From birth we are drawn to one of the most powerful sources of life and tranquility – water. Healing waters and bathing culture has been around for centuries. In countries, like Greece, Turkey, Russia and Italy, bath houses and self-care was a way to ensure citizens remained happy and calm. It was a communal and social activity. Rich or poor, public baths were available to all. This might explain the discovery of many ancient community baths and public hammams. There is a lot we can learn from these ancient cultures. For me, the most thrilling travel itinerary always includes a soaking tub in the hotel room, map to finding a secret swimming hole, or finding respite at a thermal hot spring. Needless say, I look to take the plunge whenever I can – it just makes the getaway feel complete.
There are many health benefits and pleasures water therapy can offer to a weary traveller, but the most therapeutic type of soaks can only be found in special places. Allow me to take you on a deep dive into researching the healing waters of the world.
Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
Our first stop is Karlovy Vary. This charming spa town does not get the proper attention it truly deserves. Not only is it one of Bohemia’s famous spa destinations, it is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Its historical significance, architecture and healing waters make this town worthy of your travel bucket list. Karlovy Vary gets its name from Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Bohemia. Once the founding father stumbled upon the area’s hot spring, he made it his mission to make it into a place of healing. You might recognize the name and architecture from films like Casino Royale and Last Holiday. Yes, Grandhotel Pupp is a real hotel, and I highly recommend you see it in person. The International Film Festival holds its annual fathering here, making Karlovy Vary synonymous with filmmaking and artistry.
Other places might be famous for its baths, but what makes Karlovy Vary stand out is its “Drinking Cure”. While bathing at Karlovy Vary is just as restorative, the “Drinking Cure” offers its own benefits. The impressive quality of the mineral water here has remained consistent for centuries, and can help treat metabolic disorders and gastrointestinal diseases. Karlovy Vary healing water has attracted stressed out and famous visitors, including Mozart and Freud. One of the other unique ways Karlovy Vary stands out is the spa drinking cup. The “Drinking Cure” requires you to use a special cup (lázeňský pohárek), traditionally made from porcelain or glass. The Czech Republic is known for their glass and crystal, making these spa cups a great souvenir for your loved ones back home.
There are fifteen springs around the city, and in order to drink from any of them, you are advised to visit a medical professional. While that might sound bothersome, it is for your benefit, and very easy to do. Hotels are more than happy to provide you with an appointment with their resident spa doctor. You can even bring them your medical files. You will be instructed to drink the water in a way that targets your specific health goals. The steps in your instructions include the spring you should be drinking from, how much to drink, and even what time of the day you should drink. Yes, the springs are public and anyone can drink from them, however they differ in temperature and dissolved carbon dioxide content. Colder springs tend to have a slight detoxifying effect, while warmer waters slow down the formation of bile and gastric stomach juices.
Thermal water, formed below earth’s surface, saturates the body with beneficial nutrients that indirectly affect the state of bone and cartilage tissue in the body. This means that in order to take proper advantage of the “Drinking Cure”, you have to seek the knowledge of those who studied the benefits and can help you do it safely and effectively. If you do come for a short stopover, taste the water without overindulging. A travel experience like this is surely to stick with you for years to come.
Karlovy Vary Drinking Cure Commandments
For a proper treatment consult a spa physician first. Allow the hotel to make the appointment.
For hygienic reasons do not touch the faucet or pipe.
Use a special porcelain or glass cup.
Do not spill the water unnecessarily.
Water should be consumed within ten minutes and right at the site.
Combine your Drinking Cure with light exercise, like walking.
Do not drink alcohol or smoke while taking part in the Drinking Cure.
Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan – Hayakawa, Japan
Take the plunge like samurais and emperors. Our second stop is Hayakawa, Japan. Hayakawa is home to the oldest hotel in the world. Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is nestled amidst numerous hot springs, and is famous for hosting guests since 705 AD. While the thought seems inconceivable, the inn has stayed in the same family for 52 generations. That is quite the accomplishment. Traveling here will help you see a different, and likely more authentic, side of the Japanese culture. Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan currently holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest hotel, and is aiming for another – world’s most productive hot spring. This is all thanks to their new bath that pumps over a thousand liters of naturally heated water per minute. Since the country is rich in hot springs due to its volcanically active geology, they have a long and refined bathing culture. While in Japan, familiarize yourself with their spa etiquette. First, you should know “onsen” is a Japanese hot spring or bath. The Japanese enjoy being one with nature, making Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan the ideal place for you to experience an onsen like it was truly meant to be.
Over the last 1300 years Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan has seen all types of visitors, including dignitaries and samurais. The inn is revered for its history alone. Being secluded, with the closest attractions to the inn being two to three hours away (including Mt. Fuji, Jigokudani Monkey Park and Zenko-ji Temple), this fascinating place is truly a place of respite. Come here if you seek to escape the hustle and bustle of city tourism.
True to its Japanese aesthetic, the inn’s minimalist interiors allows you to focus on what is important – mind and body relaxation. There are six pools, four open-air baths (one cedar), and two indoor baths. What the area lacks in tourist attractions, it makes up for in abundance of hot springs. The water is fed to the inn directly from its source, and although the onsen produces 52℃ water at its source, the average temperature of the baths is a comfortable 43℃. Throughout the years the hotel has seen some updates and renovations, but overall this Japanese Onsen is as authentic as you can get. Come here to unplug (you might not get wifi) with remote mountain views and soak those achy muscles like many in history before you. It is an unforgettable experience.
Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan Commandments
Choose to visit this countryside onsen for its serene surroundings and traditional Japanese bathing.
Be respectful of the property and study up on how to navigate the Japanese bathing culture.
Japanese baths are mostly nude. If you are feeling shy, take advantage of booking a time for a private bath experience or book a room with a private open air bath.
Bathing at night is wonderful here. The Japanese believe in unwinding with a bath at night rather than the morning.
Shower or wash before you get in the onsen. The wood benches are meant to be used for washing. The onsen itself is for relaxation only.
You can use a towel for modesty when out of the onsen, or wrap it around your head while in the onsen.
Make sure to stay hydrated, get out if you feel dizzy, and rest for an hour afterwards.
Take a walk around the property. Guests are invited to drink directly from the mineral springs.
Saratoga Springs, New York
While the typical American family might not dedicate their vacation time to visiting the spa, this was not always the case. You might be surprised to know that in the late 19th and early 20th century Saratoga Springs (among others, like the Mystic Hot Springs in Utah, Ojo Caliente Hot Springs in New Mexico and Warm Springs Pools in Virgina ) was one of the most popular wellness destinations. In the early 20th century swimming in healing waters was a way to help treat polio. Over time, the centuries-old act of bathing and soaking in healing waters became less popular. We can only speculate why, but the reasons might be that old civilizations themselves have had to leave spas or bath houses behind due to wars and changing perspectives. Spas went from providing medical treatments, to becoming a place of relaxation, to simply being considered too frivolous and expensive. Today we see a drastic shift towards wellness travel once again, with special emphasis on natural treatments and water therapy.
Saratoga Springs, also known as “the Queen of the Spas”, is known for its mineral baths and horse racing. I visited this friendly spa and recreation city with the goals of following a map of their mineral springs. It is not unusual to see locals and visitors with jugs, aiming to go home with the city’s naturally carbonated and medicinal water. I recommend you bring a cup or jug of your own. There are 21 public springs scattered throughout the city, each with its own distinct mineral content. To save time, visit the city website and find out their exact location. It would be hard to mention all the springs, but if you find yourself downtown, and in need of a relaxing stroll, taste the springs at Congress Park. One of the more fascinating and unique springs is the Deer Park Spring (formerly named Fresh Water Spring). This historical spring was repaired and beautified in 2018, making it one of the more prominent jewels of the park. The park, its area and this spring have a long history, one that includes Iroquois native-americans, a wild buck, and eventually the design of the victorian-era style fountain you see today. It was during the park upgrade in 1876 that the present cast-iron fountain was installed. This spring, originally a source of freshwater was appreciated by those who had no taste for mineral water. Unfortunately, with the city unable to keep up with the quality of the fresh water spring, the city re-tubed the spring in order to carry mineral water instead.
It is said that Saratoga Spring’s healing waters can help with skin conditions, digestion, arthritis, even cancer. Modern balneotherapy is mostly used to help with achy muscles, but there are a lot of people who claim the waters here help with so much more than that. Native Americans respected, cherished and bathed in the healing waters of Saratoga Spring. They referred to the High Rock Spring as “Medicine Spring of the Great Spirit.” Thankfully the magical waters continue to flow today. Take a tasting tour and experience one of Saratoga Springs’ famous resorts, such as the Roosevelt Springs Spa Resort. Established in 1935, the Roosevelt Baths & Spa resort opened thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s act to preserve the healing waters of Saratoga Springs.
What Central Europe lacks in beaches, it makes up for in healing waters. Our fourth stop is Budapest, Hungary. Budapest is known for its impressive architecture and spa tourism. While there are many baths to choose from, Széchenyi Thermal Bath should be experienced by all spa enthusiasts. The large complex is supplied by two thermal springs, making it one of the largest medicinal baths in Europe. You can easily spend hours here. Built between 1909 and 1913 in Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance styles by Gyozo Czigler, and expanded in 1927, Széchenyi Bath has a distinctive look that can be recognized all over the world. Before it was built into the architectural marvel that stands today, the old “Szechenyi Bath” was called the Artesian Bath. It was a popular stone-walled bath built with marble. Soaking and swimming here will mean getting to experience history. The orginal hot spring water supply came from the artesian well, drilled by a Hungarian engineer Vilmos Zsigmondy, who specialized in geothermal well drilling. Make sure to notice a bust of the engineer at the entrance. Wars, and even economic crisis, could not stopped this public spa from providing relaxation to anyone who needed it.
Szechenyi Baths water comes from a naturally hot water spring, containing various healing components: minerals, sulphite, sodium, calcium, magnesium, hydro-carbonate, fluoride and metaboric acid. Even in the winter, getting to experience an outdoor bath here means having a pleasant experience. The bubbling thermal water offsets the chill in the air, allowing for your mind and body to simply relax. Many come here for help with arthritis and digestive issues. The typical temperature at Széchenyi Thermal Bath is between is 74 °C and 77 °C. Depending on the time of day, you might find it to be a calming and quiet experience, or a place to come party with your fellow spa lovers.
As is the case with many Central and Eastern European cultures, you can find locals playing chess with the chess while floating in the water. Try not to invite yourself to play, they prefer to do the inviting. Before you go, familiarize yourself with the rules of the place. Come here if you enjoy gothic and baroque revival architecture, experiencing different cultures, and soaking in healing waters. If you prefer swimming for exercise, come early as it is less crowded and bring a swimming cap.
Budapest Spa Commandments
Always do your research before traveling to a new country. Check for spa etiquette, rules, and when in doubt, ask questions beforehand.
Some large spas do not offer robes, towels and slippers. You have to bring your own or buy them from the spa.
Shower before soaking in the baths.
Take advantage of hot and cold therapy – alternating between hot and cold water with breaks in between.
Some pools require a swimming cap, so make sure to pack one just in case.
Always check for signs before entering a new room or area of the spa.
Some spas and cultures require you to go nude when entering certain areas. This means you do not wear your bathing suit in some parts of the spa, like the sauna. It is mainly for hygienic and comfort purposes.
If the sauna is nude, bring a towel to sit on.
It you are taking up a large area by laying down and there is no space, it is polite to move over for any newcomers entering the sauna.
Do not initiate loud conversations in tight spaces, unless other guests become willing participants.
Iceland’s Hot Springs
Blue Lagoon might be on everyone’s travel itinerary, but spa aficionados can tell you that hiking in Iceland can lead you to some of the most natural and beautiful bathing destinations. Due to volcanic activity Iceland is rich in hot springs. The people of Iceland are very serious about preserving nature, and hot springs are their pride and joy. Experiencing the bathing culture in Iceland is about so much more than rejuvenation. The magnificent Icelandic landscape, theatrical skies and nordic culture allow you to relax and stay in the moment. The people of Iceland value wellness, hygiene and cleanliness, even in the most remote parts of the country. Hiking you might stumble upon old farmhouses with pools right at the property. While private, some are open to the public. From early settlers, vikings, to children on the farm, hot springs were enjoyed by all. Living in a cold climate these springs became a respite. Bathing culture is an important part of the Icelandic heritage. Today the people of Iceland combine the past and present with spas and modern facilities, but seeing historic hot springs formed by Mother Nature will make your trip extra special.
Once early Nordic settlers found the hot springs, and realized their healing power, bathing in them became a routine social activity. Geothermal water is naturally heated beneath the earth’s surface, then rises naturally, bringing with it a high mineral content. Additionally the springs in Iceland contain calcium, potassium and sodium. Potassium and magnesium in hot springs help promote skin health, while calcium and sodium help regulate the lymphatic system. The rich-mineral content content and warmth help increase circulation and oxygen flow, while reducing muscle pain and inflammation. Soaking in one of the hot springs can even help with eczema and acne. Needless to say, in Iceland nature truly has the power to heal.
Here are a few natural hot springs worthy of your bucket list: Hrunalaug hot spring, Lake Mývatn Nature Bath, Gamla Laugin, Hveravellir Nature Reserve, and Sky Lagoon
Iceland Hot Springs Spa Commandments
Before taking a dip, make sure the body of water is meant for swimming. Often time you will see a sign or have a guide to help keep you safe.
Shower nude before you bathe in any hot spring. It is considered rude not to do so.
While the Icelandic people come to the hot springs for wellbeing, they also come to connect and chat. This does not mean throwing a party. Voices are kept a minimum volume. Do enjoy yourself, but keep your noise level down.
Cool off afterwards in Icelands cold air, or with a cold plunge. Some remote places will have showers.
When visiting any spa or hot spring, respect the environment and do not pollute. This is especially important in remote areas. The cleanliness and preservation of these springs is vital to the environment and the people of Iceland.
Rest for about an hour afterwards, and hydrate.
Peru Hot Springs
Many visit Peru seeking spirituality, history and hiking adventures. The country is extremely diverse in its landscapes, with some of the most recognizable being the Andes Mountains, the Amazon Rainforest and the majestic Rainbow Mountain. Keep in mind that depending on the area, hiking in Peru can be a strenuous activity, plus you might need time to acclimatize before an excursion. When in Peru, you will likely stumble upon a hot spring. Speaking from personal experience, there is nothing better than taking a break from hiking with a healing soak. Bathing in Peru’s hot springs is a no-frills experience. You will find that many of the springs are community baths, located in natural and scenic environments, and containing healing mud. One of Peru’s most important civilizations, the Inca, were said to use ceremonial baths in their spiritual practice. Traditional healing practices, whether using water, shamanism, or plants, continue to be a big part of the Peruvian culture.
Peru’s hot springs offer many benefits. Bathing here can be a spiritual experience, help improve metabolism and digestion, lower blood pressure and improve circulation. If you wish to take part in Peru’s bathing culture, plan your travels and hikes carefully. Here are the springs travelers frequent the most: Baños de Aguas Caliente (near Machu Picchu), Lares Hot Springs (located high in the Andes Mountains), Baños Termales de Chacapi (overlooks the Colca River), and for a more upscale travel experience, stay at the Colca Lodge Spa & Hot Springs.
For a real history lesson in the ancient Roman spa experience, visit Pamukkale. While this is not exactly a spa destination, history buffs will be pleased. The Instagram-famous images of Pamukkale show blue cascading thermal pools, however they are not for swimming, as they need to be preserved. With that said there are surrounding areas where you can dip your feet in or take a soak in the water. Do not let this disappoint you. This magical landscape is so much more than what you see on social media. Due to its historical remains and unique views, this destination is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The surrounding area remains include Greco-Roman period baths, temple ruins, a monumental arch, a nymphaeum, a necropolis and a theatre. Pamukkale is a small town, but it can be accessible by car, train or a tour bus. From there, all the sites are walkable. While tour buses come here just for the thermal pools, for an authentic travel experience I recommend you get to know the area’s rich history and visit with the locals. Make sure to stop by the nearby spa town of Hierapolis. Cleopatra bathed here.
Dipping yourself in the water here can help with cardiovascular diseases, rheumatism and skin conditions. The striking snow-like landscape, and more specifically the white lime-stone travertine terraces featuring thermal pools, make for out-of-this-world photography. Unfortunately that means this destination gets very crowded. For a tranquil time at the springs, plan your trip around the crowds. For a truly relaxing experience, travel off-season or go early in the morning, but remember it can get cold during certain months of the year. Take a walk around the historical sites, the pools (UNESCO requires visitors to take their shoes off in certain areas), and take a dip in the Cleopatra pool. A day trip or two days is all you need.
Besides Pamukkale, turkey has other hot springs and spas you might like to try: Oylat Thermal Spring, Cesme Thermal Spring and Gazligol Thermal Spring