Sundhöllin, Reykjavik – The Quietly Triumphant Public Baths

We’ve already discussed at length how much enjoyment the Blue Lagoon in Iceland has provided us with. It seemed only inevitable we would end up there once again on our most recent trip – and so it proved.

Now the Blue Lagoon is always going to be good. As a geothermal spa, it may have established itself over the last decade or so – especially on the Internet – as the kind of watery Northern resort against which all others should be measured. And – at around ISK8,900 or approximately GBP45 for a return bus from Reykjavik BSI bus station and as long as you want in the lagoon itself – it’s not cheap, but still not as dreadfully expensive as it might be.

However, as we basked in the milky-aqua coloured waters and took draughts of a beer (oh yes, you can drink there), it was difficult not to note that the place was somewhat touristy. That certainly felt more obvious than when we were first there in 2005. Ultimately, we want to see such an iconic (and, lest it be forgotten, well-run) insitution alive and well – and if that means having a very international clientele, so be it. That’s part of tourism and branding. But as an alternative authentic Icelandic bathing experience, we’re proud and happy to recommend the Sundhöllin swimming baths on Barónsstígur in Reykjavik. And we’ve got some very good reasons for loving it.

A very alternative Blue Lagoon alternative

It was in the 20th century – and especially in the first half of that century – that the concept of public buildings truly came to life. And in this regard, Sundhöllin is an understated yet remarkable allround triumph. The building itself was the brainchild of iconic state architect Guðjón Samúelsson, with the project for a proper city centre baths only coming to fruition after years of hesitation over committing funds to such a venture.

Guðjón Samúelsson. A publicly-spirited genius no less

Guðjón Samúelsson. A publicly-spirited genius no less

The authorities need have feared nothing. The exterior is cool, slinky, angular and replete with quiet, white Art Deco charm. The interior is bathing as it should be – blissfully warm water and very orderly and civilised lane swimming, with exterior light sheathing the building through its remarkable slim oblong windows and, like Samuelsson’s nearby magnum opus Hallgrímskirkja, helping to create the impression that one is indeed on top of the world.

Hallgrímskirkja - also bearing Samuelsson's hallmarks

Hallgrímskirkja – also bearing Sundhöllin’s hallmarks

At the same time, the equally remarkable arches on the south/changing rooms side of the pool create the feel that one is swimming in the shadow of an aqueduct. We’re reminded of the world-famous Pont du Gard near Nîmes in Southern France – and perhaps the draughtmanship (if not the illusionist wizardry) of MC Escher at the same time. We’re only too happy to refer you to this wonderful classic image of the baths on the Fairtiliser blog – not least because it comes within the context of an endorsement from a similarly unpretentious and cutting-edge Icelandic cultural entity for the 21st century – FM Belfast.

Not to forget the fantastic outdoor hot tubs and the discreet fitness equipment (if you like that sort of thing) at the side of the indoor pool. The cost of going in 2012? No more than ISK500 (GBP2.50) per adult – with the baths open from 6.30 in the morning until late in the evening on weekdays and also open at the weekend.

The fantastic outdoor hot tubs

The fantastic outdoor hot tubs

For me, the baths feel no less than a part of Iceland’s modern identity – not least because they opened in 1937, only seven years before the modern Icelandic republic came into being. They continue to make the classiest architectural and sporting/leisure site accessible to the Icelander and the tourist alike; they remain (as far as we know) part of a municipal authority remit. As we said, a public triumph in every sense. Samúelsson died only thirteen years after Sundhöllin was opened – but his vision remains timeless.

Sundhöllin Public Baths, Barónsstígur, 101 Reykjavik. sundholl@itr.is
Try here for a map.

If it reminds us of this it must be good

If they remind us of this they must be good

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