Early on a Sunday morning in July, two brothers from Boston sat on Reykjavik’s rocky coast, with their faces turned toward the chilly waters of the bay and their feet soaking in what felt like a warm bath. Ben and Lucas Zheng had landed around 4:30 a.m. at Iceland’s international airport, and didn’t have too many early-morning options for how to spend the start of their eight-hour layover before flying on to Venice. So, taking advantage of the season’s round-the-clock daylight, they walked 40 minutes from the city center toward the northwestern tip of the Seltjarnarnes peninsula. There on the stony beach, they rolled up their pants and sat for a couple of hours, their legs submerged in the naturally warm Kvika pool, which, at 12 inches deep, is more foot bath than hot tub.
The Zheng brothers had stumbled onto the most Icelandic of experiences. With more than 600 natural hot springs, the volcanic island gets the better part of its heat and energy from geothermal sources. But it has also incorporated that bounty of warm water into its culture, turning bathing in public pools into a sociable national pastime that is, according to some, the secret to its citizens’ happiness.
Of course, visitors like a good soak as well, a predilection that has helped make the milky turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon, near the Keflavik airport, Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction. It’s so popular, in fact, that between the parking lot jammed with tour buses and the tightly regimented time slots, a bath there can be not very relaxing at all. Luckily, there are numerous other outdoor geothermal pools in the neighborhood. All of these are within an hour or so by car from Reykjavik, and each has its own personality.
Sky Lagoon: The hedonist’s bath
On the outskirts of Reykjavik, Sky Lagoon, which opened in 2021, is one of Iceland’s most luxurious geothermal pools, with the distinct feel of a spa — and a seven-step “ritual” to prove it. Incorporating both local architectural traditions (note the turf walls) and dramatic landscapes, Sky Lagoon is sleekly beautiful, with a passage from well-appointed locker rooms that feels almost magical: You step from the cold, slippery tiles of the showers (here, like everywhere in Iceland, showering is mandatory before bathing) into steaming blue waters beneath the open sky. Towering boulders lead out into a broad infinity pool overlooking a bay.
There is no shortage of bathers snapping selfies while clutching the Aperol spritz they procured from the swim-up bar. But somehow the pool never feels overly crowded; there are enough quiet corners to provide a solitary soak for those who seek it. You can loll for hours in the temperate water, or, for an extra fee, embark on that seven-step journey and add a cold plunge, sauna, steam and scrub. Or head to the cafe for wine and cake.
Entrance starts at 6,790 Icelandic krona, or around $52, including towel rental, and 9,790 krona for the seven-step ritual.
Hvammsvik: The scenery-seeker’s bath
Humans have inhabited Hvalfjord (or “whale fjord”) since at least Viking times. It’s not hard to understand why: Not only does the long, narrow fjord cut so deeply into the countryside about an hour north of Reykjavik that Allied forces stashed their ships there for protection during World War II, it also offers spirit-lifting vistas in all directions. Hvammsvik, which opened along the fjord’s southern lip in 2022, offers direct access to the frigid sea from its black beach, but most bathers come for its eight heated pools overlooking the magnificent scenery. Each pool is a different temperature, ranging from lukewarm to piping, though the warmth of the ones closest to the ocean changes with the tides.
Comfortable changing facilities, a small poolside bar and a cozy indoor cafe whose appealing menu includes the chance to sample local crowberries, which come strewn across baked Brie, complete the offering. The pools themselves aren’t large, and Hvammsvik is apparently on the excursion list for day-tripping cruise passengers, which means that in the summer high season it’s usually not the place for silent communing with nature. For that, you’ll want to book one of the four tastefully designed houses on-site that are available for overnight stays.
Entrance starts at 6,900 krona, towels not included. Accommodation starts at 899 euros, or about $978, per night for a two-bedroom house.
Gudlaug: The community bath
The long, sandy beach lining the edge of the port town of Akranes, about 30 miles north of Reykjavik, is home to a community bath built with funds established in memory of a local married couple. (Gudlaug was the wife’s first name.) Designed by the Icelandic architecture firm Basalt, the striking concrete structure opened in 2017 and consists of three tiered concrete rounds. The bottom level is a wading pool, and the observation platform on top offers expansive views of the beach and ocean; on clear days you can even make out Reykjavik in the distance. But the star attraction is the hot pool in the middle, especially in the early evening, when a dozen or more locals squeeze in for a chat and postprandial soak. There are bathrooms just behind the building, and outdoor cubbyholes for stashing clothing.
Entrance, 500 krona.
Laugarvatn Fontana: The family-friendly bath
On a summer day, Laugarvatn is a boisterous mix of Icelandic families and international visitors. About 50 miles east of Reykjavik, and smack in the middle of the Golden Circle, the complex spans the edge of a shallow, black-sand-fringed lake whose cool waters make a refreshing plunge after a tour through its more thermal offerings. The spa draws busloads of tourists who come for a dip and the chance to watch its geothermal bakery in action (the volcanically heated earth is warm enough to cook loaves — called hverabraud, or “hot springs bread”— buried there). But Laugarvatn also has all the facilities that locals look for in a bathing spot: three pools of different temperatures, steam rooms where the steam funnels up directly from the ground, and a busy cafe serving soup, cake and that delicious bread.
Entrance, 4,990 krona for adults; bread-baking demonstration, including tasting, 2,990 krona.
Reykjadalur Thermal River: The nature lover’s bath
There’s nothing quite like a boiling alpine river to provoke a little cognitive dissonance. The stream that cuts through the mountains outside of Hveragerdi, about 30 miles southeast of the capital, looks like it should be freezing, what with the clear waters burbling past grassy meadows and the rocky peaks overhead. But the steady puffs of steam rolling off the surface — to say nothing of the sulfuric smell — give it away: The river is so hot in places that even a quick splash risks serious burns.
After an hourlong hike uphill, however, you’ll find artfully placed rocks that form pools where the hot water is tempered by an adjoining cold stream. You’ll know you’ve reached the right place when you see the open-sided wooden pavilions for changing, and the blissed-out hikers soaking beneath the watchful gaze of voyeuristic sheep. A parking lot and cafe mark the beginning of the trail; both quickly become crowded, but if you depart before 9 a.m., you just might have the river — and that deeply Icelandic combination of spectacular scenery and soothingly warm water — all to yourself.
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