Travel

Let’s Pretend We’re In This Floating Swimming Pool In The Middle Of Paris

All aboard the Josephine Baker!

La Piscine Josephine Baker offers a loophole to swimming on the Seine | Marc Bertrand/Paris Tourism Board
La Piscine Josephine Baker offers a loophole to swimming on the Seine | Marc Bertrand/Paris Tourism Board
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Paris is a world-class city for many reasons, but proximity to the sea is not one of them. Sure, there’s the Seine River, but jumping in for relief on a hot summer day means fighting a strong current and playing Frogger in a shipping lane thronged with speeding riverboats. It just isn’t a viable option … with one notable exception.

Enter La Piscine Josephine Baker, a floating swimming pool moored alongside Quay François Mauriac in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. Here, you can technically swim in the Seine -- in ultra-clean river water, no less. And through it, you can find a brief, mini vacation right in the city. 

Named for legendary Parisian dancer Josephine Baker -- who captivated the world dressed in little more than bunches of bananas and doubled as a French Resistance agent and rights icon -- the pool is fittingly glamorous. Like its namesake, it’s both glitzy and layered, offering swimming on the first floor and sunbathing on the deck. And like Baker, it's been known to go topless. (Bikini tops, however, are supposed to stay firmly in place.)

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upper deck
A view from the upper deck | Marc Bertrand/Paris Tourism Board

Floating pools aren’t new to the Seine. The first popped up in 1796, and many more drew crowds over the following 200 years. But they were as disastrous as they were popular: prone to fires, collisions with boats, and sinking for no apparent reason. The last went underwater in 1993, and left Parisian swimmers landlocked until the Josephine Baker -- let’s just call it Josephine for ease -- came along.

Josephine’s 2006 opening coincided with the city hauling in tons of white sand to create beaches along the quay, something that has since become an annual event. The pool nearly succumbed to a fire that same winter, but unlike its predecessors, it had the benefit of clever engineering. 

Architect Robert de Busin faced many challenges in designing the floating steel structure: He had to put a 25-meter pool on a movable double-decker barge while ensuring it was short enough to avoid colliding with bridges. There needed to be a retractable glass roof for year-round viability, spaces to sunbathe, exercise rooms, a sauna, and a kiddie pool. All this, and it had to be sustainable. 

To accomplish the latter, Josephine takes water directly from the Seine and treats it. After it's done in the pool, the water is then treated again before being dumped into the river cleaner than when it was extracted. As such, the pool offers a rare chance to swim in the river without it being dangerous or gross. 

All that's missing is a tiki bar | Marc Bertrand/Paris Tourism Board

After booking my two-hour slot at the popular pool, I hopped on the metro and headed down to southeast Paris’ Bercy neighborhood. From a vantage point at a nearby cafe, I chose just the right moment to jump into the queue and headed straight upstairs to bag myself a sun lounger. I was soon surrounded by serious sun worshippers, giggling teenagers, joyful kids, and focussed swimmers. 

Swimming cap -- a requirement here -- firmly on my head, I found a lane not dedicated to vacation vibe-killing lap swimmers and dipped myself gingerly into the quite chilly water. Swimming leisurely in the Seine was pure bliss. 

Eventually back upstairs, drying in the sunshine, I took in the sights of the double-decker Bercy bridge and the incredible modern architecture along the quays. All I needed was a cocktail with a little umbrella, really.

Alas, while Josephine conjures that magical vacation feeling, a beach resort she is not. Luckily, in Bercy it’s easy to keep the vacation vibes going. A selection of barges and houseboats, even one old lighthouse boat, are tied up here, and all of them have been reinvented into live music venues, restaurants, bars, and events spaces. Each has tables and chairs, plus sun loungers on the quayside, making this stretch between Pont de Bercy and Pont de Tolbiac a veritable bar mile. 

I got my drink (okay, drinks) and a snack, nearly dozing off in my bright-orange sun lounger. The bars started to fill up with the weekend aperitif crowd, but I felt exhausted, sun-kissed, water-logged, and thoroughly vacay-ed out. In one day, I had satisfied the full vacation cycle without leaving the ground.

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance travel writer, guidebook author, and a travel-holic based out of Paris. If she's not busy packing or unpacking her suitcase, then she's probably away.