When we think of places to enjoy swimming in Europe our minds tend to drift to the Greek islands, Spain, the French Riviera or the warm beaches in Italy. Think of beautiful and inviting warm places like Nice, Barcelona, Capri or Santorini. Sunny, sandy beaches, warm water and beautiful people.
But would you suspect that the Scandinavian countries also harbor great places to swim? Cold Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland? Really? Yes, really! The Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and Finns love swimming in the sea, at least in the summer. Bear in mind that there are thousands of miles of Baltic shoreline in Scandinavia, including several thousand islands. The national capitols of Denmark and Sweden are both located on islands. I have had the pleasure of traveling to Scandinavia several times, most recently in October 2022.
In the summer, the waters of the Baltic Sea are on the cool side, sometimes in the high 50s, usually in the 60s, occasionally in the low 70s depending on the weather and where you are. The City of Copenhagen has developed a few large, enclosed, free salt-water bathing areas right in town. There is no shortage of swimmers, none of them sporting wetsuits. Relatively moderate water temperatures. The Danish government says that the water is quite clean for swimming everywhere in Denmark. Not long ago I swam just a few hundred meters from the Little Mermaid statue. Sadly, “free swimming” in open water has been recently discouraged for safety reasons in the City of Copenhagen. From personal experience I can assure you that it may be discouraged, but it is not enforced. Far from Copenhagen, on the Danish mainland, you will find good beaches surrounding Jutland, in cities like Arhus. That is also true for most of the outlying Danish islands.
The Stockholm Archipelago consists of well over a thousand islands, some tiny, others large and well populated. They say that if you swam at a different island every day it would take decades to experience all of them. So many places to swim! However, avoid swimming near the busy downtown Stockholm area (near the Royal Palace and Old Town), and be wary of the many fishing boats and ferries: no roads connect the islands, so a large fleet of ferries carries a lot of inter island traffic. Swedes seem to gravitate to the sea. During a recent swim off a small island not far from downtown, the water temperature was in the high sixties. At the southern terminus of the border between Sweden and Norway is a national park shared by both countries, with access to the water on each side of the border. Centuries ago, a proud Swedish king had a massive wooden warship built. The Vasa was the biggest warship in the world. It was so big and cumbersome that it sank immediately upon launching. A few years ago, its well-preserved and highly-decorated remains were raised and are now located in its own museum. It is a beautiful and extravagant display of a misspent fortune on an unneeded, expensive and useless war machine. As the song goes, “When will we ever learn?”
Right in the middle of Helsinki, Finland is a cordoned off salt water pool, a swimming area with one end open to the sea, about 50 meters square. Some people swim laps, others just lounge and float in the cold Nordic sun, enjoying immersion in this protected finger of the sea. But here is the coolest (doh!) part: Once you have had enough of the cold pool it is a very short walk to a huge, quite hot unisex sauna where you can sit cheek-to-cheek (cold water cheeks against hot sauna cheeks?) with dozens of your Finnish cousins until you have had enough roasting in the sauna heat. Then you rush back to the cold pool and leap in for another round. Stimulating, to say the least. Do your cold-to-hot-to-cold alternations as many times as you can bear it. I loved it but cautiously limited myself to two sessions in the pool and two in the sauna. Hardy Finns enjoy their saunas year-round. In winter they exit the sauna for a roll-around in the snow, maybe even in icy water. (Finland, once a part of the Soviet Union, has a long, cold border with Russia. The Russian version of sauna is called banya, and you will find a banya in every little village in the country. Men and women must use the banya at different times.)
In early October 2022 our cruise ship docked in Oslo, Norway. I had scheduled visits to the Viking Ship Museum, another museum housing Amundsen’s Fram, and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki Museum, all of which I highly recommend. The museum visits filled up most of my day. The city of Oslo has miles of beach access, along with warming huts. After the museums there was no time remaining for my beach visit. But close to the ship I spotted a chain-link ladder dropping ten feet down to the water. Mel, a brave Canadian friend and I looked at each other, quickly ran to the ship to change into our swim suits, and in no time we were swimming in our element, with another friend watching our progress from above us. We swam parallel to the shore for about ten minutes, then turned back to the chain ladder. Unfortunately, not watching where I was going, I swam right into a floating log and gave my scalp a bloody owie. The ship’s doctor fixed it with antibiotic ointment and a big bandaid. But it was worth it.
What to wear when swimming in the Baltic? In October I did not see any locals wearing wetsuits. Besides, are bulky and heavy, and difficult to carry around the world, especially when wet and smelly. But an insulated cap will help a lot with comfort and heat loss. When travelling in the north I keep the contents of my swim bag light and simple: two swimsuits, two pairs of goggles (one with tinted lenses), two swim caps (one insulated), a pair of light-weight fins, a small container of Swim Ear, a pair of silicone ear plugs and a container of Spit goggles cleaner. The entire contents of my bag weighs less than a couple of pounds. (I borrowed a towel from the ship.)
Here is the bottom line: If you love swimming in cold water, you will be pleased with the possibilities all over Scandinavia. But if the Baltic’s cold water is not your cup of tea, no problem. There are plenty of fine places to swim down south in the Mediterranean. Perhaps I will join you.
Finally, a word of caution. When swimming anywhere in the sea it is best to ask local swimmers about currents and possible hazardous conditions. You will find that very few places are patrolled by lifeguards, not only in Scandinavia, but in most of the world. Swim with a buddy. Swim smart, swim long.