Iceland’s well known for its waterfalls and geothermal activity. One of the best ways for a visitor to experience the latter is to take a dip in an Icelandic hot spring. The most famous of the country’s thermal baths is the Blue Lagoon. This gorgeous spa is featured on many tourists’ itineraries, partly because of its location close to Keflavik airport and partly because of its incredible setting surrounded by cooled lava. Despite a hefty price tag, it’s an ideal place to luxuriate in the blue waters that give the place its name and indulge in some pampering.
But what if your budget doesn’t stretch that far? The good news is that travellers counting the króna don’t need to miss out on a hot spring experience. Some of the country’s spas are far more affordable, and better still, some won’t cost you anything. Here are my picks for the ten best hot springs and geothermal baths to visit in Iceland.
Affordable thermal baths
An idyllic clifftop spot overlooking Skjálfandi Bay in Húsavík is the site of one of the most incredible thermal baths in Iceland. Some years ago, while drilling for hot water, engineers discovered that the seawater at Húsavíkurhöfði typically had a temperature of 38 to 39°C. The mineral-rich water seemed to have health-enhancing properties, and an old cheese barrel was filled for people to come and enjoy a soak. In late 2018, GeoSea opened. This thermal bath utilises the water from the old drill holes and thanks to a clever infinity pool design, the water can remain chemical-free. It’s especially beautiful when the setting sun puddles into the sea below at the end of the day.
Mývatn Nature Baths
Depending on when you visit, you might wonder if I’ve taken leave of my senses to include this thermal bath complex in this roundup. The reason: the midges that plague this area in summer. One August, as I switched off the engine and opened the car door, I was immediately swarmed by a cloud of pesky insects. I should have been prepared: Mývatn translates as “midge lake”. Fortunately, the midges don’t seem to like hanging around the baths themselves. The water comes directly from the National Power Company’s borehole, though by the time it reaches the baths, the temperature has fallen from 130°C to a considerably more comfortable 36 to 40°C. The two pools have different temperatures, so you can experiment until you settle on the one that best suits you.
It wasn’t the pool that first drew my attention to Laugarvatn Fontana – it was bread. Twice a day, a staff member digs out a metal pot from a marked spot in the hot sand and washes it off in the warm water of the lake. Popping the lid, they reveal a steaming loaf of rye bread baked to a traditional family recipe. Served with butter and smoked trout, it makes a delicious lunch.
This geothermal bath complex is a glorious place to unwind after exploring the attractions of the Golden Circle. Several pools, including a hot tub clad with lava rock, overlook the lake, which you can also access from a jetty. The first baths opened here almost a century ago, in 1929, and it’s said that centuries ago, locals preferred to be baptised in the warmth of Laugarvatn rather than take a dip in the frigid waters of nearby Thingvallavatn.
A powerful geothermal spring called Deildartunguhver supplies Krauma with a steady stream of boiling water. Pumping 180 litres per second, it has the highest flow rate of any hot spring in Europe. Glacial meltwater is mixed with the 100°C water to achieve temperatures that are suitable for bathing. Guests can move between six separate pools, each with its own characteristics – one’s cold – as well as making use of the two saunas. In the past, people came to wash their clothes here. Even today, it still has a functional and recreational purpose: it’s the source of hot water for heating homes in nearby Borganes and Akranes.
Though it’s marketed as the Secret Lagoon, it is the oldest thermal bath in Iceland, so it’s hardly a surprise that it’s no secret anymore. Locals know it as Gamla Laugin, or “old pool”. It opened in 1891, but it’s been renovated relatively recently, so you’ll find showers, lockers and a café. The water’s partly supplied by Vaðmálahver hot spring – in the old days, locals used to come here to do their laundry. There’s also a small geyser called Litli Geysir, which erupts every five minutes or so. But the main reason to come is to soak in the warm water, whose temperature is steady at between 38 and 40°C. Rich in sulphur, it’s open year-round, whatever the weather.
Natural hot springs
Reykjadalur Steam Valley
This no-frills place just off the ring road close to the town of Hveragerði has become increasingly popular with visitors in recent years. You must pay attention to your surroundings, though, as some of the water in this steam valley is naturally heated to boiling point, and you don’t want to dip a toe into the wrong one. Further up – you’ll need to hike for around an hour in total – the temperature is more suitable for bathing. Experiment a little, and by moving a little further up or downstream, you’ll find a spot that’s just right for you. Facilities are a bit basic, so you’ll need to use the wooden boardwalk as a makeshift changing room. But if you want a back-to-nature experience, this one’s for you.
Hrunalaug is located on private farmland close to the Golden Circle and the town of Flúðir. Visitors are invited to take a dip in this natural hot spring for a small charge. Surrounded by fields, the pools have incongruous stone walls. If you’re wondering why you might be interested to learn that this used to be where the sheep were dunked. Fortunately, that no longer happens so, you won’t find yourself sharing with a ewe or two. The rustic wooden structure with the turf roof serves as a changing room, but this site is unspoilt enough to satisfy travellers seeking a simple and uncomplicated hot spring experience.
Hveravellir is situated in the middle of a wilderness area in western Iceland between two glaciers, Langjökull and Hofsjökull. To reach it, you’ll need to tackle a deeply potholed F-road. As well as a bathing pool, this geothermal hot spot boasts fumaroles, patches of boiling mud, and bubbling pools of water which can all be viewed from the area’s hiking trails. The colours are extraordinary: rocks layered with yellow, green and white mineral deposits surround blue, green and red pools. The view out over the lava fields and mountain scenery that surround the sky blue bathing pool is breathtaking. Although this is not a full-blown spa, you can stay overnight nearby in basic accommodation.
Another gem in Iceland’s highland interior is the hot spring at Landmannalaugar, whose name translates as “the people’s pools”. The road to Landmannalaugar is another challenging one; if you’re a competent driver, you’ll need a 4×4, but there’s also a daily bus service which in many respects is a better option as you’ll be able to concentrate on the scenery rather than the road. Many people come to Landmannalaugar to explore its multi-coloured mountains and walk the many hiking trails that criss-cross the area. Still, the rustic geothermal pool is great for soothing aching muscles afterwards. The temperature hovers around 40°C, ideal for a relaxing soak. There’s a small charge for using the showers and changing rooms.
The West Fjords
My last hot spring choice is, in fact, several. If you venture into the remote West Fjords during your trip, there are numerous hot pots and thermal baths in the region that are worth a detour. The first of these is a natural pool known as Gvendarlaug. Located beside the Hotel Laugarhóll at Strandir, it was given a blessing by the Catholic bishop Guðmundur the Good in the 12th century. These days you aren’t allowed to bathe in it, but just above it is a geothermal spring accessible to visitors. Water bubbles up in the middle of this pool and typically has a temperature of about 41°C. Close by, there’s a 25-metre long geothermal swimming pool, also called Gvendarlaug. It was built in 1947 by local farmers, and its water is usually about 37°C.
Three hot pots at Drangsnes overlook the ocean and are free to use. They’re located in the village with showers and changing rooms across the street. However, they do get busy at peak times because of their convenient location, particularly in summer. In contrast, you’ll find Heydalur Hillside Hot Pot in a tranquil spot close to a farm on the opposite side of the river to the hot pot at the hotel. Ringed by stones and with a gravel floor, bathers listen to birdsong as they take a dip. Even more remote is Krossneslaug atLaugarvík cove. This large geothermally heated pool faces the sea, and thanks to its size and distance from major settlements, you shouldn’t have a problem squeezing in.
Other pools worth mentioning
This list is just a starter: plenty more hot springs and geothermal spas scatter the country. One of the most unusual is Vök Baths, on Lake Urriðavatn in East Iceland. It boasts the only floating baths in the country, reached by wooden walkways that have been constructed over the water.
Some hot springs have interesting backstories. For instance, Snorralaug, at Reykholt, was in use as early as the 13th century. Travellers can see the spot where the author of some of Iceland’s famous sagas, Snorri Sturluson, once took a dip though you’re no longer allowed to bathe. Grettislaug also has a historical connection. It is linked to a man named Grettir Asmundson. He was exiled to Drangey but swam the 4-mile wide strait back to the mainland and recovered from his icy swim with a dip in the pool that now takes his name. Víkingalaugin is located on the edge of a lava field at the Hotel Leirubakki, a half-hour drive north-east of Hella. The sunken hot tub, known as the Viking’s Pool, offers uninterrupted views of Hekla volcano in the distance.