I could have been cheeky and called our guide to the best harbour and ocean swimming pools in Sydney something like Sydney’s Secret Swimming Pools. But the truth is that while newcomers to the city might not know about the city’s spectacular seaside public swimming pools, in a city of 4.7 million people, no matter how secluded they are, Sydney’s bay and beach pools are hardly hidden secrets.
Sydney is blessed with an abundance of alluring waterfront public swimming pools, in breathtaking settings. Glassy or sparkling, the colour of their water changes from aquamarine to turquoise to cobalt, depending upon the colour of the sky and the time of day. Except in wild weather when the waves and rain stir up the sandy sea floor, the water is nearly always crystal clear and in Sydney Harbour is surprisingly clean for a busy working port.
Dotted around the perimeter of sprawling Sydney Harbour, you’ll find blue-tiled, chlorinated, Olympic-sized swimming pools built right on the harbour’s edge, natural salt-water enclosures tucked into skinny coves and protruding from slivers of sand, heritage-listed Art Deco bathhouses with timber boardwalks and floating pontoons, and antique wooden structures erected over the water.
If those seductive harbourside pools aren’t enough to entice you in the water, sprinkled along Sydney’s stunning Pacific Coastline, bookending creamy crescent-shaped beaches and endless stretches of squeaky soft sand, are ocean pools dramatically carved into rocky ledges, formed from natural sandstone depressions, and flimsily fenced off into wonky rectangular-shaped sea pools by pylons and shark nets.
Situated in bays or protected by cliffs, some swimming pools are tranquil, their waters mostly still, while others are more exposed to the elements, colossal waves breaking over their edges in a big swell. All are open to the sea, fenced off by wooden palings or nets that do little to keep out fish, jelly-blubbers, and even (ouch) the dreaded bluebottles.
For the locals this is part of their appeal. Don’t be surprised if you see swimmers doing laps in diving masks, snorkelers treating a swimming pool like the sea, fishermen casting their lines from the poolside, or a child’s hand appearing over the edge of a pool cupping a starfish or seashell collection.
My own childhood memories of growing up in Sydney in the 1970s are dusted with dips in these harbour and ocean swimming pools. There were paddles in serene Watsons Bay Baths as a toddler, followed by fish and chips, liberally doused in salt and vinegar, and wrapped in butcher’s paper from Doyles. During school holiday there were swims in salty rock pools a short drive from Sydney on the New South Wales Central Coast at Avoca Beach, and a little further afield, at our regular family holiday spot of Forster-Tuncurry. There, we’d splash around in Forster Ocean Baths when the surf got too rough or Dad and Pop were done fishing for the day.
Sunbathing and swimming in Sydney’s ocean and harbour swimming pools has always been something Sydneysiders have cherished. Their history dates back to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when swimming pools and enclosures were created to offer protection from the relentless pounding surf, watercraft and sharks, in spots where locals had already been splashing about. Back then they were known as rock baths or ocean baths. The National Trust of Australia (NSW) Survey of Harbourside and Ocean Swimming Pools of the Sydney Metropolitan Area, along with the Dictionary of Sydney entry on ‘ocean baths‘ are fascinating reads.
When I was growing up Sydney’s swimming pools were an extension of the beach culture that, along with the stereotypical blonde bronzed Aussie, was an integral part of our national identity. Wander around the Art Gallery of New South Wales, for instance, and you’ll see Sydney’s swimming pool and beach life alluringly illuminated and immortalised in the paintings and prints of an array of Australian artists and photographers, including Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Condor.
Although nobody captured that sun-worshipping water-baby culture quite like the legendary Sydney photographer Max Dupain. Look at his most famous photograph of The Sunbaker shot in 1937. You can almost feel the warmth of the sun upon the man’s skin, the beads of water that might give him goose-bumps if there’s a breeze, those droplets drying in the heat and in their place tiny sticky smudges of salt forming. Gaze for a few moments longer and you’ll sense his temptation to rise and return to the water, to run down to its edge and dive deep down into the salty sea to cool off all over again.
Fortunately, Sydney’s harbour and ocean swimming pools are as popular as they’ve ever been. For visitors to Sydney that means you need to know where and when to go if you’re keen to get wet.
Our guide to the best harbour and ocean swimming pools in Sydney is far from comprehensive, these are just our favourites:
Dawn Fraser Baths
During the summer when we lived in Balmain years ago we spent our weekends soaking up the sunshine and swimming at the atmospheric Dawn Fraser Baths, a short amble from our Birchgrove terrace. A tidal harbourside pool, at low tide a slender beach forms where parents help toddlers build sandcastles. The timber deck is the prime spot for sunbaking, providing fine views of the wooden bathhouse, built in the early 1880s. Australia’s oldest public pool, it’s registered by the National Trust, which should indicate the extent of its charm. I have fond memories of long afternoons reading and writing here; filmmakers back then, Terence and I would while away hours scribbling down script ideas. If you only go to one Sydney pool, make it this one and take postcards. Be warned: the pool closes if water quality is poor, especially after rain, or if there’s a water polo match. Though I don’t recall it closing when filled with jelly blubbers – shame we never made that film. Adjacent to Elkington Park, Balmain. More info on Dawn Fraser Baths site
If the Dawn Fraser Baths is Sydney’s most charming harbourside swimming pool, Bondi Icebergs, pictured above, is the city’s most breathtaking beachfront pool. It’s also the most iconic and deservedly legendary. Not only is it spectacularly located on the sea, surrounded by rocks, at the southern end of Bondi Beach, it also offers stupendous views of Australia’s most famous stretch of sand. More importantly, this Sydney institution is a winter swimming club, the name ‘the Icebergs’ given to the hardcore swimmers who do laps here every day during the chilly months, no matter the icy temperature or size of the waves that crash over the edge of the pool. Being an official sporting club means it’s the only licensed swimming pool in Australia and there are few finer places in Sydney to sip a beer on a sunny day than the balcony of the bar or the Icebergs restaurant above. 1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach. More info: icebergs.com.au
North Sydney Olympic Pool
If there’s a single swimming pool that screams Sydney, it’s this serious Olympic sized pool with a location that is unsurpassed beside Luna Park and overlooking Sydney Harbour Bridge. Backstroking here is certain to bring a smile to your face, especially at sunset or soon after dark when the bridge and the Opera House beyond are stunningly illuminated. Dating back to 1936, the Art Deco details are worth a closer look, particularly the beautiful decorative plasterwork and brickwork. But it’s the sporting history of the pool that impresses visiting Aussies: 86 world records were set here by Australian swimming legends such as Lorraine Crapp and Shane Gould. If you haven’t climbed the harbour bridge yet, there’s a fitness centre on site that offers absorbing views of the pool, bridge and opera house, as well as a café-restaurant. 4 Alfred St South, Milson’s Point. More info: North Sydney Olympic Pool site
Andrew Boy Charlton Pool
Soon after I started university I got a job at parliament house and when I wasn’t swimming in the pool there during my lunch break, on sunny days I’d get some exercise with a brisk walk through The Domain and the Royal Botanic Gardens down to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and back. On the way, I’d enviously take a peak at another stunningly sited harbourside swimming pool, the Boy Charlton Pool, overlooking Woolloomooloo Finger Wharves, wishing I had time to take a dip there. Years later when we moved from Balmain to Potts Point, Terence would often do laps there after work. This is a great pool to experience if you’re tight on time and staying in the city, just avoid early morning, lunchtime, and after work, when it gets super crowded. Mrs Macquarie’s Rd, The Domain. More info: www.abcpool.org
Dating back to 1883, this stunningly located swimming pool surrounded by craggy cliffs on the sea’s edge at the southern end of beautiful Bronte Beach is for me Sydney’s quintessential ocean pool. I have fond memories of Bronte too, including dips in the icy water to cool down after cricket games and picnics in the nearby park with my uncle and his friends. Bronte Beach, like neighbouring Tamarama Beach (known as ‘Glamarama’), had a reputation for attracting the ‘beautiful people’ – Sydney celebrities, media personalities, and long-legged models and their muscle-bound boyfriends – but whenever I’ve been here I’ve mostly seen tanned grey-haired retirees doing their daily laps and mothers with newborns doing pram laps along the promenade. What I like is that you can take a bus directly here from Circular Quay or Oxford Street or drop by for a dip when you do the Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk. Bronte Road, Bronte. More info: Waverley Council
Originally established in 1907 by long distance swimmer Henry Alexander Wylie, these baths are full of history. The original rickety wooden structure with old fashioned changing rooms that was precariously perched over the rocks that I remember has since been renovated, but the baths still ooze charm and are perhaps Sydney’s next most atmospheric after Dawn Fraser Baths. If the panoramic vistas and pool aren’t enticement enough to visit, the pool is home to a massage centre Massage by the Sea, so you can get a rubdown or have hot rocks placed on your back while you inhale the sea air, and yoga classes are also offered. It can get packed with families and teens on weekends, so try to head here mid-week. During holidays the crowds can’t be avoided unfortunately. Neptune St, Coogee, south of Coogee Beach, off the coastal walk. More info: www.wylies.com.au
If you’re settling into Sydney for a while, you might also like to check out these other beach and harbour pools:
- Neilsen Park – little more than a shark-net enclosure on one of the eastern suburbs prettiest beaches, located on Shark Bay (nothing to worry about), backed by a lovely park with a charming old kiosk turned café, and fragrant native bushland. I vaguely remember us swimming here late one sultry summer’s night with uni friends.
- Redleaf Pool – another beaut little eastern suburbs harbour pool that’s also little more than a fenced off section of water on Seven Shillings Beach, Double Bay. Easily accessible by buses running along New South Head Road, this is your next best bet for a memorable swim if you don’t have time to go to Neilsen Park or Boy Charlton is too crowded. Walk along the wooden boardwalk to reach the pontoons.
- Balmoral Beach – a beautiful swimming spot, formed by a shark net and boardwalk, on the north side of the harbour, Balmoral oozes vintage charm due to its promenade, leafy park, rotunda, and historic 1920s changing rooms that is now Bathers Pavilion restaurant. It was a favourite stop of ours for fish and chips at the end of a Sunday drive along Sydney’s northern beaches.
- Dee Why Rockpools – off the promenade of this north shore surf beach, shaped from the natural sandstone and wall reinforced with concrete. The two pools are popular with families, so except lots of squealing, giggling and occasional tears. There’s a wading pool for little ones and deeper pool for grown-ups.
- Freshwater Beach Baths – like Bondi, Bronte and Dee Why, this is another oceanfront pool dramatically set into the rocky cliffs. At the northern end of the Beach, the baths date to the 1920s, when it was a women’s only pool. It’s long and large, though fairly shallow.
- If you have a car, there are also beautiful rock pools at North Narrabeen, Mona Vale, Newport, Bilgola, Whale Beach, Palm Beach, and Avalon. See the Pittwater Council site for details.
- most pools are open to the public for free or charge a small admission fee.
- pools get packed with locals on weekends during the warmer months, so go mid-week.
- year-round the lanes will be taken by regular swimmers doing their daily laps – usually early in the morning from around 7-8.30am and after work after 5pm. Unless you want to do laps and can swim well, avoid these times.
- the best times to visit if you want to stake out a good sunbathing spot and actually get wet is when most Sydneysiders are at work, generally after 9am and before 3pm, when the kids get out of school and swimming lessons start.
- you may occasionally have to contend with school sports carnivals or closures due to maintenance, so if you’re only in Sydney for a short time, click through to the websites below to get a number and call ahead.
- harbourside pools usually have kiosks and dedicated change rooms (some with lockers) while the beachside pools will have public toilets and showers close by and a stylish café or take-away shop across the road.
- While the harbour pools tend to have operating hours, the ocean pools are open around the clock; just take care if you’re swimming after dark or when the sea is wild.
The Pool Lady is a project documenting one woman’s attempt to swim every public pool in Sydney while the blog Swimming Pool Stories is just a delight to browse. Don’t be surprised if they have you packing your ‘cossies’ (as we used to call swimming costumes as kids) and booking a flight to Sydney.