Large or small, rich or poor, every community in Iceland has its own public swimming pool. Here neighbours catch up, children misbehave and the local mayor is confronted about his latest decision. Mix in naturally heated water and some wonderful settings right across the country, and it’s easy to see why a trip to the sundlaug is a great way for visitors to soak up Iceland.
Here are 10 of Iceland’s best pools, where swimming is only part of the pleasure.
Hike between the mountains to Seljavallalaug
Iceland’s earliest pools were sited in places where geothermal water came naturally from the ground and mixed with rainwater. Seljavallalaug, the country’s oldest still-standing swimming pool, owes its stunning location between a steep mountain and a river to practical reasons: here it can be warmed with runoff from a small hot spring. The pool is a 10-minute walk from the parking lot, and facilities are basic: the lockers can be dirty, and there’s no shower.
Today, almost a century after Seljavallalaug was built, Iceland boasts one pool per 2,000 people. Most of them sprung up after swimming lessons were made mandatory in 1940, usually within walking distance of a schoolyard; the technology to drill for geothermal water and build pipelines brought the pools into towns and villages.
Follow the pool-signs on Route 1
Klébergslaug in the village of Kjalarnes is a miniature example of what nearly every pool in the country has to offer. In addition to a swimming pool – in this case, just 17m long – it has multilevel hot tubs (for the lazy) and a small waterslide (for the crazy).
Travelling clockwise around Iceland, Kjalarnes is the first village on Route 1, the Ring Road, after leaving Reykjavík. As elsewhere, a road sign directs the way to the local pool; a blue frame around a head sticking from water – notice how the illustration is not urging any kind of swimming!
The counter-clockwise drive, beginning in southern Iceland, arguably makes for an even better first pool. Sundlaugin Laugaskarði by Hveragerði looks like an old villa and until 1966 boasted Iceland’s longest pool. The steam bath is superb.
Take the road less travelled to Krossneslaug
Head up the deserted and wild Strandir Coast in the Westfjords, past abandoned herring factories and black beaches littered with Siberian driftwood, and the road finally leads to the renowned Krossneslaug, which might be lit at night by the midnight sun or the Northern Lights. Unlike most other pools in Iceland, it has no day-to-day staff and admission is just collected in a donation box on the wall. That does mean it is always open, rewarding to the intrepid traveller.
Find East Iceland’s hottest spot in Selárdalslaug
Selárdalslaug, near Vopnafjörður in East Iceland, is another picturesque pool in the middle of nowhere. In this part of the country, it also stands out for another reason: geothermal heating. The less seismically active east and west of Iceland have fewer geothermal pools (overall, 31 of Iceland's 169 pools are heated), and facilities here tend to be smaller and are more often indoor to cut electricity costs.
Subsidies from local municipalities, however, make admission fairly similar nationwide, at around Kr750–950Kr for adults and Kr150–350 for children.
Hang out with the locals in Höfn
Höfn, a coastal town of 2000 people, has a modern pool with traditional structure. The multi-level ‘hot pots’, as Icelanders refer to the warm tubs of 36-44°C (97–110°F), are the shape and and size of a kitchen table — and just as suited to a cosy chat. To strike a conversation with a complete stranger or contribute to an ongoing discussion is completely normal. To stir up a debate in this famous fishing harbour, try: ‘So, where is the best lobster in town these days?’
The only way to offend the fellow hot-potters (and one of the few ways to offend an Icelander!) is arriving with dry hair, because that means not having taken a good shower before entering the pool area. As most pools explicitly warn in five different languages: make sure to shower before entering the pool, and before putting on your bathing suit. For those uncomfortable with locker-room nudity, there are private dressing rooms and showers with a curtain, at least in the larger pools.
Slide into Sundlaug Akureyrar
In the centre of North Iceland’s capital, Akureyri, Sundlaug Akureyrar is a huge place designed for children and their pool-guardians. Two badass new water slides rise from the kids’ pool. In the spirit of providing first-hand research, your correspondent can attest the slides are worth the walk upstairs! The pool area also has a popular playground that’s open over summer.
Get the best view at Hofsós
Sundlaugin á Hofsósi, one of Iceland’s youngest pools, is a striking piece of modern Icelandic architecture. Overlooking the Skaga fjord in North Iceland, it offers a deceptive view where the fjord almost looks like an extension of the 25m swimming pool. Expect crowds on warm, sunny days or wait until winter when it returns to its regular role as a hub for local life in Hofsós, a village of 190 people.
Experience the alternative at Gamla Laugin
Gamla Laugin, also known as the Secret Lagoon, is a modern renovation of a 19th century swimming pool in Flúðir, Southwest Iceland. The area is surrounded by hot springs which stream at eight different places into the pool, which is really more like a large leisure lagoon; the temperature is a balmy 38°C (100°F). As this is not a public pool — the local pool in Flúðir is by Túngata street — the admission is a hefty Kr2800.
Steam off in Laugarvatn Fontana
A half-hour drive from Flúðir is Laugarvatn Fontana, which sits on the route of the famous Golden Circle. This swanky lakeside spa (admission Kr3800) puts willpower to a test: try leaving the soaking steam baths, fed by a naturally occurring vent below, to jump into the freezing lake – the contrast is supposedly good for body and mind. Be careful in winter though; in cold waters, each degree above freezing on the Celsius scale is roughly equal to the number of minutes it takes the average human to reach hypothermia.
Explore the selection in Reykjavík
Back in Reykjavík, each neighbourhood has its own pool. Laugardalslaug and Vesturbæjarlaug are the largest and most popular. Traveling with kids, Árbæjarlaug or Sundlaug Seltjarnarness are great options. For some peace and quiet, off the beaten path, we recommend Grafarvogslaug and Breiðholtslaug.