Europeans call it “taking the waters.” The rest of us should call it the “No. 1 travel bucket list to-do.” We’re talking about a visit to European thermal towns. Or better yet, a full thermal town tour.
A hot springs vacation to Europe has it all: history, health and wellness, adventure, luxury, character, nature, relaxation and beauty. These magical spa town destinations – flawlessly blending architecture, nature, health and tradition – are centered around naturally occurring healing springs.
Since ancient times, people have been drawn to the thermal waters of Europe. Over the centuries, these destinations have evolved into welcoming spa towns. In fact, these towns were Europe’s first major tourist destinations, and as such, they boast centuries-old traditions full of hospitality. The luxury hotels, grand theaters, lively festivals, lush parks, James Bond-worthy casinos and gardens all complement the “thermal architecture,” which houses the healing waters. These towns know how to relax and enjoy life through the benefits of the fresh air and activities in the surrounding countryside. They’re also known as foodie destinations with sommelier-approved wine.
The plan for my own thermal town journey this past summer was to go back in time and see what the appeal was for these secluded, historic towns. What has drawn so many well-to-do, ailing, famous and royal visitors since Roman times? I hoped to find out – and hopefully find the same restorative powers of the waters for myself.
Following my experience, here are five tips to bring this dream European vacation to your life. And as a bonus, if you are worried about crowds of tourists, these wellness wonders of Europe are largely stress- and crowd-free.
Hop between spa towns.
Take a tour down the European Route of Historic Thermal Towns, one of the 48 Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe. It’s surprisingly convenient to travel between these destinations, as many tend to have easy train connections, a close proximity to major airports and plenty of unique lodging options.
The European thermal town route covers about 50 different thermal destinations in 17 different countries. Eleven thermal towns in seven countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom) are also members of the “Great Spa Towns of Europe,” which was named a UNESCO World Heritage List in 2021.
Many of the Great Spa Towns highlights can be found in France and Germany. I started my journey in the suburbs of Paris for a relaxing start (and yes, you can find relaxation near the metropolis of Paris). For example, check out the Enghien Les Bains in the suburbs. Stay at the intimate Le Grand Hotel, with Baroque-style decor, a private lake, a health spa and, of course, calm thermal baths in a brightly lit facility. Our next lodging was the Hotel Royal Saint Mart, where we truly enjoyed some of our best french meals with local cheese and wine.
Then head to the Route des Villes d’Eaux du Massif, tucked high in the mountains of the Massif Central. This is where you’ll discover the Baroque-style Royat-Chamalières spa town resort; experience water pavilions built around thermal water mineral springs that used to be worshiped by the Gallo-Romans for their health benefits. Royat has been a wellness mecca since Roman times and continues to be today. Our day in the Royatonic Spa felt like a life elixir. Each area of hydro wellness enlightened both my body, mind and spirit – exactly what I was looking for in a wellness vacation.
Then there’s Vichy, France, one of the best-known spa towns in Europe and a must-visit destination. Stay at the five-star Vichy Celestins Spa Hotel, which is connected to the largest medical thermal spa in Europe. All rooms here are elegant and comfortable, overlooking the park, lake or the spa itself. This spa, founded in 1853, employs a multidisciplinary medical team to advise you on your treatments.
Here I had real, traditional Vichy water shower treatment, a four-hand massage that the spa has been offering since 1896. This emblematic Vichy treatment is carried out by two spa practitioners. The massage is perfectly synchronized under a thermal water shower that’s rich in minerals. An exceptional experience is guaranteed. You must try it at least once in your life.
Witness the architecture.
All of the towns on the scenic European Route of Historic Thermal Towns are built around thermal and mineral springs. Some (like Vichy and Wiesbaden) date way back to ancient Roman times. Take some time to check out the incredible historic remains and architecture.
Spa towns are distinguishable by their bath houses, pump rooms, “source halls,” colonnades and drinking halls, so you can not only bathe in the waters, but in some cases, you can drink it, too. Many of these buildings are incredibly ornate, originally built to attract and impress dignitaries and royalty. Likewise, the associated villas and hotels boast the same level of architectural detailing and craftsmanship.
The ineffable, natural beauty of some of the spa facilities is indescribable, beyond words, beyond description. Truly unimaginable.
One stand-out for architecture outside of the spas was the Henkell-Freixenet Sparkling Wine historic cellars in Wiesbaden, which has been making life sparkle since 1856. This is one of the world’s finest wineries that produces those bubbles we all crave. Take a guided tour before or after your spa time. I marveled at the magnificent marble interiors, then headed down to see the seven subterranean floor wine cellar. We also got to take a peak over the production facilities. I felt as if I had won the golden ticket (Willy Wonka style). Every tour of the winery closes with a sparkling wine tasting. Of course, we left with a few bottles to take home.
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When on a healthy vacation, balance is part of true wellness, so don’t forget to visit places that feed your soul or at least your taste buds, too.
Experience the culture.
Over the years, European spa towns have blossomed into cultural and historical gems, rich with theaters, opera houses, drinking halls and even some of the earliest forms of sports games: tennis, horse racing and golf, to name a few. Make sure you visit the hippodrome in Vichy to take in a horse race. We enjoyed the carriage horse races, and I even won after I placed a bet on a horse named after one of my dogs.
Sparked by the cultural activities, these towns boasted some of the first community festivals, too. Some of these festivals remain celebrated today in one form or another – a combination of tradition, community connection and great entertainment.
You can also find casinos in some of these towns, with roots as more of a social club that eventually evolved into what it is today.
One of my favorite spa towns in Europe was Wiesbaden, Germany. Even though this was my second trip to the region, I was still blown away by how much culture, history and flavor this town had to offer. I loved the Museum Wiesbaden’s Art Nouveau Collection (and I’m not typically a museum person). We also indulged in amazing chocolate cake (and lunch) at Cafe Maldaner.
But the Nassauer Hof Therme (one of Wiesbaden’s best thermal baths and luxury hotels) was the shining star of the city. Here, I relaxed in the warm thermal pool, designed like a conservatory so you feel like you’re outside when you’re bathing.
After that, I enjoyed a facial treatment at the Artemis Beauty Spa with Artemis of Switzerland treatments, which smartly blend nature and technology. I finished off the day with a tasty dinner at Nassauer Hof, feeling relaxed, pampered and like a German Duchess.
Immerse yourself in nature.
Thermal springs are a gift from Mother Nature, and they come packaged in other outdoor opportunities, as well. Spa towns are also known for their stunning parks and gardens that you can incorporate into your visit. They’re also frequently embraced by forests, hills, lakes, rivers and stunning landscaping to be used for outdoor exercise, as well as the connection with nature. Historically, visitors wove gentle exercise into their healing waters excursions, and you can still do that today.
One to check out: Bad Homburg, with its sprawling parks with springs you can drink from. This destination makes a great day trip from Wiesbaden (only about a half hour drive away). My favorite activity here was relaxing at the Kur Royal Day Spa; I could do this every day. The “royal” in this spa’s name isn’t an exaggeration. It has a history of attracting kings, princes and even the German kaiser.
This spa offers more than a dozen separate stations to indulge all of your spa dreams, from an herbal steam bath (herbal essences stimulate circulation via fir branches strewn on the floor that also pleasantly stimulate your foot reflex zones) to a odorium (naturally pure essential oils and essences evaporate in 45 degrees celsius). I was challenged to pick my favorite room at Kur Royal and definitely plan to return as quickly as possible.
Tip: Before your spa day, visit the local tourism office to pick up a classic drinking vessel or spa cup. The special shape of this porcelain cup has a spout leading from low down on the body, so the vessel looks like a cross between both a teapot and a cup. These cups are used to drink mineral or thermal water directly from the actual spring source.
Then visit all of the public thermal springs of Bad Homburg as you promenade around the well-manicured park to not only get your steps in for the day, but to also experience the city the way it was intended to be experienced. Each spring is said to treat different ailments and has a list of the minerals for you to review beside the spring.
My friend Mia and I also did some forest bathing in Le Capucin Forest overlooking the French town of Le Mont-Dore that was next level. Our venture started with a funicular accent up to the forest. If you believe “the journey is part of the adventure,” you have that here. The forest features fitness activities and relaxing places built from the natural surroundings. My friend and I relaxed in a wooden ship that had natural lounge chairs, a unique memory I’ll take with me forever.
Plan a healthy well-cation.
Since 2020, health and wellness has been even more on the forefront of our thoughts than ever before. Whether you need to recover physically or mentally (the mental stress fallout from the Covid-19 changes is real), many spa towns offer special programming and offers designed to help you truly relax, recover and give your mind and body a much-needed boost. Certain spa towns used to be prescribed by doctors for different ailments – and for good reason. Some springs were only available to people with a doctor’s prescription and dosed by attendants
For example, the French Le Grand Hotel offers specific “certified cures,” such as a six-day thermal cure for breathing disorders.
The results of my tour of Europe’s best thermal towns? My skin feels the best it has since I was in my 20s, and now I’m rethinking all the water I put into my body. I always appreciated German mineral water, but now I need to find a way to also bring more Vichy minerals into my life.
Incorporating the history, culture and health of European thermal towns will completely transform your mindset about travel. Whatever you are working on in your life right now, if you sit in the Earth’s powerful waters long enough, the answer will find you.
Even though I set out for a restorative experience, I have to admit: I felt like royalty many times while relaxing in the thermal waters, because I did not have a care in the world. That’s when I started to comprehend the effects of “taking the waters.”
I now understand why so many people visit historic thermal towns to experience the good life. And now I’m hooked. I want to visit all of the towns on the European Route of Historic Thermal Towns. Packed with fine dining, activities, art, spas and more on a European vacation, these hidden gems are exactly what this spa gal was looking for. Just like other discerning travelers since Roman times.
ALL Photo Credits: Ava Roxanne Stritt
Spa Travel Gal wants to remind you that spa and wellness treatments are not a luxury, but essential to your body, mind and soul!