For centuries, Iceland was a nation of seamen and fishermen who often drowned in sight of the shoreline. News reports throughout the later half of the 1800s and early 1900s recount the stories of capsized seacrafts and tragic drownings, fostering a need for and enthusiasm around swimming education beginning in the country’s capital, Reykjavik. Swimming students learned in a muddy ditch downstream from a hot spring used to wash laundry. Inspired by that hot spring, the city drilled to tap into the island’s underground geothermal activity generated by Iceland’s volcanic underbelly in 1928. Iceland’s first geothermal heat flowed into 70 homes, a school, a hospital and a swimming pool. The national energy authority offered no-risk loans to towns and villages across the country to encourage further geothermal drilling. With hot water flowing through the country and a requirement for swimming education in all schools established in 1943, pools soon popped up in every town. In some places, water collects naturally in pools for bathing and swimming, comparable to the hot spring used for laundry in Reykjavik. In other places drilling is used to assist nature in accumulating and pooling the right amounts of water at the right temperatures. These public pools, or sundlaugs, have come to serve as the communal heart of Iceland. “Because of the weather, we don’t have proper plazas in the Italian or French style,” the writer Magnus Sveinn Helgason explained to New York Times writer, Dan Kois. “Beer was banned in Iceland until 1989, so we don’t have the pub tradition of England or Ireland. The pool is Iceland’s social space: where families meet neighbors, where newcomers first receive welcome, where rivals can’t avoid one another.” Several sources note that while sundlaugs are social hubs, some people do retreat to the pools for solitude; a universal posture of tilting your head back, closing your eyes, and smiling a soft smile indicates to fellow bathers that you would like to be left alone.
Where to go
- To experience the naturally occurring beauty of geothermal activity, and immerse yourself in nature, visit the Secret Lagoon at Gamla Laugin. In the area there are several geothermal hotspots and a walking trail constructed for guests to get a closer look at the boiling hot springs. A small Geysir erupts every five minutes.
- Blue Lagoon Iceland opened as a way to introduce folks to the benefits of geothermal seawater. Since its opening, Blue Lagoon has grown and evolved into a company that offers transformative spa experiences, culinary enjoyment, a renowned line of skin care, and the convergence of hospitality and wellness.
- Sundhöll Reykjavíkur, or “Swimming Palace” is the oldest public swimming hall in Iceland, located in the nation's capital Reykjavik. Sundhöll’s original social space included an indoor thermal pool (with spring boards!), hot tubs, a sauna, and balconies for sunbathing. More recently an outdoor pool and ice bath have been added.
Etiquette and What to Expect
Rules and expectations vary from pool to pool, but here’s the gist:
- Prior to entering the pool, there is a strict requirement to thoroughly shower, scrubbing from head to toe with soap and water. Many men’s and women’s locker rooms display posters featuring all the regions you must lather: head, armpits, groin, and feet. This rule is taken very seriously by Icelanders, and is necessary because most geothermal pools use fresh water and are only lightly chlorinated. So don't drink or gargle it!
- Engage in conversations. The pool is a social place! However, talk quietly, and don’t make too much noise. Many spas and indoor pools were built in the 1960s and loud noises echo in indoor pools and steam rooms.
- Don’t just plunge right in! Take your time and test the water temperature first to check your skin’s sensitivity to the geothermal heat.
- Swim in a counter-clockwise direction. No one can really explain why, but Icelanders swim in circles from right to left, so maybe you should too.