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