Beer and high spirits

In Reykjavik, Sam Vincent celebrates the end of prohibition with late-night ale and hot dogs at dawn.

When it comes to national holidays, some countries celebrate revolutions, others fete wars of independence. In Iceland, they celebrate the day beer was legalised.

On May 10, 1988, seven decades of beer prohibition ended when the Icelandic parliament voted to scrap the last vestige of what had once been a complete ban on booze (although wine and some spirits were legalised in 1922). The New York Times reported at the time that ''a dozen beer-lovers flashed victory signs outside parliament after the results came in''. Not quite Tahrir Square but you get the picture.

The beer finally flowed on March 1, 1989, and, ever since, Reykjavik has become something of a nightlife hot spot, famous for thumping concerts, wild dance-floor antics and philosophical conversations with strangers in bohemian bars, all fuelled by generous amounts of amber ale. It's called the ''runtur'' (round tour), the name of the city's infamous pub crawl, when locals stop worrying about their country's economic woes for a few hours and party.

The biggest night of the year is still March 1 (''Beer Day'' as the unofficial holiday is now fondly called) but every weekend sees sufficient debauchery to have the locals nursing an Eyjafjallajokull-sized headache on Sunday morning. As Iceland recovers from Beer Day 2011, here are some suggestions to make the most of a night out in Reykjavik.

Pace yourself

Iceland's traditionally high prices have meant locals head out late, after some partying at home. And while the country's financial meltdown in 2008-2009 means that a night out in Reykjavik no longer requires a bank loan, the late nature of the runtur persists. Unless you've been invited to a house party, take a nap and head out for a quiet dinner to prepare for the night ahead.

A perfect way to ease into the runtur is dinner and beer at Islenski Barinn (the Icelandic Bar), where the decor could be best described as Viking kitsch. Stuffed puffins sit on shelves beside mead horns and faux saga manuscripts, while the walls are covered with portraits of Icelandic heroes including explorer Erik the Red; the four-time world's strongest man, Jon Pall Sigmarsson; and Nobel Prize-winning author Halldor Laxness.

The menu has a similarly patriotic theme, including seared minke-whale pepper steak in caraway sauce and smoked Icelandic lamb carpaccio with pickled raisins and blueberry jam.

The Icelandic Bar opened after the spectacular collapse of the Icelandic banking sector in 2008 and the subsequent nostalgia for simpler times, when life here was hard but honest. As the menu explains: ''There is something to be said about the old days, when people worked with their hands and produced something tangible. We hope you catch a glimpse of those days as you sip your coffee or munch on some tried and true Icelandic delicacies.''

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Islenski Barinn, Posthusstraeti 9.

Meet the locals

Whether in the gentle light of summer or the frigid darkness of winter, by midnight Reykjavik's two main streets - Laugavegur and Austurstraeti - will be filling with boisterous revellers. Any sign of Scandinavian aloofness disappears and before long you'll likely find yourself in possession of new friends. Good bars where it's possible to chat above the music are Bar 11 (a lot of Lisbeth Salander hairstyles here) and Bakkus, a new pub where the clients take their table soccer very seriously.

My favourite place to meet the locals is the bohemian haunt Hemmi & Valdi, where the DJ is housed under the stairs Harry Potter-style, and the grungy couches and profound conversations they host give the place the feeling of a philosophy students' share house. It's here that I finally get to the bottom of the story behind Iceland's prohibition of beer.

''The thing is,'' says Jon, a whitewater rafting instructor, ''all alcohol was banned in Iceland in 1915 but the Spanish refused to buy our cod if we didn't resume buying their wine, so pretty soon wine was legalised, followed by most other alcohols.

''The 'fun police' kept beer illegal until 1989, so when we finally got it back it was a great day in our history.'' Cheers - or ''skal'' - to that.

Bar 11, Hverfisgata 18; Bakkus, Tryggvagata 22; Hemmi & Valdi, Laugavegur 21.

Beyond Bjork

When I ask the founder of the Reykjavik record label 12 Tonar, Johannes Agustsson, if Bjork is in town, he rolls his eyes in disdain. ''There's more than one musician in Iceland, you know!'' Although Bjork is the most famous contemporary Icelander, she is one of a succession of brilliant musicians from the country, including Sigur Ros, Jonsi, Mum, Seabear, Emiliana Torrini and Olof Arnalds. As a consequence, Reykjavik's live music scene is amazingly vibrant for a city of just 120,000, making a gig a popular stop on the runtur. I asked Agustsson for his recommendations for the hottest places to catch a show.

''Sodoma is one of my favourites,'' he says. ''It's small but not too small, accommodating about 300 people. There is a close feeling between the band and audience, and a generally warm all-round atmosphere.'' (Tryggvagata 22.)

''Nasa is more for the big DJ sets and touring international bands. It's arguably Reykjavik's most popular nightclub and probably has the busiest dance floor of any venue.'' (Thorvaldsenstraeti 2.)

Cafe Rosenberg is the city's best all-round venue, in Agustsson's view. ''They host all kinds of shows in a cosy setting: folk, electro, dubstep, jazz, rockabilly, you name it.'' (Klapparstigur 25-27.)

Rainbow Reykjavik

Iceland elected the world's first openly gay head of government in 2009, Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. The nation's second-biggest festival is Gay Pride, held in August, when seemingly every bar in town flies the rainbow flag. In fact, such is the tolerance towards homosexuality in Iceland that there is little segregation between Reykjavik's gay and straight bars; uber-cool Kaffibarinn and dance-orientated Vegamot are not strictly gay bars yet are always popular with the rainbow set.

Q Bar is considered the best ''gay'' venue in town but it bills itself as ''straight friendly'' and is popular with all sexual orientations. One of Reykjavik's smallest bars, its snazzy interior can get a little cramped but the outside tables are a perfect place for a sundowner-sunupper in the near-endless light of midsummer. Five minutes' walk away up Laugavegur's hill, Barbara has a reputation as a gay bar, although in reality it is popular with anyone keen on outrageous dance moves. A few doors down, MSC Iceland is the country's only male-only leather bar.

Kaffibarinn, Bergstadastraeti 1; Vegamot, Vegamotstigur 4; Q Bar, Ingolfsstraeti 3; Barbara, Laugavegur 22; MSC Iceland, Laugavegur 28.

Runtur recovery

Take preemptive action to minimise the effects of a runtur by following the locals to the harbour to the last stop on any night out in Reykjavik. Housed in a daggy caravan, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is nothing short of a national institution. Dubbed ''Europe's best hot-dog stand'', BBP sells cheap, tasty lamb and pork sausages, served in a bun with mustard, ketchup, remoulade and crispy onions. It's estimated most of Iceland's 320,000 souls have eaten at BBP at some time or other; many of them, it seems, on the night I pay it a visit.

A popular post-runtur recovery technique is a swim at one of the city's much-loved public pools. Iceland's abundance of geothermal energy keeps the main pools' temperature at a soothing 29 degrees, while most complexes have separate spa-like ''hot pots'', kept as warm as 42 degrees. A short walk from downtown, Vesturbaejarlaug has a 25-metre pool and three hot pots.

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, Tryggvagoto 10; Vesturbaejarlaug, Hofsvalagata 1, entry 400 kronur ($3).

Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and Iceland Express.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Copenhagen for about $1912 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax: to Singapore (8hr), then Copenhagen (12hr 40min). Iceland Express has daily flights to Reykjavik from Copenhagen (3hr) for about €118 ($160).

Drinking there

The legal drinking age in Iceland is 20. From Sunday to Thursday most bars close at 1am; on Friday and Saturday they open until 3am or 6am. Dress standards are slightly more formal than in Australia. Expect to pay 800 kronur ($7) for a pint of Icelandic lager and 1000 kronur for imported beer. Cover charges apply at many venues after midnight, usually 1000 kronur.

For gig listings, see The Reykjavik Grapevine, the city's informative and hilarious English-language newspaper, at grapevine.is. More information, inspiredbyiceland.com.

Iceland's official national day is June 17, marking the country's 1944 independence from Denmark. There is a popular movement to have Beer Day, which attracts bigger celebrations, made a public holiday.

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