Taking the waters. In 18th- and 19th-century Europe, doctors would frequently prescribe this cure-all treatment to ailing patients: take the waters, which meant going to a tranquil town with a good climate and spending several months there partaking of the healing waters that gurgled forth from the earth. As decamping to a far-away town to do nothing but relax was only an option for those with money, this treatment method quickly became associated with Europe’s wealthy and elite.
Hence developed the tradition of European spa towns, where wealthy patrons, despairing of their health, would retreat for entire seasons to soak in and imbibe therapeutic waters of varying mineral content. Whether or not it worked is a matter of doctor-patient confidentiality (but the rumor mill and word-of-mouth are definitely what fueled the growth of these towns back in the day), but what posterity got was picturesque towns filled with exquisite architecture, history, culture, art, and world-class spa facilities.
As taking a spa holiday is just as popular today as it was back then, although now more accessible to the hoi polloi, here are the ten best spa towns in Europe for a soothing, culture-filled getaway that will heal your body, your mind, and your soul.
Located in the South Tyrol region of the Italian Dolomites, Merano has been a destination for Europe’s well-heeled since the 1800s, when its curative waters and mild climate promised rest and restoration amid stunning alpine scenery.
Today the waters that once nourished Austrian empress Sissi, composer Strauss, and writers like Pound and Kafka can be enjoyed at a variety of high-end resorts and spas, like the ultra-luxe Henri Chenot Health Centre or the 25-pool Terme Merano wellness complex, famed for its radon-rich thermal baths.
Between soaks and massages, make time to walk the historic promenades and admire the many architectural styles ranging from Art Nouveau to Belle Epoque, take in a musical performance at the Kurhaus, and visit landmarks like Tyrol Castle. A great time of year to visit is November and December for the annual Wine Festival, Culinaria food fair, and Christmas Market.
Scattered in the hills around this Tuscan town, the hot springs of Saturnia are literally legendary, as it’s said they were created when a bolt of lightning from the Roman god Saturn struck the ground. People have been coming to these hot springs since Roman times for their high sulfur content, which helps with skin ailments.
While there are several luxury resorts in the area, like the Terme di Saturnia, the most famous is the free Cascate del Mulino natural hot springs outside town, which went viral for their terraced, cascading pools and provincial environs. Wellness-seekers can also avail themselves of the town’s top-notch archaeological museum, visit nearby Roman monuments, and wander the streets of this medieval city.
The Black Forest village of Baden-Baden (which means “bathing” in German) started life 2,000 years ago as a Roman retreat before experiencing a revival in the 19th century as a spa destination and place to see, be seen, and party at spots like the Spielbank casino.
Visitors have their choice of bathhouses to visit (like the classic Kurhaus spa) but two of the most popular are the historic Friedrichsbad baths, which are housed in an elegant 19th-century building that emulates traditional Roman and Irish bathing practices, and the contemporary Caracalla Spa.
As a town with such a diverse history, there is plenty else to do as well, like visiting the ruins of the Roman baths, exploring the Old Town, seeing world-class music and opera performed at Germany’s biggest opera venue, the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, and perusing the many museums.
Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
With its colorful, colonnaded houses perched along the banks of the Ohře and Teplá Rivers, Karlovy Vary is the pitch-perfect image of a European spa resort town.
Rising to fame during the spa town boom of the 19th century, the town and areas surrounding it are a literal hotbed, with 13 large springs and 300 smaller ones. Five of the large springs originate along the Mill Colonnade walkway in the town center, and spa resorts like the grand Elizabeth Baths, the Soviet-era Hotel Thermal, and the Imperial Baths offer treatment regimens based on recommendations from a spa physician, like drinking the mineral-rich waters and hydro-therapy.
With so many historic buildings of the Neo-Renaissance and Baroque persuasion, visitors can also wander for hours to soak up the sights, visit the Diana Observation Tower, and pay a visit to the famous Vřídlo indoor geyser.
Bath has been a spa destination par excellence since antiquity, with the centerpiece of this temple to health and wellness being the beautifully-preserved Roman Baths.
As soaking in the Roman Baths is now prohibited, there are plenty of other modern facilities around town, like the Thermae Bath Spa, which is the sole spa in Bath to use the same natural mineral water as the Romans.
But there is much more to Bath than bathing: a World Heritage site, the town is filled with Georgian, Neoclassical, and Gothic architecture that make for great sightseeing, as well as world-class museums, a Jane Austen center, and a lively year-round theater, music, and cultural events calendar.
The pedigree of this town in Belgium’s Ardennes mountains can’t be overstated; it gave the world the term “spa”.
The natural hot springs here were first discovered in the 12th century and quickly acquired the mythos of having curative properties. Over the centuries, the who’s-who of Europe, like Napoleon, Peter the Great, Marie Antoinette, Victor Hugo, and Alexander Dumas, came to Spa as patrons.
Today, modern visitors can also soak up all that history and culture at spas like Les Thermes de Spa. And in Spa, it’s not just about soaking: drinking the water is strongly encouraged and the waters are even bottled for on-the-go wellness.
As a break from all that relaxing, take a stroll through the Parc de Sept Heures with its covered pavilion, or pay a visit to the Museum of the City of Water for a delightful tour through the history of the town.
This “Queen of the Springs” city on the shores of the Allier River in central France was the favored spa retreat of French royalty. With both hot and cold springs, the heated thermal waters, rich in minerals like calcium and iron, originate from the nearby dormant Auvergne volcanoes.
Although not as well-known as a spa destination today, the Vichy name is still synonymous with wellness, as evidenced by the Vichy skincare line and Vichy bottled water. One of the truly unique things about Vichy is that the actual source of some of the springs has been incorporated into spa and thermal bath buildings around town.
A great place to discover Vichy’s culture and spa history is the elegant Parc des Sources, which houses the opulent Les Celestins spa, the art-deco Hall des Sources atrium (where you can drink water from the springs), and landmarks like the Opera House.
Bad Ischl, Austria
After Habsburg Archduchess Sophie claimed that the salt- and sulfur-rich spring waters of this high Alpine town helped her recover from several miscarriages and eventually bear children, Bad Ischl’s healer reputation was sealed.
In addition to retreating here during the summer months, the Habsburgs adorned the city with stunning fairy-tale residences, like the sunshine-yellow Kaiser Villa. The town is also famous for its pastries at Zauner Café, which first opened in 1882.
But don’t just stay indoors; Bad Ischl is the gateway to the Alpine wonderland of Salzkammergut, so there are wonderfully scenic trails near the town. For trying the town’s lovely, fresh waters, nowhere is better than the Salzkammergut Thermal Spa, with its many thermal baths and spa treatments.
While the 65 hot springs of this town in the Swiss canton of Valais once hosted members of the Roman empire, today, they are attended by the swarms of winter sports enthusiasts who come to the canton.
Surrounded by mountains, the warm waters can be enjoyed at private hotel spa facilities, but in the spirit of outdoor camaraderie, the best place to soak are public baths like Leukerbad Therme and Lindner Alpentherme, which has the distinction of being Europe’s largest high-altitude spa facility.
For the best views that are closest to the action in town, pay a visit to the Walliser Alpentherme and Spa, located right in the historic city square, where you can soak while staring at the epic Alps.
During winter, activities include skiing and snowboarding, and in summer, hiking and cycling are great ways to explore the alpine landscapes.
Marienbad (aka Mariánské Lázně), Czech Republic
Located in the same region as Karlovy Vary, Marienbad is another fantasy example of old-European charm, culture, and luxury, with scores of elegant buildings interspersed by verdant parks. Notable international figures flocked here in the 1800s to partake of the carbon-dioxide-rich waters, including Edison, Goethe, Chopin, Wagner, and handful of royals.
Many of the most famous springs have their source in the heart of town, like Cross Spring, Rudolph Spring, and Caroline’s Spring. While some of the waters from the springs are used for soaking, bathing, and treatments at classic spa resorts like Hotel Nové Lázně, their curative properties are purportedly best accessed through drinking, and many of the Neoclassical colonnades that house springs have facilities for visitors to imbibe the water in peaceful, beautiful settings.
The town is also known for its Singing Fountain, museums (which include a town history museum and a museum about Chopin), and the nearby Slavkov Forest.