The great spa towns of Europe shaped politics, the arts and wellbeing in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are still a magical experience today.
In July 2021, UNESCO inscribed the Great Spa Towns of Europe onto its World Heritage list, recognising the impact these institutions had on shaping Europe.
Eleven famous historic spa towns across seven countries were recognised. Each one was developed around natural mineral springs and features grand buildings and beautifully manicured gardens.
Every one of them played an integral role in developing culture, politics and medicine – and creating the ideals that still shape Europe.
They are equally fabulous today and remain havens of beauty and tranquillity for the frazzled traveller.
Baden bei Wien was known as the ‘Spa of Emperors’ and was a popular escape for the Habsburgs who popped down from nearby Vienna to take a break from ruling their empire. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Strauß were regulars too, especially when they had a new symphony to finish off.
Today visitors can wander the narrow streets surrounding the spa and admire the 19th-century Biedermeier architecture or lose themselves in leafy Kurpark. The iconic Casino Baden is must-see. Modern spas offer 21st-century versions of original therapies. Or you could follow the trails leading to Kalvarienberg and into the Vienna Woods.
Tucked away in a beautiful valley in the Ardennes, Spa is the original Spa Town and the one that gave the world the name. More than 300 cold mineral springs surround the town and the health-giving properties of their water has been sought after ever since Pliny the Elder wrote in 68 AD that they ‘purge the body, cure fevers and dispel calculous affections’.
Spa was also known as the ‘Café of Europe’ and introduced the concept of gaming to resorts. The Casino of Spa was built in 1763 and remains of the most striking buildings in the town (and is still open for a flutter). Musée de la Ville d’Eaux chronicles the history of the town as a spa. And a new state-of-the-art health centre sits on a hill overlooking the town offer all the latest therapeutic treatments.
If that all sounds a too tranquil, you can always pop over to the nearby Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, host of the annual Belgian Grand Prix.
Part of the ‘West Bohemian Spa Triangle’, Františkovy Lázně is regarded as a ‘new spa town.’ It was built at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries and followed the symmetrical architectural fashion of the time. It is characterised by an inner and outer spa, where eye-catching Baroque buildings are surrounded by a triple belt of parks, with pavilions and springs interlinked by grand promenades.
Twenty-three of the town’s twenty-four springs are still in use today, and a new local mud treatment has become increasingly popular. Visitors can wander the extensive parks and gardens and admire the neoclassical and Belle Epoque buildings, including the Social House, a neo-Renaissance hall still used for balls today. Or you could catch a performance at the Art Deco theatre of Božena Němcová.
Dedicated to leisure, pleasure and high-fashion the City of Bath is regarded as one of the earliest and most profoundly influential ‘Great Spas’. Famously founded by the Romans, it was transformed during Georgian times when the city became the place to be seen in by Royalty and the high aristocracy.
Today, exploring the Palladian squares, crescents and squares from this era remains a simple joy. And a visit to the baths themselves is a must – they have been operating for over 2,000 years after all.
But that is just scratching the surface of this fascinating city. There’s the Jane Austin Centre for the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ crowd. Bath Abbey, the Royal Crescent and the Palladian Bridge at Prior Park for architecture nuts. And countless cafes, restaurants and bars for the foodies.
If you want to actually bath in the mineral-rich waters though, you need to head to the Thermae Bath Spa.
Tightly contained in a deep valley cut by a tributary of the Rhine, Bad Ems is perhaps the most compact of the Great Spas. Despite its size, it is regarded as one of the most important spas in Germany – the scene of world-changing political events and decisions, as well as innovations in gaming and music.
The thermal springs are clustered by the river. The principal spa quarter has continually occupied the same site throughout history. It reflects a cavalcade of architectural heritage from the medieval ‘Wildbad’ through courtly life in the Baroque to the sophisticated international resort of the 19th century. For the energetic, there is a network of challenging therapeutic trails leading to high rocky overlooks.
Remember to reward yourself with one of the town’s famous pastilles, dusted with salt made from the local mineral waters.
Known as ‘the largest open-air salon of Europe’, Karlovy Vary has hosted royals, aristocrats and famous writers and artists across its 200-year history. It is famous for a geyser-like spring that shoots 12 metres into the air and remains the largest spa in Europe, an Art Nouveau gem, nestled in the beautiful Teplá River Valley.
Visitors will want to explore the historic spa quarter, not just for the health-giving springs but for the glorious buildings from the towns Golden Era at the end of the 19th century. As you wander amongst the colonnades you might notice people sipping from distinctive porcelain cups. That’s the local ‘drinking cure’. Buy yourself a mug, fill it up from one of the public drinking fountains and let the rejuvenation begin.
If you visit in autumn, make sure you visit Svatošské Rocks on the edge of town. This granite outcrop offers far-reaching views of the Ohře River and is a riot of fall colours when the leaves of the surrounding forests turn.
Another ‘new’ spa town in the ‘West Bohemian Spa Triangle’, Mariánské Lázně was known as the ‘spa in a park’. Like most spas it was popular with royal families and the aristocracy, but in the 1870s it gained an international reputation as a venue for important global political negotiations, scientific gatherings and as a place of inspiration for high-art.
Today, visitors will be impressed by the spa’s harmony with nature. You’ll find most of the springs in the immaculate Central Park, as well as a diverse collection of neoclassical spa buildings, from the 19th and early 20th century, including pavilions and an iconic colonnade.
In keeping with the spa’s natural focus, the wooded hills surrounding the town offer a multitude of recreational trails, some leading to springs, others to spectacular lookouts, all guaranteed to make you feel much, much, better.
Vichy sits beside the River Allier in Central France. It was known as the ‘Queen of Spas’ and greatly contributed to the creation of 19th-century European spa culture. The French, as is their want, took the general concept of a spa and imbued it with undeniable gallic flair.
Indeed, Napoleon III wanted the spa to be a ‘Little Paris’, combining the sophistication of the capital with the therapeutic benefits of a spa town. The result is a mix of grand bath complexes connected by covered promenades as well as a casino and theatre, hotels and villas.
Wander the gorgeous streets and parks. Soak up the history (the town was the headquarters of the Vichy government during World War II.) And maybe pick up a skin care product made from the local ingredients by the world-famous Vichy Laboratories.
The local mineral waters in Baden-Baden have been used for healing since antiquity but it was in the 19th century that this spa town on the edge of the Black Forest came into its own. Patronised by the ruling and cultural elite it became the most fashionable spa in the world and the ‘Summer Capital of Europe’.
The opulence and beauty that fuelled that reputation is still on show today. The grand buildings of the 19th century still dazzle. And a new spa quarter across the River Oos continues to offer the therapeutic treatments that first made the town popular. It remains a place of inspiration for locals, artists and visitors alike.
It is also a great base for some of the most spectacular hikes in Germany. The nearby Panorama Trail Baden-Baden is dotted with places of cultural, natural and historical interest and was nominated as Germany’s most beautiful hiking trail in 2020.
Bad Kissingen is the Bavarian largest spa town and is famous for transforming the concept of spa towns from 19th-century neoclassicism to 20th-century modernity. Architect Max Littmann rebuilt almost the entire spa using innovative forms and materials. The innovative Wandelhalle pump room remains the largest structure of its kind in the world.
The spa sits outside the medieval walled town. You’ll follow a cluster of springs along the Saale River and onto a formal spa garden. From here it is a seamless transition into parks and wooded hills. The German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck was a regular visitor – you can visit his old living quarters on the Upper Saline. And there is an animal park with wild cats, deer and birds of prey, Wildpark Klaushof, just to the northwest.
Montecatini Terme, the only Italian spa on the UNESCO list, is arguably the most stylish of them all. The monumental spa architecture is dotted, jewel-like, within an oasis of gardens, formal parklands and promenades. It is little wonder that the likes of Verdi, Puccini and Leoncavallo found it hard to leave.
The spa continues to offer treatments within its eclectic buildings, built in a distinctly Italian style. But for visitors the real joy lies in strolling along Viale Verdi, the central boulevard, or riding the rickety funicular railway to the top of Montecatini Alto and wandering back down through the fragrant forest of pine trees and terraced olive groves, a rejuvenating experience in itself.
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