddlers were welcome.
Farther on, the din of laughter was floating outside of Olstofa, a watering hole on Nautholsvegur Street where writers, journalists, artists and other locals were cozied up in wooden booths drinking beer. People came in a steady stream, some climbing off bikes.
“It’s like this every night," remarked the manager, Steinthor Matthiasson, a trim man in a jaunty wool cap and a thick brown sweater who pulled on a cigarette in the frosty air.
Another 100 yards up Laugavegur, Boston was a dark room adorned with gold floral wallpaper and stylized paintings of cattle skulls. A young man strutted out the door wearing an oversize black-and-white Icelandic design jacket, Jay-Z style, and headed in the direction of Hverfisgata Street. There the uber-vogue bar at 101 Hotel caters to a well-heeled crowd under a glass ceiling with high walls.
It was late, our heads were spinning, and we weren’t ready to face the crowds at Faktory or Kaffibarinn, two of Reykjavik’s more high-wattage clubs — at least not on this night. In a few hours we would need to get up for a spectacular day tour of waterfalls, snowcapped mountains and lunar lava landscapes, although when we awoke, it would still be dark.
I took off my gloves to text my friend, who had been pinging me for an answer from the warmth of a sunnier clime.
“Why Iceland?" I texted back. “Where do I begin?"