Cooling off in a pond, lake or best of all, the sea, after a day of sightseeing is the ideal way to see a different side of a city.

Wild swimming holes are often local hotspots, giving visitors the chance to experience something beyond the usual roll call of museums, galleries and restaurants. From lake swimming in London to the deep swell off Cape Town, via a New York lido and Sydney tidal pool, these are the best places to squeeze a wild city swim.

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1. Hampstead ponds, London

A wild swimming women's group take an autumnal swim at Hampstead Heath ponds.
It's never too cold for Hampstead Heath ponds. ©Hollie Fernando/Getty Images

London’s beautiful and sprawling Hampstead Heath is home to three historic bathing ponds: the mixed pond close to Parliament Hill, Highgate Men’s Pond and Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. The latter pair are open year round, attracting hardy, ice-breaking swimmers, but also warmly welcoming newcomers willing to experience the thrill of slipping into cold water for the first time. Swimmers must pay £2.

The mixed pond opens from May to September and has a small lawn for sunbathing, as well as rustic changing areas. The tree-lined banks are home to coots, moorhens and grebes, meaning there’s always wild company whenever you dive in.

Where to warm up: The pleasingly old-school Parliament Hill Café serves hefty bowls of pasta, large slabs of cake and pots of tea, ideal for when you’re struggling to shake off the chill after a dip.

View of the natural swimming pond, Boekenger, in Antwerp on a clear sunny day. There is a small group of people swimming and lounging on the steps near the pond
Boekenger swimming pond, Antwerp © Joe Minihane / Lonely Planet

2. Boekenberg swimming pond, Antwerp

Tucked away in Boekenberg park in the suburb of Deurne, this beautiful pond is a swimmer’s paradise. The water is filtered using an ecological, reed bed system and is crystal clear, with a smart clubhouse and modern changing area adding to its allure.

Between May and September it’s free to swim here, with members having the run of the pond during winter, when it often ices over. Once a municipal swimming pool, the decision to turn it into a natural swimming pond has been thoroughly embraced by the locals. It’s easily reached from central Antwerp via the excellent tram system.

Where to warm up: Head back into the city for coffee at Frits Koffiebar, located in the historic area of Zurenborg.

People enjoy a warm day at the Astoria Park Pool in New York with the RFK bridge visible in the background.
Astoria Pool, New York City © KENA BETANCUR / Getty Images

3. Astoria Pool, New York City

At over 5000 square metres, Astoria Pool in New York City feels more like a lake than a swimming pool. Set within Astoria Park, in the shadow of the Robert F Kennedy Bridge, the pool was used for US Olympic trials in 1936 and 1964. The art deco buildings and bleachers are a fine example of New Deal-era architecture, offering the perfect space for a post swim picnic.

Its vastness means there’s space for serious lane swimming and aqua aerobics classes, as well as ample room for kids to splash about. The pool is open from late June until early September. Entrance is free, but you’ll need to bring your own lock and abide by strict rules, including only wearing white garments over swimwear while poolside.

Where to warm up: The in-house snack bar does superb hot dogs, as well as coffee. You can’t take in your own food, so be sure to have a few dollars to hand before you lock up your bags.

A person floats down the Aare river in the historical city of Bern on a sunny day
Aare River, Bern © Joel Carillet / Getty Images

4. Aare River, Bern

Bern’s Aare River has earned a reputation for being one of Europe’s cleanest and most beautiful rivers for wild swimming. The blue glacial melt water makes for a delicious dip, with a chill even in high summer. In fact, it’s become so popular that some locals have started swimming to and from work when the temperatures get up.

Exit points are marked by red bars, making it easy to climb in and out of the water. Make a point of hopping out at Marzili, where you’ll find plenty of space for drying off in the sun and even a freshwater pool if you feel like wallowing a little longer.

Where to warm up: Ice cream might not seem like the most obvious treat after a cold swim, but Gelateria di Berna, across from the entrance to Marzili, does the best in Bern. Perfect on a hot afternoon

St James Beach with colourful bathing boxes on a sunny town, Cape Town. Table Mountain is visible in the background
St James pool, Cape Town © Andrea Willmore / Shutterstock

5. St James pool, Cape Town

Less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town, this charming, sheltered pool is bordered by colourful Victorian bathing boxes, making it perfect for a dip and a pic! There are natural rock pools with fascinating wildlife for kids to discover and a large man-made tidal pool with calm, relatively warm waters. It’s free to visit and open at all hours, but best enjoyed on a sunny day with a packed picnic.

Where to warm up: Practically on the beach, super cool Folk Cafe provides a warm space, breakfast and cuppa. They also have a great play area for kids.

A group of people wearing bathing suits are jumping off the forty foot on a sunny day.
The Forty Foot, Dublin © Julien Behal - PA Images / Getty Images

6. The Forty Foot, Dublin

Ireland’s most famous wild swimming spot, The Forty Foot sits at the south of Dublin Bay in Sandycove. Swimming here is said to date back some 250 years, with James Joyce adding to its legend by having Buck Milligan enjoy an icy dip here in his seminal Ulysses.

Once a men’s only spot, today The Forty Foot is open to all and has become a year-round spot for jumping in and tacking out longer distances, as well as having a joyous, heads-up swim, all the better for watching the sea bob and the weather change.

Where to warm up: Dog-friendly Hatch Coffee is a brisk 10-minute walk away and guarantees a warm welcome as well as the perfect brew.

Bronte Baths
A rock pool located in Bronte beach, perfect for wild swimming near the city ©sydneyhills/Getty Images

7. Bronte Baths, Sydney

Sydney is blessed with arguably the greatest ocean baths on the planet and picking just one to try is a challenge. But the spectacular Bronte Baths, adjacent to the beach of the same name, is hard to beat. While the ocean here can be wild, this sheltered pool provides the ideal way to taste that salty water and enjoy a wild swim on a scorching Australian summer’s day.

There’s room for serious swimmers to stretch out, as well as shallow areas for younger swimmers to get some practice in. Best of all, it’s free and open all year round.

Where to warm up: Head to Bronte Belo, a Brazilian-inspired café with amazing views of the beach and coffee to die for. 

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This article was first published in January 2020 and was most recently updated in October 2020.

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This article was first published November 2019 and updated October 2020

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