The world knows it as a banker’s hub and a skier’s gateway to the Alps, but from June to September, Zurich becomes a swimmer’s paradise and its leafy lakeside parks and river banks swell with visitors and locals in search of a splashy dip.
Like many things in Switzerland, Zurich — the country’s largest city with just shy of 400,000 residents — is small and meticulously efficient. Perched on the northern tip of banana-shaped Zürisee (Lake Zurich) and trisected by two rivers and an ancient moat, the 2,000-year-old city has a reputation for being the stuffy home to secret Swiss bank accounts and the infamous gnome-like Swiss bankers who maintain them. While it’s true that 70 banks continue to call Zurich home, Switzerland’s secret banking ended in 2009, after major international tax shelter reforms. What remains secret, however, are Zurich’s charms.
For a city that consistently tops the Best Quality of Life and World’s Happiest Places lists, Zurich remains intentionally difficult to get to know. Its crooked medieval streets can disorient the savviest of navigators while its residents’ Swiss-German dialect, Zürichdeutsch, is unintelligible to most German-speakers. Though it is the most widely spoken of Switzerland’s four official languages (which include French, Italian, and Romansh, with English as an unofficial fifth), the fact that there are four official languages only adds to visitors’ sense of bewilderment. If that weren’t enough to confuse you, Switzerland’s non-E.U. status and use of its own currency (Swiss francs) makes Zurich a bit of a financial and cultural bubble with a high minimum wage and premium cost of living to match. Make no mistake, the travel clichés are here too: chocolate, cheese, luxury watches, clock towers, and punctual trains abound, but what travel magazines and guidebooks neglect to mention are Zurich’s baden — swimming areas that line the lakes, rivers and canals and remind us that Zurich is closer to Venice than Berlin both in distance and spirit.
From June to September, Zurich becomes a swimmer’s paradise. Its leafy lakeside parks and lido-lined riverbanks swell with locals and visitors who come for a splashy dip in the metro area’s 25 urban baden. The water that feeds these swimming holes comes from the Alpine-fed, emerald-green Zürisee, which also serves as the city’s primary drinking water reservoir and remains some of the cleanest in Europe.
But the fun isn’t just in the water, but at the bathhouses as well. Some are charming and historic with shingled wooden structures dating back to the 1800s while others offer more contemporary ambiance featuring mid-century sunbathing platforms that transform to impromptu dance floors after the sun sets. Regardless of their history, the baden are always equipped with modern facilities like hot showers, food stalls, bars, and children’s areas, and often feature activities like SUP (stand-up paddleboard), yoga, kayak rentals, saunas, and massage rooms. In other words, don’t come to Zurich in the summer without getting wet.
“From June to September, Zurich becomes a swimmer’s paradise. Its leafy lakeside parks and lido-lined riverbanks swell with locals and visitors who come for a splashy dip in the metro area’s 25 urban baden.”
Zürisee has the most baden, which, along with beaches, dot both coasts, the sun-kissed Goldküste (Gold Coast) and the less sunny Pfnüselküste (Flu Coast.) On the former, Seebad Utoquai (admission 7 CHF; open May — September) sits on the old city’s lakefront promenade just opposite the gilded Opera House. This historic wooden lido-style bathhouse has been luring visitors into the lake since 1890 and remains especially popular with a 30 to 50-year-old age group. It’s divided into three sections: men-only (especially popular with gay men), women-only, and a mixed section popular with couples and families. It’s also equipped with diving boards, SUP rentals, hot showers, and a full café and bar where you can start your morning with a cold lake plunge and a bowl of birchermüsli, nibble on a fattoush salad for lunch, or sip an Aperol Spritz during sunset — a venerable Zurich tradition.
On the opposite coast is Seebad Enge, (admission 7 CHF; open all year) adjacent to Zurich’s elegant tree-lined Enge Wiese Arboretum and just across the lake from the Utoqaui bad. This full-service badi (the singular form of baden) is especially beloved by 30-somethings and foreigners living in Zurich, many of whom work for Google around the corner (continental Europe’s largest Google Campus and affectionately called Zooglers).The bath offers excellent views of the snow-frosted Glarus Alps on clear days. It hosts regular workshops on kung fu, the Alexander Technique, and SUP yoga, while its ‘floating sauna’ stays open year-round. It’s not unusual to see bathers plunging nude into the cool lake after a steamy session. For all the talk about Swiss being uptight about rules, they’re surprisingly relaxed about public nudity, so visitors should be prepared to see a lot of skin at all the baths.
Though there are numerous free spots to jump into the lake along the lakeshore, head three kilometres south of the city centre on the Gold Coast to access the Strandbad Tiefenbrunnen (admission 7 CHF; open May — September) one of Zurich’s largest lakefront swimming parks, complete with a 5-metre high platform diving board, a 62-metre waterslide, a massage therapist, floating pontoons, nudist sun terraces, and a spacious children’s pool and wading area. Tiefbrunnen’s large grassy lawn plunges down into the water and is an ideal place to while away the hours on a Sunday afternoon when all the shops in the city are closed.
Two rivers snake through Zurich’s city centre — The Limmat and Sihl — but only the Limmat is swimmable. The historic Frauenbad Stadthausquai (admission 7 CHF; open May — September) is perched on it in the old city near Bürkliplatz. It was built as a women-only bath in 1837 and has remained true to its women-only rule since, though its current wooden bathhouse only dates back to 1881. Each August the dock of the Frauenbad becomes the launching spot for Zurich’s wildly popular Limmatschwimmen (admission 20 CHF) when the oldest segment of the Limmat River that cuts through the old town is opened for a day of recreational swimming. Because the river is fed by the nearby lake, the water tends to move fast making it more of an express lazy river which can be enjoyed with a complimentary inflatable device received upon admission. Gliding under the city’s ancient belfries, cobbled 14th-century bridges and ornately carved towers is a sublime ‘Only In Zurich’ experience that you won’t soon forget.
Also fast flowing is the Flussbad Oberer Letten (free admission; open May — September) and Flussbad Unterer Letten (free admission; open May — September) both located a short walk from the old city centre. Unterer Letten is perched in a shady spot along the north bank that’s a favourite of families and neighbourhood locals. It’s marked by old-fashioned wooden shingled bathhouses and hosts an open-air cinema festival every July called Film Fluss where you can watch films from the water. Oberer Letten occupies a stretch of river on both the north and south banks. It’s marked with graffiti and popular with Zurich’s tattooed 20-somethings and sporty volleyball players taking advantage of the sand courts adjacent to the water. Its elegant mid-century bathhouse was built in 1952 but underwent a meticulous restoration in 2013. It hosts dance parties late into the weekend evenings after the sun has set.
“Gliding under the city’s ancient belfries, cobbled 14th-century bridges and ornately carved towers is a sublime ‘Only In Zurich’ experience that you won’t soon forget.”
Flussbad Au-Höngg is known as Werdinsel to locals. It’s a 15-minute tram ride from the city centre and is divided into two distinctly different sections: the manicured lawns and kiddie pools are big family draws, while the stretch of unmowed meadow further north is home to a clothing optional counter culture that’s equal parts Berlin and Venice Beach and where you can see just about anything and everything from Mohawk-totting nudists to gay Goths in burkinis. The water here is especially cold and fast moving, and jumping in is not for children or the faint of heart, but your reward for doing so is a high-speed splashy thrill ride down a rushing charge of turquoise Alpine water. If you wear goggles and stay underwater, it feels a bit like flying.
By day, Männerbad Schanzengraben (April — October) is a quiet male-only badi, especially popular with the local Hasidic Jewish men on the Sabbath. But by 5:00 pm, it turns into Rimini, a swimming bar and party open to both men and women that lasts until midnight. The discreetly hidden badi sits next to the city’s Old Botanical Garden on Zurich’s Schanzengraben, a medieval moat fed with fresh lake water. On Monday afternoons in the summer the bath doubles as a market with varying weekly themes like artisanal food and hand-knitted goods. Come September when the water cools, the badi transforms into an open-air fondue stübli (tavern) and a different form of dipping takes over for the winter.
Whether you’re in Switzerland to bask in seclusion in places like Andermatt or Gstaad, or to take in the country’s bigger attractions like Lucerne or Bern, chances are you’ll be flying in and out of Zurich, so while you’re there, why not make the most of the summer festivities that descend upon this ancient Swiss city and take a dip — clothing optional.
Note: International guests arriving at The Chedi Andermatt will likely transit through Zurich, which is the closest airport to the property, about 60 — 90 minutes away by car.
(Featured image: While Switzerland is known to many as a winter wonderland, Zurich proves that winter isn’t the only time to visit Switzerland. With a festive river and lakeside scene, Zurich is the perfect place to mix leisure and sightseeing for a day out in the summer months.)