Table of Contents
In Iceland, hot springs are a way of life.
From the dark nights of winter to the long sun-filled days of summer, one constant of the country is its geothermal activity. For centuries, Icelanders have harnessed this energy into places of community and ritual.
The pools of warm water, natural or man-made, are an essential part of each day—from senior citizens exercising in the morning, teens hanging out with friends after school, or parents bringing their young kids to play before bedtime. Still found in nearly every village, town and neighborhood of large cities, these thermal springs, spas and holes in the wall are as common as a grocery store or pharmacy—and arguably, just as important.
Iceland is a Hot Destination
Iceland sits on top of a boundary between two tectonic plates that are slowly spreading apart. At this split—the Mid-Atlantic Ridge—magma flows from the Earth’s core towards the surface, heating up the crust and often creating chambers full of molten material which, over time, become volcanoes. Some magma leaks into cracks in the bedrock heating up groundwater—and that, my hot-blooded friends, is what emerges to the surface as hot springs!
All that activity is the reason there are so many volcanoes, geysers, mud pots, and steam vents in the country.
In fact, Iceland is home to over 700 geothermal sites (reservoirs of hot water located deep underground), which is used to create electricity. The water is pumped to a power plant which uses the steam to turn a turbine that activates a generator which produces electricity for Iceland’s towns and cities—about 85% of all houses in Iceland are heated with energy produced this way.
In other words, the hot springs in Iceland power not only our homes, but our communities too.
Be Sure to Sample All of Iceland’s “Hot Springs”
Just as people take hikes to volcanoes in Iceland, treks to natural hot springs are popular too. However, while “hot springs” get the most renown, they are only one of four main types of thermal pools found in the country. To explain each type, I like to think of them as a different alcoholic beverage.
Local pools: Beer
First we have local pools, which are like beer: everyone can enjoy them and it’s not too expensive.
Most towns have their own public version that anyone can attend at a low cost. Each pool has its own uniqueness to it—some are fancier than others with saunas, steam rooms and various sizes, like a craft beer, while others are more like a rustic hot tub. Community pools are man-made and in outdoor areas since they are heated year round by geothermal water which is often pumped from kilometers away. Even in the dark and cold winter months, locals can come to exercise, socialize and relax.
Hot springs: Moonshine
The next option is what most foreigners think of when they hear “Iceland hot springs.” These are like Moonshine because they tend to be the most raw and natural.
Unlike geothermal pools (covered next), hot springs haven’t been manipulated other than the occasional access trail or walkway needed to reach them. The water coming straight from the ground is at its natural temperature and often full of minerals. However, because there is no heat regulation, you must always check the water before getting in to make sure you don’t burn yourself—just like moonshine you never quite know what you might get.
Geothermal pools: Red wine
Next up are geothermal pools that to me are like red wine; they are a bit more cultivated and come in a range of price and quality that accommodates many tastes (and budgets).
These are man-made pools that pump water from the ground or hot springs into the pool and are often mixed with cooler water to regulate the temperature. Geothermal pools can be found in remote locations with minimal features or can also be found close to cities with easy access to parking, changing rooms, and often additional areas to relax.
Geothermal spas: Champagne
The fanciest and most elaborate of the pools in Iceland are the geothermal spas. They are what I would consider the champagne of our pools: classy, expensive and really only for special occasions.
Geothermal spas are man-made complexes that offer extensive bathing options, spa treatments, restaurants and often a hotel to stay in. The Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous geothermal spa, is a perfect demonstration of the luxury that Iceland’s geothermal spa can offer.
My Recommendations for Hot Springs in Iceland: Something for All Palettes
1. Seljavallalaug, Southern Iceland
Swimming in Iceland’s history
Seljavallalaug’s geothermal pool is tucked in the fluorescent green mountains of Iceland’s south coast underneath the glacier of the Eyjafjalljökull volcano. The setting is hard to beat, lying next to a rushing river of freezing glacial melt dotted with dark gray volcanic rock.
The strategic placement of the pool allows for warm water from the mountains to mix with the cold river water creating the perfect temperature for swimming year round. The pool is still only cleaned once a year and most often will be found with algae covering the sides and the floor turning the water a shade of deep green, adding to the century old feel of the area.
Arriving here feels like stepping back to 1920s Iceland
The simple green and white aesthetic patched with stone and boxed changing rooms at one end are typical of the times. Built in 1923, Seljavallalaug is one of the oldest thermal pools in the country. It measures 30 feet by 82 and was built to help locals learn how to swim.
Today, Seljavallalaug remains one of the most popular thermal pools in Iceland due to its distinct look and remote feeling, despite the easy access. From Reykjavík, it is a two hour drive to the parking lot, and then only a 15 minute walk back in time.
If you’re heading out on a longer adventure, Seljavallalaug is also a great place to stop along the famous Ring Road bike tour that circles the island. Heading east from Reykjavík, Seljavallalaug is about a two day bike trip.
Arriving in Seljavallalaug feels like stepping back in time, to Iceland of the 1920s.
1. Seljavallalaug, Southern Iceland - Good to Know
20 to 30 °C (68 to 86 °F)
Via Car: Rent a car from Reykjavík and drive east along the Ring Road for a little under 2 hours then turn onto Route 242 for the car park. From here, it’s about a 15 min. hike from the parking lot
Via Bike: About a two day ride from Reykjavík heading east, turn onto Route 242 for the car park
Via Bus: Tours with South Coast Tours or Guide to Iceland
Definitely bring a towel, change of clothes and some flip flops. If you don’t, it’s a cold hike back to the car
2. Reykjadalur, Southern Iceland
The smoky valley
A small dirt path winds down through the valley and disappears over a hill, the lush green dotted with white sheep and volcanic scree. It’s hard to believe that we are only a 45 minute drive from the bustling streets of the capital city Reykjavík. From the parking lot, a 3 kilometer hike (which takes about an hour) takes you to the hot spring. The trail twists and turns through a valley before giving way to cascading waterfalls, bubbling mud pots and misty air.
Reykjadalur roughly translates to “smoky valley” and rightly so as the steam from the bubbling hot spring and surrounding hills is constant year round. Due to volcanic minerals in the river, the water has turned bright blue and the moist air cultivates mossy rocks and budding succulents along the banks of the river. The only man-made indications are the small boardwalks and a few small walls that have been put up for privacy when changing.
Find the pool that is just right (for you)
In addition to the hike in, the most adventurous part of the Reykjadalur hot springs is finding the best place along the river to bathe in as the swimming holes vary dramatically in temperature. To help you choose, you will find signs posted with thermometers. Note that some spots are constantly boiling so be wary of where you dip your toes.
In the summer months, the most equilibrated temperature is where the boardwalks begin; however as the air gets cooler, so does the water. If you choose to visit Reykjadalur in colder months you will most likely need to continue walking up the river past the boardwalks, this is where it becomes a game of trial and error, sticking in your toes or fingers to find the water most suitable for you.
Note that the river is only about waist deep, which is perfect for wading into and sitting in but in order to get your whole body soaked you must lie back and let the river wash over you.
Reykjadalur roughly translates to “smoky valley”, and rightly so, as the steam from the bubbling hot spring and surrounding hills is constant year round.
2. Reykjadalur, Southern Iceland - Good to Know
35.5 to 40 °C (96 to 104 °F)
Minimal walls for privacy when changing
Via Car: Rent a car from Reykjavík and drive east along the Ring Road (Route 1) for about an hour until you reach the town of Hveragerði. At the roundabout leading into Hveragerði take the 3rd exit on the Breiðamörk road where signs will take you to the parking lot for the hot springs. From the parking lot is about a 1 hour hike to the river
Via Bike: About a half day’s ride from Reykjavík along east Ring Road (Route 1)
Via Bus: Buses run from Reykjavík to Hveragerði where you can walk through the town of Hveragerði and arrive at the trail head
Going in the winter is the best time because there is hardly anyone and the surrounding countryside, covered in snow, is spectacular. In the summer, the hot springs can fill up quickly with tourists by 10 am, so make sure to either get an early start!
3. Landmannalaugar, Iceland
A geologic phenomenon unfolds before you as mountains of deep purple, smooth brown and golden yellow contrast with the turquoise blue from the steaming hot springs below making you feel like you have been dropped into a Van Gogh painting.
Located about 3.5 hours southeast of Reykjavík, Landmannalauger is for the adventurous soul. It is not accessible without a 4×4 vehicle or a bus ticket for an off road bus, which makes this destination far off the beaten path. Besides a mountain hut, a few changing rooms, and showers, nothing man-made can be seen for miles.
A destination for the outdoors
The hot springs at Landmannalaugar are only the beginning of the attractions as the area is filled with some of the best hiking in Iceland. One of Iceland’s most famous trips is hiking the Laugavegur Trail, a 34 mile trek that weaves through colorful mountains, alongside huge waterfalls and over lava fields—it is one of the best ways to experience the raw landscape on foot. In addition to hiking routes, there is a vast network of trails for single track mountain biking, which are becoming increasingly popular among visitors.
Not a winter destination
Due to its remote location and Iceland’s proximity to the arctic circle, few dare to venture to Landmannalauger in the winter. A thick layer of snow closes the rugged highland F-Roads, and only “super Jeeps” can access the area. If you are interested in seeing this area in the off season though, a guided tour is a great way to do winter hiking in Iceland, since the operator will have a specialty vehicle and experience driving in tumultuous weather.
The hot water from the surrounding lava field mixes with the colder stream running down from the mountains creating a naturally formed large pool in the valley, filling the air with steam from the warm hot spring.
3. Landmannalaugar, Iceland - Good to Know
36 to 40 °C (96 to 104 °F)
Showers, changing rooms and a small general store at the mountain hut
Via Car: Rent a 4 wheel drive car from Reykjavík and drive east along the Ring Road (Route 1) until you reach the city of Selfoss and turn onto road 30 or 26 north. From there take the paved road to Hrauneyjar that will lead you through deserted landscapes and over small rivers before arriving at the hot springs about a 3.5 hour trip
Via Bus: There are specialized busses that run from Reykjavík to Landmannalaugar daily during the summer months
The main river you have to cross by car is only a 10 min. walk from the hot springs. If you don’t want to drive your car through the river you can just leave it on the other side and walk
4. Mývatn Nature Bath, Northern Iceland
Mineral rich waters
The Mývatn Nature Baths are known for the mineral composition of its waters. Full of sulfur, silica, and other natural substances, and with an alkaline pH, the pools are thought to have a positive effect on asthma (and other respiratory diseases) and skin conditions.
Hot water here is manually pumped up from a depth of 2,500 meters (8,202 feet), usually around 130 °C (266 °F), and mixed with cooler temperatures from the lake to create an ideal bathing experience. In addition to the extensive pools, the facility has one restaurant and a few saunas—though no onsite hotels or extra spa treatments—making this a simpler place to relax than it’s “big sister”, the Blue Lagoon (Iceland’s most popular hot spring), which I cover below.
Located just a few miles off the famous Ring Road, Mývatn sits amid the rugged and volcanic hills of northern Iceland. The region is one of the most geographically diverse areas in the country. Mount Námaskarð, a geothermal pass between two mountains with boiling sulfuric mud springs and fumaroles lies a few miles from the hot springs. In addition, there is Lake Mývatn, which is located just down the road from the pools, and is a popular place for bird watchers in Iceland.
The best way to see the beauty of Northern Iceland is via the Diamond Circle, a 306km (190 mile) paved loop that brings tourists and cyclists from around the world and takes you to Lake Mývatn, Dettifoss Waterfall, Ásbyrgi Canyon and the fishing town of Húsavík in a four hour car drive or a two day bike trip. Another reason to come? If you visit in the winter you will have the chance to see Iceland’s Northern Lights (in fact, Mývatn is considered the “northern lights capital” of the country).
A word on the Blue Lagoon
Mývatn Nature Baths is often compared to the world famous Blue Lagoon due to the fact that both have vibrant blue waters. Though both are great, Mývatn is a more naturally beautiful area surrounded by mountains and volcanoes where the Blue Lagoon has more of an industrial feel as it’s quite developed. The Blue Lagoon is closer to Reykjavík, which makes it more convenient to get to, but also means you’re likely to encounter crowds.
Seen as a more down to earth version of the very famous Blue Lagoon, Mývatn Nature Baths provides the perfect combination between chic and natural.
4. Mývatn Nature Bath, Northern Iceland - Good to Know
36 to 40 °C (97 to 104 °F)
Adults: $38.10 (USD)
Teens 13 to 15 years old: $17.3
Students, seniors over 65, and disabled people: $24.20
Multiple pools, sauna, restaurant, swim up bar, and changing facilities
Via Car: Rent a car from Reykjavík and drive northeast along the Ring Road (Route 1) for almost six hours then turn left onto a paved access road towards Jardbodin
Via Bike: If you are biking the Ring Road this is a great stop about halfway (a week into) through your tour
Via Bus: Getting here via bus is a little more complicated. You can book a bus from Reykjavík to Akureyri and from there to Reykjahild which is then only a 4km walk to the entrance of the hot springs. Or you can book a tour that will provide transportation
It’s mandatory to shower naked in Iceland before entering hot pools to fully clean yourself and is considered very rude if you don’t
5. Sky Lagoon, Reykjavík
Luxury close to the city
As the sun sets casting a reddish glow over the water, people mellow in the deep pools of the Sky Lagoon making it hard to tell where the pool ends and the ocean begins. Thanks to an “infinity-edge” design, water runs over the pool’s side into the ocean offering unimpeded views of the horizon.
One of the best things about the Sky Lagoon is its accessibility. Just a 15 minute drive from downtown Reykjavík, the spa can be reached easily by bike, walking, or bus if you don’t want to drive. Though this geothermal spa is definitely one of the more expensive options, it is so well done and worth the time and money—especially after returning to the capital after hiking in Iceland. Another cool thing that here you can meet a lot of locals since it’s one of the few geothermal spas where you will find an equal number of tourists and Icelanders enjoying the upscale amenities.
Weaving together modern taste and ancient solutions, Sky Lagoon’s goal was to create a sustainable yet upscale and authentic bathing experience. The building has a turfhouse exterior which is a traditional Klömbruhleðsla (“turf walls”) technique that uses swampland and volcanic ash to make tiles that cover the building and keep it better protected from the harsh winter conditions.
The power of geothermal energy is also harnessed. As the hot water is pumped into the lagoon and mixed with cool water, a warm water mixture flows out which is then captured and used for heating water for showers and the floors.
It is so well done that I would recommend the Sky Lagoon to anyone in Iceland, foreign or local.
5. Sky Lagoon, Reykjavík - Good to Know
38 to 40 °C (100 to 104 °F)
Pure Lite Pass: $55 (USD)
Pure Pass: $78
Sky Pass: $109
Full spa, restaurants, multiple pools, sauna, steam room, bar, and changing facilities
Via Car: Rent a car from Reykjavík drive south on Route 40 for about five minutes and then take the exit toward Kópavogur and follow the road until you reach your destination
Via Bike: If you are biking it is best to take local bike route and streets via Hringbraut/Route 49
Shuttle: The Sky Lagoon Shuttle will pick you up from your hotel in the vicinity or Reykjavík
Via Bus: From Hlemmur square, take bus no. 4 and stop in Hamraborg. From there take bus no. 35 until you stop at Hafnarbraut then follow the signs and walk for a few minutes down Hafnarbraut until you reach Vesturvör. Walk along the ocean and you will arrive
Because Sky Lagoon is so close to Reykjavík, most people stay in the city
Book your ticket in advance as it’s by reservation only and spot do tend to fill up quickly depending on the time of year
Additional Information to Help You Plan a Visit to the Hot Springs in Iceland
What should I bring to the hot springs in Iceland?
The main things you want to bring are a clean bathing suit, towel, water bottle (note that some spas don’t allow glass), sandals or flip-flops, and/or slippers (for the changing room or spa areas). You may also consider a bathing cap and goggles if you plan to do more swimming than simply soaking—note that some people want to avoid getting their hair wet in silica-rich water as it can cause hair to dry out or become stiff. Larger operations often have towels and slippers for rent, so you’ll want to check ahead of time.
What is the local etiquette for the hot springs in Iceland?
First things first, it’s mandatory to shower naked before entering any of the hot pools. Before entering the changing room, take off your shoes (to keep the floor clean)—there are usually lockers and shoe racks. When you’re ready for the shower, be sure to clean yourself thoroughly—and fully dry off to avoid bringing water into the pool. This is a cultural and sanitary consideration. Same goes for the reverse: when you’re finished with soaking, shower, dry off (to avoid getting the changing room wet), then only put your shoes back on once you leave the room.
For visitation, some days of the week and times of the day are busier than others. Larger spas often have scheduled bus tours which means bigger groups will be on the premises during that time. Because these are communal resources, be respectful of others. Some options don’t allow children while others are family-oriented. As always, be a mindful visitor and clean up after yourself.
What are the benefits of soaking in a hot spring in Iceland?
There are a bevy of benefits to soaking in warm water. Across Iceland, the hot springs vary in average temperatures, typically between 35-40°C (mid-90 to mid-100 ºF), though some water can be as low as 18 ºC (64 ºF) or as high as 50 ºC (122 ºF).
Primarily, this is a relaxing activity. We often don’t designate (enough) quiet time to sit and unwind—and doing so in hot, calming waters is a great opportunity for this. Hot water also boosts blood circulation, primarily by dilating vessels which increases blood flow, and can help loosen tight muscles.
The mineral composition can have anecdotal, albeit unproven effects as well. Typically you will find sulfur, silica, calcium, magnesium, iron, chloride, potassium, zinc.
What is the best time of year to visit Iceland for hot springs?
There’s no best time to visit a hot spring in Iceland, per se. Some will be difficult (or impossible to access) in the winter, for example, but generally, if you’re looking for a hot dip, the waters will be warmer than the surrounding air no matter the time of year.
With that said, in the spring, what could be better than taking a soak after a day of ski touring Iceland’s backcountry slopes? Or in the summer, going off the beaten track to access lesser visited pools while hiking the hidden trails in Iceland?
An Idyllic Way of Life
Icelandic thermal pools, whether man made or natural, are an essential part of the country’s heritage and everyday life. From local community pools to hidden hot springs in the highlands and luxury thermal spas, Iceland knows how to harness its geothermal powers across the country to create some of the most relaxing places on earth.