A spot of urban nocturnal bar-bathing in Zurich

There's so much more to Switzerland than Fifa corruption and a gateway to Dignitas

February 17, 2016
Barfussbar in Zurich. ©Zürich Film Office
Barfussbar in Zurich. ©Zürich Film Office
Seebad Enge was on the shore of Lake Zurich and looked partly like an elaborate Edwardian boating house and partly like a floating wurst stall from one of those German Christmas markets. This was to be our first stop of the night. Inside, everything was warmly lit and there were cocktails and cushions and an open air, laissez-faire atmosphere that might be the nearest thing Switzerland comes to explicit decadence. Directly ahead of us were long, neat, flat, wooden boards that were arranged to make a square pontoon that reached out into the lake. Inside this square – a lido floodlit in amber and gold.

My guide was Patrick. He was Swiss-American but fanatically determined to prove to me that Zurich was so much more than merely the centre of Fifa corruption and the gateway city to Dignitas. To prove—hell, yeah—that Zurich could be “cool.” The clinching evidence, he believed, was to be found in a new pursuit that was unique to the city: urban nocturnal bar-bathing.

“Okay, we need to drink these fast,” he said. “And then we gotta take our clothes off and get in.”

I followed him onto the wooden run way, sipping at my Manhattan. There were people all along edges with their trousers rolled. Feet dangling. And maybe a dozen swimmers already out in the lake—most of whom, judging by their bathing suits and one or two caps, had come prepared. Although I couldn’t help but notice one woman sliding seamlessly from borrowed towel to water without any such encumbrances. Maybe this is what happens outside the European Union, I thought; elegant urban night time nudity; maybe Brexit isn’t such a bad idea after all; bar-bathing would certainly revivify urban waterways like, say, the Manchester Ship Canal; who needs the beaches of France or Spain?

We had not come prepared. Indeed, this bar-bathing crawl idea had broken late—perhaps under the pressure of a sustained mockery from me over dinner following a trip to “Züri-West,” Zurich’s painfully risible new Hipster quarter. So neither of us had towels or trunks. And the rest of our party were drawing the line on the bar side of things and refusing to bathe. Unfortunately, due to a somewhat over-defiant insistence on my being ready for anything day or night and—in particular—swimming outdoors, I was committed.

Patrick stopped at the furthest reach of the pontoon and began to undress, never letting go of his Manhattan and taking sips through the straw as best he could while removing his jacket and his shirt and so on all the way down to his boxer shorts. He swirled his ice one more time, finished his drink and jumped right in. The brinkman seldom has any choice in these situations. So I did the same and followed him in.

The indigo-black water was needle-cold but then less so and almost welcoming after a while; and it smelt so clean and mountain-fresh—without the taint of the city or the salty roughness of the sea. We swam out into the open.

“This—this—is what you can do in Zurich,” Patrick said with triumphant emphasis. “Makes you feel good. Am I right?”

There was a clear sky, a great spill of stars and a gibbous moon that cast the snow-covered peaks of the Alps in pale rose away to the south.

Soon we were speed walking to the next bar—Männerbad Schanzengraben—an open-air bar called Rimini” beside one of the bathing areas in one of the rivers that flow out of the lake through the back of the old town. Our wet boxer shorts were seeping through into our trousers and our feet were sodden in our shoes. We definitely could have done with some towels. But our jackets were more or less okay.

Patrick said this next place was near the botanical gardens—enchanted, magical. I had lost my reading glasses back on the pontoon—so everything seemed softer and more beautiful to me anyway. Or it might have been the Manhattans.

But he wasn’t exaggerating. “Rimini” was like some old Grimm’s fairy-tale tavern built across the river. Wooden beams. A wooden roof, rough tables and stools. The lights shimmering and stretched in the water: yellowy-orange halo lamps smeared and smudged across the surface while a redder light from above the pontoon seemed to spear downward as if the river were way deeper than could be imagined.

The other bathers seemed more doughty here so we ordered beers this time and stripped back down to our boxers and jumped in.

Somehow, I left my phone at bathing-bar three where I had hidden it—since by now my jacket was so wet that I couldn’t risk the pockets. On Patrick’s suggestion, we had switched to Jägeritas—a kind of Jägermeister margarita with triple sec and tequila. This may have been a mistake; but it was a drink that Patrick felt strongly was emblematic of the new cool Zurich and that everybody should try at least once. In any case, it was around midnight and the rest of our party had decided that their best interests lay elsewhere. Patrick conceded that—sure—maybe it was a time for a change of scene if only to dry out a little and regroup. His idea was that we hit… the casino.

“You got your passport?” he asked.

“Luckily—no.” I said. I had already lost my glasses and my phone and was thinking of chucking my wallet in the river to get it over with.

“Ok, ok. Well they can be real strict here. So stick close. They know me.”

There was heavy security on the door. I caught a look at us on the CCTV camera. I have to be honest: though smart, we appeared undeniably wet. Worse than that. Our trousers made us look like we were suffering from some kind of epic incontinence. The elbows of our jackets bagged and seeped and arcs of spray came off us whenever we moved our limbs. Water ran from our hair into our eyes so that we forever blinking.

But Patrick remained forthright. We stood there in the foyer—dripping, squelching—while he argued our case in German. After a while, he turned to me, his face a mixture of outrage and disbelief.

“What?” I ask, somehow participating in his sense of injustice despite the water pooling on the floor. “They want a passport? I can’t believe that. I am so obviously over 21.”

“No, it’s not the passport,” Patrick was rueful for the first time. “He says you’re too wet to come in.”


I had been with Patrick maybe four hours but I had become totally habituated to his kinetic way of thinking and then doing. This restriction seemed totally unjust to me—outrageous, interfering, disparaging. Maybe, I thought, the bureaucracy is actually worse outside the EU. The Swiss. The Norwegians. Over-controlling liberty-deniers.

“Ok. Listen. Calm,” Patrick soothed. “What you need is…” His face lit up. “What you need is to go for a drink and a swim. There’s a place called Barfussbar. Ladies only in the day. They invite men in at night.” He winked. “I’ll meet you there in half an hour.”

“What about you?” I asked, still incensed.

He held up a conciliatory hand. “I’m a little drier than you.” This felt like some kind of betrayal but Patrick met my expression with seasoned equanimity. “Look, they love me here. I give them money all the time. Seriously, this old Zurich. You want new Zurich. Go get a Jägerita and get straight in the water.”