Europe is home to dozens of historic spa towns and bathing resorts. Popularised across the continent by the ancient Romans, spa towns saw something of a resurgence in the 18th and 19th centuries as wealthy royals and aristocrats flocked to the flourishing spa resorts of Europe.
Many of Europe’s most celebrated spa towns were constructed on natural springs. As such, their waters are said to have curative properties.
From the picturesque open springs of Saturnia in Italy to the magnificent royal spa resorts of Vichy, France, here are 7 spa towns to visit for a relaxing holiday in Europe.
1. Saturnia, Italy
The picturesque hot springs of Saturnia, in the hills of Tuscany, are famed both for their beauty and their legendary origins. Popular since at least the Roman times, the hot springs take their name from the Roman god Saturn: it’s said that after Saturn rained thunder down on Earth, fountains of thermal water sprang up far and wide.
Rich in sulphur, the Saturnia springs can be somewhat smelly (sulphur has an unfortunately eggy stench), but they more than make up for it in their health benefits (the waters are thought to be great for skin replenishment). Visitors to the region can take a soak at either luxury resorts, such as the Terme di Saturnia Natural Spa and Golf Resort, or free public pools like the Cascate del Mulino.
2. Spa, Belgium
The waters of this Belgian town, found in the Ardennes mountains, are so renowned that they gifted the world the term ‘spa’. The area’s natural springs were discovered in the late medieval period and swiftly grew in popularity for their supposed medicinal qualities. The town went on to host countless historic guests, including Peter the Great, Marie Antoinette and even Napoleon.
Spa is still celebrated for its waters to this day, and the area boasts some 300 cold mineral springs. Visitors to the town can soak in its supposedly curative waters at public baths such as Les Thermes de Spa, and drinking the water is also encouraged. To learn more about the region’s history as a spa town, visit the Musée de la Ville d’Eaux.
3. Vichy, France
Known as the ‘Queen of Spas’ or ‘Queen of the Springs’, Vichy is a town in central France renowned for its mineral-rich waters and for hosting royal spa retreats for centuries. From the 18th century, French royals celebrated the healing qualities of the region’s Allier River, after which point spas, retreats and bathhouses sprang up across the town.
While Vichy isn’t typically swarming with European royalty today, the town is still associated with wellness, as evidenced by the much-lauded skincare products of Vichy Laboratories. Visitors shouldn’t miss the Hall des Sources, which is a magnificent art deco glass structure home to some 6 thermal pools and a stream of mineral-rich drinking water.
4. Leukerbad, Switzerland
Leukerbad, found in the mountainous Swiss region of Valais, is a gorgeous alpine spa town once cherished by the ancient Romans. Still popular to this day, Leukerbad now attracts crowds of skiers and snowboarders visiting the region for its winter sports facilities. There are more than 50 hot springs in the town.
Visitors to Leukerbad should make the trip to Lindner Alpentherme, which is the biggest high-altitude spa complex anywhere in Europe. Another popular spot is the Walliser Alpentherme and Spa, where bathers can relax while enjoying a glorious view of the Alps.
5. Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad, is a spa town in the Czech Republic’s Teplá River Valley. It rose to prominence in the 19th century and became known as ‘the biggest open-air salon in Europe’. The area is home to more than a dozen large springs as well as hundreds of smaller ones.
Visitors to Karlovy Vary can find five large springs along the Mill Colonnade walkway in the centre of the town. There are also a whole range of spa resorts, such as the Hotel Thermal, Imperial Baths and the Elizabeth Baths. South of the town, visitors can find the Pramen Vřídlo geyser, which can shoot water some 10 metres in the air.
6. Baden bei Wien, Austria
Translating to ‘Baths by Vienna’, Baden bei Wien is a spa town roughly 25 miles south of the Austrian capital, Vienna. Known for its supposedly medicinal waters, which are high in sulphur, the town has been a popular spa site for centuries. Sometimes known as the ‘Spa of Emperors’, the town has hosted guests such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and various Habsburg royals.
Today, Baden bei Wien’s two most renowned spas are the Römertherme and Badener Hof, both of which are supplied by the town’s natural springs. Aside from enjoying the town’s famed waters, visitors to Baden bei Wien can take a stroll around the picturesque streets and enjoy the glorious architecture – or perhaps visit the Casino Baden.
The city of Bath, UK, is home to the world-famous Roman Baths complex, an impeccably preserved ancient Roman bathing house. The Romans Baths were initially built as part of the town of Aqua Sulis, which was founded in 44 AD. Vast and lavish, the baths were able to accommodate far more people than just the residents of this town and were intended as visiting spots for Romans across the Empire.
Today, the Roman Baths offer a comprehensive insight into the lives of the ancient Romans in the town and around Britain. While the site looks quite small from the outside, a visit can last several hours. There is a comprehensive museum on-site, dedicated to exploring the lives of the ancient Roman citizens of Bath. Around the Great Bath itself, you can enjoy the numerous saunas, swimming pools and heated baths.