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Bartender Steinn Stefánsson says Microbar sells 25 unique beers. (grapevine.is)
Bartender Steinn Stefánsson says Microbar sells 25 unique beers. (grapevine.is)

A cold one in Iceland: Where do the locals go drinking in Reykjavik? Add to ...

Since my last visit to the quirky Nordic city of 200,000 was a few years back – and the bar turnover here is speedier than a puffin gobbling a fresh-catch herring – I touched base with a local expert for the latest nightlife lowdown.

First question: Is there a must-try Reykjavik tipple?

“Locals don’t really drink the strong Icelandic schnapps called Brennivin, but I suppose it’s an Icelandic specialty worth trying nonetheless,” says a hesitant Anna Andersen, referring to the vodka-like rocket fuel known colloquially as “black death.”

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The managing editor of glossy alternative magazine Reykjavik Grapevine (grapevine.is) adds that “lots of beer” is the usual approach for an Icelandic night out.

For visitors aiming to hang with the locals, she has several recommendations. (And it’s easier than ever to get there: Icelandair has year-round direct flights from Toronto and direct flights from Halifax starting in June.)

KEX Hostel is a bit far from the rest of the downtown bars, but it’s a great place to start the night. Chateaux des Dix is another cozy bar: It’s one of the few where you can talk to people without competition from music. And although some might call Harlem a hipster spot, I like it. They have great events and theme nights and there’s always dancing to be done.”

I’d also recommend Kaffibarinn, a Reykjavik nightlife institution. Warming young coolsters for years – are those vast beards ironic or just proof of puberty? – its unassuming, wood-floored interior is crammed on weekends.

Consider dropping by during the week, when it’s easier to chat with the MacBook-wielding regulars (English is widely spoken in the city).

But before you get too drunk, let’s add a shot of context. Grapevine’s annual bar guide is available free on its website, while your hotel room will likely also have a copy of Reykjavik Nightlife Guide magazine for additional tips. Note that cafés here often transform into roiling, late-night dance clubs – especially on party-loving weekends when queues are common.

As for the beer: It’s not only about chugging generic lagers such as Tuborg and Viking Gold. Recent years have seen a smattering of Icelandic microbreweries popping up. Head to the city’s Microbar or Islenski Barinn for tipples worth trying. If you spot anything by local producer Olvisholt Brugghus, order it immediately, especially if it’s the amazing Lava Smoked Imperial Stout. Budget up to $8 for drafts.

Back to your big night out and by this stage you’ll be ready to hit the dance floor or mosh to a local band. With good DJs or live music most nights – plus an impressive vodka menu that’ll keep your moves well oiled – Bakkus is a Reykjavik favourite. Andersen also recommends Faktory: Look out for Icelandic acts such as Hjalmar and singer-songwriter Snorri Helgason here.

Alternatively, rockers may prefer the metal and old-school classics at Dillon, which also has a good whisky selection. But if it’s electronica time, drop into Hemmi & Valdi. A homely little café by day, it transforms at night with DJs and alt live bands.

If you wake up groaning with a head like a medicine ball on a toothpick, a hangover cure may also be required.

Join the grease-craving line-up at one of the city’s Baejarins Beztu hot dog stands or immerse yourself with the locals in a recuperative geothermal pool at Laugardalslaug. If that doesn’t work, hair-of-the-dog Brennivin may be your only way out: You have been warned.

Follow John @johnleewriter

Send John your travel questions at concierge@globeandmail.com.

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