If you’re travelling to Iceland, don’t forget to bring your bathing suit! Iceland, the swimmer’s paradise, might for some sound like a contradiction in terms but, due to the abundance of geothermal water, swimming is one of the most popular pastimes in Iceland!
A Short History of Swimming in Iceland
Swimming in the natural pools and hot springs of Iceland has a long history. The most famous hot tub in Icelandic history belonged to Snorri Sturluson, a politician in the 12th century! In fact, the Icelandic word for Saturday is laugardagur which directly translates as Pool Day.
Even though bathing has been popular for centuries, swimming wasn’t always a widely held skill. Even though Icelanders were fishermen for centuries, many of them couldn’t swim. That’s not as surprising as it may sound, the water is so cold that even if you manage to swim a few strokes, the cold will get to you sooner than later.
At the turn of the twentieth century, things were changing. For a while, athletic boys had been encouraged to learn to swim but in the early 20th century, g For the first time, girls could also learn to swim. Society was changing, cities and towns were growing and in 1937, Sundhöll Reykjavíkur (the swimming palace of Reykjavík), Reykjavík’s first purpose-built swimming pool building opened, replacing the makeshift pool by the washing pools in Laugardalur.
During the 20th century, most towns in Iceland with access to geothermal water built their own swimming pools and today, all children in Iceland take swimming lessons during their elementary school years. Swimming is a popular activity, especially on sunny days and a big part of the national pshyche
Almost every town in Iceland, as well as several countryside municipalities, has a swimming pool. These are communal places, where people from all walks of life get together to have their time at the pool, whether they prefer to get their pulse up by swimming, relax in the soothing water or socialise in the hot tubs. These swimming pools can range from small indoor pools in rural societies to Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pools with several hot tubs, water slides and steam baths, so be sure to check out the pools before you go. Be sure not to rule out the smaller pools in the countryside, as many of them have stunning views of the surrounding area.
The hot tubs deserve a special mention. They are an even more essential part of the thermal pool experience than the swimming pool itself. The hot tubs are a place to relax, soothe aching muscles after working out and last but not least, to socialise! The conversations in the hot tubs can get lively, with people discussing everything from politics and the state of society to the weather and their cats.
There are 17 swimming pools in the capital area and if you have the time, you should definitely try them all! If, however, your vacation time allotted to going swimming is limited, here are a few suggestions you should try.
Laugardalslaug – It’s the biggest pool in the Reykjavík area, complete with an indoor pool, outdoor pool, several hot tubs, a shallow playing pool for the kids, a tub with seawater, a cold tub, a steam bath and a giant waterslide. What more could you need? It’s a watery paradise and on sunny days, it’s a popular destination for Reykjavík’s locals.
Vesturbæjarlaug – One of the more established pools in the city, this pool on the west side of town, opened in 1961, doesn’t show its age. The hot tub area was newly renovated and the pool’s proximity to one of the most popular ice cream stores in town doesn’t hurt its popularity.
Sundhöllin – Sundhöllin is the oldest swimming pool in Reykjavík and worth the visit if only to admire the architecture. Built in 1937, this was the first purpose-built swimming hall in Iceland, designed by Iceland’s most celebrated architect of the 20th century, Guðjón Samúelsson. For decades, this was only an indoor pool, but at the time of writing, construction of an outdoor pool and new hot tubs is under way.
You really can’t go wrong with Icelandic swimming pools, so wherever you’re going, just look up the nearest swimming pool and get soaking. However, there are a few special gems out there you just can’t miss so if you find yourself in the vicinity of these swimming pools, don’t skip a visit!
Borgarnes – I grew up in Borgarnes and spent many an hour of my childhood in the pool. Even factoring in my bias for this pool of my youth, it’s a pretty good one, with three different waterslides, a selection of hot tubs and pools and a view to die for. It’s only an hour’s drive from the city and Borgarnes is a pretty nice town to spend the day in, if I do say so myself.
Hofsós – Hofsós is a small town in the north of Iceland. It’s one of the oldest trading centres in Iceland but the swimming pool is a relatively new one, opened in 2010. The pool is situated on the edge of the Skagafjörður fjord and the view is out of this world.
Krossneslaug – The Westfjords are one of the most remote locations in Iceland, especially the north part. Krossneslaug is just about as far from civilisation as you can get, so for those of you who prefer their landscape untouched and your experiences solitary and tourist-free, this one’s for you!
Pool Etiquette and Practical Info
Prices and Opening Hours – Pool opening times vary, so be sure to check what time your preferred pool opens or closes before you set off, but they’re usually ample. The general rule for the biggest and most popular pools is that they open early, so you can go swimming before work and close late, after dinner, on weekdays. On weekends, they usually close a bit earlier but you should still have plenty of time for a swim. Prices vary as well but a trip to the public pool won’t break the bank. At the time of writing, admission to the Reykjavík pools is 950 ISK.
You can find information about opening hours and prices here.
Changing Rooms and Showers – Icelandic swimming pools have communal but gender-segregated changing rooms and showers and everyone is required to wash thoroughly without a swimsuit before entering the pool, for hygienic reasons. Icelanders aren’t bothered by this in any way and you shouldn’t be either but if it makes you feel uncomfortable, some pools, in the city at least, have shower cubicle where you can wash on your own. Contact the pool you intend to visit if you need more information.
Pools and hot tubs – The hot tubs are one of those places where a community gathers and socialises. You’ll find people of all ages and walks of life happily chatting about politics, the weather, or their cats. Joining in the chat is fun and a great way to connect with the locals.
There are no complicated rules about the swimming lanes, just swim to your heart’s desire. While the hot tubs are a great way to socialise and get to know people, the swimmers mean business, so if you’re not swimming, get out of their way!
In addition to the public pools around Iceland, a few hot springs, where the water is considered especially beneficial have been transformed into spas. Some of the biggest attractions of Iceland are the natural spas and lagoons, where luxury and nature merge together for an ethereal experience.
The Blue Lagoon – The most famous of them all, of course, is the Blue Lagoon. This luxurious spa and famous attraction came from humble beginnings as an environmental accident. When the geothermal power plant at Svartsengi started its operation in 1976, the byproduct, mineral-rich water pumped up from the depths of the earth was drained into the surrounding lava field where it started to accumulate and create a lagoon. A young man from the area found that bathing in the warm, bright blue water had a positive effect on his psoriasis skin condition and the rest is history.
Mývatn Nature Baths – This is almost an exact replica of the Blue Lagoon, except it’s a little smaller, with a little fewer people and located in the north of Iceland. If you’re travelling in the north, be sure not to miss a visit to the milky blue water of the Nature Baths.
Fontana Spa – Laugavatn is one of those places where warm water for bathing and washing has been a part of people’s lives for centuries. It’s actually on the Golden Circle route so if you’re taking this most popular tourist route in Iceland, consider adding a stop at Fontana.
The Secret Lagoon – The Secret Lagoon was actually one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland. It’s situated in a geothermal area with plenty of hot water streaming naturally from the ground and steam rising into the air around you. The beautiful location really lets you feel at one with the Icelandic nature.
Iceland’s untouched nature is the biggest draw for tourists coming to Iceland and many are excited at the prospect of visiting a natural, untouched hot spring. There are a few of these natural gems all around the country but before you go jump in the next one, there are a few words of caution.
First of all, it may sound self-explanatory but these natural pools usually have no level of service. Many of them won’t have any sort of changing room and even those that do will probably rely on visitors to keep things clean after their visit. There’s usually not an employee there. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, I recommend visiting the Secret Lagoon or a countryside swimming pool to get a similar experience without sacrificing comfort.
Of course, that means that there are no life guards either so taking a dip is at your own risk. Natural hot springs also aren’t cleaned regularly like public pools so you may find the water muddy, especially if many people have visited that day.
If you want to visit a natural hot spring, take a look at our article listing several nice spots for a soak.