Going to a spa in Iceland can feel wonderfully alien. Against a backdrop of barren moonscapes and denuded hills, the waters are so preternaturally blue, so exaggerated and preposterously warm, that a simple dip can feel borderline indecent. Venture from the capital Reykjavik as far as Reyðarfjörður in the extreme east and you’ll also find that the country hides hundreds of out-of-this-world geothermal pools and naturally-heated hot tubs.
If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, there’s a good chance you’re also going to find yourself at a hot spring. You can find them all over the country (see our hot spring map!) — local communities depend on them for socializing, relaxing, and job opportunities, if they live near the larger spas. But before you hop in, there are a few things you should know; the first thing being that Icelanders take hot spring etiquette very seriously.
Hot springs that welcome a lot of tourists will often have convenient signs sharing a few rules, but it’s best to know what you’re getting into before you put on that bathing suit. To save you some research time, here are a few guidelines to follow:
Lie Down and Relax
The first thing to know is that you are going to be swimming in dirty water. The water that comes from hot springs and geothermal vents has a very high mineral content, almost like bathwater, because of the hot water, the ash, and minerals that are drawn up from the Earth.
There are three ways that algae will grow in hot spring water: in pools where the water never stays still, outdoor pools that don’t have fencing, and poorly maintained pools. To get rid of it, the locals just dunk themselves in their algae-filled pools every time they go. By doing so, they remove the algae that sits on their body and swimsuits, and help clean the water. Without this local custom, indoor spas would smell strongly of algae within a few days!
When taking a dip at an outdoor pool, it’s best to undress at the changing rooms and then retire to a quiet area in the deep end to submerge yourself in the water. A nice soak in the hot tub is also recommended. If you can stand it, I recommend a trip to the locker room to jump in using a pair of basin-sized, hot water buckets that you’ll be given for this purpose. In public pools, it’s actually traditional to lean against the edge of a pool “underwater” and let the hot water sit on your shoulders.
Bring Your Own Locker Room
It’s customary in hot springs across Iceland to undress and leave your bathing suit in your own private locker. Clothing that no longer looks clean will be politely checked and retained until you return. One time, I was at a geothermal pool that had public lockers (as opposed to individual ones), and saw a bit of a commotion with a guy yelling at a lady for stealing his towel. It’s not good to steal anything, but if you do take someone’s clothing…
Use the Proper Soap
Most of the spas in Iceland have conditions that are reminiscent of a tropical island, so the water is rarely cold. You can dunk yourself with only a bathing suit on, or even with nothing at all, but the majority of locals have strong opinions on how to keep yourself clean and keep the water sweet-smelling.
First, it’s traditional to lather up with soap before getting in the water. You’ll find that the bathing facilities are stocked with tiny bars that are made specifically for this purpose. Often, the soap is pink or green, which is basically just a fancy kind of exfoliating soap made of delicate local botanicals.
Second, the length of your shower is crucial. You’re not in the shower for very long in Iceland, and generally the water is colder than you’re used to, so it’s best to avoid letting the water run down your body while you soap up. It’s also not considered polite to sit in the water when soapy. It’s best to take turns showering. It’s a bit like going to a public bathhouse in Asia or Europe, so be prepared to make friends fast. Or, if you’re a guy, just be extra polite when you get in the water.
In Iceland, taking a dip at a hot spring or geothermal pool is an extremely relaxing experience. So, while it’s not rude to talk to strangers, it’s best to make sure your voice is as low as possible. If you’re going to be extremely loud in the water, it’s best to go to the hot tub.
It’s also advisable to avoid getting involved in political conversations. This is mostly to avoid offending the locals, but it’s also because…
There Are No Secrets in a Small Town
One thing that’s great about the culture of hot springs in Iceland is that people are comfortable in their own skin. While it’s perfectly reasonable to be a bit more reserved, if you feel like making friends and exchanging hand-shakes with a Viking with a beard full of oil and dirt, you can!
There’s also no need to worry about getting a deadly disease from the communal lothryggur (changing room), since the spring waters are an ideal environment for bactericidal powers, and bathing suits are generally too thick to allow much exchange of skin bacteria. It’s customary to use the spa for at least 10-15 minutes before jumping in the water or getting in the hot tub. While it’s polite to go to the lothryggur first, another good option is just to talk to the locals while your body warms up.
The best way to get a feel for the Icelandic hot-spring culture is to watch the locals. They’re totally cool with making new friends and having a good time, but they still carry themselves with respect for one another.
It really is a magical experience: swimming in the same water that native Icelanders have been doing for centuries. Once you’ve had a visit or two, you’ll probably start to abandon your bathing suits before diving in, just like the locals — and that, my friends, is a rite of passage.
Know Where to Look
There are a lot of geothermal pools in Iceland. You can find them in all of Iceland’s volcanic zones, like Landmannalaugar, the Blue Lagoon, and the south. Often, they’ll be in areas of historical significance, too, like the hot springs under Þingvellir, where the Icelandic founding fathers first pulled up chairs and started writing down the history of their country. There’s also a very large geothermal pool called Deildartunguhver, which is located in a gigantic chasm of a volcanic fissure.
Be a Good Tourist
If you’re in a well-known hot spring like the Blue Lagoon, remember to be well-behaved. Obey the signs. Share the space. Don’t do anything too… outrageous.
Iceland Spa Etiquette Tips:
- Practice reusable ramkins and bring some soap
- When at a hotel,
- Remove your clothing before getting into the water
- Don’t eat in the changing room
- Clean every day
- Bring earplugs
- Don’t have sex
- Don’t be too loud
- Be open-minded; leave your judgments at home
- Be respectful of individuals with dietary restrictions and food allergies
Wear something—a swimming suit is ideal, but even just a bathing cap or a bikini can cause issues
Be kind to the staff and help with cleaning
Follow the directions from the staff; don’t confuse them with your lack of English
What To Wear
Bathing suits and swimming gear are available for purchase. While most Icelandic people don’t wear anything but their bathing suit, it’s a good idea to wear a bathing cap at the Blue Lagoon. The water is very dark and you don’t want to find out you have two-tone hair later.
How To Make Friends In Iceland
Icelanders are welcoming, warm, and easygoing people. So, if you find yourself in one of Iceland’s larger cities, there are some strategies you can use to avoid making friends in Iceland. Consider them a “hey, I’m trying to be a Good Tourist” kind of thing.
Rule No. 1: No touching
The first thing I learned in Iceland is it’s taboo to touch people you don’t know. I’m sure you’re not used to that either. I know I wasn’t. But in Iceland, it’s just not something you do—not even your friends. If you’re in a freezing cold foreign country and somebody puts a friendly hand on your shoulder, it’s like they’re trying to sneak up and stab you. Don’t do it. Just (politely) say hello.
Rule No. 2: Suggest that you go “for a geothermal swim”
When you’ve found a nice new Icelandic friend, and you’re getting along with him/her pretty well, you’ll sometimes want to ask him/her to go do something together. These suggestions are almost always good: “For a snack” or “for a drink,” for example. Another top suggestion for an outing is to go “for a geothermal swim.” You can go for a swim at a swimming pool, as it doesn’t quite mean “join the native Icelanders in their natural hot springs,” which some people might be a bit hesitant about. It’s totally acceptable in Iceland to make friends who want to join you for a swim, a snack, or a drink.
Rule No. 3: You can’t be naked alone
In Iceland, you’re not supposed to swim naked by yourself, either. Seems easy enough, right? You’re in a hot pool with other people. Just don’t run around naked in the mini whirlpool by yourself. But be ready for this, or you’ll give someone a heart attack.
Rule No. 4: Don’t eye-f*** people
How do you make friends in Iceland? By not staring at strangers, for starters. Don’t take note of someone’s tattoos and piercings and then go around the swimming pool whispering, “Hey, does everyone here have tattoos and piercings?” Just don’t. I have a policy of not staring at people in Iceland. Usually. This is why I took a few lessons in Icelandic Sea Power Therapy, where people float on the ocean. See, you can’t stare at people in the ocean because their heads are floating. It seemed like the perfect way to get over my staring addiction. It worked too!
A TIP: Bring a bathing suit!
One of the reasons that Icelanders go to the hot springs is to relax with other people. This means sitting with friends, talking and laughing while watching TV (or not watching TV). If you’re into strutting around with a six-pack of abs in your skinny jeans, then bring a bathing suit and show those legs off. But it’s up to you. Most female Icelanders, for example, aren’t overly comfortable with how-not-to-get-a-tan-lines and how-to-show-off-my-weird-underwear secrets, so they tend to just wear a bathing suit and go with it. It’s a lot less fuss.
How To Act Like A Local
In fact, here’s some great advice from author María Sif Bragadóttir:
The first time I went to a geothermal pool, I had no idea what I should do. Should I wear a suit, or just relax in my birthday suit? How should I greet other bathers? Should I ask for their names? Should I be modest about my body, or show it off and be proud? What I decided was that there was only one right way to go: be bold. I would be a bold traveler. So that’s what I did. I chatted with strangers (just like I like to do at home), introduced myself, and enjoyed myself so much that I decided to go every day.
Iceland Spa Etiquette: Conclusion
Iceland is a safe, friendly country, and most travelers will have a fantastic experience in the hot springs. But, if you follow the rules and have a little common sense, your time in the swimming pools of Iceland will be pleasantly memorable and magical. That said, let us know your thoughts and experiences with the hot springs of Iceland.