Between the 18th and early 20th centuries, spa towns became the holiday destination of choice for the well-heeled of Europe. Royalty, film stars, poets, philosophers and composers flocked to drink and bathe in their thermal, mineral-rich spring waters. In the 21st century, these types of breaks have dropped off the priority list. Here we suggest why holidaymakers should reconsider Europe’s health resorts.
Karlovy Vary, Czechia
Listed by Unesco as one of the 11 Great Spa Towns of Europe, Karlovy Vary is home to 15 main thermal springs. Sipping the waters tops the to-do list, and visitors can try a spring crawl of the drinking fountains that are dotted around town and protected from the elements by grand columned colonnade walkways. Those who want to bathe in the waters might try the 120-year-old Elisabeth Baths (prices start at around £15 for 30 minutes). Alternatively, Saunia Thermal Resort has a rooftop pool that is kept at 38°C, year round (entry from £21, thermal.saunia.cz/en/). Rental intelligence company Airdna reports that the average rental price for a one-bedroom property in Karlovy Vary is £56.16 a night. A stay at Hotel Prezident (hotelprezident.cz), meanwhile, starts at £130 in November. Several airlines offer direct flights from the UK to Prague. Václav Havel airport is around one hour, 20 minutes’ drive from Karlovy Vary.
Once nicknamed the “queen of the water cities”, Vichy is the only French destination to feature on Unesco’s list of The Great Spa Towns. The thermal waters, which visitors can taste at the Hall des Sources, or bathe in at the 7,500 sq m Vichy Celestins Thermal Spa (vichy-spa-hotel.fr/en) – where half-day passes start at just £27 – are just one of the highlights. One-sixth of Vichy is blanketed by parks and gardens, and the rest of it is freckled with striking neo-Venetian, Gothic, art nouveau and belle époque architecture. Train tickets that include a Eurostar from London Paris and an onward trip to Vichy are available from £250 return. Airdna research reveals that the average nightly rental price of a one-bedroom property is just £55.74 while doubles at Hotel Moderne start at £45, hotelmoderne-vichy.com.
Seaweed bathing has been practised in Ireland for more than 300 years and soaking in a warm bath of the marine plant is said to ease everything from the early signs of ageing to eczema. The country’s first official seaweed baths were established in Strandhill in Co Sligo in 1912 and visitors can still experience the treatment. Voya Seaweed Baths offers soaks in roll-top baths filled with Atlantic Coast seaweed for less than £40, voyaseaweedbaths.com. Strandhill also woos visitors with a 6.8-mile beach, sunsets and access to the Wild Atlantic Way. Return flights from Liverpool to Knock start from £52 with Ryanair. A night’s stay at Strandhill Lodge and Suites, overlooking Strandhill Bay, costs from £104, including breakfast, strandhilllodgeandsuites.ie.
With waters that don’t fall below 22°C, even in winter, Lake Hévíz is the largest swimmable thermal lake in the world. The first official bath buildings were built over the lake in the late 18th century and an international spa resort, also called Hévíz, grew up around them. In addition to the Lake Spa (hotelspaheviz.hu), where entrance starts at £10, Hévíz has a 60-hectare nature reserve with a waterlily trail, vineyards with wine-tasting cellars, and miles of cycling trails. Return flights from Luton to Budapest are available from £107 with Wizz Air. A night at the Ensana Thermal Hévíz hotel costs from £109, ensanahotels.com.
The name says it all with this east Belgian town, less than two hours’ drive from Brussels. Bundled up within the forests in the Fagnes region, Spa is home to around 300 cold mineral springs. Visitors should stop at the Museum of the City of Waters before trying Thermes Des Spa (entrance from £23, thermesdespa.com). This hilltop retreat uses the water of the local Clementine spring, which is rich in bicarbonate and calcium and features 800 square metres of 33°C bathing space. According to data from Airdna, the cost of a night’s rental accommodation for two averages £100.73 throughout the year. The Radisson Blu Palace Hotel has rooms from £122 a night, radissonhotels.com.
An hour’s drive west of Cologne, Aachen started life as a 25-hectare Roman spa resort called Aquae Granni, and visitors, from composer Handel to philosopher Voltaire, have been taking its waters ever since. Today, the Carolus Thermen spa complex is the epicentre. Harnessing waters from the Aqua Rose spring – one of 30 thermal springs in Aachen – the complex features a Sauna World, a water grotto, a “Meditarium” meditation space and relaxation pool. Entrance from £12, carolus-thermen.de. Elsewhere, Aachen has a Unesco-listed cathedral, a picturesque Old Town, and, in winter, Christmas markets.
Innside Aachen hotel has rooms from £73 a night, melia.com. Train tickets from London to Aachen with a connection in Brussels start from around £160 return through Eurostar, eurostar.com. Return flights from the UK to Cologne are available from £48 with Ryanair.
In Roman times, Buxton was known as Aquae Arnemetiae or The Baths of the Grove Goddess in a nod to its natural warm springs, and present-day visitors can sample these same waters from a tap at Saint Ann’s drinking well. There are three spas – The Devonshire Spa, the Palace Hotel and Buxton Crescent – but there is so much more to England’s highest market town. Buxton offers visitors tearooms, caverns and easy access to the walking trails of the Peak District. With rental accommodation for two coming in at an average price of £100 a night, according to Airdna, the cost of a stay in Buxton is a little loftier than some of Europe’s other spa resorts. But there are still bargains to be found, especially if you are planning on staying longer than a weekend. Seven nights at the three-bedroom, six-bed, Crescent View apartment, for example, costs from £476 with Sykes Holiday Cottages, sykescottages.co.uk.
Great Malvern, UK
Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens are among those reported to have taken the waters in Great Malvern. This Worcestershire town has 130 springs, spouts and fountains, including the Malvina Fountain, which combines the waters from three springs and is safe to drink. Today, visitors come to Malvern for the fresh air as much as the fresh water. The town and its surrounds have vineyards, stately homes with sweeping gardens and farm shops. Rooms at The Mount Pleasant hotel start at £89.70 in November, mountpleasanthotel.co.uk. A night at The Malvern Spa, which includes access to the hotel’s spa, with its indoor-outdoor hydrotherapy pool, starts from £188, themalvernspa.com.
Baden Bei Wien, Austria
Baden Bei Wien’s spa waters are known as “yellow gold” and more than four million litres gush from the town’s springs every day. Set beneath the largest free-hanging glass roof in Europe, the 3,500 square metre Roman Thermal Baths are a favourite for bathing in the town’s waters. In addition to a sulphur thermal pool, the complex features heat rooms and experience showers. Day tickets start at around £50, including lunch, roemertherme.at. Parks, gardens, and museums, including the house where Beethoven used to stay, complement the spa offering. At the Park Hotel, Hotel Herzoghof, Hotel Admiral, Hotel Sacher Baden and Das Gutenbrunn all offer rooms for less than £150. Return flights from Heathrow to Vienna are available for less than £100 with Ryanair or Wizz Air.
Montecatini Terme, Italy
The healing properties of Montecatini Terme’s waters were first documented in the mid-14th century, but it wasn’t until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that it really started to turn heads as a spa town, attracting Verdi and Puccini and, later, Audrey Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Sip the waters at the art nouveau Terme Tettuccio building and bathe in them at the more modern Terme Redi complex. A visit to Montecatini Terme is as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the body. The hilltop town is trussed up in walking trail-laced pine forests, olive groves, and vineyards where wine tastings are available. Flights to Pisa, around 40 minutes’ drive away, start from £115 with Ryanair and doubles at Hotel Boston start from £106, hotelboston.it/en.
Terme Ilidža, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Visitors are said to have been bathing in the thermal waters of Terme Ilidža since Roman times, which is why the village’s name derives from the word “medicine”. There’s a modern-day spa complex on the site and admission starts at just over £3. The 15-hectare Termalna Rivijera has indoor and outdoor thermal pools and multiple experience rooms, terme-ilidza.ba. With the spa resort a 20-minute drive from Sarajevo, it makes financial sense to stay in the city. Interrail Eurail lists the capital as one of the cheapest destinations in Europe. Rooms at hotels such as Hotel Story (story-hotel.com) are available from as little as £33 a night. A traditional evening meal in the Old Town can cost less than £5. Wizz Air offers return flights from Luton to Sarajevo from £52.