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. Read on for top tips and locations for swimming in Iceland.
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 other-wordly 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 phenomenon it is in fact the by-product of the geothermal electricity 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 bathrobe, 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 50 m lane pool for serious swimming and a couple of water slides (one suitable for toddlers, one for everyone). It also has basket ball hoops (with balls provided), a rope obstacle bridge and 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 make up the rest of the outdoor complex. It also has an indoor pool which was closed for maintenance when we were there.
All this costs 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 useful 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.
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I’ve just left Iceland! I had 4 nights there – not very long, but great to get a taster of such a beautiful country! I didn’t get to any of these options but did enjoy a soak in Laugarvatn Fontana which was perfect!
I love that you went to the Blue Lagoon straight after landing. What a wonderful way to start your Icelandic adventure. I’m also worried it would feel too touristy but might feel the need to do it anyway. Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles
Not sure how I missed that you had lived in Iceland! Very cool (ahem – sorry) And even though it is super touristy of course you have to take a dip in the Blue Lagoon. Some things are famous for a reason. Love the face mask too. Thanks for joining #FarawayFiles
I keep saying every time we go home the next time we would stop in Iceland, but we haven’t made it yet! Maybe next year!! Stumbled #FarawayFiles
I love outdoor swimming and the range of locations here is terrific! A heated beach – who could resist that. How lucky you were to have the chance to live in Iceland although being hosed down by a pool attendant is perhaps not something to revisit! I hadn’t realised the Blue Lagoon isn’t a natural phenonema 😮 great tips for visiting I’ve heard it’s expensive! #Farawayfiles
We go next year – will be returning for the list #farawayfiles
Oh, this looks great!! Swimming your way around Iceland 🙂 Those pools look so nice and warm, I could do with a little dip now (it’s sooooo cold here in The Netherlands!)
Lucky you! I’m jealous of you going, I want to go again so much!
Oooh you’re so lucky going to Iceland even if only for 5 days, you’ll love it! Please fell free to contact me privately if you want more info Ashley
It’s so interesting that you lived in Iceland! Especially before it has become the touristy destination it is today. My man and I will be going there on the way to Montreal next September. The stop-over only really allows us to stay for 5 days which worries me as I imagine there’s lots to see! I’m going to have to ask for your advice.
I’m going to Iceland in May and I find your tips very useful. Thanks for sharing them. 🙂
Wow, the showering naked might take some getting used to but what a fascinating post. You are making me fall in love with Iceland and that Blue lagoon is beautiful.
Thanks for linking up to #TimeTraveller I have really enjoyed reading your post
We had such awful weather that the air temperature was often only around 10-12°c, but it just made the whole experience even more unique and dramatic! The sulphur smell was never overwhelming at the places where we could swim, only at the hot springs where it was far too hot to get in. We could have stayed for hours and hours (and usually did stay for a couple at least!)
Ahhh – see now I’m regretting that I didn’t go to Blue Lagoon when there some years back. We went in the winter to see the Northern Lights and were lucky – what a breathtaking spectacle. Would love to go back in summer and do some hiking and swimming – seems like a country of such dramatic landscapes and weather! How wonderful to live there for 3 years and really get under its skin. #timetraveller
It looks so amazing it is somewhere we would love to visit, I so want to see the Northern Lights too. Great post thank you x
This is my daughter’s dream – sounds absolutely incredible. What an experience.
I have to ask, what was the air temp when you came out the water and did it smell? the only reason I ask is the hot springs in Turkey had a strong sulphur smell about them and it was unpleasant to stay in them too long
It sounds fab – and completely unreal to have warm natural waters, and it’s rapidly moving up my travel list too! #timetraveller
Never thought Iceland has tons of swimming opportunities, and really great ones at that! Natural occurrences like volcanic eruptions that result to these kinds of islands are really quite astounding. Great read, thanks for sharing!
Okay, the diagram showing where to wash is a little over the top 🙂 I’m used to the naked bit here in Korea. When you go to the sauna your 100% naked from start to finish. Thankfully, there’s no Korean Ajuma (that’s what women over 50 are called here) threatening with a hose. That would be scary!
The pools look amazing. I would definitely be at the blue lagoon with bells on…haha My favorite thermal pool in Canada is at the Banff Springs Hotel. It’s so weird to see the mist rising off the water, the air is frigid and the water is this amazing temperature.
I would love to visit some of the more remote pools. That heated also looks like a fun adventure.
Thanks for linking up this week. #TPThursday
Phoebe, Now I wish I had sought out some of the other pools while I was in Iceland. It just felt like I didn’t have enough time to do it all. Hmmm….should I go back?!
Wow! This makes me want to return to Iceland even more. I loved the Blue Lagoon and went to the very same swimming pool in Reykjavik, but next I want to dive between the continents!
Good to know that getting there early helps – I hate crowds. Thanks for joining us for #SundayTraveler. Great to have you back.
The thing is you don’t actually really swim, just wallow about which makes it even better in my opinion!
Thank you Paula
I bet it was lovely relaxing in the warm water when heavily pregnant. You should go back with your kid/s now!
It’s a really great place to go!
There’ll be more in a post coming soon Ruth. Be sure to check back in a few days.
I knew the BL would be touristy but I still really wanted to go and as I said in the article I’m very glad I did. I hope spring arrives soon for you Marisol.
Great! I’m glad you enjoyed it Di.
That also sounds just about perfect Richard.
That sounds incredible. Iceland is such an amazing palce. Full of unique adventures like that.
Lucky you if you’re off to Iceland Gerad.
Good luck with the marathon, that’s a great goal to have. I’ve written a few other posts about Iceland, just click on the Iceland tag and you’ll find them all. More are coming though.
Good to hear, lil’sis! 🙂
This looks like a lot of fun! I am not a big swimmer but I love the landscapes in Iceland and it is definitely on our list of must-see places to visit.
Brilliant photos of an amazing place
I was 8 months pregnant when I went to Iceland . I had 2 very relaxing days at laugar spa and the blue lagoon — avoiding the very hottest parts of both. It was fantastic.
What a great trip! Iceland is very high on my travel list for the hot springs.
It is hard to believe that you can swim in Iceland all year long. But, I guess that is a gift from nature. I have always wanted to visit the blue lagoon. Thanks for suggesting more places. It is the first time I hear about them.
Hi Phoebe, I love Iceland and I’m tad jealous that you actually lived there. Such a special, beautiful creation of nature Iceland is. I did love all the bathing experiences. Your photos made me wish I’m there soaking in the delicious warmth of the water instead of freezing here in a snowy day in NY (and it’s 2nd day of spring:). I tried to avoid Blue Lagoon because it was so touristy and preferred private pools, but I did end of enjoying it a lot.
Great article, makes me want to go!
Another good memory is of the time we spent all day ski-ing, in clear, intensely cold weather, before going on to spend the evening with some friends who who lived out in the country and had their own geothermally heated pool. The water was nice and warm, and above us there was a light-show of stars (no light pollution there) and aurora borealis flickering green and orange all over the sky. We had to be careful not to touch the metal handrails, so as not to freeze onto them, and we all had crackly, frozen hair. After our swim our hosts boosted our spirits further (and literally) with the best dry martinis I’ve ever tasted. Not a bad way to spend a winter day and evening.
When we lived in Iceland we always had our swimmers with us. Once we were told about a hot water cave on the edge of Myvatn. We lifted up a trapdoor and there it was so we swam there. It was very eyrie. Myvatn is in the north of Iceland. Wonderful memories
great blog, can’t wait to book flights to Reykjavik
Thanks for sharing your experience with us! I have always wanted to visit Iceland because it feels like such a special place. Me and my boyfriend are planning to run the Midnight sun half marathon, in ReykjavÃ Âk, either next year or 2017.
I can’t wait to read more about your experience in Iceland!
I share the same memories