UNESCO Great Spa Towns of Europe
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Discovering the UNESCO Heritage Great Spa Towns of Europe means stepping into a world of history, elegance, and healing waters. Here’s why you should visit.
Great Spa Towns of Europe
With my recent trip to the German spa towns of Bad Ems and Bad Kissingen (I also went to Karlovy Vary in Czechia, but I’ve visited there a million times so it didn’t add to my total), I’ve nearly reached my goal.
I’m determined to visit the 11 UNESCO World Heritage Great Spas of Europe. My count now stands at nine.
Why Visit the UNESCO Great Spa Towns of Europe?
Here’s the draw. In a world that races forward, the UNESCO spa towns of Europe rein you in, whispering tempting promises about renewal, rejuvenation and tranquility.
Amidst Belle Epoque buildings, colonnades, shaded parks and mineral-rich springs, these Great Spas of Europe offer the chance to slow down, to savour life (and travel) rather than gulping it down at a whirlwind pace.
You’d think, given this idyllic description, that they’d be sleepy places where nothing ever happened. In reality, spa towns changed the world.
How Spa Towns Changed the World
It comes down to the mineral water. All 11 of the UNESCO Great Spa Towns of Europe grew up around mineral springs.
Bursting with beneficial minerals and micronutrients, these springs started a boom in health tourism, and became THE places to be.
From the 1700s to the 1930s especially, spa towns were the social hubs of Europe, drawing the powerful, wealthy and influential elite.
Fashionable drinking halls, bath houses and luxury hotels were built, transportation systems developed, and elaborate leisure spots like casinos and concert halls were commissioned.
In essence, spa towns created modern tourism.
Political Power Moves
Even high-powered politicos appreciated the benefits of a good spa cure. Both royals and government officials gathered here, combining work, diplomacy, socializing and pleasure.
Here’s a snapshot of some eye-opening moments in spa history.
The Bad Ems Incident of 1870
Bad Ems played a crucial role in the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War. And it was all because of a telegram.
Known as the Ems Dispatch, it was the result of a meeting between the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, and the French ambassador on the promenade in Bad Ems.
The resulting press release was edited by Otto von Bismarck, the pro-war chancellor of the North German Federation, who crafted it in such a way it sparked tensions between the two nations and helped trigger the outbreak of war.
Assassination Attempt in Bad Kissingen 1874
Here we have Otto von Bismarck again. On his first trip to the German spa town of Bad Kissingen, a troubled man named Edward Kullman shot him in the hand.
The botched assassination attempt didn’t dampen Bismarck’s appreciation of Bad Kissingen and he returned 14 times.
The Scandal of the Kissingen Dictation – The Kissingen-Diktat
Otto von Bismarck and spa towns were clearly a volatile mix.
In 1877, while in Bad Kissingen, he dictated the “Kissingen Dictation”.
It contained sensitive political concerns like the threat of the rise of socialism and instability within the fledgling German Empire. He also named a few names.
Unfortunately, it was published without his approval, causing major political tensions.
The Conference of Spa in Belgium 1920
After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles didn’t sort out everything.
In the Belgian town of Spa, Allied Nations met with German representatives to hammer out issues such as disarmament, war reparations and coal shipments.
It was the first time the Germans had been invited to meet with the Allies since the end of the war.
Vichy, France: A Complicated History
You wouldn’t know it today, but from 1940 to 1944, the hotels and fine villas of Vichy housed officials of the Vichy regime, the collaborationist government headed by French Great War hero Marshal Phillipe Petain.
One reason Vichy was chosen as the seat of the government was because of its roaring popularity as a spa town, which meant it had excellent infrastructure and plentiful accommodations.
What Makes a Spa Town a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
UNESCO established the Great Spa Towns of Europe category in 2021. To be selected the spa towns had to meet strict criteria. Eleven spa towns in seven countries made the cut.
All the towns had some master urban planning behind them, and were created with striking architecture, luxury accommodations, stroll-able parks and gardens, and of course, excellent spa facilities.
From the sophistication of Baden-Baden in Germany to golden-hued Bath in the United Kingdom, the chosen destinations invite travellers on a fascinating journey into the European culture of wellness.
The 11 UNESCO World Heritage Great Spa Towns of Europe
- Baden-Baden (Germany)
- Bad Ems (Germany)
- Bad Kissingen (Germany)
- Baden bei Wien (Austria)
- Bath (United Kingdom)
- Františkovy Lázne (Czechia)
- Karlovy Vary (Czechia)
- Mariánské Lázne (Czechia)
- Montecatini Terme (Italy)
- Spa (Belgium)
- Vichy (France)
In case you’re thinking of visiting, here’s a quick look at each of them.
Baden-Baden, Germany: Black Forest Bathing
I like Baden-Baden so much I honeymooned there. (Even my husband was invited to come along.)
A Black Forest favourite, Baden-Baden oozes refinement and has some of the most staunchly dignified hotels you ever will see.
When it comes to thermal soaking, bathers can choose between a 17-stage bathing ritual at the Neo-Renaissance Friedrichsbad or opt for Caracalla Spa’s light-filled liquid charms.
Bad Ems, Germany: Spa on the Lahn River
It may be one of the smaller spa centres on this UNESCO list, but Bad Ems has a big history as Germany’s “Imperial Spa”.
A key part of the spa landscape at Bad Ems is the 300-year-old Hackers Grand Hotel, with its origins as a bath house and enviable riverside location in the heart of the town’s petite spa quarter.
During our week-long stay at Hackers my husband and I made good use of the hotel spa, which has more than a hint of history about it.
(In fact, we were quite surprised to find Kaiser Wilhelm I’s photo staring down at us when we were naked in the sauna!)
Bringing the spa experience into the present is the modern thermal pool complex, the Emser Therme, which continues the town’s dedication to wellness.
Bad Kissingen, Germany: Bavarian Healing Springs
Spa buildings in this Bavarian spa town of Bad Kissingen are big. Really big. They were constructed on a grand scale in a Neo-Classical style and were favoured by both King Ludwig I and II.
It’s a wonderful destination for architecture buffs.
The Regentenbau, a series of lavish leisure spaces, is not to be missed, and the Wandelhalle pump room (a room designed for walking around with your spa water) is the largest ever built.
Contemporary water lovers can head to KissSalis, a thermal pool and sauna complex where it’s possible to soak and sweat indoors or out. Don’t miss the outdoor current pool – it’s super fun.
Baden bei Wien, Austria: Imperial Waters
Known as the ‘Spa of Emperors’, Baden bei Wien is 30 km from Vienna. It was a favourite of the Hapsburgs, and in 1793 was deemed an official imperial residence.
Mozart and Beethoven were both frequent visitors. In fact Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was composed here.
Located in the Helenental Valley at the edge of the Vienna Woods, this historic spa town is renowned for its ‘golden waters’ that rise up from 14 naturally-heated sulphur springs.
Today, visitors can soak in the thermal water from the Marienquelle spring under a soaring glass ceiling at the Römertherme bathing complex.
Bath, England: Roman Spa Splendour
Bath, home to England’s only hot springs, has been a spa destination since Roman times.
With its captivating Georgian buildings of warm Bath stone, a honey-coloured limestone quarried from the region, it’s one of the three most jaw-dropping spa towns I’ve ever seen.
(FYI: The other two are Baden-Baden and Karlovy Vary).
The eerily-preserved Roman Baths complex, with its gleaming green water and subterranean temple dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva, takes us back to antiquity, while the 18th-century Pump Room and Assembly Rooms sweep us into the world of Jane Austen.
Modern day spa-goers can soak and spa at the Thermae Bath Spa, a contemporary addition to the Spa Quarter (though insiders soak up the spa water at the luxury Gainsborough Spa Hotel.)
Františkovy Lázně, Czech Republic: Haven of Healing
I’ve been to Františkovy Lázně twice, and it’s easy to be won over by this lovely spa town, the smallest of the famous Bohemian Triangle of Czech spas.
Known as Franzensbad in German, it was named for for the Hapsburg Emperor Franz I.
With its graceful colonnades, pavilions and yellow Neoclassical buildings, it’s a picture-perfect postcard of what an 18th-century spa town should look like.
It also packs a curative punch. Its mineral springs and medicinal mud are used to treat a variety of issues including muscular-skeletal problems, cardiovascular disease and – quite famously – infertility.
Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic: The Spring of Emperor Charles IV
Karlovy Vary, or Carlsbad, is the blockbuster of Czech spas, and my husband and I just celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary with a week-long spa vacation here.
Cosmopolitan and lively, with rows of lacy-looking villas, Art Nouveau hotels and a hefty amount of fountains and colonnades, it’s as popular as a tourist destination as it is as a spa haven.
Steeped in wellness traditions since the 14th century, Karlovy Vary spa is famous for its numerous healing mineral springs that range in temperature from 30 to 75 °C.
While public thermal bathing isn’t traditionally part of the Czech spa regime, visitors can now enjoy an outdoor thermal soak with panoramic views of the city at the Saunia Thermal Resort.
Mariánské Lázne, Czech Republic: A Royal Retreat
Karlovy Vary might seduce you with its glamorous good looks, but its tranquil sister Mariánské Lázne, or Marienbad, is the spa town closest to my heart.
A two-week Marianske Lazne spa package I did here one fall was a deeply renewing experience and I’ve been back several times, enjoying a full complement of spa treatments and long walks in the dusky woods.
With its Neoclassical buildings and romantic colonnades it’s similar to Frantiscovy Lazne, though much larger, and was a favoured retreat for European aristocracy.
In particular, the British King Edward VII was a devoted fan and you can still book a mineral bath in his private bathing cabin at the 5-star Nove Lazne Hotel. (I did, and it’s a royal treat.)
Spa, Belgium: The Original Spa
Tucked away in the Ardennes forest, Spa in Belgium is more than a place; it’s the origin of the term “spa.”
Popular since the 1600s because of its medicinal carbonated springs, Spa has drawn some big-name guests over the years including Peter the Great and Marie Antoinette.
Another guest was the infamous Casanova, who had this to say about it:
In this hole called Spa, under the pretext of taking the waters, we rushed there for business, for intrigue, to play, to make love, and also to spy.
Wow. That kind of makes you want to go there, doesn’t it?
If you do travel there, you can carry on the bathing tradition at the sleek spa complex, Les Thermes de Spa.
Montecatini Terme, Italy: Tuscan Wellness
In the 1950s for reasons that no one can explicitly explain, the gem of Tuscany spas, Montecatini, became the ‘In’ place for Hollywood stars, and Audrey Hepburn stayed at the Grand Hotel & La Pace in 1954.
(So did we, many years later, during our 12-day ‘drinking water’ cure until the hotel abruptly closed for the winter season and we were moved to a different hotel.)
Of course, being a Great Spa Towns of Europe, Montecatini Terme’s fame as a spa destination goes back much farther than the 50s. While Romans made use of the springs, it was mainly developed as a modern spa town in the 1700s.
The focus in Montecatini Terme is on drinking the water rather than soaking in the hot springs. To this end, Tettuccio Terme, the most striking drinking hall I’ve ever seen was constructed.
Tettuccio Terme, built to house four medicinal springs, is a faucet-filled pavilion of massive proportions and embellished with a dramatically-tiled floor, ornate paintings, columns and friezes.
Vichy, France: Queen of the Waters
Vichy, France’s only addition to the Great Spas of Europe (although Evian-les-Bains is also quite lovely), is celebrated for its sparkling thermal springs.
Located in the Auvergne region of France, Vichy was a beacon for French aristocracy. Napoleon III, who visited five times, was a major force behind its growth as a first-class spa town.
From the centrepiece Parc des Sources, with its cafes and shady plane trees, you can explore the best of the town’s spa zone. Don’t miss the Halls des Sources, a lyrical-looking Art Nouveau drinking hall of wrought iron and glass.
If you want to bathe in thermal water or try a signature Vichy Shower, head to the modern Vichy Spa at the 5-star Vichy Célestins Spa Hôtel, where the city’s tradition of rejuvenation carries on.
Should You Put a Great Spa Town of Europe on Your Itinerary?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask, because I’m such a huge fan. Of course I’m going to say yes.
These UNESCO World Heritage Great Spas of Europe give us a glimpse of a time when relaxation and lengthy spa cures went hand-in-hand with high society, power broking and prestige.
From the imperial roots of Baden bei Wien to the allure of Vichy’s alkaline springs, each town offers a blend of tradition and innovation, carrying on the culture and science of balneotherapy (bathing therapy) and mineral water cures.
As UNESCO World Heritage Sites, these 11 spa towns have earned a place among the world’s most treasured destinations, and are incomparable legacies of the past.
Resources: For more information visit the Great Spa Towns of Europe website.