Wild Urban Swimming

With snow capped mountains, and some of the most picturesque landscapes in the world, Switzerland is famous for being an outdoor paradise for skiers, hikers and mountain bikers. However, as a landlocked nation, it may surprise you to learn about our beloved commitment to ‘wild swimming’.

‘Wild swimming’ refers to any type of swimming that takes place outdoors in a natural body of water. Fans of the activity talk about an inner peace and mindfulness that descends when they immerse themselves in the water and become part of the landscape in which they live.

‘Wild swimming’ in urban environments has become immensely popular over the last few years, with Parisiens taking a dip in the Canal St Martin and even New Yorkers braving the Hudson. In Switzerland, however, we have been floating through our cities for centuries.  From the creation of the country’s first river baths in Bern in 1782, to the cultural treasure it is today, bathing outdoors is synonymous with Swiss culture.

Urban bathing cultures in Basel, Bern, Zurich and Geneva have been further bolstered in recent decades thanks to a series of policies and campaigns that have worked to improve water quality, access, and safety measures. The ban of phosphates in cleaning agents, the construction of concrete steps at multiple access points, and the presence of maps and guidelines, all help to sustain this essential summer activity for locals and tourists.

The easy-going attitude to wild swimming in Switzerland is thanks in part to the lack of restrictions imposed by the local authorities.  In this context we rely on a more grassroots safety culture that focuses on education, a strong community of volunteers, and an unwritten social contract that encourages swimmers to look out for one another.

River Aare in Bern

If you are a strong swimmer and want to experience a hot summer’s day like a true Bernese, take a trip along the Aare. Locals have been swimming the Aare for centuries, and for good reason. It is a special and unique way to take in the picturesque sights of the capital’s old town, as you drift through turquoise waters, passing the UNESCO world heritage site. You can start your journey from one of the riverside swimming pools and jump out at any exit point marked with a red pole. It should be noted that swimming on the Aare is only suitable for experienced swimmers who should follow the safety tips issued by the Bern tourist office.

River Rhine in Basel

Floating through the medieval city of Basel via the Rhine is a special experience, whether you are a tourist or a local on their daily commute (I know someone who actually travels this way in Basel!). If you are a nervous first-time swimmer, and would like to give it a try, you can also arrange to do an accompanied swim with a trained lifeguard.  The Basel Rhine swim is a particularly fun organised event that takes place every August. Thousands of participants drift down the Rhine from the banks by the Minster down to the lower Rhine banks.

Limmat River in Zurich

Locals have been ‘wild swimming’ in Zurich since Roman times, with ancient bath houses and bars dotted along the Limmat creating a bustling scene of swimmers. The biggest annual events are the “Limmat Swim” in August and the “Samichlaus Schwimmen” in December. The “Samichlaus Schwimmen”, is a charity swim where participants dress up as Santa Claus and swim 111 metres from one side to the other. However, temperatures can be as low as 4°C, so this is not for the faint hearted!

These locations offer merely a snapshot of what Switzerland has to offer in terms of truly unforgettable ‘wild swimming’ experiences. If you are a strong swimmer and you are in the country this summer, I highly recommend giving it a try! In the words of the great John Lennon, ‘Turn off your mind, relax, and float down stream’…  Just remember to pack your wickelfisch!

Photo credits:
Limmat River: © Zürich Tourismus
Aare River: © Bern Welcome

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