Heat and ice: where to sauna and swim in Copenhagen
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This article is part of a new guide to Copenhagen from FT Globetrotter
Copenhagen has cleaned up its act so much in the past 25 years that its once-industrial 12km-long harbour is now an all-year outdoor-swimming destination. In summer, a local friend tells me, the city’s office workers pile down to the waterfront and swim after work, and you’ll spot rickety ladders going into the water as you walk along the harbour front.
This ad hoc dipping is, however, not technically allowed (although the city is looking at opening the entire waterfront to swimmers). The harbour is a busy waterway and there are spot fines for swimming outside designated zones, so if you are a newcomer or tourist, or swimming in winter (as I was), it’s vital to stay cautious and stick to the well-designed — and free to use — harbour baths that dot the waterfront. I visited two of the most notable year-round swimming spots — the oldest harbour baths, at Islands Brygge, and a new complex at Nordhavn, part of the regeneration of Copenhagen’s northern docklands.
Copenhagen is a small city and the harbour is easy to navigate. If you don’t spot a havnebad, keep walking or cycling and something will miraculously appear.
Many Danes also love to dip in the winter — it’s less than a full swim but enough of a cold blast to make the body glow. There are a few shallow dipping zones (dyppezoner) set into the harbour. If you are making a cautious start in harbour bathing, one of these might be a good place to begin.
Once you’ve given yourself an icy blast — the water temperature was 2C when I visited — it’s a treat to warm up in a sauna. There are seasonal waterfront saunas, including alongside the baths at Islands Brygge, but they are for members only, and a notice on the door of the sauna warns that even the waiting list is closed. The same goes for many of the inviting seaside winter swimming-and-sauna clubs just outside the city — they are members-only too.
The city of Copenhagen recently approved two new floating saunas for club members at the Kalvebod Bølge and Fisketorvet harbour baths, which will be open to the public for a portion of the time. If successful, they will add two more.
And the latest news is that Fisketorvet harbour bath, near the big Fisketorvet shopping centre, is getting a DKr50mn (nearly £6mn) makeover as well as a new sauna. It’s a place for serious swimmers, with three pools, including one divided into lanes, and diving springboards.
In the meantime, I tried two unusual harbourside saunas that welcome anyone (usual health caveats apply).
Islands Brygge Harbour Bath
Islands Brygge 14, 2300 Copenhagen S
Good for: Year-round swimming for everyone, with five pools, including two for children, plus beautiful diving towers
Not so good for: Peace and quiet. This place is famous and central. The full capacity is 600 swimmers
FYI: The tallest jumping and diving tower is 5m, offering a summer nostalgia trip for anyone who laments the removal of diving boards from British swimming pools
It probably wasn’t the best idea to arrive for a swim at Islands Brygge on a clear morning with an air temperature around freezing. The locals had their members-only saunas to warm up in but I had to change by the side of the harbour pool, although there’s plenty of privacy — the small winter pool is set down steps, well below the busy harbourside path that runs alongside it. There’s also a much bigger adult pool here, with lanes, for serious swimming in warmer weather.
The water is clear and checked regularly — this is a fresh swim in all senses, and if you only do one harbour swim in the city, this is the spot. Islands Brygge is the original harbour bath in Copenhagen, opened in 2003 and designed by local hero Bjarke Ingels (now of the famous BIG architecture practice). The booming harbour-swimming culture in the city kicked off here.
The surrounding area — literally, Iceland’s Quay — is a regenerated former port where the price of apartments has rocketed in recent years. The harbourfront next to the baths, even in winter, is busy with walkers, runners, families with kids in enormous Babboe cargo bikes — and people having coffee in the sun. It’s a wonderful spot.
There are plenty of cafés in the area for a post-swim drink and cake. The best known is Wulff & Konstali, a five-minute walk away, but I am afraid I was so cold that I had to warm up inside the closest option — a branch of the ubiquitous Joe and The Juice. Five stars for its heating.
Sandkaj Bathing Zone at Nordhavn
Sandkaj 27, 2150 Copenhagen
Good for: Sunbathing; trying to blend in with the cool locals in this emerging neighbourhood
Not so good for: Visitors with limited time. The area is a way out from the city centre
This is not strictly a harbour bath, rather a series of swimming areas marked with barriers, walkways, ladders and a beautifully designed indoor changing area (not open when I visited in winter). The wider draw is the chance to swim, lounge, eat and drink in a relaxed urban setting.
Wide terraced seating alongside the bathing zone makes swimming here something of a spectator sport. Locals wear chic quilted changing robes — far less bulky than their UK counterparts. This place is a sun trap, and there are plenty of cafés nearby for warming drinks, including a branch of Copenhagen’s Original Coffee chain.
A new permanent CopenHot (see below) sauna complex is set to open at Nordhavn later this year — the combination of café culture, harbour swimming, hot tubs and saunas will make this an unmissable destination.
Good for: Anyone who wants an authentic hot/cold Nordic sauna experience with amazing views
Not so good for: People with a poor sense of direction. My taxi driver struggled to find CopenHot’s winter pop-up. Permanent sites are opening soon
FYI: Danish public-sauna culture is clothed; keep swimwear on (unless a sauna specifies that it is “swimwear optional”)
CopenHot has been at the heart of the city’s outdoor sauna scene for a decade, and this year it ran a seasonal winter pop-up outside the Mikkeller brewery in the cool Refshaleøen area. It offers a range of saunas and hot tubs to book by the hour — the same experiences will soon be on offer at the company’s new permanent site at Nordhavn.
I chose the Panoramic Sauna, a spacious pod with a glass wall offering views over the harbour. This is a much less claustrophobic experience than a traditional cabin sauna, although the downside is that passers-by have an uninterrupted view of you, too.
Founder Thorbjørn Froda stresses its sustainable business practices: certified sustainably grown wood for the stoves comes from offcuts from manufacturing, and the water for the ice baths is drawn directly from the sea. There’s no swimming at this site, but a couple of minutes submerged in the ice bath is enough to make you lose feeling in your extremities, then it’s back into the sauna or book one of the pleasingly hot hot-tubs — they are heated to 40C. Staff are on hand and can bring cold drinks.
Froda’s advice? “Always end on the cold.” Finishing your sauna or tub session with a blast in icy water is what Nordic wellness culture is all about.
One hour in a CopenHot hot tub for up to six people, DKr1,300 (about £155); Panoramic Sauna for up to 10, DKr1,200 (about £140) per hour. Bookings are a flat rate per sauna or hot tub, regardless of the number of people. Check the website for most up-to-date opening times and locations. Bring Crocs or flip-flops. CopenHot provides towels, and secure changing cabins. Book at least 24 hours ahead.
Butcher’s Heat mobile sauna
Good for: Getting (very) close to the locals
Not so good for: Anyone who struggles with extreme heat or small spaces
FYI: This sauna is in a van and moves around the city, so check where your session is taking place. There is also a stationary Butcher’s Heat sauna here
Butcher’s Heat offers the hottest, trippiest and most exhausting sauna session I’ve ever had. And also the only one playing Pink Floyd while we roasted. If you are happy to try something new and challenging, this one is for you.
The Butcher’s Heat van is a converted ex-military vehicle that seats 12 cosily — it was parked on a popular stretch of the harbourfront when I visited. It’s no frills: you have to change outside, but the organisers provide plenty of water, fruit and snacks.
Butcher’s Heat specialises in saunagus: aromatherapy in a sauna. The session is led by a “gus master” who sits next to the stove and puts oils on to the coals. As we piled into the van, she explained we’d be sitting inside — in silence with music playing — for 12 minutes at a time, followed by a break for water and harbour dipping.
Once the doors of the van shut and the oils go on to the coals, things get very intense, very quickly. The group was a mix of couples and groups of friends, both locals and non-Danish speakers. Most of us wore pointy felt hats provided by the organisers to help our bodies manage the heat. We looked like sweaty pixies as we listened to the loud in-van music that started off dance-y and strayed into psychedelia later.
The “gus master” poured citrus oils in part one, cedar and peppermint essence in part two — the latter makes your skin feel cold even in the heat — and I can’t remember part three because by that time I’d elevated to a higher plane.
Make sure you haven’t got anything big planned after a session. I was in bed by 9pm.
A one-hour session in the Butcher’s Heat mobile sauna is from DKr220 (about £25). Bring your own towels and slippers.
Where do you like to sauna and swim in Copenhagen? Tell us in the comments
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