When UNESCO picked its World Heritage Sites for 2020/2021 it also included 11 of Europe’s Great Spa Towns in its selection. Stating that “The great spas of Europe bear an exceptional testimony to the European spa phenomenon, which gained its highest expression from around 1700 to the 1930s.” It selected the “most fashionable, dynamic and international spa towns” among the many hundreds of spas dotted across Europe, acknowledging that each town was different, but that they all had developed around mineral water sources, and all became very popular with what can only be called “health tourism” of its time.
Around the original spas, pump rooms, and treatment facilities, pleasure and entertainment amenities such as casinos and grand hotels sprang up, and even today they tend to be glamorous places where history has been well preserved.
So, whether you want to visit these great spa towns to “take the cure” yourself, or whether you just want to visit for their beauty and historic charm, is up to you. Either way, all these spa towns are worth a visit, and will now hopefully be protected for future generations.
I have listed them according to the UNESCO file because it is difficult to choose a favorite among them.
Roman baths in Baden Bei Wien (Photo Credit: IgorGolovniov / Shutterstock.com)
1. Baden Bei Wien (Baden Near Vienna), Austria
Baden Bei Wien, as this ancient spa town near Vienna in Lower Austria distinguishes itself against all the other towns called Baden in the German-speaking regions of Europe, has long been popular. First, the Romans came to the sulfur springs, then the Austrian nobility and its emperors took the waters here. Some 15 miles from the Australian capital of Vienna, a day trip should definitely be in the cards when you are traveling in the region. The old center of town is pedestrianized and full of individual shops and cafes serving Australian specialties — from creamy coffee to rich cakes and sweet things. Don’t miss sampling the Beethoven Praline, made from white chocolate, with cream liquor, caramel, and sea salt. A picture-perfect casino invites you to maybe have a flutter, and then there are, of course, the baths, which might be smelly, but are so good for you.
Pro Tip: Try and catch the annual arts festival La Gacilly Baden which takes place every October.
Historic Casino in Spa (Photo Credit: Traveller70 / Shutterstock.com)
2. Spa Belgium
That aptly named Spa in Belgium is indeed credited with giving all spas their name: derived from the Walloon word espa meaning fountain. Spa’s healing springs were known to the Romans (they did like their baths, didn’t they?), and were rediscovered back in 1326. The town exported its popular waters in the 1600s but did not reach its heyday until the 1800s when European royalty did their annual pilgrimages to Europe’s mineral spring resorts. Not only did Spa give the world’s health resorts their moniker, but it was here that the first casino was established, to keep wealthy guests entertained in the evenings, and, most likely, boost the city’s coffers. Today, Spa is a perfect size for a day trip, with admittedly limited sights, but …….