August is a wild month in Reykjavík. Unlike the rest of the world, August is when Iceland revels in all the rainbow-hued glory of queer celebration and love with its annual week-long Pride celebration. But the fun doesn’t end there. Oh no! Because just one week after the Pride Parade, when Reykjavík is still fishing confetti out of every crack and crevice, the city becomes one massive stage for its annual Menningarnótt festival.
“Culture Night” in English, the festival is a huge one-day city-wide celebration of Reykjavík life and culture. In fact, it’s held to mark Reykjavík’s birthday. You see, it was a glorious summer day in 1786 that is considered the date the city was formally founded. Sorry, Ingólfr Arnarson, your arrival in 874 pales in comparison to the Danish king granting Reykjavík a trading charter.
So on Saturday, August 19, Reykjavík will celebrate its 237th birthday – we don’t think it looks a year over 220 – and the party will be as big and bombastic as ever.
Celebrate Good Times
“Menningarnótt is a celebration of Reykjavík,” says Guðmundur Birgir Halldórsson, a project manager of events with the City of Reykjavík. “We celebrate the birthday the first Saturday after the 18th – or on the 18th if that’s the case – and we do it with this participatory festival. So we try to invite city inhabitants and other guests to put on their own shows or events and we try to help them do that.”
“So, basically the stage is the city centre and people apply to get a little part of the city to put on their event.”
Big Time Participation
While Landsbankinn furnishes grants for roughly 20 inhabitant-run events each year, public interest in contributing to the party atmosphere around the city on Menningarnótt is such that Guðmundur and his team are continuously updating the online agenda almost right up until the morning of the festival, as submissions for more and more self-funded happenings land in their inboxes.
“We are very open to applications,” says Guðmundur. “We try to not have it too commercial. We think culture should reflect the inhabitants of Reykjavík. So, we aim for diversity and an expression of culture in many senses.”
“Sometimes it’s just somebody who has just started playing the violin and wants to show it off and then also it could be an artist who’s been at it for many years,” he continues.
And that mishmash of production values and cultural expressions on display is just what makes Menningarnótt such a special day for the city centre. Whether you check the event schedule and plan your day meticulously down to the minute to hit all the most interesting happenings or you simply go for a wander and stumble across something charming or crazy or hilarious, you’re sure to have a good time.
And then there’s the waffles. The humble waffle, with its heart-shaped segments, is the unofficial symbol of Menningarnótt, with households lugging their dining tables into their front yards, tethered to their homes with extension cords to run their waffle makers and feed hungry passersby.
It’s a real treat, and Guðmundur estimates tens of thousands of waffles – with jam and whipped cream, of course – are devoured each year to mark the city’s birthday.
“I think it started way back when the festival started in maybe 1996,” Guðmundur says when asked about how waffles became so synonymous with Menningarnótt. “The people planning the festival thought of it being an Icelandic tradition to invite guests in for coffee or cake or waffles. So it grew into this idea of the people of downtown inviting guests into their houses for coffee and waffles.”
Not Enough Time
As for what Guðmundur is most looking forward to at this year’s Menningarnótt celebration, there seem to be too many things to list.
He drops that DJ Margeir’s annual party on Klapparstígur is going to be bigger and more fabulous than ever, the phenomenal Coney Iceland Circus will take over Iðno, and Grapevine favourite underground event space R6013 will come out of the basement to occupy Ingólfsstræti for live performances. The entire event will be topped off by a massive fireworks display from the harbour – but we can attest it’ll be visible from almost everywhere in the city centre.
“This would be a perfect Groundhog Day,” Guðmundur says with a laugh. “To be able to do it again and again to see all the stuff you missed. I try to make a list, but sometimes it’s also just fun to just walk somewhere and be surprised. It always happens that I see performances that weren’t even on the schedule, like somebody just showing up with a saxophone.”
Find the full schedule for Menningarnótt – check back often for updates – at Culturenight.is
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