Forget Paris; Iceland is the new must-visit on the avid traveler’s bucket list. Why? While it may seem a bit dreary at first blush, there are many dynamic layers to this north Atlantic destination. For starters, the country boasts a wealth of unsung fare that is as satisfying as it is unique; not surprisingly, seafood standouts like lobster and fish stew top the list, while oddities like rye bread ice cream entice adventurous palates. They also have a many-centuries-old artistic history that has produced impressively detailed wooden sculptures, clothing, and silverworks that outshine the embellished, Baroque pieces of Europe.
Arguably, however, the most alluring features of Iceland come from its natural landscape. Of recent years, the hot springs have been particularly popular.
What are hot springs?
A wholly natural phenomenon, hot springs are produced when water is heated by the earth’s mantle. This heat comes from the decay of once-radioactive elements (now safe) and increases the temperature of water that travels deep enough below the Earth’s surface to come into contact with hot rocks. While some hot springs are too hot for bathing, many mingle with cold water to produce a comfortably warm temperature.
What hot springs in Iceland are worth visiting?
Many refer to Iceland as the “land of fire and ice” — an unusual combination of expansive glaciers and bubbling springs. The cold is thanks to its northern latitude, while the heat derives from the country’s positioning above a volcanic “hotspot.” The result: Amazing glacial hikes and relaxing hot spring soaks. If you’re more of a relaxer on vacation, you’ll love the dozens of hot springs all across Iceland’s beautiful flatlands. There are so many, in fact, that you might need a guide to the best ones. That’s where we come in; we’ve included our favorites below.
Arguably the most popular hot spring in Iceland, Blue Lagoon is quite a bit more than a soak-and-savor experience. The site boasts two luxe hotels, two high-end restaurants, and a spa for more pampered treatments. If you’re coming just for the hot spring, though, keep in mind that pre-booking is required and comes in three packages: Comfort ($56) which gets you entrance to the hot spring, a mud mask, a towel, and a complimentary drink; Premium ($79) which tacks on slippers, a second mask, a bathrobe, and a reservation at the nearby Lava Restaurant; and Luxury ($633) that offers entrance to the Retreat Spa (arguably not worth the outlandish price). The lagoon itself is a misty wonderland of gentle heat and relaxation, complete with a water bar, a separate steam room, and optional in-water massage.
Insider tips: Given its proximity to both the international airport and Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon is a magnet for tourists. Plan to come at off hours to avoid crowds — and don’t bring excess luggage unless you want pay for storage. You can drive to the lagoon, but there is a shuttle available to and from Reykjavik starting at about $100 roundtrip.
Learn more at bluelagoon.com.
If you’re aiming for a smaller, more intimate hot spring experience — with some of the same food and drink amenities as Blue Lagoon — you can drive about an hour and a half outside of Reykjavik to the small village of Fluðir. The lagoon dates back to 1891, making it the oldest geothermal pool in the entire country. While you get the same steamy sensations here that you do at Blue Lagoon, you also get a more magical setting: moss-covered rock and slabs of ancient stone surround soakers as they take in the tree-dotted fields in the distance. Entrance fees are around $24 for adults, but do not include towels or extras. Snacks and drinks are available for purchase, though the site’s owners recommend you eat before coming.
Insider tips: If you’re keen on taking in the Northern Lights during a lounge in the hot spring, keep in mind that the lagoon closes at 8 pm, so you’ll have to head elsewhere to see the lights at their brightest. Also, you can charter a bus to take you to the Secret Lagoon, but you’re better off renting a car and driving; it’s cheaper.
Learn more at secretlagoon.is.
Fontana Geothermal Baths
A fixture of the Golden Circle — the area most commonly visited by tourists — Fontana is a more “constructed” hot spring experience than that afforded by The Secret Lagoon. Still, it captures breathtaking natural views, including a horizon that’s best enjoyed at dawn masked by the mist from the steaming water. The interesting thing about Fontana is that it boasts both a hot spring and a lake — a combination that allows visitors to melt into the hot spring, then refresh in the cooler lake water. There are also steam baths available onsite, as well as a bakery and a café. In short, you can make a day of it at Fontana. It’s only a 50-minute drive from the capital, and while you can grab a taxi or a bus to get to the hot spring, it’s advisable you rent a car to save money and give yourself some flexibility. Entry costs $30 or so but doesn’t include extras.
Insider tips: Fontana often runs specials during December, so check the website to see if you can get a discount on your booking. Also, lunch and dinner buffets are available and cost between $20 and $30 for each adult. Lastly, visitors who aren’t interested in getting wet can happily enjoy a “dry” experience. Fontana has a rooftop with amazing views — perfect for enjoying solo or capturing with your camera. You can also tour the nearby town of Laugarvatn; the trek to and from might be the most fascinating part of the excursion, as you’ll be able to feel the heat of the earth below as you walk.
Learn more at fontana.is.
Landbrotalaug Hot Spring
Want a cozy soak for just a few, completely out of the way? This is your best bet. An hour and a half away from Reykjavik, Landbrotalaug is a cozy little pool near the Eldborg volcanic crater. The upside: No entrance fee and fewer tourists. The downside: There are no amenities to speak of and no one to maintain the spring. Still, if your bucket list dictates you need to soak in a remote hot spring in full view of rugged Icelandic terrain, this is your spot.
Insider tip: Even though is out of the way, Landbrotalaug is not totally an unknown entity. To avoid competition with other soakers, come during off hours and off season.
Grjotagja Cave & Hot Spring
Ever heard of “Game of Thrones”? That’s what put this super soaker on the map in 2013. Two of the show’s lead characters, Jon Snow and Ygritte, visited the spot together for a little tryst and fans instantly swooned. In short order, the cave and hot spring became the ultimate romantic getaway. The downside to this fame is the sheer traffic the location has received; an unrelenting stream of visitors has resulted in reprehensible abuse, including rampant littering both on the ground and in the spring, and using the spring as a cleansing bath — instead of a recuperative refuge. Really, we only included this spring because of its big-screen allure; it’s really best for a quick fan photo op. If you want to set up a tour that drops by the cave, there are plenty available via Arctic Adventures.
General tips for enjoying the hot springs in Iceland
As you prepare to relish the warm welcome of Iceland’s many hot springs, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. Most of us aren’t hot spring regulars, so follow these best practices to make sure you aren’t souring your welcome:
- Hot spring are not for cleaning; they are for relaxation. To be sure contaminants do not enter spring waters, almost every site will require you to shower before getting in the water. This is important to the health of fellow soakers and the preservation of the hot spring, so please follow the rules.
- Yes, you’ll need a bathing suit; do not attempt to slide into a hot spring naked.
- Don’t try to sneak into hot springs when they’re closed. It may be temping to linger into the wee hours to watch the Northern Lights, but the springs close for a reason and anyone staying after closing time is a liability. Don’t risk an arrest or anger from the locals simply so you can have your own private adventure.
- Eat before you soak. Yes, many springs have onsite restaurants you can enjoy, but it’s not healthy to jump right in on an empty stomach; you might experience dizziness or nausea.
- A lot of geothermal water is rich in silica, which can make hair stiff. While this is not damaging to follicles or fibers, it’s recommended that visitors apply conditioner to their hair before getting into spring water to keep it pliable.
- Make sure you stay hydrated before, during, and after your soak — especially if you’re also drinking alcohol. This prevents dizziness and nausea.
- Don’t wear jewelry into the spring unless you want to lose it.
- If you wear contact lenses or glasses, don’t submerge your head in the water; the prevalent silica can damage them.
- Don’t stay in the hot spring too long at any one setting. While the length of time that is healthy depends on the heat of the water, most “hot” springs are best enjoyed for 15-20 minutes at a time. Take a break after this; get up, walk around, and cool down slightly before getting back in.
For more information on hot springs in Iceland, as well as a host of other activities on the island, visit inspiredbyiceland.com.