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The Great Spa Towns of Europe

Take a dip into UNESCO’s recently designated therapeutic springs.

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Last summer, UNESCO added the Great Spa Towns of Europe to its 2021 World Heritage List. This was a major salve for spas that were hit hard by the pandemic. The transnational listing includes 11 towns in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K. While these historic spa towns are based on natural mineral water springs and were used over the millennia by Romans, Celts, and even prehistoric cultures, they only reached their high-water mark between the eighteenth century and the 1930s, when an international European spa culture and architecture began to take shape. Grand palace resorts devoted to wellness sprung up, and spa houses, health resorts, sanatoriums, pump rooms, colonnades, and water galleries were designed to capture the natural mineral water for bathing and drinking. These glorious spas and gardens of leisure not only helped usher in an era that expanded the scientific understanding of wellness medicine and balneology, but they created a blueprint for the European Grand Tour and the modern tourism movement. Europe-based writer Adam H. Graham takes us through the history surrounding three of these hot spots.

MOST READ TRAVEL

Stays

Simple Pleasures

At Italy’s Villa Lena, artful living and creative exchange are always on offer.

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A road trip across Liguria.

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Montecatini Terme, Italy

Located in the rolling Tuscan countryside about an hour northwest of Florence, Montecatini Terme is not your typical European spa town. For starters, there aren’t many public baths here anymore. Many of the glorious art nouveau baths developed in the eighteenth century and inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Culture Heritage in 2021 are now boarded up or abandoned.

Fortunately what the town lacks in thermal baths it makes up for in #AccidentalWesAnderson scenery, particularly the Montecatini train station and the shiny red and very toylike funicular chugging up to the village of Montecatini Alto, where the medieval Torre dell’Orologio clock tower presides over the green valley. Still, you can’t help but feel like the UNESCO listing came a bit too late for languishing Montecatini. Monday through Friday, the town feels like one long sleepy siesta, but weekends see droves of Italians, Russians, and Ukrainians converge for loud, smoky, (or rather, vapey) gatherings over burgers, pizza, and plates of carb-laden pasta along the streets spoking out from Palazzo Comunale. There is no shortage of gelaterias, salumerias, and pasticceria hawking chocolates and rich cakes. Light and healthy spa cuisine this is not. In fact, modern Montecatini is more about indulging than it is about health.

While archeological evidence suggests that people have been living in Montecatini since Paleolithic times, its historic waters have “only” been healing visitors since Roman times. More importantly, it was the first bath to have its waters analyzed scientifically in the fifteenth century by Bologna doctor Ugolino Caccini, who published his landmark “Tractatus de Balneis” in 1417. It was considered by many to be the first important work outlining medical hydrology and asserting individual mineral properties of the town’s four main sources of thermal water —Leopoldina, Tettuccio, Regina, and Rinfresco. During its nineteenth-century heyday, Montecatini’s illustrious baths became the splashy playground for Verdi, Garibaldi, and Puccini, each leaving their mark.

The town’s biggest draw today is its Parco delle Terme, a rambling and leafy complex of formal gardens and promenades that’s home to many of the original buildings, not to mention olive groves and fragrant pine trees offering shade from the hot sun. Don’t miss the Joan Miró and Claes Oldenburg hanging in the Mo.C.A. (Montecatini Contemporary Art), located on the first floor of the town hall. Properties in town offer incredible value, but to be honest, they are hit or miss and many lack spas or are in need of updates. One of the better properties is Francia & Quirinale Hotel just off the busy strip, with refurbished rooms offering mountain views, an outdoor pool, and a lavish breakfast buffet with homemade seasonal cakes.

Vichy, France

Located two hours east of Lyon in the volcanic Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of central France, Vichy is soaking in history. Today’s modernized spa town, which has been undergoing a major rebranding during the last 10 years, is by turns clinical and luxurious.

Vichy originally occupied a slice of wetland Europe that Romans, Celts, dukes, marquises, emperors, counts, and princesses pined over. Célébrités de passage included Napoleon’s mother Letizia, and Louis XV’s pampered daughters Adélaïde and Victoire. The latter two complained about Vichy’s muddy streets and lack of infrastructure after a visit there in 1761. The privileged duo’s complaints, issued to their nephew Louis XVI, had an impact, eventually transforming Vichy. Shortly after their visits, the marshland was diked and, in its place, strollable parks and gardens popped up, while salons, chalets, and pavilions for reciting poetry and music were built — setting the foundation for the wellness hub there today.


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But like many European spa towns, the town didn’t really develop its identity until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when it erected the grandiose but petite Casino de Vichy, the art nouveau Vichy Opera House (still a centerpiece of the town’s cultural offerings today), and numerous gardens, spas, halls, and spring sources.

Especially notable today is the Hall des Sources, an airy structure of glass and wrought iron built in 1902. Here you can still drink naturally carbonated water from six of Vichy’s 12 original springs. (The other six springs have closed or disappeared.) Coco Chanel hung out here. So did Marilyn Monroe. The site is part of the Parc des Sources, a rambling spa park developed by Napoleon III in 1812 that has covered iron walkways, chestnut and plane trees, and even an art nouveau bandstand. Another highlight is the Source des Célestins, named after a fifteenth-century Celestinian monastery, the remnants of which sit on a hill near a cave — one of the town’s sources of thermal water. Sharing its name is the famed Vichy Célestins Spa Hotel, one of Vichy’s best properties. With an extensive medical spa — Europe’s largest — it offers an exhaustive range of cosmetic, wellness, and natural and medical treatments, including everything from phyto-mud wraps and water aerobics to skin analysis and multi-night packages aimed at curing Type 2 diabetes.

Baden-Baden, Germany

The city of Baden-Baden is not only one of the more elegant and luxurious spa towns on the list, but also a fully functioning city with an identity beyond thermal baths. Located in Germany’s Black Forest just two hours south of Frankfurt, two hours from Basel, Switzerland, and one hour from Strasbourg, France, the spa town offers a winning mix of urban and green nature in ways that feel deeply Teutonic and connected locally to the landscape.

Like most spa towns on UNESCO’s list, the area along the Oos River hit its stride in the nineteenth century during the golden age of spa and sanatorium tourism. The fashionable Lichtentaler Allee became the town’s central promenade, housing the Kurhaus complex (1824) and Spielbank (casino), inspired by elegant Versailles. The notable Trinkhalle (pump room) has loggias at the centerpiece of its design, decorated with frescoes and drinking fountains.

But the waters at Baden-Baden date far back and were known to the Romans as Aquae (the waters) and sometimes Aurelia Aquensis (Aurelia of the waters), named after Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, who built and restored many baths across the Roman Empire in the third century.

Today Baden-Baden is home to 29 natural springs varying in temperature (from 115 to 153 degrees Fahrenheit), with many salt-rich waters that gush from artesian wells under Florentine Hill.

The best hotel in town is Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, a grandiose 150-year-old property that is the show pony of the Oetker Collection. Its marble baths, oversized windows, and wrought-iron balconies overlook the tree-lined Lichtentaler Allee. The spa has numerous saunas, steam rooms, and relaxing areas, while the medical care center offers comprehensive aesthetic treatments, including everything from preventive health care to cosmetic dentistry.

Today, the opulent neo-Renaissance Friedrichsbad remains the city’s most ornate bath, built from 1869 to 1877 and bearing a gold-embossed quote from Goethe’s “Faust” that reads “Heil dem Wasser, heil dem Feuer!” (“Hail to the waves, hail to the flame!”) Even the famously snarky Mark Twain soaked here and claimed, “After 10 minutes you forget time, after 20 minutes you forget the world.” It’s a fitting quote that feels more relevant than ever in 2022.

Travel Writer Adam Graham’s Guide to European Spas

The best modern resorts for sublime soaking.

  • Chenot Palace, Weggis, Switzerland

    State-of-the-art science and tech meet mindfulness, detox, and nutrition at this contemporary spa and clinic. Built in 2020 on Lake Lucerne, it’s just 45 minutes from Zurich.

  • Schloss Elmau, Krün, Bavaria, Germany

    Tucked away in a woodsy Bavarian hamlet where Obama and Merkel met for the 2012 G8 summit, this castle of spa and wellness is one of Germany’s most extensive. Its numerous treatments are primarily science based, with enough space for some exploratory, esoteric treatments.

  • Therme Vals, Vals, Switzerland

    Pritzker Prize–winning architect Peter Zumthor designed this elegant quartz spa temple high in the Alpine town of Vals, Switzerland. It draws both architects and wellness pilgrims to its watery echo chambers and open-air bubbling baths.

  • Terme di Saturnia Natural Spa & Golf Resort, Tuscany, Italy

    These sulfurous baths date back 3,000 years, when they were used by Etruscans and Romans after battles. Today the recently refurbished property and open-air baths offer golf, massage, and soul-warming Tuscan cuisine.

  • Chenot Palace, Weggis, Switzerland

    State-of-the-art science and tech meet mindfulness, detox, and nutrition at this contemporary spa and clinic. Built in 2020 on Lake Lucerne, it’s just 45 minutes from Zurich.

  • Therme Vals, Vals, Switzerland

    Pritzker Prize–winning architect Peter Zumthor designed this elegant quartz spa temple high in the Alpine town of Vals, Switzerland. It draws both architects and wellness pilgrims to its watery echo chambers and open-air bubbling baths.

  • Schloss Elmau, Krün, Bavaria, Germany

    Tucked away in a woodsy Bavarian hamlet where Obama and Merkel met for the 2012 G8 summit, this castle of spa and wellness is one of Germany’s most extensive. Its numerous treatments are primarily science based, with enough space for some exploratory, esoteric treatments.

  • Terme di Saturnia Natural Spa & Golf Resort, Tuscany, Italy

    These sulfurous baths date back 3,000 years, when they were used by Etruscans and Romans after battles. Today the recently refurbished property and open-air baths offer golf, massage, and soul-warming Tuscan cuisine.


AMERICAN EXPRESS® CARD MEMBER ACCESS

Fine Hotels + Resorts®

Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa is a Fine Hotels + Resorts property. When you book with American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on AmexTravel.com and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply. Learn more here.

Our Contributors

Adam H. Graham Writer

Adam H. Graham is an American food and travel journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. He typically spends a few months every year in Japan, and recently spent several weeks visiting Japanese vineyards in several different prefectures.

Kata Geibl Photographer

Kata Geibl is a photographer living and working between Budapest and The Hague. Her work is mainly focused on global issues, capitalism, the Anthropocene, and the ambiguities of the photographic medium, and has been exhibited worldwide in solo and group shows. Her first monograph was published by Void in November 2021.

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