The name “Iceland” does not really do it justice, and it is often compared to Greenland. It is often said that Greenland is actually a lot colder, harsher and more barren than Iceland, being named as such in order to get new settler to go there.
In that vain, it is worth mentioning that Iceland carries a tremendous wealth, a luxury known about for centuries not too far below its surface, which has become an important part of Icelandic culture. We are of course referring to Iceland’s richness in hot water, a result of its geothermal bowels. It is so remarkable that when you explain it to people, they barely believe what you’re saying.
Hard to Believe
When you explain to people that Iceland has some of the finest and cleanest pools in the world, that they are for the largest part all outdoors and all heated to a constant minimum 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and up to a maximum of 44 Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) even in the dead of winter, its no surprise that people don’t quite get it, until they see it for themselves.
Today, we want to tell you a bit more abut the pools: their history, some of their more humble uses and how they have become an essential part of an Icelandic life. If that sounds good to you, read on!
A Long History
The use of Iceland’s geothermal resources go back a long way: all the way back to the Viking days! Snorri Sturlusson, author of the Prose Edda, (some of the finest examples of medieval poetry known to exist) had an entire fortification, the ruins of which can still be seen in Reykholt, in the West of Iceland today. Here, outside his castle walls, he built a hot pot, a man-made circular pool to which hot water flow was directed. Here, it was was possible to bathe and it is called Snorralaug, where it has remained in the same place where it was laid in the 13th century.
The dimensions of Snorralaug served as the basis and template for all other hot tubs in Iceland, and even around the world. The hot tub as we know it was quite literally born in 13th century Iceland!
Humble, Domestic Use
At the other end of the scale, in some very special places hot water would quite simply bubble out of the ground and would flow out towards the sea, gradually getting cooler. This natural phenomena has been exploited for a long time for domestic duties, with some places actually being named after the waters themselves (Laugadalur, translating to “washing valley”) was traditionally where clothes were washed right at the source.
A Culture of Swimming
Out of these humble, domestic uses grew a whole culture around swimming and bathing in Iceland. One of the first and largest indoor pools to open in Iceland was Sundhöllin, or Swimming Hall, right in downtown Reykjavik, back in 1937. It remains in its Art Deco style. In 2017, the building was renovated and a new outdoor pool, several new temperatures of hot tub and an icy plunge pool were added. You have to try it!
Outside Sundhöllin, there is a swimming pool in practically every Icelandic town, this might even be the best definition of an Icelandic town, a place with a pool! And a church, of course. We highly recommend that you try and visit as many as you can: each have their own quirks and amenities and its really quite fun to compare them.
One of the oldest outdoor swimming pools in Iceland, Seljavallalaug was built in 1923. Seljavallalaug is located in the southern part of the country, close to Seljavellir and quite easy to get to even though reaching it means taking a short hike. The pool is 10 meters wide and 25 meters long and actually was the largest pool in Iceland until 1936.
The pool is open to everyone and there is no access fee. After a 10-minute walk from the parking lot you will see it hiding in the shallow valley, surrounded by green moss and picture perfect.
The Pool Protocol
Did you know that there is a whole order of events for what one must do when they visit an Icelandic swimming pool? It is made up of 3 main steps:
First, you must take you shoes off at the entrance to the changing room. Second, you must remove all of your clothes in the changing room and shower without a bathing suit. Third, wash yourself thoroughly. Fourth, don’t forget to put your bathing suit on after you’re showered (ok ,last one was a joke!) But seriously, don’t forget!
A Fountain of Youth
It has long been believed that the pools of Iceland carry special rejuvenating health benefits. All of the water in the pools is very pure, and some of the largest pools have naturally-heated salt water with a very high geothermal mineral content. A good soak in these waters mends weary limbs and improves everybody’s well being in a meaningful way.
Visit the Pools!
Basically, you can’t understand Iceland without experiencing the role of hot water and communal bathing. Yes, the Blue Lagoon is great, but that is not where it started, and it is certainly not where you will find the majority of Icelanders. Make sure you visit the pools too!