Packing for a trip to Iceland, particularly in winter, you’d be forgiven for not thinking about including your swimming costume. But forget it and you risk missing out on one of Iceland’s greatest (semi) secrets. Swimming in Iceland – in all seasons – is one of the best activities to do in this crazy land of ice and fire! And it’s also one of the best ways to meet local Icelanders and get under the skin of this unique island in the middle of the North Atlantic.
Iceland is a volcanic land, very young in geological terms and in a constant state of seismic activity. There are several earthquakes a day. The benefit of this is that hot water, geothermically heated, is plentiful and very cheap – practically free. And this means that outdoor swimming pools can be kept heated to comfortable temperatures throughout the year, even in the depths of winter. Every town has a municipal pool and along with the pool there are always several hot pots varying from bathtub warm to seriously hot. The idea is to swim and exercise in the pool and relax in the tubs, though it’s the latter (the relaxing) that’s what it’s really all about. Locals meet to chat and catch up on news at the pool in the same way that Brits and Aussies might go to the pub. It’s a social and integral part of Icelandic life.
But going to the public pool is only one way to experience Iceland’s magnificent swimming opportunities. There are well known spas such as Blue Lagoon and even a heated beach! However, the really unique experiences are to be had bathing in isolated pools, hot pots and hot rivers located in the wilds, sometimes several hours’ trek from the nearest town.
I lived in Iceland for 3 years as a teenager and had fond memories of running through the snow from changing room to hot tub at Rekjavik’s pools. I also remembered camping trips to the interior where we’d find a hot river to warm up in. We were nearly always the only people in these isolated camping spots, this being long before Iceland got on the tourist map. The Blue Lagoon back then was just the run-off from a geothermal plant with no infrastructure at all. I also clearly remember having to shower naked and being sprayed by the pool attendant with a hose if she thought we hadn’t washed well enough. So when I went back with my family in summer 2014 I couldn’t wait to take them swimming. And this is where we went.
The Blue Lagoon
First up was the Blue Lagoon. I’d heard so much about this place over the years and knew it was expensive and very touristy, but I was still dying to go. It’s unique. It’s otherwordly and arriving off an early flight from London it was the perfect welcome to Iceland. I’d planned ahead and arranged for the family we were swapping house and car with to leave swimming towels in the car at the airport. I’d also packed our bathing suits in hand luggage just in case our checked-in bags went astray. So we were all set to go straight to the spa and within an hour of landing we were wallowing in the milky blue sulphurous waters of the famous Bláa Lónið. The kids were absolutely enchanted and instantly smitten with Iceland. JF and I equalled their enthusiasm.
The Blue Lagoon is actually a clever man-made complex. Rather than a natural phenomenom it is infact the by-product of the geothermal electricty plant next door. If you look carefully you’ll notice the chimneys in the background, but if anything this just adds to its aura. It’s more than unusual, it’s totally bizarre to be surrounded by black lava fields and gorgeous aquamarine water, with steam rising from industrial chimneys and hot inlets accompanied by a light whiff of sulphur. Boxes of white silica are provided to slather on your skin and people drift past in the steamy pale light with ghostly white faces.
The Blue Lagoon is expensive but worth it. Where else can you have such an experience? If you can, bring your own towel and swim suit and don’t hire a bath robe, there’s no need. This will keep the costs down a little. If you can’t bring your own towel, to hell with the expense, go for it! It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and budget accordingly. We were there as it opened on a Sunday morning in July and while there were a fair amount of people we didn’t find it too crowded. However by the time we left a few hours later it was getting pretty packed, so my tip is to get there early. For non-swimmers boxes of arm-bands are provided free of charge.
Laugardalslaug Pool Reykjavik
We went to Reykjavík’s largest public pool several times as the boys loved it. We meant to try some of the other pools in town but somehow never got there. Laugardalslaug has a 50m lane pool for serious swimming, a couple of water slides (one suitable for toddlers, one for everyone), basket ball hoops (and balls provided), a rope obstacle bridge, a play park for littlies, a warm shallow free-form pool for mucking around in and about 6 different hot tubs (from 38°c to 42°c) including one filled with salt water. It also has an indoor pool which was closed for maintenance when we were there.
All this for a very reasonable 1-4€ (approx) depending on age. Swim suits and towels are available for hire at an extra cost. There is no time limit to how long you can stay. For the uninitiated, the first time at an Icelandic pool can be confusing/alarming as there are strict rules of conduct. It’s not difficult really, just surprising for those of us from cultures where public nudity isn’t normal. The thing is, in Iceland, you have to shower naked in communal showers and you have to wash your bits. If you don’t you could be asked to or even sprayed with a hose! Now if you’re on the shy side, that would draw a lot more attention to you than just getting on with it and doing as everyone else does. Honestly no one bats an eyelid at all the different shapes and sizes strutting around.
So, here’s what you do. You leave your shoes outside (its obvious where from all the piles of other shoes). Find a locker and undress. Using your electronic bracelet lock everything in the locker except bathing suit and towel and proceed naked to the showers. Wash, using soap, paying particular attention to the areas marked in the diagram (above). If you have a baby with you there are highchairs and baby baths provided to put them in while you are changing etc. It’s super kid friendly. Shower gel/shampoo is provided. Once clean, pop your costume on and head out to the pools. Depending on the weather this could be a shock, from the lovely warm steamy shower room to the icy cold outdoors, so get yourself into some water as quickly as possible. The main swimming pool is the coldest, but even it feels warm compared to the outside temperature (which was a balmy 10°c in July when we were there.) Not so hard honestly! (And yes, men and women change separately, don’t worry!) At the end of your session, you have to shower again and you’ll find all sorts of usefull contraptions to enhance your visit such as a centrifugal machine to wring out your wet swim suit, scales to weigh yourself and hairdryers (which are located outside the changing rooms).
Private Hot Pot
Having lived in Iceland I consider myself privileged nearly 30 years later to still have several Icelandic friends living in Reykjavík. When we visited in summer 2014 some of these friends invited us to their summer cottage in Bifröst northeast of Borgarnes. This involved many hours of catching up in….you guessed it, a hot pot! Such precious moments! We wallowed in the tub with delicious smoked salmon on flatbread (salmon caught and smoked by our friend’s brother) and rather generous supplies of beer. If you rent a holiday cottage in Iceland, it’s likely to have its own hot tub. Make the most of the dirt cheap hot water and luxuriate in your own private spa. That’s what we did.
That’s just one side of our swimming in Iceland, I’ve also written about our wild bathing adventures in the oldest pool in Iceland under the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, hiking to a hot river in the mountains and discovering a lonely hot pot at the foot of a glacier….
If you enjoyed this and are thinking about visiting Iceland you might also like tips on how to make a trip to Iceland affordable.
Have you been to Iceland? Do you have anything to add about swimming in Iceland? I’d love to hear from you.