You know that dream where you can run a marathon, then eat dozens of free donuts, then go watch a rock concert with a bunch of bikers, followed by a performance of traditional Icelandic 50s music in a barber shop, all capped with observing a patch of green grass growing out of the asphalt? Well. In Reykjavík, that’s no dream—they call it Menningarnótt, and experiencing the city through it feels like opening every window on your advent calendar in one go.
So, what’s so special about yet another Icelandic festival, you ask? Well, Menningarnótt (or “Culture Night”) marks Reykjavík’s anniversary, and is celebrated every year on August 18 (or the following Saturday). Large organizations, like museums and corporations, stage and sponsor events on the day, but anyone can get creative and register their own. You can even apply for a small grant from the city to help make yours as great as possible.
Júlíus’s garden comes alive
I started my Menningarnótt early. Arriving at Vitastígur 17, I could hear faint sounds of vintage Bob Marley wafting through the air. Stepping through the garden gates, I found out why. Resident Júlíus Ólafsson was celebrating Menningarnótt’s 20th anniversary by opening his backyard and shed for any dub fans that wandered by. The turntables were in his kitchen, the sound system in the garden shed. An audience had yet to form, but the whole day lay ahead.
”I’ve never taken part in Menningarnótt before, but this year I decided to bring this garden alive,” Júlíus told me, adding that he was expecting a few guest DJs to take turns on his decks later in the day.
Like a box of chocolates
The city centre had been transformed into a pedestrian area for Menningarnótt, and walking down towards Klapparstígur I ran into another kind of party. An entire intersection had been covered with grass, a huge disco ball hanging in the air above. Not even the cold rain that was beginning to pour could stop the two dozen people who were already dancing with abandon, smiling at onlookers.
”The best thing about tonight is that you can find a surprise behind any corner,” said Rósa, 33, as she danced on the freshly laid grass with her young son. “After walking for about fifteen minutes, I had already enjoyed two free coffees, cookies and some kleinur.”
Speaking of food on Menningarnótt, it was so abundant that you couldn’t get hungry even if you tried. There were pop-up cafés in backyards and on side streets, there were twelve hundred kleinur on Skólavörðustígur (courtesy of an oil company), there were chefs frying burgers on Bankastræti all day long. Although the queues were long, there was no question people would be fed. Way too much, as it were.
And, to sate that spiritual hunger for awe and surprise, one could find everything from a storefront window rock show on Laugavegur, to free beard trimmings and whiskey at a barbershop on Vesturgata.
The latter seemed to be in great demand, I noted as I approached Vesturgata. Indeed, there were quite a few bearded fellows queuing for a trim at the doors of Rakarastofa Ragnars & Harðar, a 60-year-old Reykjavík establishment. “We’ve been packed all day,” barbershop employee Sindri Þór Hilmarsson told me. “We’ve staged smaller promotional events at different locations in the past, but never at the shop. For this Menningarnótt, we decided to go all the way and invite our guests to enjoy old-school beard trimming, musicians performing Icelandic music from the 40s and 50s and a bit of whiskey. We wanted to spread some joy.”
Runners and riders
At 8:45 on the morning of Menningarnótt, as the day’s events and parties were still being prepared around the city, the Reykjavík Marathon commenced. As I made my way down to Lækjargata in the afternoon, the last of the tired runners were scrambling across the finish line, a large crowd of onlookers applauding them along.
After being distracted for a minute by a renaissance-outfitted improv group that walked past, I made my way to the Reykjavík Custom Bike Show at Naustin, where a few hundred motorcycles were on display, around 40 of them custom jobs. The show started with all the gathered bikes firing up at the same time, in memory of fellow bikers that have passed away, followed by a performance from the first of three rock bands the bikers had booked for their party.
“This is like the diamond of all bike shows in Iceland”, said Halldór Gunnarsson, one of the event’s organizers. He seemed thrilled to see so many people gathered to gawk at the bikes—asking questions, making comments—and took special pride in the custom units. “You can’t put a price on these custom made bikes—they are made of the riders’ heart and soul,” he told me.
Come out and play!
The people of Reykjavík have different feelings and memories of Menningarnótt, the event often serving a plethora of different roles over the years. As one souvenir shop saleswoman remarked: “Back when I was a teenager, me and my friends used to load our rucksacks with beer, and go out to drink. But now, I think I’ll just go home and let others party.” Others tell the same story, of progressing from wanton partying to careful cultural appreciation to carting their kids between candyfloss stalls to not going at all, as they entered adulthood.
For visitors to Reykjavík, however, this might be the best way to taste everything the city has to offer—food for both body and soul—in the span of a single day.
At least, that’s what I did.
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