When UNESCO picked its World Heritage Sites for 2020/2021 it also included 11 of Europe’s Great Spa Towns in its selection. Stating that “The great spas of Europe bear an exceptional testimony to the European spa phenomenon, which gained its highest expression from around 1700 to the 1930s.” It selected the “most fashionable, dynamic and international spa towns” among the many hundreds of spas dotted across Europe, acknowledging that each town was different, but that they all had developed around mineral water sources, and all became very popular with what can only be called “health tourism” of its time.
Around the original spas, pump rooms, and treatment facilities, pleasure and entertainment amenities such as casinos and grand hotels sprang up, and even today they tend to be glamorous places where history has been well preserved.
So, whether you want to visit these great spa towns to “take the cure” yourself, or whether you just want to visit for their beauty and historic charm, is up to you. Either way, all these spa towns are worth a visit, and will now hopefully be protected for future generations.
I have listed them according to the UNESCO file because it is difficult to choose a favorite among them.
1. Baden Bei Wien (Baden Near Vienna), Austria
Baden Bei Wien, as this ancient spa town near Vienna in Lower Austria distinguishes itself against all the other towns called Baden in the German-speaking regions of Europe, has long been popular. First, the Romans came to the sulfur springs, then the Austrian nobility and its emperors took the waters here. Some 15 miles from the Australian capital of Vienna, a day trip should definitely be in the cards when you are traveling in the region. The old center of town is pedestrianized and full of individual shops and cafes serving Australian specialties — from creamy coffee to rich cakes and sweet things. Don’t miss sampling the Beethoven Praline, made from white chocolate, with cream liquor, caramel, and sea salt. A picture-perfect casino invites you to maybe have a flutter, and then there are, of course, the baths, which might be smelly, but are so good for you.
Pro Tip: Try and catch the annual arts festival La Gacilly Baden which takes place every October.
2. Spa Belgium
That aptly named Spa in Belgium is indeed credited with giving all spas their name: derived from the Walloon word espa meaning fountain. Spa’s healing springs were known to the Romans (they did like their baths, didn’t they?), and were rediscovered back in 1326. The town exported its popular waters in the 1600s but did not reach its heyday until the 1800s when European royalty did their annual pilgrimages to Europe’s mineral spring resorts. Not only did Spa give the world’s health resorts their moniker, but it was here that the first casino was established, to keep wealthy guests entertained in the evenings, and, most likely, boost the city’s coffers. Today, Spa is a perfect size for a day trip, with admittedly limited sights, but there is the beautiful, covered Leopold II Gallery, and not only an annual arts festival but also a motor racing event.
Pro Tip: With all the pampering on offer in the Thermes de Spa you might want to stay overnight to really enjoy it. Try the Villa des Fleurs, a 12-bedroom hotel in an old mansion, right in the heart of Spa, within walking distance to everything, and with a funicular at the back taking you right to the entrance of the thermal springs.
3. Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), Czechia
This spa town is home to 12 main springs and 300 smaller springs and is a beautiful town with colorful houses hemming the Tepla River, and surrounded by mountains. Some 80 miles west of Prague, the capital of Czechia, or the Czech Republic, Karlovy Vary offers something for everyone, from spa treatments to hikes through the forested mountains, from beautiful colonnaded city walks to visits to the underground springs.
Pro Tip: Karlovy Vary is absolutely stunning at Christmas time, with the old town being taken over by markets and lots of lit trees.
4. Františkovy Lázně, And Mariánské Lázně, Czechia
The spa towns of Františkovy Lázně and Mariánské Lázně lie practically next door to Karlovy Vary, but are much smaller and specialize in health tourism, without offering too much in the way of traditional tourism or sightseeing. However, if you come for spa treatments and the outdoor life, these two towns are quieter than their larger compatriot, and allow you to relax and enjoy hikes through the countryside, rent a bicycle, or visit the local golf course.
Pro Tip: Base yourself in Karlovy Vary and pop into the other two spa towns while exploring the countryside.
5. Vichy, France
Who hasn’t drunk Vichy mineral water? It is one of the main exports of France. The town of Vichy, just northeast of Clermont Ferrand in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France is surrounded by true rural France: Mountains, hills, rivers, and the famous volcano cones, such as Puy-de-Dôme. It is that volcanic heritage that created the healing springs of Vichy, and Vichy offers warm as well as cold springs. Most of Vichy’s architecture dates from the early 1900s, so you have stunning examples of Art Nouveau or Belle Epoque, as well as Art Deco examples. Walking through Vichy and along the seemingly endless Allier River promenade is already pleasant enough, but add a visit to the Hall of Springs, with six different types of water to be sampled, and the Pavillon des Celestines, which houses the Vichy spring known around the globe, plus the Vichy Thermal Spa, and you’ll leave healthier than when you arrived, for sure.
Pro Tip: Base yourself in nearby Clermont-Ferrand, a beautiful historic town worth staying in for a couple of days.
6. Bad Ems, Germany
On the doorstep of Koblenz on the confluence of the rivers Rhine and Moselle, in Germany’s wine country, Bad Ems can easily be visited from one of the popular wine river cruises. Bad Ems is often referred to as Germany’s answer to Nice, France, despite being located on the river Lahn instead of the Mediterranean coast. But the glamour of the royal spa town is unmistakable, and the spa treatment house, right on the river and beautifully illuminated at night, offers a wellbeing approach incorporating holistic, natural, Ayurveda, and other worldwide concepts.
Pro Tip: Surrounded by the Taunus, Hunsruck, Westerwald, and Eiffel natural parks, Bad Ems is in a perfect location to combine walking, biking, and wine drinking. For that balanced approach to health.
7. Baden-Baden, Germany
On the edge of the Black Forest, Baden-Baden is Germany’s best-known and best-loved spa town. Glamour and style rule everything, from the fabulous Belle Epoque architecture, the spa facilities, and hotels and restaurants, to the illustrious guests. Once the most fashionable European town to spend the summer, with royalty enjoying healthy strolls while socializing, and of course, benefitting from the health benefits of the mineral springs, Baden-Baden attracted so much money and glitz, that there is even a Fabergé Museum filled with extremely pretty and desirable knick-knacks.
Pro Tip: When in Baden-Baden, bring your glad rags and enjoy the 5-star Belle Epoque charm and luxury of the lovely Belle Epoque Hotel in a grand park steps away from the Lichtenberger Allee.
8. Bad Kissingen, Germany
The spa town of Bad Kissingen lies about 90 miles east of Frankfurt and, while not as glamorous as Baden-Baden, it has a definitive medieval charm that is hard to resist. The old center is studded with plenty of half-timbered houses, and the river Saale is lined with charming buildings. The spa facilities offer both warm and cold, indoor and outdoor pools, mud and mineral spring treatments, and the facilities are world class.
Pro Tip: There are several walking trails in and around Bad Kissingen. Get a map from tourist information or your hotel and try the “Weg der Besinnung,” the Path of Reflection, with 12 sculptures along the way.
9. Montecatini Terme, Italy
This spa town is in Tuscany — need I say more? The small town is a mix of grand spa buildings and clustered oh-so-Italian houses, palm trees in the market square, and good restaurants that might just ruin all the good you get from the mineral spring treatments. There are views across the Tuscan countryside from (nearly) everywhere. Just put it on your Tuscan Road trip itinerary, for a relaxing stop along the way.
Pro Tip: There is a little, bright red funicular that rumbles past vineyards, farmhouses, and majestic views. The station building is just as quaint. Don’t miss it.
10. City Of Bath, United Kingdom
The city of Bath is probably the only one of the listed spa towns that barely needs an introduction. The Romans established the famous Roman Baths in the city center, Jane Austen put the city in literature, the Netflix hit Bridgerton put it on the small screen. The city is a perfect mix of architecture, history, culture, and fun, with the added bonus of some healthy springs.
Pro Tip: Just as important as taking the waters or submerging yourself in them, is to walk along them. Walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal from just behind the train station either up to the George pub or along all the way to pretty Bradford on Avon, around a two-and-a-half-hour fast walk.
Spas are popular retreats in Europe, and there are many to choose from: