Iceland's geothermal lagoons, baths and spas are more than a tourist attraction — they're a way of life.
In every Icelandic movie and TV show I've watched on Icelandair flights, there is a scene in which the characters settle their differences or hash out the news and gossip while sitting chest-deep in the local naturally heated pool. In a nation of harsh weather, a steamy public bath is key to happiness.
And Iceland has come a long way from the renowned Blue Lagoon. Many of the best newer lagoons around this Kentucky-sized island share some features in common: Nordic-modern design that blends into the environment, infinity pools with epic views, wade-up bars, and spa packages that enhance your experience (and your bill), but aren't necessary for your enjoyment. Best of all, there's that pure, soothing 100- to 104-degree water, courtesy of a nationwide underground heat source that makes Iceland a world leader in clean energy.
Aside from the tourist spots, any given town in Iceland probably has a low-key, geothermally heated public pool of its own. We recuperated in a nice one after a day of hiking around the small, one-village island of Hrisey. (If you visit, keep in mind that you're a guest of the polite locals here, and swimsuit standards may be a little more modest than at the big lagoons.)
On your road trip through Iceland, it would be perfectly acceptable to structure your itinerary around the best thermal baths. This summer welcomes yet another incredible-looking site: the soon-to-open Forest Lagoon, tucked into conifers with a view of snowcapped mountains and a fjord, and located just above the fun northern capital of Akureyi. I can't wait to check it out, but meanwhile here are the best Iceland lagoons I found during a north-centric road trip last summer. Prices are based on current exchange rates; to avoid crowds, we often made midday reservations in advance.
Last year's "hottest" new lagoon is situated on the end of an industrial peninsula near Reykjavik, but you'll forget that once you leave the changing room and wade into the up-to-104-degree waters. The artificial pool has been meticulously constructed to resemble a natural volcanic landscape, with an adjacent spa (for Pure Pass and Sky Pass purchasers) that looks like a historic Icelandic turf house. The broad infinity pool overlooks a channel to the Atlantic and distant volcanos, and you can shower in a hot waterfall or lounge mermaid-style on a stone. More than any other lagoon, the social vibe here was nightclub or cocktail party, with tourists and flight attendants chatting away. (From 7,990 Icelandic króna or about $59; skylagoon.com.)
Moving to the northern tip of Iceland and the artsy fishing village of Husavik (fictionalized in the Will Ferrell comedy "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga"), Geosea blew my mind. As the name of this seaside spot implies, the 102-degree thermal spring blends with clear ocean waters for a saline, invigorating experience. Infinity pools offer a breathtaking view of the Greenland Sea, with the Arctic Circle not far off. To the left is Husavik's quirky yellow lighthouse. Luxuriating in the hot waters and warm subarctic sun at 2 in the afternoon with a local Kaldi lager from the swim-up bar, I was enjoying my favorite moment in all of Iceland. (5,500 krona or about $40; www.geosea.is/en.)
After a morning of driving through mountain passes in the northeast, we descended to this remote spot where two geothermal pools seem to float upon the cool, freshwater Lake Urridhavatn. So after you warm up in the hot suspended pool, you can jump into the cold lake, and repeat. Despite this unique novelty, Vök Baths were only the fourth-most amazing lagoon we visited, and the water temperature did not feel close to the 105-degree max. It's definitely worth a stop if you're driving the Ring Road near the city of Egilsstadir in the east. A sauna is included. (From 5,990 krona or about $44; vokbaths.is/en.)
Myvatn Nature Baths
In the heart of north-central Iceland's Myvatn geothermal area, we followed up riding Icelandic horses with an evening visit to this natural gem. At the sprawling Nature Baths, the emphasis is on a more rustic, eco experience — and mineral-rich, milky white/blue waters with a soft, rocky floor. If nothing else, the steam and the slight sulfuric odor (which you get used to in Iceland) provide sanctuary from Myvatn's swarms of annoying but harmless black flies. Walls of volcanic rock create grottos for privacy or international socializing. An atmospheric fog rolled in at closing, but the sunsets over Myvatn's mountains must be stellar. (5,900 krona or about $43; myvatnnaturebaths.is.)
Before tourists knew anything else about Iceland, we'd heard of the Blue Lagoon. It may have since been surpassed, but I still love the original, which I last visited in 2017. The silica-rich water is sourced from a local power plant, but that still counts as geothermal in my book. It's a refreshing escape from a brisk night, year-round. Plus, you can give yourself a facial, with a lava scrub, silica mud mask and algae mask sourced from the lagoon. Surrounded by lava fields, it's close enough to the airport to enjoy on a long layover from Europe. And the affiliated, five-star Retreat at Blue Lagoon hotel is bucket-list stuff. (From $60 but typically more; book in advance; bluelagoon.com.)
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