Zurich’s Urban Lido Culture
by Duncan J.D. Smith
Named after a popular bathing beach on an island near Venice, the word lido has been used since the twentieth century to describe any fashionable open-air public bathing area. Despite the fact that Zurich lies over nine hundred miles from the Mediterranean, the Swiss city has developed its own unique urban lido culture, taking full advantage of the pristine waters of Lake Zurich (Zürichsee) and the River Limmat into which it empties.
First Bathing Cabins
The origins of Zurich’s lido culture go back to the 1830s, when a craze for therapeutic and leisurely outdoor bathing swept across Europe. To protect the modesty of indulgent bathers, wooden changing rooms were constructed at the water’s edge. Known in the German-speaking world as Kastenbäder, they enabled bathers to change and enter the water both easily and discreetly. Although covered pools appeared in Zurich a decade later, river bathing has remained popular ever since.
Zurich’s first bathing cabins appeared in 1837 on the Stadthausquai, on the west bank of the Limmat. In 1888 these were replaced by the graceful wooden pavilion seen today, known officially as the Flussbad Stadthausquai. Its local name of Frauenbadi, however, reflects the fact that bathing here is reserved for women only. Like Zurich’s eighteen other lidos, it is open daily (9am–8pm) from mid-May until mid-September depending, of course, on the weather.
Since the 1990s, some of Zurich’s lidos have doubled up after hours as lounge bars and the Frauenbadi is no exception. From 8pm onwards on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays it is transformed into the popular Barfussbar (‘barefoot bar’), which is open to both sexes.
An Artificial Moat
Zurich’s oldest working river lido is the Flussbad Schanzengraben on the aptly-named Badweg. A men-only facility, it is known accordingly as the Männerbadi, and was constructed in 1864. The Schanzengraben (literally ‘hill trench’), however, is not a natural river but rather a man-made moat, excavated to protect Zurich’s old city wall and fed by Lake Zurich. One of the old bastions still looms above the lido, whilst on the opposite bank there stands an early eighteenth century water tower once used to distribute spring water to wells in this part of the city. On summer evenings the lido becomes the Rimini Bar, at which time women are admitted.
A Pair of Lidos
Away from the city centre there is a pair of lidos in the district of Wipkingen. The Flussbad Unterer Letten – “de underi Lätte” in Swiss German – was built in 1910 on Wasserwerkstrasse, another street name with watery origins. It consists of a row of red-tiled wooden cabins, with walkways running out across the Limmat. Upstream from here on is the corresponding Flussbad Oberer Letten, built less sympathetically in 1952 in concrete. Crossing the river at this point is a disused nineteenth century railway viaduct, the arches of which are today occupied by more than thirty independent fashion and furniture designers, as well as several small galleries, restaurants, and a market hall. The former Sultana-brand cigarette factory on nearby Sihlquai recalls the area’s industrial past.
Further still down the Limmat is the Badeplatz Au-Höngg on Werdinsel. The relatively modest bathing facilities here are located on the upstream part of an island, whilst downstream is a popular nudist area legalised in 1983. There is also an historic hydroelectric installation here, the Flusskraftwerk Höngg, which has been inserted into the northern arm of the river in the late nineteenth century (tours of the old machinery are available by appointment).
Around Lake Zurich
On the shores of Lake Zurich itself there are also lidos, notably the Seebad Enge (1960) on Mythenquai, which attracts well-groomed thirtysomethings, and the rather more sedate Seebad Utoquai (1890) and Strandbad Tiefenbrunnen (1954), both on Bellerivestrasse.
Away from the river and the lake, Zurich also boasts several open air swimming pools. Of these the largest is the Freibad Allenmoos on Ringstrasse. Constructed in 1939, its main pool is an impressive fifty metres in length. The most interesting pool historically though, is undoubtedly the Freibad Letzigraben on Edelweissstrasse. Opened in 1949 to a design by Swiss architect and author Max Frisch (1911–1991), it formed part of a larger project to develop the district of Altstetten. Fellow author Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) visited Frisch on site during construction.
Of particular interest is the fact that archaeological excavations conducted on the site have thrown much light on the area’s history, which was once the site of a Roman villa, and later the site of the city’s gallows, last used in 1810. Skeletons of three of the unfortunates that were hung here have been unearthed.
Adapted from the book Only in Zurich: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects by Duncan J.D. Smith (published by The Urban Explorer).
Also in this series by Duncan J.D. Smith:
About the Author
Explorer and travel writer Duncan J.D. Smith first got the history bug when his grandfather unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier. He opened his own museum aged eleven and went on to study archaeology at Birmingham. After many years in travel publishing, in 2003 he relocated to Vienna, where he writes and publishes his Only In Guides, a series of city guides for independent cultural travellers. Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.