In 2021, UNESCO created a new, transnational World Heritage site: 11 towns in 7 European countries that collectively make up The Great Spa Towns of Europe.
All of the towns developed around natural mineral water springs, many of which were used therapeutically from Europe’s earliest history.
Together, the Great Spa Towns of Europe represent the international European spa culture that grew between the early 1700’s and 20th century, leading to the development of grand international spa resorts with buildings and rooms dedicated to therapy, pump rooms, drinking halls, colonnades and galleries designed to tap the natural mineral water resources and to allow their use for bathing and drinking, as well as facilities like gardens, assembly rooms, casinos, theatres, hotels and villas that supported the European spa lifestyle in a picturesque lifestyle as we came to know it today.
For UNESCO, these sites “embody the significant interchange of human values and developments in medicine, science and the study of therapeutic bathing and medicinal springs.”
The words that identify The Great Spa Towns of Europe are the terms that have become synonymous with wellness today: Spa, Bath, or in German, Bad or Baden, and often, you'll see a version of the word 'thermal,' referring to the warmth of the water, heated underground, that drew the earliest people to seek the healing powers of the natural springs.
The 11 towns of the new , transnational, collective UNESCO site are:
- Baden bei Wien in Austria;
- Spa in Belgium;
- Františkovy Lázně, Karlovy Vary, and Mariánské Lázně in the Czech Republic
- Vichy in France;
- Baden-Baden, Bad Kissingen, and Bad Ems in Germany;
- Montecatini Terme in Italy; and
- The City of Bath in Britain.
A grand tour of all seven countries would be the ultimate European spa odyssey, but maybe you can start with three of the most famous:
It’s the German spa town so famous, its name says it twice! This mineral spring town in the mystical Black Forest has been on the wellness radar for a millennium.
Baden-Baden's curative waters are said to rise via underground springs from a depth of 6,500 feet to the surface, At temperatures of up to 68 Celsius, they dissolve rich mineral deposits along their journey to the surface, that give the waters their unique properties.
The Romans called the community where the mineral springs rose from the earth ‘Aquae’, or ‘the waters,’ and credited Baden-Baden’s recuperative waters with curing Emperor Caracalla’s rheumatism. To commemorate his ‘cure’, he built three regal baths, the ruins of which you can still visit today.
Fast forward a couple more centuries, and Baden-Baden’s waters were claimed to have cured people from the Black Death. That’s when the town, called the old German plural of ‘bath’ got promoted to two ‘baths’ to elevate it to the highest rank of all other ‘Badens’ in Europe.
By the 19th century, that reputation had developed Baden-Baden into a stunning, Neo-classical town with a spa quarter. The two hundred-year old Kurhaus spa complex with the ‘Trinkhalle’ or drinking room complete with columns, frescoes and views over the River Oos also includes a Casino called one of the most luxurious in the world.
(Thermal bath in Friedrichsbad. Image GNTB /Francesco Carovillano)
The town was also developed with ornate villas, and outdoor activity facilities for the elite guests who came to take the waters from around the world.
Historic spas remain today, including the famous Belle-Époque Friedrichsbad, dating from the 19th century and modeled after the Roman baths that predated it by a thousand years. Modern spas round out the therapeutic offering of the town today.
If you’ve never heard of the town of Vichy, in central France, but the name seems familiar, there’s a good reason. Even without visiting, you may have already tasted the town’s world-famous mineral waters.
Vichy became one of the pioneers of bottled ‘mineral water’ that launched the bottled water craze today, along with other French brands of mineral waters like Evian, which, not coincidentally, is another French spa town.
Called the ‘Queen of the French spa towns,’ Vichy is one of the most famous modern spa towns in France, and helped create Europe’s spa culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The city, on the bank of the river Allier, was built up as a spa town combining the principles of Parisian urban design with facilities and a layout for visitors to take part in therapy with the waters.
Vichy’s rise to spa town prominence can be credited to Napoleon III, who encouraged the construction with parks and boulevards, creating a cosmopolitan ‘mini Paris’ with large spa complexes, cafés and casinos linked by covered promenades, theatres, hotels and villas.
Two of Vichy’s spa town landmarks include:
The Drinking Fountain
This hall, equipped with a pump room, still allows visitors to drink mineral water from several springs and is connected to the surrounding casino and the hotels in the park by a covered walkway, which allows ‘bathers’ to walk around outdoors avoiding bad weather.
Pavilion of the Spring Celestine
This pavilion in the Louis XVI- style, designed by Lucien Woog and completed in 1908. The natural rock formations contrast beautifully with the classical and refined composition of the pavilion, from which you can admire the outdoor garden.
Images: Cindy MICHAUD, Xavier Thomas (Vichy Destinations)
Natural, therapeutic springs were discovered by the Romans when they invaded Britain, and Bath is still one of the only places in Britain where you can bathe in natural hot springs as well as get a fascinating glimpse back in time.
The Roman Baths are still standing in Bath's city centre, where the Romans made the most of the steaming spring waters central to their vision of Aquae Sulis as a sanctuary of rest and relaxation.
(Historic Roman Baths, Bath and North East Somerset Council)
Those same waters became a feature of high society English life during the Regency era (immortalized in the works of Jane Austen). That sparked a building boom that transformed Bath, which retains an abundance of graceful period architecture and connection to Regency England today, earning it a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site even before it was included in the transnational World Heritage site the 'Great Spas of Europe' in 2021,
Don't miss rich Regency-era architecture like the Royal Crescent and the Assembly Rooms, which were the social epicenter of Georgian Bath during its heyday as a wellness destination for the cream of English aristocracy, royalty and tastemakers.
(Royal Crescent; Visit Britain/ Simon Winnall)
At the end of the Regency-era Bath Street, with its cobblestones and colonnades lining both sides of the street, is the area known as the Spa Quarter. The region's natural, underground springs bubble to the surface here at a temperature of 46 degrees F. At the end of Bath Street is the Cross Bath and Thermae Bath Spa.
Thermae Bath Spa is a 21st century take on the spa experience, with rooftop pool with its sensational 360-degree views of the city. You can also soak in the thermal waters at the only hotel in the UK with its own naturally heated spa. Many hotels in Bath have their own onsite spa facilities, so there’s plenty of choice when it comes to planning your wellness escape in Britain.
Top image: Pool in Wellness Hotel, Baden-Baden; GNTB / Günter Standl
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