One of the best things about Iceland’s geothermal activity is that it provides us with an abundance of natural hot springs. There are so many spread throughout the country that it would be a great adventure to visit them all. Some, like the seven public baths in Reykjavik, are man-made, but they harness the power of nature and are naturally heated. Then there are the natural hot springs and spas in Iceland, found away from civilization. Their warm waters have been enjoyed for centuries by Icelanders, from the time of the Vikings.
Geothermal baths are a popular hobby throughout Iceland; found in so many places, they are easy to access. Let’s examine the characteristics of these natural wonders.
What's Different in an Iceland Spa?
First of all, let’s establish the difference between a hot pool and a geothermal spa. There are seven public thermal pools, or "sundlaugar", in Reykjavik, operated by the city council. Their use is encouraged to support healthy living. For that reason, they all cost the same and are very affordable. Multiple passes can be purchased at once to bring the cost even lower.
They are heated with geothermal water but the water is artificially treated, like any swimming pool, to ensure cleanliness. They often include at least one swimming pool (generally an outdoor pool) several hot tubs, and sometimes a sauna and/or a steam room. If you’re lucky, they also have a cold pool, so you can complete several hot/cold cycles (cold bathing has great health benefits).
They are popular meeting places for friends and are generally open until around 9 or 10 pm. The great part about them being open so late is you can watch the sun set (in the winter) and the stars come out. A personal favorite is Sundhöllin, located on the road Baronsstigur. It’s Iceland’s oldest public baths, created in 1937. Recent renovations have given this pool much to boast about, with the fantastic cold pool I previously mentioned.
Geothermal spas, on the other hand, offer another level of luxury. Their locations are chosen specifically to allow for prime views of the surrounding nature, and their facilities are designed to offer an extra special experience. It’s not just about the geothermal baths; the spas want you to lose yourself in relaxation in many forms. The most famous geothermal spa in Iceland is one you’ve probably already heard of; the Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon
Located in south-western Iceland, the Blue Lagoon was named as one of the Wonders of the World by National Geographic in 2012. The blue waters are renowned for their healing properties; studies have proven that bathing in the waters has a beneficial effect for psoriasis sufferers.
In fact, the Lagoon is actually man-made. The geothermal seawater is the by-product of a nearby geothermal power plant. The high mineral content of the water, though, is all-natural. The Lagoon boasts a trinity of bioactive elements: silica, algae, and minerals.
What started out as just a large blue reservoir has expanded into a luxurious spa complex. On-site there are to be found three restaurants, the Spa, the Moss, and the Lava. There’s also the Retreat Hotel located at the Lagoon, in case one visit isn’t enough for you. You additionally have the option to upgrade your experience to something even more exclusive; the Retreat Spa. This option allows for more privacy and luxury for an extra cost. Or, the top level is the Lava Cove. Here, you essentially have access to your own private lagoon and personal butler service. It’s so exclusive the price isn’t even advertised on the website. The Blue Lagoon also has its own range of skincare products, available from several official Blue Lagoon stores (one is located at the Blue Lagoon, one in Keflavik airport and another in downtown Reykjavik). On top of all that, you can also pay to have a therapeutic massage at the Lagoon.
Because it is so famous, one criticism of the Blue Lagoon is that it can get a bit crowded. That’s where the Retreat Spa and the Lava Cove come in; they cost more but they’re a way to avoid the crowds. In any case, visiting the Blue Lagoon is absolutely one of the best things to do in Iceland.
The Secret Lagoon
This lagoon isn’t so secret anymore, but it’s still well worth experiencing. It’s conveniently located in the same area as one of the most popular tourist routes, the Golden Circle. It’s the oldest swimming pool in Iceland, created in 1891. The owners have ensured that the lagoon retains a natural feel, so you can feel immersed in Iceland while relaxing in the water.
There’s also a small geyser near the lagoon that erupts about every five minutes, which can be seen when you are in the water. While the Secret Lagoon doesn’t have the electric blue waters of the Blue Lagoon, it’s still a fantastic geothermal spa. However, it isn’t necessarily the best place to view the northern lights from, only because it closes at 8 pm during the winter and the lights don’t often come out before then. Food isn’t served here but they do sell snacks and drinks.
Other Geothermal Spas in Iceland
There are plenty of other geothermal spas in Iceland that are arguably just as great as the Blue Lagoon, but lesser known. One is the Laugarvatn Fontana, also located in the Golden Circle area. The Fontana contains several features to immerse yourself in. There are the steam baths, with steam straight from the ground simmering through grids in the floor. Then there are the three relaxing pools, which vary in size and temperature. Laugarvatn Fontana also has a Finnish-style sauna, in which you can enjoy a wonderful view of the lake. Or, you can head into the lake itself. It’s fairly cold in there, but remember those health benefits I mentioned earlier? See how many hot/cold cycles you can complete. The spa also contains a bakery and the option of a lunch and dinner buffet.
Another great geothermal spa is the Mývatn Nature Baths. Just like the Blue Lagoon, this lagoon is also man-made, but utilizes naturally occurring geothermal water and heating. It’s pretty far from Reykjavik; it’s located on the other side of the country, in Mývatn; the north-east of Iceland. Mývatn is actually known as the ‘Northern Lights Capital of Iceland’ so it’s a fairly inspiring experience to catch sight on the lights whilst in the bathing lagoon. The Baths are located in such a remote area that it makes for great viewing of the surrounding nature. The water also contains some sulfur, which is known to have positive effects on some respiratory diseases. And there are two steam baths in the spa. Get ready to be very relaxed.
Iceland Beer Spa
Here’s something unique: having a beer bath. Bjórböðin (literally, ‘the beer baths’) is located in Árskógssandur, in the north of Iceland. The beer bath water is rich in minerals and is very good for cleansing the skin. The experience consists of spending 25 minutes in the beer bath and then a further 25 minutes in a relaxation room. However, the beer bath water is undrinkable, so don’t think you can drink from it as you sit in it. If you are over 20, there is a drinkable beer draught at every tub that you can utilize. You can go into the tub alone or with a friend or partner, but under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.
There’s also a restaurant on site that serves ‘beer-related foods.’ And of course, beer. The Beer Spa offers other products such as soaps and other toiletries that have a unique smell.It is very important to note here that Iceland’s drink driving laws are extremely strict. One pint of beer will put you over the limit. So, if you are the designated driver on your trip to the beer spa, it is strongly advised that you pay close attention to your alcohol intake.
Hydra Flot Spa
This is another different angle to the previously mentioned geothermal spas. Hydra Flot, located right in the center of Reykjavik, is nothing short of a spiritual experience. It does not utilize naturally heated geothermal water, with all its accompanying naturally occurring minerals, but it does give you a journey into your own mind. The experience is spending an hour inside a sensory deprivation pod.
The water is kept at a consistent temperature and the high salt content allows you to comfortably float. It’s completely dark and silent inside the pod. It took a few minutes for me to ‘switch off’ but once I did, I drifted in and out of consciousness for the rest of the hour. I can’t quite say whether I was dreaming or just drifting through my own mind while awake. But one thing is for sure, I left the spa feeling extremely refreshed, relaxed, and with a deep insight into my thoughts.
The spa also recommends adding on a Massage Chair Session before the float to really get into the zone. Plus, you can add on a facial and skin treatment after the float. The cost is 7900ISK or USD56 per person and Hydra Flot occasionally runs two for one deals. Put aside an hour and a half and prepare yourself for an emotional rollercoaster.
Natural Hot Springs
If you want to visit a completely natural hot spring, you could visit one of the many unregulated ‘hot pots’ that are dotted around the country. Two such examples are the Heydalur Hillside Hot Pot and Klambragil river. Both of these hot pots, and most hot pots in Iceland, are only accessible via a short hike, with a parking area some distance away. Keep that in mind when you are searching for these hot pots in the winter months; you will have to dry yourself off and then walk to your car. So, it’s best to put on more than just flip flops and a bath robe; hiking boots and proper warm clothing are recommended.
Most hot pots have a changing hut next to them, and if they don’t, it’s a warning sign. Maybe this random hot pot you’ve found isn’t safe to step in. Be extremely careful when getting into an unregulated hot pot; the temperature could be far too high to be bearable. Famously, when Ed Sheeran was visiting Iceland a few years ago, he burned his foot fairly badly by slipping into a boiling hot spring. Test the water first; most hot springs will be too hot to safely enter. Even the ones that are known about and frequented by locals can sometimes be too hot, as the temperature of the water will naturally fluctuate.
Don’t forget to take any rubbish with you and leave the site as you found it. Everyone has the right to enjoy these places, but they also have the responsibility to ensure that they remain clean and, as much as possible, untainted.
Spas in Iceland - Final Thoughts
Since Iceland can be pretty cold in the winter and isn’t known for its heat in the summer, it’s always a great time to visit a hot spring, hot pool, or geothermal spa. You’ll never find yourself far from one and the private spas are open almost every day of the year. The naturally heated water does not just provide relaxation; it is rich in minerals and so offers many health benefits. Combine that with the geothermal spas’ additional extras such as massages and skin treatments and you can leave Iceland feeling like a new you. To reinforce the point of safety, when you are journeying through Iceland and come across a natural, unregulated hot spring, don’t just jump in. It’s also best to only undertake those kinds of trips with at least one other person, just in case.
We are all very grateful for Iceland’s geothermal activity, and not just for the hot springs it provides for us. Most of Iceland’s energy is generated in geothermal power plants and most houses in Iceland are heated with geothermal water.
Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.