Swimming in Istanbul: Freestyle or overarm

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Thinking of swimming in Istanbul - better know the costume etiquette!

“Being Australian and living in Istanbul, one of the hardest things to cope with at first was the difficulty of finding a pool to go swimming in Istanbul regularly. Prior to 1980 life in Istanbul was much like life in Sydney. People spent their summer days swimming at beaches along the Sea of Marmara and their evenings at outdoor cinemas. Locally produced wine was plentiful and mixed sex events the norm. Cue the military coup and over the ensuing years Turkey regressed in many ways. By the time I came to live here again in 2010, things had eased up a lot, but finding somewhere to swim was still problematic.

I’m used to pay-as-you-go pools, but here you don’t have that choice. You can join in with monthly classes, segregated by sex, at set times, or pay for quarterly, half or full year memberships where you can swim in mixed pools but again, only at fixed times. I already know how to swim and my plans frequently change so neither option suited me. After much research I found a pool which offered entry whenever I chose at a reasonable price.

Initially I was just so excited to find somewhere to train that I paid little attention to my fellow swimmers. I would go to the pool between appointments, complete one kilometre as quickly as my body allowed, then hop in the shower, get dressed and take off for my next meeting. Over time however, I began to notice startling differences in both the techniques and the outfits of the other people in the pool with me. I came to realise you could tell when people had first begun swimming by their bathing attire and sometimes even fairly accurately surmise their personal history and beliefs.

There are old men who are happy to show their limbs, wearing short legged trunks that sit high up over their navels. Strange as it might sound, this willingness to expose their legs is a sign they grew up holding the values of Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, close to their hearts. They are the portlier Turkish versions of young Italian boys from daring movies of the 1950s. Each time I touch the wall before turning to start the next lap I see them lined up at the edge of the pool, solemnly bending at the knees, before stretching out their arms at the completion of each squat. Only after they’ve finished at least twenty minutes of stretches accompanied by strenuous breathing do they enter the pool. Once they’ve taken careful measure of the space available to them and considered the temperature they plod along using a stroke that looks like a distant relation to dog paddle.

In other lanes vast old ladies, so broad in the beam that one on her own takes up the whole width, bathe rather than swim. They wear voluminous one piece costumes dating from the 1960s, sporting modesty skirts, the flounces of which match their fashionable bathing caps dotted with gaudy flowers. When I race along in the next lane I see their dismay when my confident strokes displace too much water and threaten to splash their carefully made up faces. Their Istanbullu accents and the careful way they articulate each word tell me they come from old Ottoman families. That and the drivers waiting out front in shiny black cars ready to take them to the hairdresser for a blow dry after each swim…”

This is an extract from “Freestyle or Overarm: the Language of Swimming”. To find out how swimming styles in Turkey evolved from the 1970s until today, read the full essay in the 2nd edition of my book Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City.

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  1. We keep swimming as a summer sea activity, here in Fethiye and you can just imagine the swimming / sunbathing outfits we come across…from all nationalities! 😉 Ceased to raise an eyebrow many moons ago. 🙂

    1. I once went swimming at Iztuzu beach. Two well-endowed female tourists were sunbathing topless and went into the sea in the same state. You can imagine the welcome they got from the Turkish women who were fully dressed. Especially when the husbands of the Turkish women dived in for a closer look!

  2. I joined a gym with an indoor pool in September just so I could swim all winter ( a point I made when I joined) When I turned up a month later to start my winter regime I found the pool wasn’t heated. Much disappointment and a whole 6 months without one swim.

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