To merely scratch the surface of the wintry, alluring playland that is Iceland is seemingly impossible. One way to do just that is through the lens of a local authority––recently, I had the rare pleasure of exploring the country’s capital city in the company of its most celebrated export, Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason.
I first encountered Gíslason’s mark on the New York City restaurant scene with the 2016 opening of Agern inside Grand Central Terminal, where Nordic spirit and New York State-sourced ingredients (alongside select Icelandic products) are married in perfect harmony. It’s both a destination for those who normally avoid Midtown at all costs and an oasis for weary commuters with a bit of time on their hands––a true hidden gem tucked inside the transit hub that is Manhattan’s most trafficked building (literally). But through the unwavering frenzy, Gíslason maintains the calm coolness that is Icelandic culture, and his work is one of education as much as of culinary trailblazing, which together have helped the global Icelandic cultural movement gain traction and awareness rather quickly. Visiting his original stomping grounds was a chance to go straight to the source and see the food and drink landscape that has contributed to Iceland’s shape as we the onlookers know it today.
Here, we explore Reykjavík and its surrounding beauty with an itinerary inspired by Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason’s latest trip. Read on for the three-day Icelandic adventure followed by one of his favorite recipes to make at home.
Arrive at Keflavík International Airport and take a car into the heart of Reykjavík, where you’ll check into the Canopy by Hilton Reykjavík City Centre. The hotel’s central location and cozy Scandinavian design make for the perfect home base during your visit to Iceland.
Head out on the town for an exploratory stroll, hitting the main points of interest like Hallgrímskirkja (the largest church in Iceland), the Harpa opera house, and the shops along Laugavegur, which is one of the oldest shopping streets in the city and runs between the two aforementioned points of interest. From there, you’ll have worked up an appetite––make your way to locally celebrated gastropub Sæmundur í Sparifötunum (located inside KEX Hostel) for a craft beer and the catch of the day.
Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason’s DILL Restaurant is home to the country’s first Michelin star and the most coveted table in town. If you plan ahead, you can snag a table in advance and it’ll undoubtedly be one of the trip’s major highlights. The tasting menu, which changes regularly, highlights “New Nordic cuisine in [the restaurant’s] own way” with Icelandic ingredients, tradition, and technique, and is nothing short of spectacular.
Get an early start and head out for a private day trip to Iceland’s essential sights. There are several excellent local operators from which to choose; GeoIceland is among the best and offers custom-designed itineraries with emphasis on reducing environmental impact. The list of must-see points of interest outside of Reykjavík is a long one; choose from the Geysir hot springs, the Gullfoss or Skógafoss waterfalls, the Northern Lights (depending on the time of year), and many more.
After a bit of rest and freshening up back at the hotel, make your way to Restó in the Hlemmur neighborhood for some elevated Icelandic comfort food. The five-course chef’s tasting menu is always a solid choice here.
This morning, you’ll squeeze one more quintessential Iceland experience in before your departure: the Blue Lagoon. Snag the earliest appointment you can (this will help you beat the crowd) and if you have time, book the Retreat Spa package, which is the Blue Lagoon’s top-tier offering and comes with a considerable list of wellbeing experiences (including access to exclusive areas and rituals as well as entrance to the lagoon itself). There’s no better send-off than this.
Depart for home from Keflavík airport. Be sure to save some extra time to grab one last bite from one of the Joe and the Juice locations located throughout the terminals. And when you’re finally home, relive your Icelandic dream sequence through Chef Gunnar’s skyr butter.
Chef Gunnar Gíslason’s Soft Skyr Butter
“Being Icelandic and so strongly connected to my background and heritage means that it’s incredibly important for me to incorporate products that are as authentically Icelandic as I am. Just like we do at home, I source products like produce and meat, that are in season and in close proximity and of course, I need to have the best skyr available that tastes the most like home, for me, that’s Icelandic Provisions.” This brand of skyr is available stateside and can be enjoyed on its own or incorporated into dishes or accoutrements like Gíslason’s skyr butter, which is phenomenal on bread or crackers served alongside a great cheese board.
1 cup butter
½ cup Icelandic Provisions Skyr (Plain)
Vinegar (to taste)
Salt (to taste)
Preparation: Begin by whipping butter until consistency is light and airy; add skyr and continue whipping until blended uniformly. Season with salt and vinegar to your liking and serve.