The Land of Fire, Ice, and lots of Water!
The Complete Guide to Hot Springs in Iceland
Iceland is known colloquially as the “Land of Fire and Ice,” and this moniker is well-deserved. The island represents a fascinating and often contrasting fusion of boiling and frozen geothermal bodies and activity that has enchanted visitors from all over the globe for decades. You needn’t travel far from a gargantuan ice-capped glacier to find one of Iceland’s numerous and energetic volcanic systems; in fact, many of these topographic bodies actually blend into one another. However, we would be remiss to forget the stage between fire and ice – water! – and the role it plays in Iceland’s geography and cultural life.
Travelers and locals alike flock to the island’s thermally heated hot springs to experience a few moments of pure, all-natural relaxation. Iceland’s hot springs and toasty pools are considered to be among the island’s most glorious natural assets to many tourists. However, the geothermal spring that has attracted the most global attention was actually produced thanks to the marriage of modern, man-made science and Iceland’s superheated subterranean geography. We can’t speak of hot springs without once again mentioning the world-famous Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is undoubtedly one of the most popular attractions in Iceland. One might even hazard that it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. This is arguably Iceland’s most unique hot spring, as it is effectively the result of a geothermal plant spill in the 1970s. This might not sound particularly appealing or naturalistic, but don’t be fooled – the Blue Lagoon is indeed known for its purity and healing characteristics. After the water spill, those nearby the Svartsengi geothermal power plant began experimenting by taking quick dips in the proliferating body of water, which exudes a milky, almost opaque baby-blue hue. When they emerged, these bathers realized that their skin came out significantly softer and suppler than it was when they dove in. Icelandic researchers soon began delving into the waters’ properties, and they came away with some wonderful findings – the Blue Lagoon is not simply good for you, it is also restorative and can help sufferers of skin conditions like psoriasis. In fact, a special clinic devoted to psoriasis treatment has been opened on-site and is available to visitors today!
The Blue Lagoon’s unique properties arise from its combination of fresh water and seawater, nutritious algae, mineral salts, and soothing white silica mud. The Svartsengi Resource Park operates entirely with 100% clean geothermal energy, and imposes a series of strict hygiene rules for the benefit of bathers and the site itself. There is a charge to bathe here, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who says the experience wasn’t worth it. Furthermore, there is much to take advantage of. The Blue Lagoon offers spa amenities complete with skin treatments, skin care products inspired directly from the lagoon’s properties, in-water or on-land massage therapies, relaxation chambers with fluffy robes and slippers, meticulously clean shower facilities, the four-star LAVA restaurant, the Blue Café, and the Silica Hotel for those who would like to stay the night.
So you can have the best possible bathing experience at the Blue Lagoon, we’ll review a few tips and pointers here:
Pre-book. The Blue Lagoon is immensely popular, and thus pre-booking is actually required. Fortunately, it is a very easy process. Just visit their website and select your favorite bathing package online: BlueLagoon
Get there early. Dense crowds can constitute a big drawback to the Blue Lagoon’s global popularity. Fortunately, visitors tend to be almost immediately infected with the lagoon’s aura of tranquility, so even amidst masses of people no one is particularly rushed or stressed here. Still, there is a way to enjoy the ethereality of the lagoon a bit more quietly. The Blue Lagoon opens at 8:00 AM, and crowds tend to set in from 12:00 PM onward. We recommend setting that alarm and heading out early for a morning dip to avoid the masses.
Condition your hair! While you are taking your mandatory pre-dip shower, make sure you take advantage of the conditioner provided and even consider bringing your own. Fortunately, the Blue Lagoon’s waters are in no way harmful to hair. However, the lagoon’s abundance of nutritious minerals is notorious for causing temporary build-up that is difficult to remove, particularly if your hair is long. To rid yourself of slightly crunchy tresses, simply apply conditioner before bathing, use clarifying shampoo after you emerge, and then rinse and condition once more before bedtime.
Be careful as you walk. The nice thing about the lagoon is that you don’t need to know how to swim to enjoy it. Obviously this practical knowledge is a benefit for individual safety, but rest assured that a lifeguard is always on staff. If you would rather walk than wade, still be mindful of where you step. The waters are beautiful and vibrant, but murky, and you’ll have little visibility of your own legs as you shuffle along.
Check out Everything You Need to Know About the Blue Lagoon for a more detailed, in-depth look into everything the Blue Lagoon has to offer.
You can certainly expect a quality hot spring experience when you venture to a place called “Smoky Valley.” Reykjadalur, a bucolic, beautiful plain located in the south of Iceland, is renowned for its steaming hot springs, dense mud pools, and scenic hiking trails. Perhaps its most dominant landmark is a balmy, peaceful river constantly shrouded in warm geothermal mists that locals and visitors love to take advantage of and relax in.
Before you reach the so-called “hot river,” you will have to traverse a tranquil but energetic hike of approximately forty-five minutes to an hour. We suggest that you start your journey well-equipped in comfortable hiking clothes and boots capable of remaining sturdy amidst spots of loose gravel, and consider bringing water and perhaps a snack or two. And don’t forget your bathing suit for your impending dip in the hot river, as well as a camera to capture the valley’s stunning pastoral landscape! Once you’re ready to dive in, you will need to find a wooden path by the river that has just been laid down within the last couple of years. It serves two purposes – first, it guides bathers through the mists, and second, it protects the riverbanks from erosion.
Now, notice that we refer only to the hot river when discussing bathing. The hot spring pools on Reykjadalur are tempting to dive into – they are unearthly, opalescent turquoise and calmingly still underneath undulating rings of thermal smoke. However, as they are literally boiling to the touch, you cannot bathe in them. Furthermore, if you deviate from the hiking path on the way to the hot river, you can accidentally step into a pond of boiling water or a hot, sticky mud pool and injure yourself. Here and there you will come across signs warning “Hætta,” meaning “danger,” which will aid you on your trek. Be cautious in the wilderness, use your common sense, and you will have a wonderful time.
The river itself is definitely the fun bit. It is shallow enough to wade through without much vigor and it is usually just comfortably warm. Many cite the experience of bathing amidst Reykjadalur’s unspoiled, verdant nature as absolutely blissful. If you’re lucky, a few sheep might even meander by and say hello as you soak in the balmy thermal waters!
Located close to Reykjadalur is the singularly charming town of Hveragerði, a verdant greenhouse village located smack in the middle of an active geothermal site. Hveragerði is quite a site to behold – billowing plumes of white steam weave through charming wooden houses and fields of vivid wildflowers almost constantly. In fact, the hot springs and geothermal bodies upon which this town is built actually hydrate the landscape and give life to its flora, earning Hveragerði the nickname of “The Blossoming Town.” Environmental circumstances are ideal for horticulture here, and so it is no small wonder that the Icelandic Horticulture College (part of the Agricultural University of Iceland) finds its home in the village. Further to that, in Hveragerði people are able thermally heat their homes, as well as cultivate plants, vegetables, and flowers virtually year-round, all thanks to the boiling waters rumbling beneath the surface.
Hveragerði has a tremendous fifty-meter outdoor swimming pool called Laugaskarð– thermally heated, of course – and it is complemented by two adjacent “hot pots,” or hot tubs, and a steam bath. Like the Blue Lagoon, Laugaskarð is known to be good for the health.
The Secret Lagoon
The aforementioned Laugaskarð is actually the largest geothermal pool in Iceland. Now let’s travel to the oldest, nestled protectively in a small village in the south called Flúðir.
The Secret Lagoon is perhaps less of a secret than its title implies, and it was not always known by that name. Its former title was Gamla Laugin, or “The Old Pool.” From 1909 to 1947, this geothermal pool was one of the only places in Iceland that offered swimming lessons on the island. Use of the pool was relatively annulled until around 2014, when a local named Björn Kjartansson re-titled it “The Secret Lagoon” and re-opened it for business. In the years that followed, The Secret Lagoon became popular bathing spot for locals and the particularly investigative tourist. Its enigmatic name relates more thematically to the pure, tranquil atmosphere Kjartansson and the village of Flúðir have endeavored to cultivate for this natural resource.
This hasn’t been particularly difficult, given that the lagoon’s home of Flúðir is a little place, well off the beaten track and populated by around 400 people. It is tucked in between acres of lush farmland and craggy mountain ranges, with the Eyjafjallajökull glacier looming just overhead. Like Hveragerði, Flúðir is characterized by ribbons of thermal steam dancing between greenhouses, residential homes, and a few restaurants and hotels. Within the town center, Kjartansson remodeled changing rooms and a lobby to complement the newly renovated Secret Lagoon. Bathers can utilize these facilities and then wander down into the pool, in which there are many shallow boulders to lounge and lean on. Notwithstanding the pool’s modern facilities, The Secret Lagoon still gives off a rather untamed feel. Weather-beaten rocks and bushels of wild grasses dominate its surrounding landscape, though Kjartansson has made the pool itself user-friendly with refurbished amenities.
The pool naturally stays within the 38-40° Celsius range year-round. There is also a little geyser nearby that erupts every five minutes or so like clockwork, which visitors can enjoy as they lounge.
Mývatn Nature Baths
Head to the north and you will find the Mývatn Nature Baths, nestled within a protected nature reserve. You wouldn’t know it by looking, but the lagoon itself is actually a man-made entity. The 3.5 million liters of nutrient-rich, warm geothermal water filling up Mývatn’s lagoon and basin is funneled in via the Icelandic National Power Company’s bore hole in Bjarnarflag. Though the process may sound harsh, the Mývatn Nature Baths are operated very delicately in conjunction with their fragile surrounding ecosystem. Again, bear in mind that it is located within a nature reserve, where all environmental resources must be handled with the utmost care.
Much like the Blue Lagoon, Mývatn Nature Baths’ waters enjoy a healthful mixture of alkaline minerals and silicates that are wonderful for the skin and overall health. In fact, because of the particular composition of subterranean microorganisms and minerals nourishing the lagoon’s waters, harmful bacteria cannot survive or proliferate. No chlorine is necessary to keep the bathing lagoon pure!
The Mývatn Nature Baths enjoy spacious modern amenities, including clean, secure changing rooms that can accommodate up to three hundred guests at a time. Before or after bathing in the lagoon itself, you can also enjoy the two steam baths nearby and cool off in the outdoor shower once humidity reaches its peak. You may also want to enjoy a relaxing lunch or dinner at the Kvika Restaurant, which offers indoor and outdoor seating. They will even let you take a beverage into the lagoon with you, as long as you’re conscientious about keeping the water clean.
Unsurprisingly, Lake Mývatn and its landscape constitute a beautiful backdrop. You’ll likely come across a few flocks of ducks (there are about twenty-two species that make their home in Lake Mývatn, mind you) and other Icelandic wildlife as you survey the area.
The Mývatn Nature Baths are often touted as the North of Iceland’s answer to the Blue Lagoon. It is ideal for those who would like a somewhat quieter hot spring experience with all the amenities of a contemporary outfit.
Laugarvatn Fontana provides a toasty, steamy refuge for those winding their way along the famous Golden Circle route. Notwithstanding its eighty-five-year reputation as a source of health and relaxation, Laugarvatn still remains something of a hidden gem to tourists. The geothermal baths are nestled along the edge of lake Laugarvatn, just inconspicuous enough for the casual observer to drive by without a second glance. This is wonderful for those willing to look for it, however – it means peace and quietude amidst a stunning panorama of freshwater and mountains, plus no long lines!
The Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths are known primarily for two things – their warm, relaxing super-heated pools, and their bread. Since 1929, Icelanders have soaked in these balmy baths and baked rye bread on the volcanic earth’s all-natural oven. You can still enjoy this unique treat when you visit, but bear in mind that it takes all day to bake the bread, so you would be wise to arrive at around 14:30 when staff officially “opens the oven.”
Now let’s get back to the hot springs themselves. There are three primary “hot zone” sites that tout their own geothermal springs on the shores of lake Laugarvatn. The first and most historically significant is Vígðalaug, famous for the mass baptism that was delivered for the entire Parliament of Iceland in the year 1,000 here. The story goes that, after much force and persuasion exerted by Norwegian rulers, the pagans relented and chose to adopt Christianity. They made their transition official at this very site. The central spring is Laugarvatn Fontana itself, used to soothe the muscles of workers and fishermen in this region for almost a century. The third and hottest hot spring is Bláskógabyggð, which is utilized for geothermal house-heating for all residential areas and buildings in this area.
After exploring the hot springs, which are all within walking distance of each other, visitors can relax in one of Laugarvatn’s three luxurious steam rooms, collectively titled Gufan. Next to Gufan is a Finnish-style sauna known as Ylur, which enjoys a slightly lower humidity level than the steam room cabins. If you so desire, you may also soak in the three interconnected mineral baths at Laugarvatn: Lauga, Sæla, and Viska. These bodies are all surrounded by sleek black rocks, which provide some natural lounging and seating areas.
Like many Icelandic spa and wellness facilities, Laugarvatn Fontana has its own restaurant that serves a lunch buffet and a dinner buffet every afternoon and evening. Most of what is served here is sourced directly from local farms and fisheries, so the food can’t get much fresher!
Also worth noting is that the baths partner with a line of all-natural skin-care products called Sóley Organics, and a wide range of this merchandise is available on-site.
Many describe the Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths as feeling “authentic,” and perhaps less touristy than many of its counterparts. If you’re looking for a bathing experience that feels a bit more local and intimate, Laugarvatn might be the ideal choice.
Like Laugarvatn, the Seljavallalaug pool was developed in the Roaring Twenties, primarily for the purpose of swimming instruction. It is located conveniently off of Iceland’s Ring Road but tucked securely and secretively in the mountains. Actually, Selajavallalaug is a couple years Laugarvatn’s senior, as it was first built in 1923.
Seljavallalaug is cleaned and maintained routinely by volunteers, and it is entirely free to swim in. If you overlook the changing facilities placed next to the rectangular, eighty-two-foot geothermal pool, this location appears entirely wild and somewhat ancient. Vibrant green mosses cloak the black volcanic rock sloping upwards from the pool’s edges, and there is seemingly nothing but rugged, snow-capped mountains for miles and miles. It is a wonderful, very pure location ideal for those who want a more solitary hot spring excursion, but getting to the pool can be a bit of an adventure. To reach Seljavallalaug, visitors must traverse a twenty-minute hike through sloping fields of solidified magma, volcanic rock, and nondescript little streams sprouting up in mountain crevices.
Did we mention that this pool is located right underneath Eyjafjallajökull? That name should sound familiar. Though it is one of the smaller glacier-volcanoes in Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull virtually grounded European air travel in April 2010 thanks to an unprecedented eruption. After this monumental seismic event came to pass, Seljavallalaug was actually doused in volcanic ash like much of its surrounding landscape. Volunteers dedicated to protecting this little gem got to work promptly and made sure its waters were once again spotless (save for the healthy algae and minerals, of course). Seljavallalaug provides a wonderful example of how many Icelanders tend to selflessly care for their surrounding environment.
Seljavallalaug is also quite close to the Skógarfoss waterfall, which enjoys thousands of travelers each day. Yet, the hot spring is just masked by mountains enough to go largely unnoticed by most. However, it is perhaps its seclusion that lends Seljafallalaug its aura of Old World mystery and tranquility.
Let’s head even further into the middle of nowhere to find Landmannalaugar, nestled among spectacular rock formations in the South Highlands of Iceland. This region is characterized by diversely coloured mountain ranges, which enjoy their unique hues as a result of hyper-cooked solidified magma that is rich in rhyolite. The two most famous mountains in this region are known as Blahnjukur (“Blue Peak”) and Brennisteinsalda (“Sulphur Wave”). Some of these formations are ink-black, some are ocher-coloured, and others are nearly brick red, making for a stunning collective image as you soak.
Several hot springs and pools emerge from the volcanic plains between the mountains of this region. Many travelers like to take advantage of this hiker’s paradise and then relax their sore muscles in one of Landmannalaugar’s soothing geothermal pools. These springs are truly wild, surrounded only by tufts of grasses, lofty mountains, and perhaps a wooden dock or two to dry off on.
The drive to Landmannalaugar is a little bit complex and definitely requires a Super Jeep or at least a well-equipped four-wheel off-roader. The road that winds through the mountains of this region is only open a few months out of the year, and you must cruise your way through a few rivers in order to reach your destination. If you don’t feel confident about off-roading, you can opt for a Super Jeep tour or another guided option on an outfitted bus.
Grettislaug, situated in the North of Iceland, boasts all the hallmarks of a great island hot spring – nutritious, naturally heated waters, idyllic scenery… and an interesting story. According to legend, this popular bathing spot was much-utilized by Grettir the Strong from the Icelandic Sagas. A pugnacious, outspoken fellow, Grettir was eventually considered a brigand despite his many heroic deeds because of his belligerent inclinations. In fact, he was the longest-surviving outlaw in Icelandic history. It is said that Grettir once warmed himself at Grettislaug after swimming nearly eight kilometers from Drangey Island, the so-called “outlaw’s paradise” of ancient days.
The storied territory upon which Grettislaug is placed is considered private property, but the entrance fee is more than reasonable at 500 Icelandic króna (roughly four dollars, Euros, or pounds) per person. The two thermal hot pools at Grettislaug are perfectly oval, and surrounded by an assemblage of rocks and boulders, which provide some coverage from the weather. Showers and changing facilities are accessible to visitors, but other than that the hot pots at Grettislaug are essentially positioned in the middle of a massive, empty field. It is remote enough that you may very well have the place to yourself! There is nothing quite like soaking in soothing volcanic water in the middle of a tremendous outstretch of mossy fields, snow-capped peaks looming in the distance, to prompt true awe for nature.
After you enjoy your bath, you might consider booking a boat trip to the aforementioned Drangey Island. Resembling a massive stony fortress, the island is actually the only existing remnant of a 700,000-year-old volcanic system. Its imposing presence and sheer cliffs make it an ideal location for exciting medieval tales of outlaws and fugitives. Drangey was first mentioned in the classic Grettis saga, which details that Grettir the Strong spent the last years of his life living on the island with his brother Illugi and his slave Glaumur.
These days, you won’t find any bandits or thieves on Drangey. You will, however, find a healthy abundance of lively birds. Guillemots, auks, fulmars, ravens, falcons, and, of course, puffins all nest here by the hundreds. We definitely recommend that you ferry your way over to the island to gain a true appreciation of the history and lore surrounding Grettislaug, and perhaps make a few feathery friends!