Helsinki Or Swim: A Serious Fitness Journey

Helsinki, the Finnish capital offers a number of unique swimming experiences – especially delightful for the design-loving fitness enthusiast. Doing laps in a seawater pool next to a breathtaking silhouette of architecture styles from Neoclassical to Nordic Classicism through Art Nouveau and Functionalism is as memorable a work out as you can imagine. But you won’t easily forget either, the time you swam in a suit optional swimming pool set in a landmark Art Deco building. Or doing two or three strokes after emerging mellow as pea soup from a striking, architecturally-designed sauna. I tried these all, and more in Helsinki, a city where nature and design are selling features that happily co-exist.

This realization came to me as I was swimming laps at the Allas Sea Pool opened in 2016, a  spectacular, unique swimming experience that seemed as natural as it was cutting edge. Set next to the famous Market Square, it’s a series of outdoor swimming pools built right on the  Baltic, and set in front of a breathtaking array of buildings of seminal architecture: Neo-Classical, Neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, National Romanticism, Nordic Classicism, Functionalism, and Modernism.

I visited at dusk, a particularly great time for the extraordinary beautiful lighting. In one direction I swam towards the silhouette of gorgeous architecture. In another direction, I swam towards the SkyWheel and the remarkable Uspenski Cathedral. During one lap a giant ferry boat, transporting passengers from Sweden floated so close to me, I could see inside. Rarely had I felt such a combination of outdoor and city life at once. 

There were funny moments too. While swimmers were warm in the heated pool, the cool night air misting overhead, the lifeguard who sat on a chair at the edge of the pool was dressed in ski pants and jacket and a wool balaclava.

On another occasion, I headed to Yrjonkadun Swimming Hall, an Art Deco bathhouse that was the city’s first public indoor pool when it opened in 1928. Fully renovated in recent years, it’s an oasis of calm right in the middle of the bustling downtown. The pool sits in the middle of a three-story building that was designed by architect Väinö Vähäkallio. Its history aside, what makes Yrjonkadun unique (at least for non-Nordic types) is that swimming has traditionally been done naked. In 2001 optional bathing suits were introduced; women and men have separate swimming times. 

When I arrived, the non-English speaking Estonian attendant communicated to me to leave my shoes in the entrance hall, and then led me to my private changing room on the second floor (which you pay extra for access to). The attendant opened the door onto a mall room with white and blue tile floor, a single day bed to rest in. It was a little strange but kind of chic. It looked like a room in a 1930’s sanatorium. These small chambers ringed the upper floor. The lower floor has similar change/ day rooms but they are shared with two beds to a room with a curtain in the middle separating them.

I wrapped a towel around my naked body, walked down to the pool, hung up the towel, showered, then dove in. A young woman with a taut name body and shaved head walked by. 

It wasn’t as easy to shed my inhibitions. It felt awkward and for the first three or four minutes all I could think about was getting out and into my little dressing room. But I soon got used to naked swimming, calm as always, by the rhythm of laps, until I realized how wonderful the sensation of swimming nude felt.

I  swam as long as I could before going up to my changing room and resting on my daybed.  

A balcony overlooked the pool on the upper areas with little tables dotted around where guests could have a glass of bubbly mineral water or a  coffee after their swim. (Just like every pool in Finland has a sauna, it also offers the opportunity for a  cup of coffee; Finns are huge coffee consumers).

A unique experience, a historical bathhouse and naked swimming. As I  got dressed to go back out, I thought, the best part was not worrying about carrying around a wet bathing suit!

My third and even more singular swimming-in-Helsinki experience was at Löyly, a chic architecturally-designed sauna on the southern Helsinki waterfront which opened last year and has largely brought the public sauna back to style.  It’s certainly become a favourite weekend hangout for Helsinki hipsters. The building is stunning: a hexagon shaped minimalist wood structure overlooking the sea that seems to combine key aspects of Finnish identity all in one: saunas, great minimalist design and a window to nature. 

Löyly, has a lovely restaurant with terrace where, in summer months, people drink champagne and stay out in the midnight sun, overlooking the Baltic Sea.

I, however, was there in winter. Where the experience is not so much about sipping champagne as dipping into a frigid sea. After heating my body in Löyly’s smoke sauna, then beating myself with a birch leaf bundle, it was time for inevitable.  I walked outside and down an icy path that led to a ladder that led right into the frigid Baltic. You don’t dive in. You climb down. There’s a myth, or at least I didn’t want to see if it was truth or myth, that says you can go insane if you submerge your head. So in up to my shoulders head above the water a  few strokes, and I was out and feeling supremely alive. And very, very, clear headed.