Kieran Drake takes a plunge into some of the city’s finest historic swimming pools…
One of my greatest pleasures since moving to Berlin has been swimming—above all in the lakes and rivers in and around the city. But during the winter, though I continue to swim in my local lake, that experience becomes more about the associated endorphin rush of cold water immersion and less about swimming any kind of distance.
It’s during these colder, darker months that I seek out the warmer waters of Berlin’s indoor pools. Along the way, I’ve discovered that despite the loss of so many to war, division and gentrification, the city is still blessed with several striking and historic swimming venues that stretch as far back as the nineteenth century.
The earliest swimming pools in Berlin were those that developed around Gesundbrunnen (which means “healthy spring”) during the eighteenth century, created at the behest of Emperor Frederick II. Not much is left of these except the name of the district; they were effectively spoiled by the polluting aspects of nineteenth-century industrialisation and subsequently destroyed.
As were many of the city’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century baths during the Second World War, while others such as the beautiful old baths in Steglitz and Lichtenberg have been abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair; or, like the old Volksbad Moabit. demolished to make way for housing.
All the more reason to celebrate the ones we still have left…
Berlin’s oldest surviving indoor swimming pool, Stadtbad Charlottenburg is located along a quiet side street off Bismarckstrasse in the west of the city, set inside an imposing Gothic-style red-brick building that’s adorned with snarling fish and other eye-catching, water-themed gargoyles.
During the 1900s, Berlin experienced the fastest population growth in its history, increasing more than tenfold from just 220,000 in 1824 to over 2.5 million by the end of the century. As the population expanded, the pressure on the city authorities to provide public facilities for its inhabitants—market halls, hospitals, public baths—grew too.
At a time when most homes had no bathrooms, the new public baths provided a place for personal hygiene and helped control the spread of infectious diseases. As such, they often housed bathtubs as well as showers and were principally designed for bathing rather than swimming. They also remained gender-segregated until 1933, when family days were introduced. Beyond improving public health, the baths also served as important social and cultural centres, lending recreational and cultural enrichment to the city and contributing to the overall well-being of Berlin’s residents.
Like so many others, this pool had several narrow escapes: in the final days of the Second World War it was damaged by shells, and in 1974 when modern baths opened nearby it was threatened with demolition. Thankfully, the decision was taken to restore and preserve it, and it has been a listed building since 1982.
Today, the Stadtbad Charlottenburg’s ornate wrought-iron door leads to a tiled corridor with vaulted ceilings, and into the narrow, somewhat shabby changing rooms that run either side of the pool. This modest entrance makes the visual delights of the Art Nouveau-style Alte Halle all the more pronounced. The graceful ironwork and light fittings, combined with the white and blue tiling, is captivating, as are the five-panelled murals at each end of the pool that depict bucolic scenes of swimmers and herons.
The pool itself is a standard 25-metre long, four-lane affair. One of the lanes has an extended shallow end for young children or other non-swimmers but whenever I’ve visited (without my children) I’ve been one the youngest swimmers in the pool and tended to join the others with slow head-above-the-water breaststroke to better enjoy the experience.
Stadtbad Oderberger Strasse (1899-1902)
Like Stadtbad Charlottenburg, the Stadtbad Oderberger Strasse (also known as Stadtbad Prenzlauerberg) was built in response to the neighbourhood’s rapidly growing population and to cater for the workers in the nearby breweries and factories. Despite being built at almost exactly the same time, however, the building and pool are very different. Where Charlottenburg’s Alte Halle is built from brick and decorated with iron and tiled walls, here the building’s exterior is a starker mix of carved stone and plaster.
Entering the Neo-Renaissance swimming hall feels almost like stepping into a church with its bare stone facade, vaulted ceiling, cloisters and gargoyles. That effect, however, is marred somewhat by the modern, multicoloured neon lights that hang over the pool and illuminate the cloisters; sadly this pool has lost more of its original features than the others on this list.
Now privately owned, the pool forms part of the Oderberger hotel but it was only sold on the condition that it would once again be opened to the public. Hence non-guests can also book a two-hour slot to use the pool, as well as the small sauna that’s been recently installed in the basement. The booking system (and the slightly higher prices too) mean it’s never very crowded. But while the setting is beautiful, the pool itself is a modest 20 x 12-metres so I’ve found it most suitable as a place to relax with a book on the loungers around the pool rather than swim lengths.
Still, a dip here still feels like a treat: having closed to the public for swimming in 1986, the property lay empty for thirty years and could easily have been demolished if it wasn’t for local activists fighting to keep it open. You can book time slots here.
Stadtbad Neukölln (1914)
Don’t be put off by the rather plain exterior of the Stadtbad Neukölln: inside you’ll find a dramatically beautiful Neoclassical interior that took me completely by surprise on my first visit. The pool was one of the largest and grandest public baths in Europe when it opened in 1914. Designed in the style of a Greek temple, complete with mosaic murals, classically-inspired fountains cascading into the pools, abundant marble and seven-metre-high travertine columns lining its two pools, the baths were built with space for up to 10,000 guests per day.
Taking as its underlying principle the classical notion that the bathing process should nourish the mind as well as the body, the baths were designed so that visitors had access not only to the two pools and sauna, but also to a library stocked with some 12,000 books and a large reading room. The notion of bathers cleansing their bodies and then enriching their minds in the library is a beautiful and noble one, but sadly the library no longer exists.
The remainder of the complex, which was refurbished in the 1980s and again in 2009, is magnificent however, and offers perhaps Berlin’s most impressive indoor public swimming experience. As well as a 25-metre pool for men, there’s also a 19-metre pool for women. The size and style of the pools means they’re more suited to a casual swim than an extended lane session—but with surroundings like these it’d be a shame to keep your head under water too long anyway.
Stadtbad Mitte (1927-30)
Opened sixteen years after Stadtbad Neukölln, Mitte’s official Stadtad is utterly different. Where Neukölln’s is solid, opaque and feels deliberately cut off from its surroundings, the Bauhaus-inspired Stadtbad Mitte is open, airy and bright. Indeed, the motto behind its design was “light, air and sun”.
The elegant interior is, aptly, a very open and minimal space with clean lines and no ornamentation of any kind. The entire ceiling and most of the walls are made of glass, divided by black frames into neat squares and rectangles; I swim regularly here before work and at almost any time of year sunlight streams into the hall. Below the glass panels, the walls are covered in small, light coloured tiles, while around potted plants provide a splash of colour (and the only curved lines in sight).
Wide steps at the shallow end lead down into the large pool itself, which at 50-metres long and 15-metres wide is perfect for a proper swim, although the extreme 40-centimetre depth at the shallow end makes swimming front crawl for the whole length impossible
Schwimmhalle Finckensteinallee, Lichterfelde (1938)
Even from a distance, the monumentalism and quasi-Neoclassical style of the red-brick Schwimmhalle Finckensteinallee dates and identify it immediately as one of the relatively few surviving Third Reich-era buildings in Berlin.
The pool was built in 1938 on the site of a former Prussian military training academy for exclusive use by the SS. At that time it was the largest indoor swimming pool in Europe and one of the most modern sports facilities in the world—its scale remains awe-inspiring. The pool itself is an enormous 50-metres by 25-metres and sits in a vast, high-ceilinged hall with plain walls of travertine and whitewashed plaster.
Floor-to-ceiling windows run along both sides of the hall, on one side of which is a raised viewing gallery, and allow plenty of natural light; the 2,300 square-metre pastel blue and white painted ceiling brings a welcome splash of colour.
While the original 10-metre-high diving board has gone, other details remain from the building’s Nazi era: the clock at the far end, and the eight iron flag poles—now unadorned—that hang, two in each corner of the hall, for example. Underneath the clock at the far end of the pool are ten diving blocks, the lanes marked out below in dark green (rather than black) tiles on the floor of the pool itself.
But whenever I’ve visited, the lanes have been arranged widthways, creating over twenty 25-metre lanes, so that I and every other swimmer have had a whole lane to ourselves.
Despite a history dating back 85 years, the pool has only been open to the public since 2014: at the end of the Second World War the complex was taken over by the Americans, in whose sector it stood, and only in 1994 when the occupying forces left Berlin was the pool handed back to the local authorities. It remained closed until renovation started in 2008 and eventually led to its reopening a few years later.
Given its Nazi history I was unsure how I would find swimming in Finckensteinallee and I’m still struggling to reconcile my knowledge of its history with my experience of visiting. But there’s no denying that the building is beautiful, combining modern, unisex changing rooms and facilities with a tasteful restoration. And I was also thrilled to spot, in what struck me as a small echo of the library at Neukölln (see above), that the pool also houses a free book exchange.
Schwimmhalle Fischerinsel (1977)
The GDR-era Schwimmhalle Fischerinsel in Mitte, built in 1977, can be found nestled amongst an ensemble of pre-fabricated Plattenbau just a stone’s throw from Alexanderplatz. The venue’s low-lying glass and concrete structure is less eye-catching than those above, yet in contrast to the austere image I have of GDR architecture it seems to have been built with a sense of humour that I’ve not seen in other pools. It has subsequently become one of my favourite indoor places to swim in the city.
As at Stadtbad Mitte and Schwimmhalle Finckensteinallee, the length of the building is dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows but the roof here forms a stylised wave that identifies it as a pool building. The wave motif continues inside, in the shape of a colourful, playful mural at the back of the changing area, and another that runs the length of the 25-metre pool. Suspended above the pool, panels in shades of green and yellow bring more colour into the building.
While it might lack the awe of Schwimmhalle Finckensteinallee or the grace of Stadtbad Mitte (both listed above), the hall here is bright and light, the decor is upbeat, and the facilities—including temperature-controlled showers!—are the best of any I’ve visited in Berlin. Oh, and as well as the main 25-metre pool, there’s also a dedicated children’s pool so you can also bring the kids.
All the pools mentioned, except the Stadtbad Oderberger, are public pools and details about them can be found at www.berlinerbaeder.de, which lists up to date opening times, prices and more. This website also contains details of the publicly run (seasonal) openair Strandbaeder and Sommerbaerder. You can see our pick of open-air pools here.