Soaking It Up in Europe’s Best Spas

By Rick Steves
Caracalla Thermal Baths, Baden-Baden, Germany
The Baths of Caracalla in Baden-Baden are an indoor/outdoor wonderland of steamy pools, waterfalls, hot springs, cold pools, and saunas. (photo: Sandra Hundacker)
Széchenyi Baths, Budapest, Hungary
At Budapest's Széchenyi Baths, intellectuals and elder statesmen stand in chest-high water around chessboards and ponder their next moves. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

With my intense travel schedule, I savor detours where I put away the schedule and notes and simply enjoy the moment. And for me, there's no better detour in Europe than visiting a public bath or spa for a relaxing, good soak.

Some Americans are prudish when it comes to enjoying public baths in Europe — especially when the dress code is just a towel. I understand the hesitation; my first time was awkward too. I was with friends — a young, good-looking German couple. As they got naked in the changing area, I felt like the Road Runner just beyond the cliff's edge. Then I eased up and got naked. It wasn't sexy — simply open and free.

One of my favorite bath experiences is in the German town of Baden-Baden. It's said that the Roman Emperor Caracalla may have soaked away his rheumatism here. Today the town has two very different baths. The Roman-Irish Bath (Friedrichsbad) is traditional, stately, indoors, contemplative, and relaxing — it's just you, the past, and your body. The Baths of Caracalla (Caracalla Therme), with both indoor and outdoor areas, are more perky, modern, and social.

I prefer the Friedrichsbad — a steamy world of peaceful pools, exquisitely tiled sauna rooms, and complete nudity — where, for the cost of a good dinner, you get the works. Multilingual signs lead you from room to room. Highlights include the soap-and-brush massage (rough, slippery, and finished with a good Teutonic spank); the central pool, where women and men glide like swans under a divine dome; and after all that hot water, the cold plunge (don't wimp out; it's invigorating). Afterward, you lay in a silent yellow room, swaddled in warm towels. After the Friedrichsbad, you'll feel, as they say, five years younger — or at least no older.

And in the Bavarian valley town of Schwangau, the Royal Crystal Baths (Königliche Kristall-Therme) offer just what a body needs after a day battling crowds at Neuschwanstein Castle. As you soak, enjoy the poolside view that's as grand as King Ludwig's — or even better, considering it includes his inspiring castle. In spa-loving Germany, you don't have to make a special trip to find a public bath; many towns have one.

Like Germans, Hungarians enjoy a good bath. Hungary has more than a thousand hot springs, and Budapest alone has about two dozen mineral baths. Of these, the most accessible and fun is the Széchenyi Baths. Located in the middle of City Park, Széchenyi has indoor pools and a stunning outdoor complex, including a fun pool with jets, bubbles, and circular rapids. You'll see locals of all shapes and sizes squeezed into tiny swimsuits, babushkas floating blissfully in the warm water, and the Speedo-clad old boys' club gathered around chessboards.

One of my strangest spa experiences was in the Czech town of Třeboň. Home to a peat spa, it attracts patients from all over the world, who come for weeklong stays to get naked and buried in the black, smelly sludge that's thought to cure aching joints and spines. Envisioning the elegance of Baden-Baden, I had to give it a whirl.

After climbing into a stainless-steel tub, the attendant pulled a plug. I quickly disappeared under a rising sea of peat broth, my toes poking out of the hot brown and glassy-still sea. After my peat bath, I showered off the sludge and was ushered into the massage room. My attendant laid me face-down for a full-body massage (despite my insistence that I had to leave). I walked out with a mucky massage cream causing my shirt to stick to me, and without a clue what soaking in that peat soup was supposed to accomplish. Still, the experience was worth it, if only to experience the surreal "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" atmosphere of Czech medical institutions.

Another memorable spa experience is the Finnish sauna, which has particular appeal during the long, cold winters. Finns say the sauna is a great equalizer — here, wearing nothing and slapping your back with birch twigs (which supposedly enhances circulation), there are no bosses. Everyone's equal. Just inside the door is a big cooler stacked with frozen bundles of birch twigs and B.Y.O.B. bottles (if you want a beer, you bring your own). Each time I sweat with strangers in a Finnish sauna, I walk away impressed at the way five million people can maintain a distinct culture here in this far-northern corner of Europe.

Whether in a German spa, a Czech peat bath, or a Finnish sauna, a fun part of travel can be getting naked with strangers. Let go of your inhibitions. You'll likely enjoy a fun time and warm avalanche of acceptance — and have a great story to tell when you're home.

This article is used with the permission of Rick Steves' Europe ( Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours.