Iceland has geothermal spas at the end of its icy paths. The Swedes like a roll in the snow followed by social sauna time, and the Finnish have a thing about beating each other with birch twigs. But what about the Danes? What do the citizens of Copenhagen – the city known for the world’s happiest residents – do to get their spa fix?
When I slipped into the harbor waters at Islands Brygge in Copenhagen last August, they looked inviting – transparent, pristine, midnight blue. What I wasn’t ready for was the shock. A thousand knives all over my body, just like Leo warned in Titanic. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. Rigid as a corpse at first, I then remembered to move, and soon assimilated after treading water for a few minutes.
Getting used to the temperature and feeling its bite before climbing ladder rungs and stepping out into the sun on the wooden decking felt incredible. A rush of euphoria. Almost ecstatic. I realised then that vinterbad (winter bathing) must have something to do with the Danes’ famed life satisfaction. This feeling, this potent natural high, must help them through the darkest months of the Scandinavian winter.
Where Does Winter Bathing Come From?
The tradition of vinterbad dates back to the early 20th Century, when learning to swim as children became more normal, and the civic-minded Danes started installing functional, design-conscious outdoor swimming spaces in the harbor spaces around Copenhagen.
The country now has over 80 official winter swimming clubs with over 20,000 registered members–Danes see a brisk winter swim as a social, energizing activity. Inner city baths weren’t a thing until around the turn of the millennium when massive cleanup and reverse water pollution acts were put in place.
The older baths (Helgoland, built in 1913) are fairly no-frills, but newer spots built in the noughties (Islands Brygge, Sluseholmen or Kastrup Søbad) have experimented with wooden structures instead of steel, with diving boards and chill out spots.
As an outsider the etiquette around nudity in Scandinavia can often seem complicated. But the basic rule here is it’s up to you. Inner city harbour swim baths generally request you to be clothed, but no one really cares when people are naked. Many bathe nude at Reffen Island’s designated areas. And further out at spaces like Dragør, male and female nude zones exist for those who want them.
In the summer, baths are free admission and crowds flock at the first sign of the sun. Winter is different. The nicest baths are far from deserted even in January and February, but this is perhaps because they have certain features that soften the initial icy blow of that water ‘pon your hygge body. Not that that lessens the high of course.
Where to Find the Rush
As well as those listed above, my experience of winter bathing was punctuated by two particular (and particularly sharp) highlights.
It sounded like a pretty seductive idea to me – a sauna waiting beside the harbour jetty and a twinkling candlelit cafe, both with glass windows overlooking the bodies braving the waves. So I headed first to La Banchina on annexed island Refshaleøen.
Still very much part of Copenhagen (just a 20-minute cycle from the centre) access to the complex here will cost you a mere 40 kroner (£4.65). For 100 kroner (£11.63) the talented chef will whip up whatever local produce he has in his paws – for me he made roasted cabbage in brown butter, charred parsnips, beets and celeriac mash. This was washed down with a natural orange wine from Italy to aid the swim-recovery.
The swim itself, though brief, filled me with mania, then serenity, then a buzz for the rest of the day. Although I was only in the water for about 30 seconds at a time, my body felt like it was perishing from the outside in.
Charlottenlund Søbad & Svanemøllebugtens Vinterbadelaug
A 30-minute cycle from the city centre is Charlottenlund Søbad, with changing rooms, sauna and a jetty, and 20 minutes away from the center is Svanemøllebugtens Vinterbadelaug. At these baths you’ll find no cafe, no candles. Just hardcore winter bathers in hats (keen to keep that 50 per cent head heat retained).
Part of the high, I realize visiting these more basic, bare-bones baths, is derived from smugness. While you’re invigorating yourself and your senses, everyone else is roasting next to a fire at home, lazily.
I can see why people get addicted to this feeling. A dedicated vintersvømmer, Jonas, explains to me: “The first time is memorable. The second time you are hooked.” It is, he says, “the best high.” That might sound like something Miley Cyrus might’ve said circa 2013, but rest-assured this is 100 per cent toxin-free and legal.
How to Handle the Comedown
How do you handle the comedown? Or rather, the calmdown? Unlike drugs, the main attraction of vinterbad seems to be the bodily reset that comes afterwards because honestly, the dip itself is a shock and so brief you kind of blur it out.
Once that’s done however, you’re as good as new. As Jonas said: “You mainly get back to zero if you know what I mean. You dive in stressed and tired. And you get out born again.” Another hardcore vintersvømmer told me: “The dreams you get after are the best.”
Calmdown must-haves include: towelling gown, sauna, comrades… and a place to go bask in the afterglow of the cold. Here were my two highlights:
For those who want go all out spa-mode afterwards – not just a brief naked towel sauna waterside – the city’s best spa hotel, d’Angleterre is a good place to start.
You can unfurl your frozen body and start on those amazing dreams in the comfort of the relaxation room in the Amazing Space spa, then thaw out your weathered torso and extremities with a north light sunrise and sunset massage, designed to fix aches or stresses from sports or jet lag using light therapy.
If that all sounds a bit too grand, then head for Nimb. This historic building near the Grand Central train station has recently launched winter wellness retreats that include pilates, spa treatments in your room and a fantastically varied and delicious range of dining options.
It’s also home to a grill house, a fine brasserie, a smørrebrød restaurant, a cake house, a wine bar and a cocktail lounge. Ideal if you’re in need of some post-trip indulgence.