The 11 Must-Visit Great Spa Towns of Europe
The ancients were known for their love of thermal baths and the ruins of Greek and Roman bathing complexes are scattered from the British Isles to northern Africa. More than a thousand years later, Europe saw a revival of this spa culture and a smattering of towns flourished around natural springs between the 18th and early 20th centuries. The European elite would visit these grand resorts to “take the waters” (by both bathing and drinking) in their bathhouses, stroll down their tree-lined promenades, and enjoy concerts and dances in their lavish parks and halls. Eleven of these handsome spots now collectively make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Great Spa Towns of Europe.
The first spa town to receive UNESCO recognition in 1987, Bath is home to one of the best-preserved Roman bathhouses in the world. However, its heyday as a spa town dates to the 18th century and Bath’s glorious Georgian and Palladian architecture has been the setting for everything from novels by Jane Austen to the Bridgerton series. Marvel at the stately Circus and Royal Crescent, visit the Jane Austen Center to learn more about the author’s life and times, and sip a cuppa at one of the many storied tea houses in the city. Or, for a bird’s-eye view of the spa quarter with its unique urban landscape interspersed with parks and gardens, take to the skies in a hot-air balloon.
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What’s in a name? In the case of Spa, everything. The mineral-rich waters from the city’s surrounding springs were so popular for their therapeutic properties in the 18th century that the word “spa” came to be used in the English language to mean any resort with curative water treatments. Known for its graceful architecture and lush promenades, Spa is also home to one of the oldest casinos in the world and birthplace of Agatha Christie's fictional detective, Hercule Poirot. Be sure to explore the scenic paths up the wooded slopes to the south of the city that lead to the natural springs.
Dubbed the “Queen of Spas,” France’s greatest spa town is a dazzling 18th-century cityscape that melds a number of architectural styles. Set in a bend in the River Allier, its parks, boulevards, and sweeping bath complex linked by covered promenades—known as “Little Paris”—were largely built under Napoleon III and became the model for spa towns in France and across Europe. Take a day trip from Lyon to explore Vichy’s colonnade-lined Parc des Sources, where you can soak in the mineral waters at Les Célestins or sip them at the Hall des Sources; admire the belle époque casino and art nouveau opera house; and visit the art deco Notre-Dame-des-Malades church just outside the park.
Royalty and celebrities have been flocking to this luxurious spa town on the edge of the Black Forest for centuries, drawn by its therapeutic waters and fine architecture. The old town spa district is home to the ruins of ancient Roman baths and the sumptuous 19th-century Friedrichsbad bathhouse. On the opposite bank of the Oos River, the new spa district—built during the Belle Epoque—houses the Kurhaus (bathhouse), Trinkhalle (pump room), casino, and theater. Take a constitutional along the garden-lined Lichtentaler Allee, stopping to admire the collection of modern and contemporary art in the Frieder Burda Museum.
Lining both banks of the River Lahn (a tributary of the Rhine River), the spa quarter in Bad Ems is wedged between the steep wooded slopes of the Lahn Valley—follow the walking trails up to the city’s scenic overlooks to take in its Baroque and Renaissance Revival architecture from above. Highlights of this storied Weltbad (spa resort) include the impressive Kurhaus and pump room at the quarter’s center, and the Kursaal (entertainment hall), casino, and theater strung like pearls along the river. Admire these gems from the water with a river cruise that retraces the journey 19th-century French, Russian, and British visitors would take to reach this fashionable summer retreat.
Architecture buffs delight at the wonderland mix of neo-classical, Renaissance, baroque revival, Biedermeier, and art nouveau elements that make up the spa quarter in Bad Kissingen. Much of the area was built (or restyled) by architect Max Littmann in the early 20th century, including the massive Wandelhalle (Grand Foyer), Brunnenhalle (Pump Room), and magnificent Regentenbau (Concert Hall). The dazzling Luitpoldbad was the largest bathhouse in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Surrounded by rolling hills and set along a green ribbon of parks and promenades skirting the Saale River, Bad Kissengen is an ideal day trip from Frankfurt.
Also known as Marienbad, Mariánské Láznĕ became a premier retreat for the European aristocracy in the 1800s. Royalty, politicians, and intellectuals were drawn by the temperate microclimate, rolling forested hills of West Bohemia, and vast spa complex set around the mineral springs where they could “take the cure” not far from Prague. Enjoy a day trip to this genteel spa town, part of the West Bohemian Spa Triangle, to marvel at the Renaissance and baroque revival bathhouses, pavilions, colonnades, Kursaal, and theater. Then, be sure to take time for a soak or drink at one of the dozens of springs that still gush mineral-rich water and a stroll through the exquisitely landscaped Central Park.
Set just northeast of Mariánské Lázně (and often combined in a single day trip from Prague), Karlovy Vary is arguably the Czech Republic’s most magnificent spa town and was the gathering place for European royalty and high society for centuries. A favorite of the King of Bohemia Charles IV—for whom the town is named—this crown jewel of the West Bohemian Spa Triangle has thermal spring water and is the home to a geyser that spurts hot water more than 40 feet (13 meters) into the air. Pause beneath the elegant colonnade to sip the curative waters from the drinking taps with traditional porcelain cups and explore the ornate 19th-century architecture of the impeccably preserved spa buildings, colonnades, pavilions, and hotels.
Though Františkovy Lázně is the smallest of the spa towns in the Czech Republic, this 18th-century district shares the old-world luster of its neighbors in the West Bohemian Spa Triangle. The spa complex is laid out in a symmetrical grid pattern, with neoclassical bathhouses and pavilions lined up along neat promenades and parks, ringed by thick woods. Unwind in one of the 20 cold mineral springs and mud baths, including the world’s first peat pulp bath, and see why German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who visited dozens of times, described the town as “heaven on earth.”
Baden bei Wien
With its convenient proximity to Vienna, seat of the mighty Habsburg dynasty, Baden bei Wien was once the Spa of Emperors—a nickname that it still retains to this day. The spa district is a treasure trove of 19th-century Biedermeier architecture and art deco buildings from the early 20th century, and thousands of visitors still come here each year to bathe in the sulfur-rich thermal and cold springs. Stroll along the avenues of the Kurpark, considered one of the most beautiful gardens in Austria, and admire the historic Kurhaus, Trinkhalle, Sommerarena (concert hall), and music pavilion.
The latest to be listed among UNESCO’s Great Spa Towns of Europe, Montecatini Terme is also Italy’s only entry. Set below the medieval hill town of Montecatini Alto, this resort in northern Tuscany—twinned with the historic English spa town of Harrogate—is known for its fine marble bathhouses built between the 18th and 20th centuries and connected by palm tree–lined boulevards and lush parks that blend seamlessly into the surrounding Italian countryside. Set off from Lucca, Pisa, or Florence to explore the art nouveau Parco delle Terme gardens lined by graceful thermal baths and grand hotels, then take the funicular uphill to explore the older town above.