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Cold bath house, Varberg
Photo: Per Pixel Petersson/imagebank.sweden.se

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Magical winter swimming in Sweden’s cold bath houses

The cold bath tradition in Sweden is long established. Its growing fan-base swears by its health benefits, flocking to the beautiful open-air bath houses dotting the Swedish coastline and lakes.

Swedes love spending time in the beautiful nature surrounding them, taking advantage of the coastline and the many lakes and rivers found throughout the country. Here, swimming isn’t merely a summertime activity, a cold bath (kallbad) is also a favourite outdoor pastime in autumn and winter. A hot sauna completes the therapeutic experience.

The cold bath houses – most of which are open year-round – are havens of relaxation that serve several purposes. Not only do they allow swimmers to prepare for their invigorating open-air dip, they typically house one or more saunas.

Most cold bath houses have dedicated areas for men and women. Malmö’s Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, also acknowledges transgender and non-binary people by making the bath house available to all, regardless of gender (Queer Kallis).

You’ll find a diverse range of cold bath houses across the country – new and historic. The first few surfaced during the latter quarter of the 19th century, inspired by the facilities found in health resorts on the continent. Before the fully-fledged cold bath houses materialised, stair-equipped outdoor swimming pools started cropping up as early as the 1850s.

Cold bathing across the country

Cold bath houses are typically located along the coastlines with direct access to the sea, though some are located at the edges of inland lakes. There are several cold bath houses on the southern shores near Malmö. However, the west coast has the highest density as this area is rich in health resorts (kurorter) – and has been since the latter quarter of the 19th century when the first major cold bath houses emerged. The cold bath ritual has long been thought to have "healing" abilities, so cold bath houses were some of the first health resorts in the area. They became so popular that the trend continued to boom along the coast, and the region is still known for its many health retreats.

On the east coast, you’ll find a couple of bath houses in the Stockholm area and some even further north in Swedish Lapland, offering a truly chilly bathing experience. As of January 2020, the Arctic Bath Hotel, floating on the Lule River, will also offer its visitors an outdoor cold bath. 

The health benefits of cold baths 

Regular cold bathing comes with proven health benefits. Scientists at Oulu University in Finland have conducted several studies on winter swimming over the years. A study published in 2004 found that cold bathing improved memory, decreased tension and increased energy thanks to temporarily altering blood circulation. Cold bathing is suitable for everyone, provided you don’t suffer from heart or circulation problems.

Useful tips for your cold bath

  • Spend a little time in the sauna before – and especially after – your dip to prevent you from being cold for too long. 
  • Make sure to keep moving to maintain your blood circulation. The outdoor temperatures can make it difficult to warm up after your dip, even if you’ve bundled up and spent some time in the sauna. 
  • Opt for your regular swimwear. Some people like to jump into the water wearing bathing shoes. Many bath houses cater for nudists – when it comes to a refreshing dip in the sea, many prefer to take the plunge au naturel.
  • Refrain from running along the jetties and platforms – they’re bound to be slippery.

Unique cold bath houses around Sweden

The cold bath tradition has many longstanding fans in Sweden, and in recent years it’s been taken up by a younger following. Whether you’re a winter swimming novice or a seasoned cold bather, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in this Swedish tradition by exploring its many distinctive cold bath houses. 

Kallbadhuset Varberg, West coast

Built on stilts in 1903, Kallbadhuset Varberg is something of a Swedish icon. Set within an oriental-style building, complete with decorative domes, this west coast gem’s history can be traced back to the 1820s when a floating pool was built to allow for cold dips in the ocean. When you pay this unique establishment a visit today, there’s no need to pack a swimsuit – this is a nudist affair, with two dedicated areas: one for men, one for women. It’s open year-round and has a café with beautiful seaside views. 

Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, Southern Sweden 

Inaugurated in 1898, with a history stretching back to 1867, Ribersborgs Kallbadhus in Malmö is one of the oldest and best-preserved cold bath houses still in operation. Open almost every day of the year, there are separate areas for men and women, and you’ll find two saunas and a warm water tub in each one. There’s also a cosy restaurant on-site. Queer Kallis – an inclusive event held the first Monday of every month – is open to all, including transgender and non-binary people.

Karlshamns Kallbadhus, East coast

A recent and very modernist addition to the Swedish cold bath house scene, Karlshamns Kallbadhus, designed by White Architects, opened in 2015. Design-wise, it’s as Scandinavian as it gets – think angular, perfectly balanced lines. The “flying saucer” on stilts boasts floor to ceiling glass windows to optimise the spectacular archipelago views of this idyllic spot, nestled on the southeast coast of Sweden. The bath house is open year-round and has separate areas for men and women. 

Saltsjöbadens Friluftsbad, Stockholm 

Established in the beginning of the 20th century Saltsjöbadens Friluftsbad, in the Stockholm archipelago, is one of the rare wooden open-air bath houses still in operation on the east coast. Separate cold bath areas are available for men and women, and there’s also a joint sandy beach to enjoy, plus a popular restaurant. This bath house only opens up for larger groups during the winter; but during spring, summer and autumn, its doors are open every day.