Por Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
People from all over the world flock to Iceland each year to experience the abundance of natural attractions that the country has to offer. Iceland’s rich volcanic activity can be seen in almost every corner of the land. From the black sand beaches of the south to the vast, remote highlands, every part of Iceland has been shaped and reshaped by volcanoes for millions of years.
Volcanoes are more than just awe-inspiring attractions and the subject of disaster movies. In Iceland, volcanoes are the reason the country exists and the provider of many other things, including cheap renewable energy, dramatic landscapes and hot springs.
So what exactly is a hot spring? Why does Iceland have so many of them? What are the best ones to visit? Read on to find out all this and more.
What is a Hot Spring?
There are a few different definitions of the term ‘hot spring‘ but the most widely accepted one is any body of water that is naturally occurring and has a consistent water temperature of more than 36.7 degrees Celsius (98 degrees Fahrenheit). The water in this kind of spring is usually heated by volcanic activity.
It’s important to remember that this definition isn’t technically the scientific one; it’s just the one that most people accept. Scientifically, the temperature isn’t as important; the water just needs to be heated by volcanic activity in the earth for the body of water to be considered a hot spring.
Hot springs are sometimes called geothermal springs, hot pools or thermal springs.
How Many Hot Springs Are There in Iceland?
There are at least 45 known hot springs in Iceland, but this number is an estimation. It’s not really possible to definitively say how many hot springs there are in Iceland because there are many remote areas of the country where they could exist without people ever finding them.
Iceland isn’t a large country by land mass; you can easily drive from the capital, Reykjavík, to the most populated town in the north, Akureyri, in under 6 hours. Iceland also has a very small population, around 376,000 people, and an astounding 63% of those people live in the greater capital area. This means that even though it seems like a small place, there’s still so much of this great land that goes unnoticed by humans, and nobody really knows how many hot springs might be out there.
Why Does Iceland Have So Many Hot springs?
The Earth has a molten core. Imagine a big liquid lava pool that’s hotter than anything you could ever possibly imagine. The surface of the Earth isn’t a smooth piece of land; it’s a bit more like a patchwork quilt. It’s made up of different solid pieces that are called ‘Tectonic Plates.’ The places where the plates meet tend to be a bit weaker and allow for some of the hotter parts of the Earth’s core to escape and these are called ‘Tectonic Ridges,’ and they tend to be more volcanically active.
Iceland sits on a ridge between two tectonic plates; the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates. This area of the Earth is known as the ‘Mid-Atlantic Ridge‘ and is a volcanic hotspot. Any place that is a volcanic hotspot will naturally have hot springs.
Where Are the Natural Hot Springs in Iceland?
One of the great things about the small nature of Iceland is that there isn’t really just one place where all of the natural hot springs are located. Hot springs naturally occur all over the country, so there’s always an opportunity to visit one, no matter where you happen to base yourself.
The western part of the country is the oldest and has therefore drifted further away from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which means that there is technically less volcanic activity there, but there are still many hot springs to enjoy. The bottom line is that there are hot springs all around the country, so you just need to check where you’re headed and add some of these incredible spots to your itinerary.
What Are the Best Natural Hot Springs in Iceland You Can Bathe in?
There are many hot springs in Iceland, but not all of them are open for a relaxing dip. There are only a few hot springs that have temperatures that are safe for humans to swim in. It’s incredibly important to always check that a hot spring has a safe temperature before entering, and always test the water before taking a big old cannonball.
Below are some of the best naturally occurring hot springs in Iceland that are safe for people to enjoy all year round.
Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River
Reykjadalur isn’t just a hot spring; it’s an entire geothermal river. This is one of the most accessible hot pools in Iceland, and it definitely won’t disappoint. Its name translates to ‘The Steam Valley’ in English, and it’s only 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the nation’s capital.
Reykjadalur is not far from the southern town of Hveragerði. The easiest route is to drive straight to the town and then find the gravel road that takes you to the parking lot for the river.
From there, you will take a hike to the river. This hike is described as not particularly difficult, although there is an uphill incline for most of the journey, and it’s not recommended for people who have a fear of heights because you will traverse by a deep gorge. The total hiking time is up to 90 minutes both ways. Keep in mind that there aren’t changing facilities once you reach the hot river so you will need to slip into your swimwear’ au natural’ or just wear it underneath your clothes.
Hellulaug isn’t the easiest hot spring to find, but it’s worth a visit. It’s located in the Westfjords of Iceland, not far from the Flokalundur Hotel (about 500m away). It isn’t the easiest to find because it’s right next to the road, but it isn’t visible from a car, but it’s a nice little stop for weary travellers.
Hellulaug isn’t very deep; it’s only about 60cm (40in) at its deepest, but it’s a pretty comfortable 38°C (100°F) all year round.
This hot spring doesn’t have changing facilities.
Landmannalaugar is one of the most popular hiking destinations in Iceland. This part of the country is known for its remote nature and colourful landscape. The entire landscape of this region is dotted with mountains featuring blues, greens, yellows, black, and even purples. This part of the country is also home to several thermal pools. These act as the perfect oasis for hikers who want to take some time to rejuvenate while they absorb the pristine surrounding countryside.
Viti in Askja
Viti is a volcanic crater in the eastern part of Iceland within the Askja region. The name of this particular hot pool literally translates to ‘hell.’ It is a great place to visit if you’re in the east and would love to have the satisfaction of telling people back home that you took a bath in a volcanic crater while taking in the surroundings of the remote east of Iceland.
The Best Hot Tubs in Iceland
Iceland might have an abundance of natural hot springs but finding them and hiking to them isn’t the most ideal situation for everyone who visits the land of fire and ice. Luckily the people of Iceland have managed to find a way to capitalise on the readily available geothermal hot water to create some fantastic man-made hot tubs that are just waiting for you to take a dip in.
Drangsnes Hot Tubs
Nestled in the magnificent Westfjords, these three no-frills hot tubs sit perfectly just by the sea. The Drangsnes hot tubs are free and open to visitors at any time of day. Their temperatures range between 38°C and 42°C (100°F to 107°F), and visitors have access to a small changing facility just across the road.
Hoffell Hot Tubs
The eastern region of Iceland isn’t particularly known for having lots of famous hot springs, but there is still an outdoor hot tub option for those who would like to have a little dip. The Hoffell hot tubs are small hot pots that have been sunken into rocks so that visitors can seamlessly dip while they enjoy the unspoiled visual riches surrounding them.
There are four different tubs to choose from, and the site does have a small entry fee. They are situated around 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) outside of the quaint town of Hofn.
Bjorbodin Beer Spa
Icelanders have a rich love affair with beer, and they have managed to combine this love with their love of hot tubs in the North of Iceland with the Bjorboðin Beer Spa. The spa is situated at the Kaldi Beer Brewery in Árskogssandur, around 35 kilometres (21 miles) outside of Akureyri.
In this unique experience, visitors are able to take a bath in warm young beer, which is said to have some very beneficial effects on the skin. The bathwater is unfortunately not fit for drinking, but you are able to enjoy a cold brew while you soak.
The Krauma Spa is a recent addition to the hot tub options in Iceland, as it only opened in 2017. Krauma sits next to the most powerful hot spring in Europe, Deildartunguhver and takes its water from this incredible source.
The water within this natural hot spring is far too hot to bathe in, so the facilities at Krauma cool the water down with Icelandic glacial water before it is pumped into the hot pots for visitors to enjoy.
These dark marble tubs look out towards the hot spring and the surrounding countryside. There are showers and changing facilities on-site as well as a modern restaurant and parking.
Spending a day at the beach isn’t really something anyone thinks of when they come to Iceland, but it’s actually possible in the suburbs of Reykjavík. The City of Rekjavík has actually created a geothermally heated beach called Nautholsvík not far from the city centre, complete with white sand.
At Nautholsvik, there is a large hot tub at the edge of the sea, as well as a low, shallow wading pool with warm water. The area has changing facilities, showers, a cafe and even a sauna. During summer, a small section of seawater is also heated, so it’s possible for locals to live their Mediterranean fantasy without hopping on a plane.
What Are the Best Geothermal Pools in Iceland?
Iceland is filled with geothermal hot springs but for locals, going to the pool is as Icelandic as lamb soup. All swimming pools in Iceland are comfortable all year round because the water temperatures are kept pleasant with geothermal hot water. Some of the best local pools to visit are below.
Tip: Icelanders don’t like to use too many chemicals in their swimming pools, so it is customary to shower completely naked with soap before putting on your bathing suit. Because of this, Icelanders are very comfortable with nudity in changing rooms, and the shower facilities usually don’t have individual cubicles. It might seem a bit strange, but there are employees in the locker rooms who are supposed to make sure guests shower properly before they enter the pool, and they won’t hesitate to remind you to clean yourself if they notice you haven’t.
Seljavallalaug is on Iceland’s south coast between Skogafoss waterfall and Seljalandsfoss waterfall. It is a man-made pool, but because of the area it is situated in, a dip here will feel like you’re taking a swim in the middle of nowhere. It’s particularly of interest to people who love abandoned buildings because, although it is actually maintained, it has a rustic look and feel.
The pool was constructed in 1923, and it is fed entirely by natural hot water. It’s not the hottest pool, so be aware that in winter, the temperature isn’t that much hotter than a human body, but in summer, it’s a great place for a dip after a hike. There are two small rooms to put your clothes and belongings in while you swim and the local attitude is always to leave it as you found it.
In the great north of Iceland, towards the west of the Skagafjöður fjord, there are two quaint twin swimming pools that both go by the name of Grettislaug. The pools are named after a Viking called Grettir, who was famous for his immense strength.
The pools of Grettislaug are surrounded by rocks and steeped in the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside. The pools have access to an outdoor shower, and there is also a small turf house that visitors can change in. There is a small entrance fee here because the pools are on private property.
Krossneslaug is in the Westfjords and is fed by geothermal water that flows from nearby mountains. The pool sits unassumingly on a hillside looking out over the sea. It’s a great place to unwind and take it all in.
The site has a basic changing facility, and an honesty box where visitors can put some coins in that will help to pay for pool maintenance so it can be enjoyed by more people in the future.
Guðrúnarlaug is an interesting pool to visit because it’s actually a historical reconstruction of a traditional Viking hot pool. The pool is named after one of the most famous women in the Icelandic sagas, Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir. The pools were used over a thousand years ago until they were blocked by a landslide. A century and a half later, the pools were restored and opened to the public in 2009.
Kvika Foot Spa
The final swimming pool is less of a pool and more of a place to dip your feet. Not far from the famous Grotta lighthouse in Reykjavík is the Kvika Footbath. This is a man-made hot spring that was created by an artist, Olof Nordal. This has one of the best views in the city. It’s a place to dip your feet as you look towards the city. On a good day, you can see Mt Esja and Snæfellsjökull Glacier.
Amazing Hot Springs You Can’t Bathe in
There are some great hot springs in Iceland for swimming, paddling or relaxing, but there are also some incredible springs to visit that aren’t for swimming because they are far too hot. These sites are great examples of the sheer force of geothermal energy Iceland contains.
Geysir is possibly the most famous geyser in Iceland, although it doesn’t actually erupt anymore. The geyser that most people see (pictured above) is actually next to Geysir and is called Strokkur.
Both Geysir and Strokkur have water that exceeds 100°C (212°F). It’s very important when visiting here to stay on signed paths and keep a safe distance between yourself and the water.
Grjotagja is a hot spring inside a cave in Northern Iceland. The site gained international fame thanks to the HBO series Game of Thrones. Those who watched the show would know that this was the setting for a scene between Jon Snow and Ygritte that certainly raised temperatures.
The temperatures of the water can vary greatly, but locals stopped seeing this place as a swimming location in the 1970s as most people considered it too hot. Eventually, for safety reasons, swimming in Grjotagja was banned, but it is still a beautiful site to visit.
Snorralaug is one of the oldest structures in Iceland. It is part of the Reykholt Historical Village. This area in the West of Iceland is very important to Icelanders because it was the home of noted historian and poet Snorri Sturluson. He was responsible for collecting the stories of the Icelandic sagas, and much of what we know about the first settlers of Iceland today is thanks to his work.
The pool is quite small, and due to its important status, swimming is not allowed, but most people visiting this location are here to soak up the history.
Bláhver looks like a beautiful blue oasis in the stark desert lands of Mývatn in the North of Iceland. It has the appearance of being a great place for a dip after a day of exploring, but the reality couldn’t be further from this. Bláhver is extremely hot, and the edges of the spring are very fragile, so even stepping near them might cause you to fall in.
This beauty is best appreciated from a distance.
Brimketill isn’t technically a hot spring; it’s more of a rockpool. This is definitely not a place for a swim because the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean is all you’re going to get. This location on the Reykjanes Peninsula is constantly pummelled by powerful waves. It’s a breathtaking site to see but keep your distance; the waves can sometimes reach as far as the parking lot, which is a considerable distance from the pool.
There are so many incredible hot springs to visit in Iceland that you could easily take an entire trip just to see them. They are a great testament to the natural forces that have shaped Iceland, and they continue to enchant visitors to this day.