Where to go outdoor swimming in European cities

Between the busy urban thoroughfares and centuries-old neighbourhoods, Europe’s cities are nurturing a growing al fresco swimming scene with eclectic bath houses, floating barge pools, glorious beaches, and rivers with easy access for water lovers.

The Sky Lagoon in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Photograph by Christopher Lund
By Amanda Canning
Published 1 Mar 2023, 11:29 GMT

Berlin, Germany: Badeschiff

There are few cities in the world that know how to do reinvention as well as Berlin. Having emerged from the long shadow of the Cold War with the fall of the Wall in 1989, the German capital embraces its past while keeping a firm and joyous eye on the future. Old Second World War bunkers have been repurposed as art galleries; restaurants have taken up residence in former schools, pharmacies and distilleries; and abandoned department stores and military stables are now clubs. 

Numerous urban beaches have breathed new life into the city, too, and every summer you’ll find Berliners in deckchairs, enjoying the sunshine on a strip of sand by the River Spree. They’ve also found an ingenious way to get a little closer to the river: on the eastern bank of the Spree, beyond a complex of converted 1920s warehouses, lies Badeschiff (‘bathing ship’) — a heated pool, created from the shell of an old industrial barge, which has been submerged into the water.

The atmosphere here changes throughout the day. First thing in the morning, people appear for a quick pre-work swim, doing brisk laps of the 100ft pool before setting off for offices and studios. As the temperature rises, the main reason to visit is to relax rather than exercise. Groups of friends gather on the beach on the riverbank, eating lunch and chatting before walking across the wooden pontoons for their swim. They hang off the edge of the pool to watch ships passing on the Spree, with Berlin’s iconic TV Tower visible through the haze in the city centre. Some knock off work for the afternoon and doze in hammocks or on towels laid out on the sand, rising only for another swim or a bottle of beer.

At sunset, the floodlights come on and the pool glows like a gemstone in the darkening waters of the Spree. It’s possible to swim until midnight, moving idly through the warm water as the lights of the city come on across the river — though Berlin’s famous nightlife becomes harder to resist as the evening progresses. A cocktail from Badeschiff’s bar, taken on the sun terrace, is just the starting point for a night at the venues lining the nearby Am Flutgraben canal. A few hardy, sleep-deprived souls will recover from their excess by returning the next day for a reviving dip before heading off to work once more.

On Berlin’s River Spree, the Badeschiff ‘bathing ship’ is a heated outdoor pool that’s been fashioned ...

On Berlin’s River Spree, the Badeschiff ‘bathing ship’ is a heated outdoor pool that’s been fashioned out of an old industrial barge.

Photograph by Alamy

The story of Florence is the story of the Medicis — the city seems to bear traces of the family’s influence on every corner. And Italy’s most famous political and banking dynasty was also responsible for the Parco delle Cascina, originally used as the Medicis’ hunting ground. Today, the park is still home to Le Pavoniere (The Peacocks), a delightful open-air pool surrounded by greenery and topped by two small temples. Looking out over the water is a seafood and pizza restaurant in an elegant, faded-yellow villa; come nightfall, the mood changes with live music, cocktails and DJ sets.

Reykjavík, Iceland: Sky Lagoon

Iceland is so overflowing with wonders both natural and man-made, you wouldn’t think it would need another, but, in 2021, along came the Sky Lagoon. Just on the southern outskirts of the capital Reykjavík, it’s a natural geothermal pool and spa that seems to merge with the ocean. Bathers emerge from the cliffs into the lagoon’s steaming waters, with wide open views of the Atlantic out front, and spa rooms squirrelled away in traditional turf houses to the sides. The experience is magical — especially if you manage to time your swim with sunset or  a display of the Northern Lights.

Århus, Denmark: The Harbour Bath

It’s little wonder that Denmark’s second city has soared in popularity in recent years. Visitors can expect an ever-evolving food scene to rival capital Copenhagen’s, impressive cultural venues including a showstopping art gallery, ARoS, and a packed festival calendar. But it’s also home to the biggest seawater bath of its kind in the world. The striking triangular structure of The Harbour Bath juts into the water of Århus Bay and contains a lap pool, unusual circular diving pool and a kid’s pool, plus two saunas. Swimming done, there are plenty of spots for sunbathing on the wooden decks.

Left: Top:

Århus’s harbour-facing seawater pool is the biggest of its kind in the world.

Photograph by Roar Paaske Fotografi
Right: Bottom:

Iceland’s Sky Lagoon overlooks the coastline south of Reykjavík.

Photograph by aka

Barcelona, Spain: Nova Icària Beach

Barcelona has an astonishing nine beaches within easy reach and on sunbaked days it can feel like the whole of the city has decamped from its grand boulevards and palm-dotted plazas to them. Nova Icària, north of the atmospheric Gothic Quarter, is a fine pick. Families and small groups of friends lounge on the long swathe of golden sand that gently dips into the clean, clear waters of the Mediterranean. The more active throw themselves about on the beach volleyball courts or play basketball, but many are content to grab a beer and some paella, and doze, post-swim, in the sunshine.

Paris, France: Piscine Joséphine Baker

This pool is the closest you can get to swimming in the Seine. Moored on the left bank of the river, in the middle of the French capital, the enormous, floating steel-and-glass complex has a 82ft pool, paddling pool, gym and solarium. The pièce de résistance, however, is the retractable roof — opening the pool to the skies on sunny days.

Named after the American jazz singer, dancer and Francophile Josephine Baker, who made her career in 1920s Paris, the pool opened in 2006 as part of Paris Plage — a near-annual event that sets up urban beaches along the river to help Parisians enjoy their city through the long summer. And they certainly enjoy the pool on hot days, swimming laps through the treated river water, lounging on the sun deck and watching cruise boats chug back and forth on the Seine. On some evenings, the pool turns into a cinema, with a screen at one end and the audience bobbing about in inflatable armchairs. 

When the heat fades, cap off the day by ambling down the cobbled banks of the Seine and into central Paris, passing the Louvre, Notre-Dame and cabaret venues, which still honour Josephine Baker’s legacy.

The Seine’s Piscine Joséphine Baker attracts frazzled Parisians when the city heats up.

The Seine’s Piscine Joséphine Baker attracts frazzled Parisians when the city heats up.

Photograph by Alamy

Porto, Portugal: Piscina das Marés

Porto is defined by the Douro River. The colourful houses and gothic churches of its old town tumble down to the river, overseen by the arching double-decker Dom Luís I Bridge. Port wine lodges, the source of Portugal’s most famous export, line its shores. Brave locals fling themselves into the water on sunny days, but it’s far better (and safer) to head north for a swim, just beyond the point where the Douro spills out into the Atlantic.

The Piscina das Marés in the suburb of Matosinhos seems wedged between land and sea, caught between the boulders that rise from its sides. It was designed by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, who was also responsible for the nearby Nova Tea House. Both share a love of concrete and sharp lines — as well as stonking views over the Atlantic. The waters of the tidal pool stay calm even as they thrash and eddy in the ocean just beyond — it’s a peculiar pleasure to serenely bob about while surfers battle the wind a short distance away. There are more traditional pleasures on offer when you’re dried off, primarily strolling along the beach with dripping ice cream in hand and checking out the catch of the day in seafront restaurants.

Helsinki, Finland: Allas Sea Pool

The best way to prepare for a swim at the Allas Sea Pool is to slowly stew in one of its saunas. Sauna, after all, is thought to have originated in Finland and the Finns have been enjoying the ritual for more than 2,000 years. There are two cabins here and temperatures within rise to 80°C — then, when it all gets too much, visitors fling open the door and jump straight into one of the pools on the floating pontoon. The seawater pool delivers the most immediate cool-down — and the greatest shock. The cold-adverse might prefer the heated pool (there’s a heated children’s pool, too).

All of the pools offer views of the Helsinki skyline and the passenger ferries docking at the harbour at Market Square, ready to putter across the Baltic to one of the city’s many outlying islands. Visible across the water is the Old Market Hall, now housing food stalls and restaurants. There are three restaurants at Allas, too. On warm days, visitors break up their swims with time spent in a deckchair on the sand-covered upper deck or with an al fresco lunch at Seagrill. And because the pools stay open until 9pm, there’s always time for one last round in the sauna and another dip after dinner.

Sunbathers on the floating deck at Allas Sea Pool in Helsinki.

Photograph by Alamy

It’s not a scene you’d usually associate with one of the world’s busiest cities: coots emerging from a hidden nest to paddle across a pond; herons watching dragonflies flit across the water from the branches of a tree; swimmers doing a languid back crawl with their eyes closed. Though Hampstead Heath is only four miles north of central London, it feels several hundred miles removed.

Wandering the great green expanse, ducking in and out of copses of beech and oak, it’s hard to imagine that, just over half an hour away on the Tube, people queue to see the latest art installation at Tate Modern, tuck into seven-course tasting menus at Michelin-starred restaurants, or take their places for a groundbreaking performances at a West End theatre.

That disconnect only increases at the heath’s bathing ponds. There are 18 ponds scattered across the park, and three are open to swimmers — a mixed pond, a men’s pond and the Kenwood ladies’ pond. Originally created as freshwater reservoirs in the late 18th century, to supply London with drinking water, they’ve long been used by bathers — though the men’s pond was not officially opened until the 1890s, and the ladies’ pond until 1926. 

The atmosphere hasn’t changed much since. Each pond has a different character but shares a sense of timelessness. The ladies’ pond, enclosed by trees, feels like a secret world. Bathers, from lone octogenarians to bands of excited teenagers, slip into the water and, it seems, straight into the pages of an EM Forster novel, so bucolic is the experience. The men’s pond is more open and expansive. Diving off the concrete jetty, swimmers set off in a brisk front crawl, the sounds of laughter echoing across the water as friends bump into each on the banks. Walkers stop along the slipway at one end of the mixed pond to watch groups bobbing about or hanging off the lifebuoys to chat — watching with envy or awe, depending on the weather.

Equilibrium restored, towels and swimming costumes packed away, many choose to end their time on the heath by climbing to one of its high points and gazing down at London. On a clear day, you’ll see the spire of St Paul’s visible among the skyscrapers.

Left: Top:

A wild swimming group floating in one of Hampstead Heath’s bathing ponds.

Photograph by Getty Images
Right: Bottom:

The Rhine River is a popular spot for commuters to take a dip in Basel, Switzerland.

Photograph by Alamy

Basel, Switzerland

The residents of the medieval city of Basel have found a novel way to commute. Pop down to the banks of the Rhine on a summer’s evening and you’ll likely see people climbing out of their suits and into their swimming costumes, placing their clothes and phones into colourful watertight bags known as wickelfisch, and striding into the water to let the current take them home. 

There are few greater pleasures than drifting down the Rhine, gazing at some of Basel’s finest landmarks from frog’s eye level. It’s popular to enter the water at the pebbly beach at Einstieg Rhyschwimme, which then sweeps you past the Old Town’s cobbled streets, handsome riverside houses and twin-spired minster. 

Watch swimmers wave at passengers on the vintage boats known as ‘flying bridges’, which ferry people across the water as they have done since the 1850s. There are several spots to clamber out, but a favourite is Dreirosen Buvette — one of many open-air bars that spring up along the river in summer.

There are no lifeguards along the route and the current is strong, so swimmers should be confident in the water. There are bathing houses on the Rhine, too, for the less assured.

Published in the 2023 edition of The European Cities Collection by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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