I asked Icelandic locals for their favorite non-touristy alternatives to the Blue Lagoon.
They recommended visiting one of Reykjavík's public swimming pools.
They were right that no tourists seemed to know about it, but being the only foreigner felt awkward.
With more than 700,000 visitors every year, Iceland's Blue Lagoon is one of the country's most recognizable and iconic attractions.
When I visited the lagoon earlier this year, parts of it were crowded, but I felt it lived up to the hype. I also, however, wanted to experience a less-touristy side of Iceland and see how local residents lived.
I asked two Icelandic locals what they would recommend as a more under-the-radar alternative to the Blue Lagoon and followed their advice. Here's how it went.
I had a great time at Iceland's Blue Lagoon, but locals recommended I visit one of Iceland's many public swimming pools as a less-touristy alternative.
"Most foreigners know about the Blue Lagoon, and of course, it's very nice, but it is kind of pricey, and a lot of tourists go there," Helgi Gunnlaugsson, a sociology professor at the University of Iceland, told Insider. "Instead of the Blue Lagoon, I would just recommend the public swimming pools in Reykjavik. I go to the sauna. There are nice hot tubs here, and it's actually with the locals."
Davíð Geir Jónasson, an Icelandic tour guide who owns Vík Expeditions, agreed.
"People come to Iceland and come to the Blue Lagoon and all that, but the swimming pools are absolutely amazing," he said. "Every proper town in Iceland has a swimming pool. The swimming pool itself is heated, with a sauna and a hot tub. You go there and meet people and chat with them. In Britain, you go to the pub; in Iceland, you go to the swimming pool."
In a bid to experience how locals live, I decided to visit Árbæjarlaug, a public pool in Reykjavík with rave online reviews.
The pool is located about a 15-minute drive from Iceland's famous Rainbow Street.
Of its 20 reviews on TripAdvisor, 15 users rated it "excellent" and five rated it "very good."
"One of the best pools in Reykjavík. Why go to the Blue Lagoon and pay $75 or more?" one user wrote.
Another user described it as having a "very Icelandic atmosphere."
Since it was a weekend, the parking lot was packed.
I got lucky and snagged a spot just as another car was pulling out of the parking lot.
Admission to the pool cost 1,210 Icelandic krónur, or about $8.88 — nothing compared to the Blue Lagoon's $93 ticket.
After I paid for my visit, I received a receipt with a barcode that I had to scan to open the doors to the locker room.
I was surprised to find open shelves for people to remove their shoes before entering the locker room.
Iceland has consistently been ranked the safest country in the world by the Global Peace Index, so it appeared that locals felt comfortable leaving their shoes unattended. As someone who lives in New York City, however, I felt less trusting of the public. I decided to keep my shoes inside my locker.
I noticed other indications of Iceland's safety throughout my trip, such as an unstaffed "honesty bar" at a hotel and unlocked cosmetics in stores.
The lockers came with keys attached to rubber bracelets for easy access.
The locker room and pool at Árbæjarlaug were among the few places in Iceland where I didn't hear any English and actually overheard locals speaking Icelandic. (The other place this happened was at Costco.) I got the sense that I was the only tourist there.
I felt both excited about experiencing everyday life in Iceland like a local and a bit apprehensive, like I was infiltrating a secret club.
The indoor pool was gorgeous, housed in a circular glass building with a skylight, and the water was a comfortable temperature.
Jónasson had described the social, pub-like atmosphere of local pools, and I saw it for myself: Árbæjarlaug was full of people chatting with each other in Icelandic.
A passageway led into the outdoor section of the pool.
Since the weather was in the 50s that day, I appreciated the option of swimming inside, even though the pool was heated. The Blue Lagoon only features outdoor swimming areas.
The outdoor area was much larger, with water slides, hot tubs, cold-plunge pools, lanes for swimming laps, and even a net for water volleyball.
I immediately transferred myself to one of the hot tubs to warm up. The surroundings weren't as scenic as the Blue Lagoon's milky blue waters and black volcanic rock, but it was still relaxing and pleasant on a cool, windy day.
As I snapped a few quick photos of the amenities, I noticed people looking at me. Eventually, a lifeguard came over and told me to stop taking pictures.
Unlike the Blue Lagoon, where photography and selfies are the norm, I immediately stood out by taking pictures of my surroundings. When the lifeguard spoke to me in English, I knew the jig was up, and I'd been exposed as a tourist.
Humbled, I swam a little longer before returning to the locker room and making my way to the exit.
While I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the way Icelandic locals spend their weekends and was impressed with the variety of pools and activities at an affordable price, I felt self-conscious as the only foreigner and ended up violating some unspoken pool etiquette.
The Blue Lagoon is ultimately geared toward tourists like me, so I had a more comfortable experience there. I preferred the anonymity the attraction granted me as just another person taking selfies. Plus, it was more spacious and luxurious with perks such as face masks and swim-up bars, even though they came with a higher price tag.
Next time I ask someone to recommend their favorite non-touristy spot in a country where I'm a tourist, I'd accompany the local who frequents it instead of going alone. That way, they could help me navigate the language barrier and cultural norms that made me feel out of place at Árbæjarlaug.
Read the original article on Insider