Every clued-up traveller knows that Swiss cities are having a moment, which is perhaps unsurprising considering how they overdeliver on architecture, history, contemporary culture and culinary experiences. But there's another major draw that has remained something of a secret: Switzerland's most appealing cities - Zurich, Geneva, Basel and beyond - straddle swimmable rivers and sidle up to pristine lakes, making the country a paradise for travellers who crave wildness and water alongside the more urbane pleasures of a city break.
Internationally spirited Geneva is loved by travellers for its abundance of restaurants, museums and markets, so it's fitting that it also offers its water-loving inhabitants and visitors both a serene lake and the confluence of two major rivers. Workers from all over the world now call Geneva home, and throughout the year a global community of locals flock to Bains des Pâquis, where you can follow up a lakeside dip with a sauna and a bowl of fondue at the much-loved social enterprise café next door. Another must-visit is La Jonction, where the differently coloured waters of the Rhône and Arve meet, a natural phenomenon best observed with a post-dip beer at bar À la Pointe.
Bains des Pâquis | Photo credit: Charly Derouet
Less than an hour by train north-east around Lake Geneva sits the university town of Lausanne, a luxurious lakeside resort that has seduced everyone from Coco Chanel to David Bowie in its time. The nearest city swim spot here is at Ouchy, where swimmers, paddleboarders and foilboarders launch themselves into the water from a new boardwalk. A 20-minute drive further east is the Montreux Riviera, where, in the foothills of the Alps, belle époque mansions and palace hotels line one of the most scenic stretches of Lake Geneva's shore. A desirable European holiday destination since the 19th century, French-speaking Montreux was enticing writers, actors, musicians and artists including Leo Tolstoy, F Scott Fitzgerald, Igor Stravinsky and Charlie Chaplin to the lake long before the Montreux Jazz Festival began bringing in a stream of 20th-century music legends. In the summer months, the lakeshore brims with sophisticated swimmers sunning themselves; in winter, hardy locals leap into the lake and shelter in saunas at Steam on the Water.
Steam on the Water | Photo credit: Charly Derouet
The Montreux Riviera is known for its mild climate, but if you're seeking out an even more uncannily Mediterranean flavour, you'll want to head to the Ascona-Locarno district of Ticino. The geographically blessed Italian-speaking region of Switzerland is nestled in the southern foothills of the Alps. Sip an Aperol spritz in the glossy and glamorous resort towns of Ascona and Locarno on Lake Maggiore, before sunbathing on the sands of Lido di Ascona, one of Switzerland's prettiest sandy beaches. Those feeling more adventurous should make tracks to the Verzasca Valley, where the incredibly picturesque Ponte dei Salti stone bridge straddles turquoise waters and pools hewn from grey and orange rock, making for an idyllic wild swim spot.
True to Swiss form, there's a strong swimming tradition in Lucerne, Basel and Zurich, too. In Zurich, Switzerland's German-speaking creative powerhouse, a "work hard, play hard" ethos sees locals, post-logging off, leaping into the lake or lounging at a lakeside bar. As with Geneva, there are lido and sauna complexes aplenty, most notably Frauenbad Stadthausquai, an art nouveau, women-only pool complete with a library and unbeatable views of the Grossmünster spires. You'll also want to check out the Barfussbar (Barefoot Bar), which opens after sunset.
Frauenbad Stadthausquai, left, and Zurich | Photo credit: Judith Linine
Lake Lucerne is just south of Lake Zurich, and the photogenic city of Lucerne is a smaller, easily navigable destination dotted with lakeside spots for relaxing by the shore, absorbing the spectacular views, and perhaps plotting lazy adventures into the mountains of Rigi, Pilatus and Stanserhorn. Strandbad Lido, Lucerne Lido and Ufschötti are local favorites for a swim backdropped by perhaps Switzerland's most famous mountain panorama.
And what Basel lacks in a lake, it more than makes up for with the Rhine. In the summer months, buvettes (riverside food and drink shacks) line its banks, and the after-work crowd stuff their belongings into a waterproof Wickelfisch bag, which protects their laptops while also serving as a float to drift downstream clinging onto, beer in hand. The city is also home to some 300 well-maintained historic fountains, the larger of which serve (legally and intentionally) as community dipping pools in the heat of the summer. Cavorting in a fountain with a few cold beers might sound downright debauched and decidedly un-Swiss, but in Switzerland, getting into the water is considered natural, normal and necessary. It's this dedication to the good life, as well as the ravishing lakes and rivers, that makes Switzerland such a paradise for swimmers.
How to Get There
Fly with SWISS from across the UK and Ireland to various airports in Switzerland.
The Swiss Travel System covers more than 29,000km with its extensive public transport network of trains, buses, cable cars and boats. Book your tailored Swiss city package and get unlimited travel on public transport with a Swiss Travel Pass at switzerlandtravelcentre.com.
Keen to dive into Switzerland's best city swimming spots? Visit myswitzerland.com for more information