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 a European thermal town.
A hot-springs vacation to Europe has it all: history, health, 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 time, these destinations have evolved into welcoming spa towns. These towns were Europe’s first major tourist destinations, and they boast centuries-old hospitable traditions. The luxury hotels, grand theaters and casinos, lively festivals, and lush gardens all complement the “thermal architecture,” which houses the healing waters. These towns know how to relax and enjoy life. They’re also known as foodie destinations with sommelier-approved wine.
The plan for my thermal town journey last summer was to go back in time and see the appeal of these secluded, historic towns. What has drawn so many visitors since Roman times? I hoped to find out – and experience the same restorative powers of the waters for myself.
Following my experience, here are five tips to bring this dream European vacation to life. If you are worried about crowds of tourists, these wellness wonders of Europe are largely stress- and crowd-free.
1. Hop between spa towns.
Tour the European Route of Historic Thermal Towns, one of the 48 Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe. It’s convenient to travel between these destinations, as many tend to have train connections, close proximity to major airports and plenty of lodging options.
The European thermal town route covers about 50 different thermal destinations in 17 different countries. Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom are 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 at the Enghien Les Bains. Stay at the intimate Le Grand Hotel, with Baroque-style decor, private lake, health spa, and calm thermal baths. Our next lodging was the Hotel Royal Saint Mart, where we 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 Royat-Chamalières spa 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. Our day in the Royatonic Spa felt like a life elixir. Each area of hydro-wellness enlightened my body, mind and spirit.
Then there’s Vichy, France, one of the best-known spa towns in Europe and a must-visit. Stay at the five-star Vichy Celestins Spa Hotel, which is connected to the largest medical thermal spa in Europe. All rooms are elegant and comfortable, overlooking the park, lake or the spa. This spa, founded in 1853, employs a multidisciplinary medical team to advise you on your treatments.
I experienced a traditional Vichy shower treatment, and a four-hand massage. 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. I guarantee you’ll have an exceptional experience!
2. Witness the architecture.
These towns on the scenic European Route of Historic Thermal Towns are built around thermal and mineral springs. Some date back to ancient Roman times. Take some time to check out the incredible historic remains and architecture.
Spa towns are distinguishable by their bathhouses, 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. 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 and beyond words.
One stand-out for architecture 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 delightful bubbles. Take a guided tour if you can. I marveled at the magnificent marble interiors, then headed down to see the seven subterranean floor wine cellar. We also got to see the impressive production facilities. Every tour of the winery closes with a sparkling wine tasting. Of course, we left with a few bottles to take home.
Balance is a part of true wellness, so don’t forget to visit places that feed your soul or at least your taste buds, too.
Finish your Journey with Ava in our December Holiday Issue.
Experience the Culture, Immerse Yourself in Nature and Plan a Healthy Well-cation.