Pingdom Check
02/22/2023 | 10:00 AM

Hot springs and geothermal pools in Iceland

Everything you need to know about geothermal pools and hot springs in Iceland.

Words of wisdom from a poetic Icelander: "Iceland's sunshine doesn’t come from the sky, it comes from the water."

For centuries, the mineral-rich geothermal water found in abundance on this volcanic island has done much to make winters not just bearable, but pleasurable. In fact, soaking in pools of hot water has been known to Icelanders since Viking times.

This side of Icelandic life hasn't been lost on visitors, who are more than happy to join the locals in the subculture of soaking and swimming. They relax and unwind in warm water all over the country. Soak spots are found in fantastically varied places, from small natural hot springs in remote fields to large, well-maintained swimming pools in Reykjavík and in virtually every town and village in Iceland. New to the scene are a growing number of deluxe lagoons and spa experiences, tapping into local nature to offer tourists a bathing experience to remember (amid lava fields, by a lakeshore or fjord-edge, atop a cliff with a sea view, etc).

Scroll down to find out more about pools and natural lagoons in Iceland, including a map of the best hot springs to visit.

On this page:

What are hot springs and how are they formed?

The definition of a hot spring is 'a naturally occurring spring of water that is warmed by heat within the Earth'. Hot springs are also referred to as thermal or geothermal springs – the word 'thermal' means relating to heat.

With hot springs in Iceland, the groundwater is naturally heated by volcanic sources. As the water is heated, it rises through fissures, crevices, and volcanic crust to emerge in hot springs and other geothermal features, such as geysers (pictured), fumaroles, steam vents, and mud pots you can see at various geothermal areas around the country. 

Why does Iceland have natural hot springs?

Not to get too technical: Iceland has a unique position straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates converge. As a result, it’s a geological hotbed of activity.

This activity can take the form of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and also results in some unique tourist attractions – such as the Bridge between Continents on the Reykjanes peninsula, or the Silfra fissure in Þingvellir National Park (pictured), where you can dive or snorkel in crystal-clear water between tectonic plates.

The best hot springs and geothermal pools in Iceland

Check out our some of our favorite spots to get into hot water in Iceland, and scroll on to find out the different categories of super soaks, from lush lagoons to postcard-perfect public pools. 

Check out our Holidays page, too, and learn how we can help you plan a trip that takes in some of Iceland's most popular geothermal bathing spots, including Blue Lagoon, Sky Lagoon, and Laugarvatn Fontana.

Find your favorite

Refer to the map above and check out the super assortment of soak spots all over the country.


Geothermal pools are an Icelandic tradition

Icelanders have been in love with outdoor bathing for a long, long time. Snorralaug, a geothermal pool in Reykholt, West Iceland, has been welcoming bathers since at least 1178 (the year it was first mentioned in writing). Heated by a nearby hot spring known locally as 'Skrifla', Snorralaug has warm waters throughout the year, and remains as popular today as it was almost a millennium ago.

There are numerous other ‘ancient’ bathing hotspots dotted across Iceland, including Grettislaug, which has been around since at least the 12th century, and Gvendarlaug, now a national monument, which, according to the Sturlunga Saga, was so revered in the 13th century that it was blessed by Guðmundur the Good, then Bishop of Hólar.

Outdoor public swimming pools are much more recent additions to Iceland's recreational arsenal, but are no less beloved.

At the start of the 20th century, despite a shortage of building materials, and with Iceland embroiled in various economic struggles, scores of pools were built by volunteers with support from local municipalities. The first of these, Seljavallalaug (pictured below), was completed in 1923, and can still be enjoyed today.

The motivation behind the creation of the pools was, quite simply, to give Icelanders a safe place to learn how to swim. At the time, fishing was the country's predominant industry, and it was decided that too many lives were being lost at sea due to people's inability to survive in the icy waters if dragged overboard. Swimming, Iceland's people decreed, was a necessary life skill.

This dedication to swimming education has persevered, with swimming lessons mandatory for all schoolchildren.


More than swimming

While undeniably useful from a practical standpoint, Icelanders' love for bathing outdoors goes far beyond simply wanting to develop swimming skills. Iceland's many pools, spas and lagoons are used for an array of purposes and attract thousands of people, young and old, on a daily basis.

“For many, the pools are very important in their social lives,” says Katrín Guðmundsdóttir, an ethnologist who studied at the University of Iceland, and has spent time researching why outdoor bathing holds such a special place in the hearts of Icelanders.

“I have gotten to know people that meet every day and drink coffee at a pool. One group in the Westfjords has a reading group that meets in a pool once a week to discuss books based in the area.”

Indeed, these pools are far more versatile than one might initially realize.

“They are a good place for dating, and they're perfect for meeting with friends who have kids,” adds Helga Vollertsen, curator of ethnology at the National Museum of Iceland. “There are sometimes movie nights at the pools, swimming competitions, gymnastics, mindful floating and more. Some pools are even used by the cabin crews of the airlines to practice what to do when landing on water.”

Hot pools in Iceland, according to Helga, are practical, cost-effective, and have the capacity to serve multiple purposes. “The water is warm, relaxing and cheap,” Helga notes. “Warm water is not a resource we normally have to think about using.”

Because Iceland is a hive of geothermal activity, the vast majority of the country's homes, businesses and facilities are heated by geothermal water. It is abundant, cheap and reliable.

“In the dark, cold winter months,” Helga adds, “these pools help with the struggle of seasonal depression, while many of those that offer gymnastic programs are especially popular with the elderly, with pregnant women, and with people that struggle with chronic illness and/or obesity. The water helps with the pain.”

For Icelanders, the idea of swimming or bathing outdoors is so culturally entrenched that it isn't worth analyzing. To them, it is simply a core part of Icelandic heritage. But a key question remains: Why is outdoor bathing so much more popular on this cold North Atlantic rock than practically anywhere else in the worl

Photo: Aerial view of bathers at Secret Lagoon, Fluðir. Photo by Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson.


The social benefits of Iceland's hot pools

“Because of poor weather and lack of street life, the pools have, in some way, become a place for strangers and neighbors to socialize,” explains Katrín. “In the pools, regardless of the weather, people can be warm and safe. You can socialize, or if you are not in that kind of mood, you can experience solitude. It's completely acceptable.”

Katrín also suggests that, when swimming or bathing, everyone is rendered equal, and she believes this could be any factor behind the enduring popularity of Iceland's pools. “Everyone washes off the status they have outside the walls of the swimming pool. Being half-naked puts them on the same page,” she says.

Additionally, she believes that, over the last century, the need for children to learn how to swim has undoubtedly played a part in people having positive associations with outdoor bathing.

“When the pools started popping up people realized that they not only had the potential to keep us from drowning, but were also a way to meet others, and a fun place for kids to play. Today, the value is also increasingly connected to nature. People can move around or relax in the water, but can also get a great deal of joy from the surroundings, be it the mountains, sea, stars, snow or trees.”

Iceland is routinely named among the world's greenest countries by the World Economic Forum's Environmental Performance Index, while Reykjavik is regarded as one of the world's most sustainable cities, and plans to be entirely free of fossil fuels by 2050. Experiencing and appreciating nature is, without doubt, another reason for the popularity of outdoor bathing.

During her studies, Katrín also found that many people consider the pools an ideal place to “clean off bad moods”, with many comparing their outdoor bathing experience to participating in yoga or hiking. The pools present an opportunity for escapism, relaxation and contemplation, and allow people to surround themselves with stunning scenery.

“Another thing that I have started to hear more and more is that pools give people the ability to get away from busy lives. In the pool you put your phone away and life can't reach you. Parents have even told me that they love going to the pool so they get a chance to enjoy time with their kids and family without anyone being able to go on their phone.”

Photo: Sunset views at Sky Lagoon, Reykjavík.


Geothermal pools are synonymous with Icelandic culture

Aðalheiður Ósk Guðmundsdóttir, CEO of Vök Baths (pictured below), a geothermal spa complex in East Iceland, believes Icelanders are born with a love for outdoor bathing. “We are tough Vikings here,” she says. “It is deeply rooted in our culture. We love relaxing in hot water, and we love having a little breeze to cool off when we are in local pools or spas.”

Aðalheiður suggests that outdoor pools, in many parts of Iceland, play a similar role to coffee shops or bars. “You can go with friends or alone and then participate in a lovely conversation with strangers, or even a heated debate about politics,” she says.

“There are groups of people who always start their day with a trip to a pool. I’ve seen many friendships develop here [at Vök]; people who have gone from strangers to best friends very quickly. If you sit in the same small tub every day with the same people, it doesn't take long to go from saying a simple hello to discussing everything from marriage to advice about raising kids!”

Aware that outdoor baths are, to many Icelanders, community hubs as well as recreational facilities, Aðalheiður has started to expand Vök's offering. As well as hosting a range of spa-based relaxation and meditation sessions, Aðalheiður admits she is “starting to change things up”.

“We are always trying to be a bit different,” she notes. “We have so many locals coming that we try to innovate and keep things fresh. For example, we have a singer and guitarist playing during the winter months, and we are already planning a few surprise events for next winter.”

Although keen to keep some ideas under her hat, Aðalheiður says she will be hosting an event she has dubbed “Hættu að væla komdu að kæla” — which translates to ‘Stop whining and cool off’ — with the aim of encouraging people to go wild swimming in lake Urriðavatn in the depths of winter.

“It is a real adrenaline shock, but is so healthy for you!” she says.


Hear stories from local swimmers

So integral is outdoor bathing to Icelandic heritage that, in 2021, Jón Karl Helgason, one of Iceland's most prominent and best-loved filmmakers, produced and released a documentary about its place in the country's culture.

'Swimming Pool Stories', which Helgason has called a “visual presentation of the swimming pools around Iceland,” highlights the “unique function” of Iceland's outdoor bathing spots. The film allows viewers to hear from advocates who frequent pools all year round, and showcases the positive contribution swimming makes to public health in Iceland. (Watch the documentary trailer below.)

“My vision was to introduce Iceland's swimming pools and the associated swimming pool culture, both past and present,” Helgason says. “The Finns have their saunas, the British have their pubs, the French have their cafes. We Icelanders have our swimming pools.”

Helgason believes that Iceland's outdoor pools — and its many naturally heated 'hot-pots' — help Icelanders “cultivate their physical and mental well-being,” and can even play a significant role in helping people to be more conversational.

“By nature Icelanders are quite reserved,” he says. “But once they slip into the warm, comforting waters of a hot-pot, they shed their inhibitions and become transformed into chatty extroverts. People from all walks of life socialize while relaxing in the pots and there are lively discussions on every imaginable topic.”

Photo: Laugarvatn Fontana, a lakeside pool complex.


The geothermal tourist trail

The fact that Icelanders love outdoor pools is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone who has either visited, or is on the verge of visiting, the country. Some of Iceland’s premier tourist attractions, such as the Blue Lagoon, Sky Lagoon and Laugarvatn Fontana, are dedicated to giving holidaymakers an opportunity to experience one of Iceland’s most noteworthy pastimes, and these locations routinely top tourist travel agendas.

And, according to Katrín, this desire to explore the country's pools is not just felt by tourists.

“One thing about swimming pools for an Icelander is that, no matter if one uses them regularly or not, we all seem to have this urge to visit swimming pools when we are traveling around the island. We are so lucky to have this luxury on this island in the far north.”

Photo: Northern lights shine over Mývatn Nature Baths.


What to expect when you visit hot pools in Iceland

Community swimming pools are designed to appeal to everyone. Generally speaking, most complexes will have a main central pool – usually around 25 metres in length – which is used by serious lap-swimmers and learners alike. These pools tend to be around 27-30°C (80-86°F). 

Additionally, most community pools have a selection of smaller, warmer pools – generally known as hot tubs or hot-pots ('heitur pottur' in Icelandic) – with water temperature around 38 to 40°C, which are perfect for relaxing during the colder months, or soothing aching muscles after a vigorous swimming session. Many pools will also have a sauna or steam room, and areas for lounging, sunbathing (depending on the time of year, of course!) and chatting with friends.

Given that Iceland has an abundance of community pools, you’re guaranteed to find something to suit your tastes, from family-friendly pools with twisty waterslides, to gorgeous views, to steaming hot-pots.

In the Reykjavík area alone, you can take your pick of 17 geothermal swimming pools.

Photo: Aerial view of Birkimelur swimming pool, Westfjords.


Swimming pool rules in Iceland

Whatever pool you choose to head to, across Iceland it's mandatory that you wash before heading in. You will be required to shower before you change into your swimsuit to ensure our pools are kept as clean and chemical-free as possible, for all to enjoy.

You might find 'guards' in the shower area of large pools and lagoons who keep an eye out for anyone neglecting to wash before swimming. If you're worried about showering in front of others, don't be shy! Bathrooms are divided between men and woman, and showering beforehand is not only accepted as the norm, but it's demanded of anyone wanting to bathe. Many showers are communal, but a number of larger pools and lagoons offer private cubicles.

Not showering is a guaranteed way to annoy a local. Watch and learn!

FAQs about Iceland's geothermal pools

How hot are the hot springs in Iceland?

The temperature of Iceland's natural hot springs varies, but some water emerges from the ground at the perfect temperature for bathing (38-40°C, or 100-104°F), while some water emerges at a far hotter temperature.

Some natural hot springs are in the perfect state to attract bathers, and can be found as natural small pools in the countryside, or places such as the unique Reykjadalur 'hot spring river' (pictured below).

More commonly, hot springs have their water channelled (and temperature regulated, with the help of cooler water) to fill constructed facilities like luxury lagoons, town swimming pools, hot-pots (like a jacuzzi without the bubbles) and more.

Fun fact: Geothermal water is used to heat most homes in Iceland, and is also used to heat greenhouses where fruits and vegetables are grown.

What are the benefits of hot springs?

The natural hot springs in Iceland contain a variety of minerals that are found to have health benefits. Minerals like magnesium are known to help the skin's radiance, and sodium that's known to have anti-inflammatory powers can be found in the natural waters. As well as the mineral benefits, relaxing in a hot spring can calm your mind and body, so it's the perfect spot to unwind from the everyday.

What to wear to a pool or hot spring?

You should wear regular swimwear. Some larger lagoons and pools in Iceland have options to rent swimwear if you don’t pack yours, but it's worth checking beforehand.