The English have their pubs, Brazilians have their beaches, and Icelanders have their pools. Set against the lunar landscape of sprawling lava fields, a visit to one of Iceland’s geothermal baths is an otherworldly experience, especially during the winter, when the long nights are often illuminated by the ribboning northern lights.
Geothermal energy is a cornerstone of Icelandic living. It’s used to warm homes, power greenhouses, and heat the country’s 200-plus sundlaugar (swimming pools) and spas, which are wonderful places to relax, to be sure, but also social spaces where locals gather to catch up. Take these five must-not-miss opportunities to dip into Iceland’s mineral-rich waters.
The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon (Bláa Lónið) formed in the early 1980s from the runoff of a geothermal power plant on an 800-year-old lava flow in the Reykjanes Peninsula, a UNESCO Global Geopark straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where tectonic plates converge. Skip the main lagoon, filled with selfie-taking stopover tourists, and check into the newly-opened Retreat Hotel, where you’ll have an exclusive section of the storied turquoise waters (almost) to yourself. The luxury hotel is designed to incorporate nature and the 62 suites have floor-to-ceiling windows with views over the ethereal landscapes you came to Iceland for. Experience the spa’s ‘Ritual’ where, in a dimly-lit room, guests slather their bodies with the lagoon’s three natural beauty boosters: exfoliating lava rock, purifying silica, and soothing algae. While staying in your robe for the entire stay is encouraged—right through breakfast overlooking the lagoon—it’s worth freshening up for the seven-course tasting menu at Moss Restaurant, where you can sample skyr-infused butter garnished with lava salt and reindeer served atop a log adorned with pine and smoldering coals. Before turning in for the night, ask your host for the northern lights wakeup call in case they grace the sky while you sleep.
Four-hour entry to the Retreat Spa from $320
Suites from $1500/night
This remote spa in west Iceland, a 1.5-hour drive from Reykjavík, is just stone’s throw from Deildartunguhver, the most powerful hot spring in Europe. On approach, the distinctive smell of sulphur engulfs you as 100 C water pours from the earth at 180 litres per second, creating a steam plume that can be seen kilometres away. Upon arrival, you’re greeted with monochromatic yet inviting architecture and the spa’s distinctly Scandi-chic interior, dotted with Icelandic sheepskin rugs and beautiful leather furniture. Start by renting a plush robe and heading for the changerooms—stocked with Sóley Organics body products—and take a quick rinse (sans bathing suit). After showering, dip into one of the five outdoor baths of varying temperatures or warm up in one of two windowless steam rooms, all heated directly from the source. Jumpstart your circulation periodically by dipping into the ice bath; then, in the relaxation room, listen to the crackling wood fire while taking in sprawling views of the rural, mountainous landscape of Borgarfjörður and Deildartunguhver. Here, far from the lights of Reykjavík, thousands of stars glimmer like pinpricks in the dark Arctic sky. Tilt your head back and wait for nature’s most tantalizing show: the northern nights are known to light the sky on clear autumn and winter evenings. Later, tuck into a hearty meal with ingredients sourced from local farmers. The burger with red onion jam is exquisite.
Stay at Fossatún from $75/night
Geosea Geothermal Baths
In the northern town of Húsavík — Iceland’s whale watching capital — Geosea’s interconnected pools offer a unique mixture of geothermal and salt water. Drilling for new geothermal energy sources in the late 1960s uncovered hot seawater too mineral-rich to flow through pipes to heat homes. Instead, locals placed an old cheese-making tub over the borehole, creating an impromptu hot tub that became a gathering place. In 2018, a full-service spa was built with structures that flow with the landscape to a clifftop infinity pool with unobstructed views of the North Atlantic. Hot water constantly flows into the pools through two bubbling vents, then spills over the edge back into the ocean. Grab a pint of the refreshingly hoppy session IPA by local brewery Húsavík Öl from the swim-up bar and simmer while the sun sinks behind the Víknafjöll mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for humpbacks and blue whales.
The Secret Lagoon
In southwest Iceland, just off the Golden Circle — Iceland’s most-visited, easily accessible sightseeing route covering Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall — lies the town of Flúðir, home to Iceland’s oldest pool. Constructed in 1891, the Secret Lagoon (Gamla Laugin) is built into its volcanic surroundings and still has its original rustic stone walls, giving it the look of a natural pool. A hot river with a small geyser flows around the perimeter, easily explored by boardwalk. Because of Iceland’s harsh weather and infertile soil (for that, thank the Viking settlers who axed most of the forests over 1,000 years ago, leaving Iceland essentially treeless), not much grows outdoors. Instead, vegetables and fruits are cultivated in greenhouses, powered by the same wellspring as the lagoon. For an outstanding foodie experience in Flúðir, visit Farmer’s Bistro, a restaurant attached to Iceland’s only mushroom farm known for their lactose-free, white and brown chestnut mushroom soup. Later, hit Friðheimar to sip beer brewed with tomatoes, while lounging inside the greenhouse.
$30 entry for the day
Stay at Hotel Ranga from $390/night
Looking for a true local secret? Down a dirt track on private farmland, close to the Secret Lagoon, you’ll find Hrunalaug, a secluded natural hot spring that holds no more than five people at a time. Overlooking moss-covered hills, it’s remote, natural bathing at its finest. There are no facilities — apart from a rustic stone sheep shed — so be respectful of the landowners (don’t leave anything behind and pay the small upkeep fee). Visit early morning or late evening to avoid waiting. Directions: From Flúðir, turn off onto road 344. You will pass a farm with a church called Hruni, then turn onto road 345. Drive until you see the parking lot and a no camping sign.
Askja and Viti Crater Lakes
For a truly wild experience, head to Iceland’s fabled highlands for a dip in the milky geothermal waters of Viti, a volcanic crater lake whose name translates to ‘hell,’ caused by an eruption in 1875. Due to the ever-shifting weather conditions and rugged roads, it’s only possible to access the highlands between June and August, and you’ll need to rent a sturdy, highly-insured 4×4. If you’re inexperienced driving across unbridged rivers (there are two), sand dunes, and volcanic rock, opt for a superjeep tour with Hey Iceland. From the parking area, it’s a three-kilometre uphill hike to the crater, the rugged trail surrounded by the wreckage of past eruptions. Walk around the rim, take a peek at Askja (aka Öskjuvatn), the larger cold-water lake, then carefully make your way down the steep sides of the crater to the pastel-hued water. This is as remote as geothermal bathing gets. Parts of the water are still boiling, so watch for bubbles marking the steam vents where hot water escapes.
Good to know
Icelanders use little to no chlorine or detergents in their pools because there’s a constant flow of warm water directly from the springs. Understandably, they take pool hygiene seriously and have an ironclad set of rules pinned to every change room wall in multiple languages. Strip down naked, hop in the shower, and scrub your body from head to toe before entering the baths to avoid being told off by a local.