What to Expect in an Icelandic Swimming Pool

Arts & Culture

Finland has saunas, Russia has vodka, Iceland has swimming pools.

Every country has traditions when it comes to leisure. In our part of the world said traditions tend to evolve around keeping warm. Finland has saunas, Russia has vodka, Iceland has swimming pools.

An old picture of Laugardalslaug

The hot tubs

It all started with the hot tubs. They have literally been part of Iceland since the settlement. The most famous one is Snorri Sturluson‘s pool 'Snorralaug', in Reykholt. Whilst Snorri is presumed to have lived from 1178 – 1241, his pool is one of four ancient pools in Iceland that is still in use. Today there are around 12, 000 summer houses in Iceland with around 11,000 of them with a hot tub. There is a hot tub outside half the houses in my neighbourhood and most of the hotels in Reykjavík have a spa with a hot tub so you really have to make an effort if you plan to avoid them. The definition of an Icelandic swimming pool might sound something like this: A man made, usually rectangular, hole in the ground, in most cases concrete, filled with 25- 28°C warm, chlorinated water, accompanied by one to five hot tubs with water temperatures ranging from 38-45°C. You can try to find a swimming pool without a hot tub in Iceland. If you do, let us know.
 
Árbæjarlaug

The chatter

It goes without saying that swimming on a regular basis combined with de-stressing before and/or after in warm geothermal water is good for both the body and soul. What is even more wonderful regarding these blessed pools of ours is their role as social centres. All over the country people show up every day at the same time, hang their clothes on the same hook (and God help you if you‘ve ignorantly occupied one of these sacred clothes-storing-devices) and have their daily hot tub chat with their co-swimmers who have the same routine too. The earliest of the bunch are known as 'the doorknobs' in some areas, because they tend to be already clasping the knob when the swimming pool staff show up for work, still yawning and stretching. After that we have 'the eight o’clockers' and 'the nine o’clockers', so-called for an apparent reason but those who routinely show up after that tend to be the anti-social ones, people who like their routine, love their daily swim and hate having to chat in the process. In the afternoon and evening the chatter begins again but the crowd is different, parents having quality time with their kids, people relaxing after work or workout and dating. Yes, dating. Going for a nice hot tub in the evening is a popular second date in Iceland.  I kid you not.
Vesturbæjarlaug

The facilities

You will find more outdoor than indoor pools in Iceland. The reason is simple; the outdoor ones are less expensive. Which is fine, the fresh air is good for you. And there is nothing like having a swim and a hot tub during a blizzard, so please do if you possibly can. What we have in many places, to add to the goose bumps, are outdoor dressing rooms. Drying after a swim and a hot tub on a winter evening in -5°C is one of the most refreshing experiences you will encounter. And don’t be scared of the cold, outdoor dressing rooms in Icelandic swimming pools are (usually) equipped with heat lamps that work fine (in most cases).
 
The exposure
 
One thing you must realise before entering an Icelandic swimming pool is that you will see others of the same sex naked and others of the same sex will see you naked. There are rarely rooms or cubicles for you to undress in and even if there are, you will still have to take your bathing costume off while showering. Why? Because we like our pools and hot tubs clean and smudge free. It’s nothing personal and trust me, for every man, woman and child in Iceland this is as uneventful as having breakfast in the morning. You can find all opening hours of most swimming pools in Iceland on www.sundlaugar.is The norm on work days is that they open 7am-ish and close some time after dinner but as with any norm, there are exceptions. If you don’t have a swimming costume you can usually rent one so there is no excuse; you have to try it.
Sundhollin - the oldest pool in Reykjavik