Finland’s oldest public pool – swimsuits optional

In December 1967, a man named Harold Holt went for a swim in rough seas off the coast of Australia. He was never seen again. A tragedy for any family, his disappearance also put the country in an awkward position – because Harold was the Prime Minister of Australia at the time.

Australian PM Harold Holt, 1967 National Archives of Australia

Australian PM Harold Holt, 1967 National Archives of Australia

A huge search failed to find his body and conspiracy theories floated to the surface, including speculation that he had been picked up by a Chinese submarine. The event has been described by one Australian comedian as ‘the swim that needs no towel.’

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Yrjönkatu uimihalli Photo credit: Mari Herrala for Cafe Yrjo

I was reminded of this recently when invited by Verena to join her and two American guests for a swim that needs not only no towel but also no swimsuit. Helsinki’s Yrjönkadun uimahalli (swimming hall) opened in 1928 and while swimsuits have been allowed since 2001 they are still optional.

This is Finland’s oldest public swimming pool and men and women swim on separate days.

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For our visit we paid a small fee and were given towels, a robe and a key before being shown upstairs to our cubicles. Each cubicle had a bed, a mirror and a lockable drawer – very clean and simple – like something out of a 1940s hospital.

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Where I recovered from smallpox in 1910 got changed

Dressed in our robes (no sash or belt provided) we headed downstairs for a compulsory shower before entering the pool. I chose to swim laps but water-jogging is popular, where you run in the water, suspended by a floatation belt.

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As I swam I noticed it was time for the changing of the lifeguard. The woman in her 50’s who had watched us from a raised chair was replaced by a young guy, in his early-30s. When it was time to get out I was relieved to see he was no longer at his station and took the opportunity to ascend from the pool –  only for him to appear that moment from behind a beam, right at the top of the ladder. All I could do was greet him with a smile because, honestly, that’s all I had on.

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Cubicle with a view

Now it was time for another shower and our first sauna. Our American friends had maintained their modesty until this stage but a sign on the sauna door showing a swimsuit with a big red cross through it made it clear this was a swimsuit-free zone. The sauna was around 80 degrees celsius (176 Fahrenheit) and as we entered we could hear a group of women outside singing Finnish folk songs.

After another shower we tried the steam sauna, which was so foggy we could hardly see a thing. It was an effort to find a space to sit without accidentally sitting on someone’s knee.

Photo credit: Mari Heralla for Cafe Yrjo

Photo credit: Mari Herrala for Cafe Yrjo

Time for another shower before heading upstairs to have a drink at one of the tables on the balcony. We each had some water and a glass of sparkling wine or beer before heading back to try the puu (wood) sauna.

This was by far my favourite – a large room with a big wood-fired oven with the door swung open, something that Hansel and Gretel would have nightmares about. The heat was strong but somehow softer than the other saunas and the roof was black with soot.

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Verena threw ladles of water on the fire to create heat and told us about sauna culture in her homeland of Austria. With New Zealand being quite conservative in its attitudes to public nudity (not encouraged) it’s always interesting to hear about how big a part of life sauna culture is. Verena commented that she’d much prefer to sauna with friends than alone, as it is a social experience to be shared.

After a final shower we went upstairs to have something to eat before dressing and being ushered out by the staff as we were the last ones to leave.

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Goats cheese salad from Cafe Yrjö

Yrjönkadun uimahalli is open from September – April and occasionally they hold events such as Christmas-time candle-lit swimming. If you’re in Helsinki I strongly recommend paying the hall a visit, as for many visitors to Finland this will be a unique experience.

For those in Australia you may prefer to cool off this summer with your own swim that needs no towel – at the commemorative and ironically named Harold Holt Swim Center in Glen Iris.

Yrjönkadun uimahalli

Cafe Yrjö

Yrjönkatu 21b
00120 Helsinki
09 310 87401

Harold Holt Disappearance

Harold Holt Conspiracy Theories

19 thoughts on “Finland’s oldest public pool – swimsuits optional

  1. I loved this place and went a few times, after I’d discovered the lots of sauna in Rovaniemi. And I definitely liked the wood sauna best.

    Back in SYD I now go for an occasional sauna at the Ian Thorpe pool, but there is nothing quite like cooling off in the frozen Baltic, at the sauna club on Uunisaari.

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  2. I have not heard of this, it’s gorgeous. I am of Finnish heritage, but I don’t like saunas. I don’t like to be hot, so can see no point deliberately going into a hot steamy room…ever.

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  3. I am surprised that there are Finns who don’t like public nudity or saunas. The Finns I know don’t think twice about going into the sauna in their birthday suits. I have learnt something new today 🙂 I also like the wood sauna more than the electric one.

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  4. Here’s another Finn who has never been there! I suppose there are so many swimming halls that we just tend to go to the closes one, and of course now as a family we wouldn’t be able to go anyhow. Maybe I’ll go though, one day with some lady friends, it’s a place worth checking out!

    As a child we were always shy about going naked to the sauna and often got scolded by the older ladies. I remember being told something about it not being safe because of the chemicals which are used to keep the swimming pool water clean, they’re OK on your skin but evaporate in sauna and are harmful if you breathe them..

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    • That’s interesting about the chemicals. And funny to hear you were shy about being naked – which is totally natural! – I think I’ve just fallen into the idea of thinking all Finns love it. ; ) I would recommend a visit to this swimming hall if you can sometime, it’s a nice thing to do with friends. Thanks for your comments, it always adds another layer of understanding for me to hear back from Finnish people & their views.

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  5. A wonderful story and very interesting comments ! This place is beautiful, if we are ever in the country looks to be well worth a visit !! 🙂

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  6. My son-in-law works at the Harold Holt pool in Glen Iris, Melbourne. I was swimming there with my daughter in October on the very day she went into labour. Clothes not optional there except in the communal changing rooms – he told me of one woman who went into the men’s changing room and refused to leave, saying she’d seen plenty of naked men in her time.

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    • Here in the USA that would probably get you arrested if you were man and you would be forced to register as a sexual predator. However in this instance I’m sure no one was complaining 🙂

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