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Icelandic bathing culture

In the swimming pool we are all equal

With the sea all around us, Icelanders have been taught to swim since childhood. What started as a nation’s effort to survive has become a fixture in Icelandic culture.

Photos & videoBirna Ketilsdóttir Schram
TextBirna Ketilsdóttir Schram
Location64.1446° N, 21.9625° V

The first thing we miss when we move abroad is not being able to go to the Icelandic swimming pools, and when we land at Keflavík airport, we usually don’t take long to rush to the pool to meet friends and discuss the matters of the day. Only then are we truly home. Ever since Snorralaug was built in Reykholt in West Iceland during the settlement age, we have been drawn to the water and the pools.

Whether it’s to nurture the body and the soul, obtain a reprieve from external stimuli and the phone, meet friends and discuss world affairs in the hot pots or take the children for an evening swim before bed, the bathing culture in Iceland seems to be as diverse as the swimming pools are many

Anna Margrét

Anna Margrét Ólafsdóttir is an artist who lives in Vesturbær, Reykjavík. She attends swimming pools vigorously, but Vesturbæjarlaug is her home ground. Swimming is a big part of the creative process it helps her get her ideas flowing. Sometimes she goes to the pool twice a day.

“Bathing culture in Iceland is quite special. It is ingrained in our culture to go swimming. We use this for both body and soul, both for solitude and socialization. It is very socially acceptable to go swimming alone and be in peace and take good care of yourself. But the pool is also a place for quality time with children or friends, or a place to chat, exercise, sunbathe or breathe in the steam.”

“It is a non-judgmental place, people are there together in their swimsuits discussing something in the tubs, no matter where they come from or what they do. It’s just a person and a body at the pool.”

It is a non-judgmental place, people are there together in their swimsuits discussing something in the tubs, no matter where they come from or what they do.

Chanel Björk

“This is my only outdoor activity that is not affected by the weather. During the winter, it’s also cosy to sit in the freezing cold and get ice in your hair if you’re in a seething hot tub.”

Chanel Björk Sturludóttir is a campaigner for the equality of people of foreign origin in Iceland. Chanel has worked as a producer but is now known nationwide for her work in the Kastljós (Spotlight) news team on RÚV, the national broadcasting service.

“This summer, I started going to the pool early. There is something wonderful about going swimming at this time when there are not many people, everyone is just doing their own thing. Everyone is waking up, getting up and getting ready for the day.”

Sigrún Perla

“In the sea, this remarkable moment is created where you are completely alone with yourself, surrounded by the ocean.”

Sigrún Perla Gísladóttir is an architect, sea bather and oceanography student at the University of Iceland. Perla was introduced to Danish bathing culture when she was studying architecture in Aarhus and became fascinated by it. Unlike the swimming culture here in Iceland, Danes are more used to the cold sea mixed with hot saunas and often go swimming naked. When Perla moved home, she began to promote such bathing culture more here in Iceland. She built the seabathing sauna Saman in Seyðisfjörður and founded the project Sjávarmál for her research on people’s relationship with the sea.

“We take good care of what we care about. In this way, I strengthen my relationship with the sea and get to know it better and better every time I bathe, and the more I get to know it, the more I am willing to do for it."

“This is my only outdoor activity that is not affected by the weather

Go swimming

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