Nikki Bayley has been investigating the pleasures, pitfalls and etiquette at Paris' best public swimming pools
The first time I set foot in a pool in Paris, I realised that I was out of my depth. There are a bewildering set of rules to follow, and none of them are set out on a board, with cutsey cartoons instructing you to refrain from bombing or heavy petting...
Blessed with an abundance of pools, 38 in fact, across its 20 arronidissements, from olympic-sized behemoths to family-friendly fun pools, there's a Paris pool for every occasion. Swimming is cheap, accessible to all, and opening times range from early morning to midnight. If you're staying in town for a while, it's worth buying a pass, which is just 24€ for 10 swims, which you can use at almost all the pools in the city, otherwise a swim is just 3€ or 4€. Once you've worked out the quirks, the Paris pool experience is truly one of the best you can have, here's your guide to avoid looking like a fish out of water.
On dry land
When you approach the kiosk to pay for your entrance, take the ticket, then walk approximately two feet to give that ticket to a man in overalls (it's always a man in overalls) whose sole task seems to be collecting tickets. Once in, you now have the shoes-on or shoes-off question. Look around for tiny signs. If it's a shoes-off place, you have to remove shoes before you go into the changing room. If you don't see the sign, don't worry, people will yell at you.
A word on changing rooms, they are mostly unisex. Except when they are not. Again, look out for a tiny sign explaining this. For instance, the sign for the women's changing room may be a cartoon of a smiley face in a bikini. Again, If you don't see the sign, don't worry, people will yell at you.
You will not be able to swim in a Paris pool without a swimming cap. The only exception to the rule seems to be if you're completely bald. Although I did once spot someone pulling off their hat to reveal a shining bonce. Secondly, men have to wear speedos. No exceptions. Board shorts, boxer-style bathers, all will be turned away with a sneer, and an offer to rummage through the lost property box to borrow a pair of budgie-smugglers.
Once safely in the changing room, you need to get in a cubicle to change. Don't be confused if your cubicle has two doors with apparently no lock. There's a seat to pull down with 'arms' which keep the doors closed. Ready with your cap on, it's time to take a (unisex) open shower before diving in.
In at the deep end
You will see some swimming styles in a Paris pool that you may not be familiar with. There's the double-handed back stroke, where the swimmer lies on their back and uses both arms at the same time to swim. This usually results in their face going underwater and a prolonged mid-pool coughing/kicking attack. There's a kind of fancy, almost Broadway-ish swoop, where the swimmer hops sideways along the pool flailing just one arm as they go. Finally, the Corner Kick, where (usually) elderly swimmers line up for a gossip at the side of the pool, waiting till you swim past, before launching into a furious leg-kicking routine. Ouch.
As for swimming laps in lanes, good luck with that. The only place I have ever seen a Parisian queue is in a bakery, and unfortunately swimming pools do not have croissants suspended over the ceilings. Expect mayhem. You will get it.
Once your swim is over, head back to the changing rooms and get ready for another unisex shower. Keep your swimming costume on. Don't forget, if it's a shoes-off pool to keep them off till you get outside the changing room. There wont be a sign, but yes, you guessed it, people will yell at you if you get it wrong.
Paris top ten pools
- Josephine Baker
Quai François Mauriac 75013 PARIS
It's a swimming pool, on a boat, on the Seine. What's not to adore? This 25m pool also has a retractable roof and sun terrace. Best for sunny days and late nights watching the sun set as you lazily backstroke.
- Suzanne Berlioux (Les Halles)
Rue Berger - forum des halles, niveau -3 75001 PARIS
Find a spot of beauty in one of the most ugly parts of Paris. This subterranean concrete hyper-mall hides a 50m pool. Beware the pool-side shower, I swear one guy just stood there soaping himself the entire time I was there...
32, Rue Edouard Pailleron 75019 PARIS
Dream pool for kids; wave machines, huge balls to play with, and a toddler's safe splash area. I loved the Jacuzzi for adults-only. Make a day of it and go ice skating in the same building afterwards!
- Butte Aux Cailles
5, Place Paul Verlaine 75013 PARIS
Over in a tucked-away corner of the left bank, you'll find the funky Butte-aux-Cailles village, which has its own natural spring, which is used to feed the brightly-painted pool. Perfect for a summer visit, Butte also has two outdoor pools.
17, Rue de Pontoise 75005 PARIS
Swim where Jaques Cousteau once swam! This Latin Quarter pool is where M Cousteau tried out his first deep-sea diving suit, it's also where Juliette Binoche took a dip in Three Colours Blue.
- George Rigal
115, Boulevard de Charonne 75011 PARIS
This is neither famous nor architectually significant but it's one of my favourite for the cool mural that you can see on the building outside as you swim back and forth, also, it's great for one of Paris's best markets which happens on Wednesdays and Saturdays outside.
- Paul Valeyre
24, Rue de Rochechouart 75009 PARIS
Parisians love exercise. The aqua gym here is a lot of fun every Monday. You'll stagger out into the SoPi (South of Pigalle) area ready for a huge dinner...
- George Vallery
148, avenue Gambetta 75020 PARIS
North of Pere Lachaise, this 50m pool was built for the 1924 Olympics. Be inspired by Tarzan's (AKA Johnny Weismuller) epic swim here.
- Armand Massard
66 Boulevard du Montparnasse 75015 PARIS
Boasting three pools in the bowels of the hideous Montparnasse tower, you really need to follow your nose to find this pool. I couldn't find a sign anywhere! Once you're in though, it's great. Afterwards, treat yourself to a drink at the top of the tower in Montparnasse 56. Best view in Paris!
- Piscine Roger Le Gall
34, Boulevard Carnot 75012 PARIS
Naked swimming. Oh yes. Paris has a nudist club and they go swimming three times a week. I wasn't brave enough to try, but am assured no matter how naked you are, you still need a swimming cap.
This is a superb site with up to date opening times for every Paris pool: http://piscine.equipement.paris.fr
* This 'Factbox' is not sponsored. I commission journalists to write travel articles and supply a factbox because I think it is useful information.