When preparing for your trip to Iceland there is one item you are going to want to be sure to pack. Your bathing suit!
Probably not the item you were expecting to hear as you are preparing for your trip to the chilly arctic, but trust us you are going to need it. A visit to one of the geothermal pools in Iceland is an activity you won't want to miss.
Part of the culture since the earliest settlements, the pools in Iceland are more than a place to go for a swim. They are a part of life for Icelanders of all ages. No matter the time of year, or how small or remote the town is, you can almost guarantee you will find a local pool to enjoy. A visit to the swimming pools is a great way to experience the local culture.
To help you get the most out of your swimming pool experience we have put together all you need to know about the Icelandic swimming pool culture. From the history of this unique aspect of life for Icelanders to the proper etiquette when visiting the pools you will find it all in this blog post.
A Brief History of the Swimming Pools in Iceland
The geothermal pools have been apart of Iceland’s identity since the days of the early settlers. In literature from the 9th and 10th century you will find mention of the geothermal pools as it is discussed how the geothermal waters were used for bathing and washing of clothes. The role of the geothermal water in society continued to grow from this point forward however it wasn’t until the 13th century when the first swimming pools came to be.
The first geothermal pools can be credited in large part to Snorri Sturluson, a historian and author who had a pool built near his home so he could soak in the warm water whenever he pleased. Soon after 13 more pools were built, four of which are still intact. One of these pools Snorralaug, is found in the south of Iceland in a town called Reykholt.
Snorralaug is one of the first archaeological remains to be listed in Iceland in 1817 and is one of the best known heritage sites in the country. In fact, this pool was first mentioned in the Book of Settlements that was written around 1200. In the book it says that this pool was already being used in the 10th century!
Bathing in Snorralaug is forbidden, but visitors to Iceland can still get to experience one of the oldest swimming pools with a visit to the Secret Lagoon. Built in 1891 in the town of Flúdir, this pool was the site of the legislative body of the town until 1894. In 1909 the first swimming lessons took place in the Secret Lagoon and continued to be held there until 1947. When a new pool was built in Flúdir the Secret Lagoon was much forgotten until 2014 when it was brought back to life and opened to the public. The facilities have been kept as natural as possible so you can get a real feel for what bathing in this pool was like back in the 18th century.
Like we said, Icelanders have always loved their pools!
The Secret Lagoon in Fluðir
The Swimming Pool Culture
With such a long history it is no surprise that the act of going to the swimming pools is apart of the Icelandic identity. It doesn’t matter the time of year, under the midnight sun or the middle of a snow storm, you will always find Icelanders enjoying their pool time. You might be wondering what is so special about a local swimming pool. Pools are found all over the world so what makes those in Iceland any different?
The swimming pools is Iceland, they are more than just your average local pool. They are a gathering place. A place to go to get the latest gossip or discuss the daily news. A place to meet up with friends. A place to relax and let the daily stress soak away while enjoying time with your peers. A place for families to enjoy quality time together. In the waters of the local pool everyone is viewed as an equal.
To get a visual look into the importance the swimming pools play in Iceland's culture check out the below trailer to the documentary filmmaker Jón Karl Helgason made about the swimming pools in Iceland. A beautiful look into Iceland's special swimming culture.
Being such an important part of daily life in Iceland it may not come as a surprise that an Icelander’s initiation to the swimming pool culture beings before they learn to crawl. Baby swim class are a popular activity to do with little ones starting from around three months old. There is even one baby swim teacher, Snorri Magnusson, that is often referred to as Iceland’s “baby whisperer” were he teaches babies to swim and is known for helping teach babies to stand on their own in the palm of his or their parents hands at this young age.
See the baby whisperer in action in this video.
The importance of going to the swimming pools continues into the children's primary school education where they will have weekly swim lessons during the school day. In fact, in 1943 swimming education in primary schools was made mandatory ensuring that everyone learns how to swim.
While some teenagers go to the mall to hang out you will find Icelandic teenagers chatting with friends in the local pool. Adults will have a daily routine of meetups in the hot tubs to catch up with their friends or relax after a long day while their children play. It is a common sight to find a group of elders sitting in the hot tubs in the morning or late evening where they can be found discussing all matters of life. It is a part of the culture no matter what age.
And when you live somewhere with months of cold and darkness you need a place to go get some fresh air, socialize and relax. For many a trip to the pools is what fits all these needs for them. Some even believe that the swimming pools are what make it possible to survive those long winter months.
Swimming Pool Rules and Etiquette
Now that you have learned how deeply rooted the swimming pools are in the Icelandic culture it is time to talk about the important stuff... The swimming pool rules and etiquette.
As the swimming pools are such an important part of the local culture it is very important that all guests respect the rules and etiquette of the pools while visiting. Don’t worry, there are not many rules so it will be easy to follow. And since we don’t want anyone offending the culture by breaking the rules so we have summed them up into simple rules to remember.
When visiting a swimming pool in Iceland make sure to follow these rules:
Pay the admission fee before entering the locker rooms
Please, don’t try and sneak into the pool. The entry fee is not expensive and is needed to keep the Icelandic pools as lovely as they are. In fact, going to the pools is a very budget friendly option in Iceland. Pool fees range from $5-$12 USD for the local pools, and from $25-$95 USD for the luxury spa pools such as Laugarvatn Fontana and the Blue Lagoon.
Don’t wear your shoes into the locker room
Before entering the locker room you will need to take your shoes off. Place your shoes on the shoe racks outside the locker room, or take them with you to put inside your locker. If the idea of walking around a locker room barefoot grosses you can bring a pair of flip-flops to wear.
Keep your phones and cameras packed away
The local swimming pools are an amazing and unique experience of the local culture, one that you very likely will want to document. But please keep the phones and cameras packed away when visiting the pools. For obvious reasons phones and cameras are not allowed in the locker rooms (no one wants to be photographed while getting undressed) but they are also not allowed out in the pool area.
Note: this rule applies to the local pools, if you are at one of the luxury spas or even the geothermal hot springs out in nature, taking pictures while in the water is allowed.
One of the most important steps, and one that may make first time visitors uncomfortable, is stripping out of all of your clothes and not putting on your bathing suit until you have showered. If you find the thought of having to get naked in a room full of strangers have no fear, to the Icelanders it is no big deal that everyone is naked and showering together. If anything it helps improve body confidence and self image as you will find individuals of all shapes and sizes walking around the locker room.
An insider tip, when you walk over to the showers be sure to bring all the items that you will need; towel, bathing suit, shampoo etc. Next to the showers you will find towel racks to store your items. Leave everything but your bathing suit and head into the showers.
Take a shower WITHOUT your swimsuit
The showers at the local pools are typically one open space with several shower heads. Some locations, particularly the luxury spas, will have a few private stalls that you can rinse off in. Soap dispensers are found in the shower room and it is important to rinse off your entire body with soap before putting on your bathing suit. Hygiene is taken very seriously and it is therefore a rule that all guests must shower completely naked before putting on their bathing suit and entering the swimming pool.
If you don’t follow this rule, you may meet the shower warden. To see what we are talking about when we say “shower warden” here is a classic video of what happens when a rule breaker meets the shower warden with a cameo from Reykjavik's ex-mayor/comedian Jón Gunnar.
So strip down, join the crowd and let your worries go, we promise no one will be looking at you. And you really don’t want to let a shower stop you from enjoying the relaxing waters of the Icelandic pools!
Even though you have to get naked before entering the pools you do need to put on a bathing suit before heading out to the swimming pool. Bathing suits are mandatory when visiting the local pools, however it is not mandatory for women to wear a top only a bottom swimsuit piece.
Whether you choose to visit the local pool or one of the larger luxury spas, the soothing geothermal water will have you relaxing in no time. Many of the local pools will have several pools to choose from, from larger lap pools to smaller hot tubs in a range of temperature and usually a shallow pool for young children to play around in. It won’t take long for you to understand why Icelanders love their pools so much.
Shower and Dry Off Before Entering the Locker Room
Once you have finished with your swim it is time to shower again. Grab the toiletry items you bought with you from the towel rack, but leave your towel out there. Once done showering you will then grab your towel and dry off next to the towel racks before heading into the locker room to get dressed. It is important that you dry off completely before entering the locker rooms to avoid making a slippery mess and upsetting fellow pool goers.
And there you have it, eight important rules and etiquette to know and respect when visiting the swimming pools in Iceland. You are now an expert on the Icelandic pools and are ready for your own experience!
Wondering what swimming pools to visit while in the country? Be sure to read our post on 20 of our top swimming pools and hot springs in Iceland.