Iceland. Brrr. When I visited the country in May 2015 I was expecting beautiful spring weather, never-ending sunny days, and fields of blooming flowers, but what I encountered more closely resembled the stark landscape of autumn. However, the gray days were no match for my sunny disposition, and I set forth to explore as much as I could during my few short days in the country. I visited the sulfury geysers, road tripped along the famous Golden Circle, walked the black sand beaches of the south coast, hiked along glacial lakes in the southeast, and encountered more waterfalls than I can count in between each stop. But what was my favorite part about Iceland? Without a doubt, it was the hot springs and hot spring culture!!
While traveling through Iceland, I had the pleasure of experiencing several distinctly different versions of hot springs and I embraced them all whole-heartedly. From rural, to hike-able, to community style and finishing at the top tourist destination in the country, the Blue Lagoon, I made my way into each of them with a splash. Here I will share a re-cap of each, and you can see which style pool would be meant for you…
1. The Rural Hole-in-the-Hillside Hot Spring
This was my first hot spring in Iceland, and it came to me by accident. It had been a cold, rainy day, and on our drive we had passed dozens of signs with a man sitting in water, which we assumed to mean “hot springs”. This got us in the mood for a good long soak in a hot spring. As we were filling up gas near the Strokkur Geyser we asked the attendant where the nearest hot springs were, and he told us he knew of a really local place in a field about 20 minutes away. We set off, based on his loose directions, got lost, and ended up having an interesting cultural exchange with a woman who explained to us how to cover the last ten minutes of our expedition.
“You drive forward past the thing that keeps the ships in place,” she said, as she drew something that looked like an anchor on a map.
“Ok, look for an anchor,” said my one friend.
“No, I think that’s a cattle guard. She’s saying ‘sheeps’,” replied my other friend.
“Then drive past wooden people on the side of the road,” continued the woman.
“Ok, so wooden sculptures of people alongside the road,” said my friend, again slightly wrong with her interpretation.
“No,” contested the woman. “They are more like wooden dolls.”
With these oddly specific directions, we again set off, and after a shocking encounter with an electric fence, we found the hidden yet public hot spring, nestled into the hills, in the middle of nowhere. There we met a local Icelandic couple and learned so much about Iceland, it’s people, their interests (“Free the nipple!”), and they even told us the history of the hot spring we were bathing in; apparently the farmer who owned the land found the hot spring and started washing his sheep who has eczema in the lower waters to cure their skin, and then he carved out the upper pool so he and other farmhands could soak as well. It turned out to be quite a popular destination, but the young groups that joined after us took the sheep washing station, leaving us the big, farmhand pool.
2. The Hike-Able Hot Spring Pools of the South, Cerca 1923
Our second experience with a hot spring was a little more straight-forward. We again were in the mood for a warm soak in a spring, so we started asking the locals if there were any pools around. We were dining at a delicious restaurant directly across the highway from the Skógafoss waterfall when we learned that, much to our delight, there was a hot spring pool a few kilometers up the road. Within minutes we were at the trail entrance that would take us to the Seljavallalaug hot pool. The trail was essentially non-existent, but we saw a steady stream of people walking deep into the valley, so we set off, crossing a freezing cold river en route, and within 10 minutes we came upon the pool, in all its simple yet spectacular glory. It was surrounded by snow-capped mountains (potentially seasonally dependent) with breathtakingly beautiful views in every direction. There are large, communal changing rooms available, so we ditched our clothes for our swimsuits and jumped into the warm water. These pools were not hot, unless you went directly towards the source- a rock wall at the back of the pool, or a front corner which had a pipe feeding directly from the mountain into the pool. We completely lost track of time as we soaked and swam, chatting with other visitors as much as amongst ourselves. When we emerged it was surprising to find out that it was 10pm. One of the perks of spring/summer in Iceland: never ending daylight!
3. The Laugardalur Community Pools of Reykjavik
- These pools are much more modern than the previous two hot springs described. There are locker rooms where everyone strips down and showers before making their way out to the pools, which can be found both indoors and outdoors. I spent the entirety of my time there moving from pool to pool outside, enjoying Iceland’s constantly changing weather from the safety of warm-water pools. They say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,” and it is absolutely true. I experienced everything from sun, to clouds, to rain, to slush-balls in a matter of a half hour. There are dozens of hot pools around the outer perimeter ranging from 38-44 degrees Celsius, including my personal favorite: a special saltwater pool around 42 degrees. When these pools get too hot for you, you can move to the larger, cooler pools where you even have the option to swim laps, if your inner athlete so desires. There is also a steam room, and a water slide, which is absolutely not to be missed. Let your inner child delight, and climb the stairs to the top of the tower, then wait for the “traffic light” to turn green and slide down. I was not expecting the tunnel to be so dark, and I was definitely not expecting the lit-up stars along the way. I was laughing with glee by the time I splashed down into the warm pool below. If you visit the pools during the week you may even see hundreds of school children splashing around for their mandatory swimming classes.
4. The Most Famous Hot Springs of Iceland
I almost didn’t go to the beautiful Blue Lagoon, because I thought maybe it was just one of those things that all tourists do, but on my last day in Iceland I decided to head to the infamous lagoon before making my way to the airport. Boy, am I glad I did! It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before, and my skin felt incredible for days afterwards. Read more about my trip to the Blue Lagoon here.