Freshwater Revelry Bathing Fever in Zurich
04 July, 2017
It’s a hot day in Zurich, on the cusp of summer, and many of the locals have emerged with their swimming gear under their arms. Indeed, bourgeois Zurich, set atop the podium of the cities with the best quality of life in the world, does not only display economic prowess, picture postcard beauty and a national pride for the punctuality of its transport. Zurich is, above all, the paradise of “badis”, which is what they affectionately call their open-air public baths dotted across the whole city on the shores of the Zürichsee (Lake Zurich) and the Limmat and Sihl rivers, like some sweetwater alter ego which rises year after year when the temperatures hits the highs.
Be Water my Friend!
You only need about five minutes to realise that here water is king. They keep it clean, flaunt it and pay homage to it. Not only is this the city with the most drinking water sources in the world – about 1,200 of them. The water that is dispensed is also of unbeatable quality and its flavour up there with the top gourmet mineral waters.
With some thirty bathing facilities, plus nearly twenty open-air swimming pools, no other city in Europe can boast such a high concentration of public baths per capita. Open daily from May to September at sunrise, the badis are the focal point of social life. Each facility has developed its own character over time and there are options to suit all audiences and pockets. And, there’s more! At nightfall, a large number of these pools take on a new life, being transformed into badi-bars serving drinks and dinner, as well as hosting film screenings and providing music until well into the wee hours.
Inspired by the modest size of this small-scale metropolis and determined to save a few francs on transport, we decide to hire a bike at Züri rollt, the free municipal service which, by depositing 20 francs, enables you to enjoy the city on wheels. In the spirit of “do as the locals do”, we set out on our tour.
The Romans Bathed Here!
Zurich’s bathing tradition is no recent fad. Its history goes back 2,000 years, when the Romans unveiled the first public baths in ancient Turicum, Zurich’s Latin name. The ruins of Thermengasse, in the heart of the old town, can still be visited, and detailed information on this ancestral tradition is provided there.
But, it was not until the early-19th century that the bathing scene really took off and the city became swamped with badis. What to begin with emerged as an alternative to providing homes with running water soon spread like wildfire, and by 1900 there were already 20 public baths in existence, although with gender separation, of course!
With such precedents, no wonder that open-air bathing has become ingrained in Zurich’s DNA. The locals take visits to their badis very seriously, while visitors soon find their niche amid such alluring offerings.
Women and Men and Vice Versa
We went on a stroll through the calm waters of the historic centre. The first stop on our route was the veteran Frauenbadi. Built in 1837 on the banks of the river Limmat and reserved exclusively for women ever since its inception, there is no better place to sunbathe if you want the finest views of the Grossmünster, Zurich’s striking cathedral. Rebuilt in Art Nouveau style, the baths preserve all the character of the Belle Époque, with a large timber cloister surrounding the pool, sunbathing platforms and accesses to the crystal-clear waters of the river. By night, this classic badi turns into an elegant Barfussbar, featuring live music, literary nights and dancing, where men and women sip their cocktails, on condition they go barefoot.
And, just as opposite poles attract each other, a few minutes away stands the Flussbad Schanzengraben, the latter’s male counterpart, an oasis of tranquility for men only. This charming badi is the oldest bathing facility in the city as it has been operating since 1864. Surrounded by the remains of an old city wall, the current here is slow and swimming is risk-free. Outside of swimming hours, the premises turn into the Rimini Bar, a highly popular restaurant with an intimate atmosphere in summer, when men and women relax in the chill-out area while dinner is being barbecued. The venue, in discrete, glamorous, 100% Swiss style, is the perfect spot for snacking and having something to drink al fresco, dancing to the rhythm of guest DJs and shopping in their weekly market, featuring local designs and vintage apparel.
Alps, Sand and Sport at the Zürichsee
After a dip in the heart of Zurich, we head for the lake, where you can swim in the company of ducks and swans. The history of the Zürichsee is closely linked to that of the city. The jetties and walkways fringing the shores, inaugurated in 1887, marked Zurich’s entry into the modern era – the city thereby reclaimed land from the lake, decongesting the crowded medieval city.
On the right bank, having passed by the Opera and the emblematic Bellevueplatz, stands the coolest badi of all, the Seebad Utoquai. A bathe in its waters is like travelling back to the 19th century. Having first opened in 1890, this historic badi is a veritable institution in Zurich. Stretches of the original timber building are still intact and the set of pools there makes up one of the trendiest corners in town. There are areas for men, women and mixed, direct accesses to the lake, floating platforms and terraces for sunbathing, all patronised by seemly guests sipping on drinks, chatting congenially or heading to the massage area. If you’re feeling peckish, the restaurant serves dishes and tapas with Mediterranean aromas. But, if what you’re seeking is peace and quiet, you won’t find it here. The surrounding area throngs with boats, yachts and stand up paddles until well into the night. But, it is definitely the place to be for sybarites eager to catch the last shafts of sunlight before the sun sets into the lake.
Cut to a different setting as we switch to the opposite, left bank. We bathe while gazing at the Alps in the Seebad Enge! Open all year around, in summer guests can enjoy mixed pools and floating platforms on the lake, while the sauna is set aside for the colder months. Truth be told, not much swimming gets done here. What with beauty therapy and yoga sessions, relaxation techniques and stand up paddle classes, this badi is first and foremost a social precinct for folks in their thirties where they can show off their latest models of swimwear as well as stare and be stared back at. At the weekend it fills up with youngsters who come for brunch. The badi does not close at night – the bar and barbecue grind into motion, while open-air concerts, poetry slams and cocktails take over.
A beach of fine sand with a Mediterranean air? You have come to Strandbad Mythenquai, the ideal spot for families with children, as it boasts shallow waters and a deep-green lawn where you can lay down your towel, have a picnic or read. The bravest among you can leap off the formidable diving boards, with 1, 3 and 5-metre-high platforms, into the outrageously crystal-clear waters in this urban lake.
Downstream in Zürich West
Welcome to the freestyle paradise! We have arrived in Zurich West, the hyper-creative district and bastion of the young, cool set. Here, anything goes although, if you don’t fancy sticking out like a sore thumb, jump in and let the current carry you downstream.
The badi par excellence is the Flussbad Oberer Letten, an urban venue plastered with graffiti on the banks of the Limmat where there are no written rules – follow the locals and judge for yourself. Whether you choose to sunbathe on the platforms, have a picnic or a refreshing spritz at the Primitivo at Happy Hour – coinciding with afterwork at around 5 p.m.– make sure you are sporting a very fit body and dressed in line with the latest trend. You have come to the heart of hipsterland! If you’re feeling hot, leave your “rags” right where you are and leap into the water – you have four hundred metres of free swimming ahead of you. By night it is the turn of the highly popular Panama Bar to come alive. They serve food and DJ dance music at what is one of the best rave-ups in town.
If you still have an ounce of energy left, continue downstream with your sights set on the Silo, a concrete behemoth unveiled in 2016 for grain storage which is now the second tallest tower in the city. Half way along you will come to the Flussbad Unterer Letten. Here, the current is faster, as attested by the hordes of youngsters who descend on the spot with their airbeds and inflatable dinghies ready to sail downstream. Bathers who jump in are abandoned to their fate, being willy-nilly dragged along by the current. Some struggle in vain against the current in an attempt to swim upstream, but few achieve this. Those who remain on the riverside sit around chatting, drinking wine, unwrapping their picnic baskets or relaxing on the lawn. Oh, yes – in summer, the badi hosts two weeks of open-air independent cinema.
This is Zurich’s “dolce vita”, which reaches its peak during the bathing season – a microcosm which first-time sightseers are amazed at. If you’re thinking of visiting Switzerland’s biggest city in summer, book your Vueling here.
Text by Núria Gurina i Puig
Photos by Zürich Tourism/Caroline Minjolle; Tourism/Elisabeth Real; Zürich Tourism/Martin Rütschi; Roland Fischer; Núria Gurina
04 July, 2017