In 2009, the stretch of the Seine River that runs through Paris made headlines– and the news was unusually good. Wild Atlantic salmon had been spotted and caught in its waters for the first time in decades. Since the Seine has had high levels of industrial pollution since at least the early 20th century, ecologists saw the return of the once-thriving species as a promising sign of ecological recovery.
The river, home again to over 30 species of fish– from trout to eels and perch– is the object of an ambitious new goal. The city of Paris wants to clean it up enough to allow the general public to swim in sections of it– and their goal is to get there by 2024, the year the capital is slated to host the Summer Olympics.
An Ambitious Plan to “Regreen” the Seine & Its Banks
I have to admit that I’ve never wondered whether swimming in the Seine was permitted. The current seems unpredictably strong, and even if the city *did* reduce pollution to levels they deem safe for a dip, I’d be a bit wary, especially given recent reports of high e-coli levels and illicit industrial dumping.
Splashing around or doing laps in the river has been formally banned since 1923. And most sneaky dips are attempted at night, when fines are less likely (but the dangers are greater).
Still, plans to “regreen” the Seine and its banks– part of Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s ambitious ecological objectives for the capital-– are ones I find admirable and worthwhile.
The city has said it expected to spend between 800 million and 1 billion Euros into efforts to purify the water– and severely limit the amount of waste that industrial companies and boats can dump into the Seine.
The official plan is to reserve the part of the river that stretches from the Pont de l’Alma bridge and the Trocadero area for the Olympic triathalon and freestyle swimming competitions in 2024.
And in a statement, the Mayor’s Office said it aims to open a total of 23 swimming areas on the Seine, starting in 2025. These would be open to the general public for dips during the warmer months, on the successful model of swimming holes created recently on the Bassin de la Villette in northeastern Paris.
But according to French sports newspaper L’Equipe and other sources, the goal to make the Seine swimmable again may be a longshot.
Skeptics often point out that the first modern politician to promise that the river would soon be fit for a dip under their watch was then-mayor Jacques Chirac…in 1990.
While progress has been made over the past few years– and many species of fish, birds, and other wildlife have seen a hopeful resurgence– the main challenge comes from heavy rain and storms.
These tend to flush problematic amounts of sewage into the river waters, leading to dangerous levels of e-coli and other bacteria. This problem led the Bassin de la Villette swimming pools to be temporarily closed in 2017.
Still, the current team at the Paris Mayor’s office remains optimistic and determined. For the first time, the office has appointed a deputy specifically responsible for managing the Seine, Pierre Aidenbaum.
And Hidalgo has proven to be uncompromising in her green plans for the city– to the delight of some and consternation of others.
A Long History of Seine Swimming (& Fishing)
Prior to the 20th century and the accelerated development of both industrial activity and public health infrastructures, it was relatively common to see bathers and swimmers casually enjoying the waters of the Seine, both within Paris and in the nearby suburbs.
Of course, the Seine was the very heart of Parisian civilization from the city’s beginnings, as a source of food, water, and commerce. The pre-Christian, Celtic tribe known as the Parisii were avid fishers who established a village along the banks of the Seine and on the Ile de la Cité during the 7th century BC.
Later, their settlement developed into a vibrant city called “Lutetia”, and was incorporated into the Gallo-Roman empire.
Throughout the centuries, fishing and swimming in the Seine remained common activities, although swimming as a competitive sport only saw its advent in the late nineteenth century.
Paris hosted the Summer Olympics of 1900, and seven men’s swimming competitions took place on the Seine between the suburbs of Courbevoie and the Asnières bridge.
And in 1905, a sports enthusiast started a popular swimming competition known as the “Traversée de Paris à la Nage” that saw hundreds of amateur swimmers take to the waters in central Paris.
Despite swimming in the Seine being officially banned in 1923, the competition continued well into the 1940s. It was only in the postwar era that the ban was strictly enforced.
Good Places to Swim in Paris Now
Luckily, if you’re after a hot-weather dip in the capital, there are a few open-air options while we await the much-anticipated Seine swimming holes in 2024 and beyond. Here are a couple I recommend; you can find a fuller list of municipal pools and swimming areas in my piece at TripSavvy.
Piscine Josephine Baker
The Piscine Josephine Baker opened a few years ago, named after the legendary Franco-American performer and resistance figure of the same name. The 25-meter long, 10-meter wide floating pool is located next to the Bibliothèque Nationale’s (National Library’s) main site in the 13th arrondissement, on the left bank of the Seine. It’s equipped with four lanes for laps.
There’s also a large wading pool for kids, as well as a rooftop area perfect for sunning, plus hammam, sauna, jacuzzi and a gym. With a public pool like this one, who needs fancy spas?
Note that at present, reservations (for 2-hour sessions) are required.
Getting There: Quai François Mauriac, 75013 Paris (13th Arrondissement); Metro Quai de la Gare
The Bassin de la Villette Pop-Up Pools
The swimming holes created along a section of the Bassin de la Villette in 2017 have become incredibly popular summer fixtures in Paris. They’re free (although in high demand, so get there early) and generally open in tandem with the pop-up beach operation known as Paris Plages.
Ideal for kids, these pools are cordoned off from the rest of the canal system and have shallow areas ideal for beginners. There’s also a larger pool that’s best for adults, but don’t expect to do any Olympic-style laps here.
This pool is accessible for visitors with limited mobility (including those with wheelchairs).
Getting there: Access to the pools is from the Quai de la Loire, 75019 Paris (Metro Riquet or Laumière). They’re generally open from mid-July to mid-September, but check ahead of time. See more information here.