Every morning from early May until September, Helsinki’s swimming stadium opens its doors at 06.30. By then, regulars have arrived and formed a neat line outside. There’s something magical about being the first to break the calm surface of the Olympic pool. A young man squeezes in a few fast laps before work while a few retirees descend slowly into the water, hair tucked inside flowery swimming hats. For an hour or so there’s ample space to swim but as the day progresses, crowds start pouring in – especially if it’s warm. On the hottest summer days close to 10,000 Helsinkians come to the stadium – or Stadikka, as they call it – to sunbathe and use the capital’s oldest outdoor pool.
The Helsinki Swimming Stadium was meant for the 1940 Olympic Games. Due to the Second World War, the games got cancelled and the stadium had to wait for its big moment until 1952, when the city hosted the Summer Olympics for the first and so far only time. The war made construction work slow and before the pools were filled with water they were used for storing provisions. The stadium was finally completed in 1947 based on architect Jorma Järvi’s drawings. Today the white concrete building and its jump towers are a classic functionalistic landmarks.
Finns love to swim and almost every Finnish city boasts several outdoor pools. For Helsinkians, Stadikka is an invaluable respite from urban life. The four pools – one Olympic, one jumping and two kiddie – are nestled among spruces, lawns and low cliffs, just a few blocks from the city centre. Many people stuck in the city for the summer, be they families, students or simply anyone lacking a summer cottage, see the stadium as a convenient, democratic way to make most of the short Finnish summer. The entrance is only €3.80 for adults and €1.90 for seven- to 17-year-olds, and for food you’re free to either bring a picnic basket or buy something from the café.
Many people end up spending an entire day here, lounging on the wooden spectator benches or the lawn, reading, playing basketball or volleyball and, of course, swimming. The pools are always heated to a welcoming 27C.
If and when you go, you have to do what practically every Helsinkian visiting the stadium has done at least once: climb the jump tower and take the leap. Jumping from the 10-metre-level gets most points but if that is too daunting, there’s no shame in settling for the 5- or 3-metre board. Whichever you choose, don’t forget to admire the view over the stadium during your descent.