Hot Summer Badis: Europe's Best Secret
You don’t need me to tell you that Switzerland is beautiful. Even though I tell it to you all the time. But can you blame me? The Lauterbrunnen valley, with it’s 72 waterfalls, was Tolkien’s inspiration for Rivendell in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Bernese Oberland Alps left me so awestruck I was literally moved to tears. I’ve run out of words for the different gradients of blue in the lakes and rivers, of ways to describe how clear the water truly is.
But what if I also told you that Zurich - a small, quiet city stereotypically known for banks, watches and rules - is also the best summer city you never knew about? A bold assertion, I know. Maybe you are side-eying me right now, thinking instead about Mallorca, or the South of France, or somewhere on the Mediterranean, or even my hometown of San Diego, California, USA. When you envision a European city for summer, I imagine that a city in a landlocked country probably doesn’t make the cut.
I get it. Before moving to Zurich last year, I didn’t necessarily have high expectations for the vibe of the city either. I hoped for it to be as clean and efficient and beautiful as advertised, but beyond that, didn’t expect much else. Imagine my surprise, then, when I touched down in July to a city pulsing with life. It was positively electric. Summer in Zurich blew me away. I was almost a little hesitant to even write this post, because it still feels a bit undiscovered. Something only the Swiss know about, that the rest of the world hasn’t quite yet figured out.
(Authors note: It’s worth mentioning that while my main experience with summer life is in and around Zurich, every single city in Switzerland embraces summer with open arms and open water. Hot summer badi life certainly isn’t restricted to just Zurich, it’s only where I’m most familiar).
And maybe you are saying - enough, Alex! Enough about lake life and river life and summer life. But a few weeks ago, Europe experienced an intense heatwave. And during that heat wave, two friends from San Diego were passing through Zurich. Zurich wasn’t even really on their radar. For them, it was just a transit city on their way to the Bernese Oberland. But they took a few hours in the city, and they were just as astonished as I was last July. I was finally able to show native Californias what summer in Switzerland was all about.
Because if there is a time where Zurich lets her hair down and lays it all out there - it’s during the summertime. And here’s the main reason why: Two bodies of water lord over the summer season, around which all social life revolves. There is the Limmat, an impossibly clear river that cuts directly through the heart of Zurich’s old town. I promise, you have never seen a city river this clean and refreshing. I honestly can’t think of any other river that flows right through the middle of a city that is safe to swim in (outside of a river in Switzerland, of course). Can you imagine leisurely swimming in the Seine or the Hudson? In fact, one of the most popular things to do in the summer is to float the Limmat - lazily drifting down the river for hours in inner tubes. Let me repeat: there is a lazy river in the middle of Zurich!
And then, there is the stunning Lake Zurich (Zurichsee), the lake I have dubbed “the lake of many colors” due to the shape-shifting nature of it’s palette. Every day, it takes on a different shade of blue: turquoise, robin’s egg, canary, the deepest of navy, the lightest of aquamarine. Like the Limmat that flows into it, the waters of Lake Zurich are also perfectly clean, clear and on a sunny days, sparkling like Swarovski crystals. Sailboats, kayaks, paddleboards, and ferries dot the surface. All around the lake, smoke from grills fill the air, beer and music appears on every beach blanket.
And don’t forget about the Sihl, Zurich’s canal. While it might be less swimmable, it is floatable. And definitely clean enough to let your feet soak in the cool water over your lunch break.
Everyone - and I mean everyone - is out in the lake, or by the lake, or in the river, or by the river. It’s like the whole city adopts this freeing, “anything goes” attitude. The entire vibe of Zurich transforms, and I am here for it.
And with this summer transformation comes Zurich’s bathing culture: the multiple badis that line the lake and river. Badis are essentially public “baths” or swimming areas, where you can come swim, cool off on grass beaches or wooden decks over the water, sunbathe, socialize, eat, drink, and simply enjoy being outside in the warm weather. Some are free, but generally the cost is about 8 francs for a day entry. You can pay per visit, get a pass for 6 or 12 visits, or really commit to the badi lifestyle and buy a season pass. Every badi has restrooms, shower facilities, and at least a small bar or restaurant (although you can also bring in your own food and drink). Most open around mid-May and close in September or October. Badis are beloved in Zurich, and there is a badi for every mood and persuasion. Everyone has their favorite.
There are the über-cool hipster badis along the Limmat, badis on Lake Zurich with views of the snow-capped Alps, badis that stay open after sunset and turn into barefoot bars, badis that have swim-out platforms and waterslides, badis with long sandy beaches, elegant Art Nouveau badis right in the center of town, badis with areas for “FKK” Freikörperkultur (free body culture) where you can be blissfully naked in the sunshine. It’s normal to go to a badi over your lunch break, or to bring a dry bag and swim home from the office, or to meet for a waterside happy hour. Long hot days turn into deliciously warm nights.
And the biggest kicker: it’s not flooded with tourists. There are no cruise ships that port and flood all of the badis and park beaches, no raging summer bachelor parties, no yacht weeks. Just the city of Zurich, doing it’s thang.
I wore a bathing suit more times in my first month in Zurich than my last 6 years in San Francisco. Raunaq and I are lucky that we live close to the lake, but honestly, in this city you are never too far from access to water. I definitely have not been to all of them, but here are a few of my favorite badis:
Seebad Enge: Go here for the best views of the Alps in the morning and afternoon (also when it gets the most sun). After sundown, Enge turns into a bar and outdoor concert venue. It’s also one of the only badis that is open in the winter as a sauna.
Flussbad Oberer/Unterer Letten: The coolest of the cool, the badi of all badis. The Letten badis are on the Limmat, close to Kreis 5, and it’s a big party every sunny day of the week. These two badis essentially run along Wasserwerkstrasse, creating one big urban beach and sundeck. The water is as cool as the atmosphere, and the crowd feels younger (imagine a “Berlin meets Ibiza meets Dolores Park in SF” vibe), with the booze flowing and music blasting, and best of all - it’s free!
Frauenbadi: An elegant womens-only badi in the heart of the city (Literally. It’s right next to Town Hall), it’s a quiet oasis on the Limmat by day and the perfect place to spend a hour lounging over lunch. But by night, it transforms into a Barfussbar, barefoot bar, open to all (Note: only on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays in good weather).
Mannerbad Schanzengraben/Rimini Bar: To be fair, I’ve never been to this badi during the day, because it’s only for men. But at night, similar to the Frauenbadi, it turns into one of the best pool-parties in the city.
Seebad Utoquai: There’s no better place for a classic summer sunset. The wide, west-facing wooden decks offer incredible views of the cityscape and Uetliberg as the entire lake turns golden. Jump in the lake for a sunset swim, order a Weisswein Gespritz (I much prefer those to the sticky sweet Aperol Spritz, but you do you), and enjoy what feels like an endless summer.
They say that Zurich comes alive in the summer, and it’s true. The badi culture is beloved and practically cult-like, and it helps shift the entire atmosphere of the city. I spent the first twenty years of my life in San Diego and Los Angeles, and I’ve never seen a city embrace the water quite like this. Maybe part of the feeling is because it is so unexpected and different from the rest of the year. Maybe because it feels fleeting and ephemeral, only lasting those few precious months. Maybe because it’s still undiscovered and feels truly local. Maybe because it’s turned me - an earth sign through and through - into a water person. Maybe because it’s so beloved, and people squeeze summer like an orange, getting every last juicy drop they can.
Summertime in Zurich: Europe’s best-kept secret. Know you know. Use it well!