Europe's Thermal Water Spas

Bottled water is a $100 billion a year industry. The demand for water’s healing powers extends from the inside out, making thermal water—packed with organic elements—a popular natural cure-all. Ancient European cities were built around thermal springs and remain popular tourism venues today. The spa industry has capitalized on the many benefits of water in various forms of hydrotherapy, making it an industry unto itself.

A little drop of rain

The transformation of water into thermal water is actually a geological phenomenon. First, precipitation filters deep into the surface of the Earth, spending a period of time in contact with the underlying rock. The water then rises to the surface, resulting in permeation with several elements, such as sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium, which can benefit the body’s natural chemistry and physiology. Today, deep wells have been created where hot springs already exist, thus ensuring a continuous supply of this extraordinary water.

Throughout Europe, there are a number of noteworthy thermal springs and spas, from Brittany to Budapest, where Europeans have made “taking the waters” an art form. Dating back to the Roman Empire, spa-going has been an integral part of health, culture and society.


Known as a renowned site of healing hot springs, the city of Spa has been frequented as a watering place for several centuries. Although hot mineral springs are famous throughout the world, Spa has become eponymous with natural water believed to contain special health-giving properties.

Legend states that Spa’s fame began in the 14th century, when an ironmaster from a nearby town heard of a fountain in the woods that supposedly possessed healing powers. In the hopes of finding a therapy for his aching joints and rheumatism, the man was cured after bathing in the fountain. The word spread, and soon people throughout Europe traveled to the spring to restore their health. The flow of cure-seekers also named Spa “The Café of Europe.”

The thermal springs of Spa originate from the swampy region of La Fagnes River in the Ardennes Mountains. Located at an altitude of more than 1,968 feet, this natural reservoir is replenished every year by precipitation and melting snow. The water filters through the ground and picks up valuable minerals and elements, such as calcium and magnesium, believed to help maintain the skin’s balance, enable it to perform its barrier function and combat fatigue. Naturally low in sodium, it also is infused with trace elements, such as silicon, that aid in the reconstruction of skin tissue, reducing the rate of connective tissue aging, in addition to providing tone and elasticity.


Undisputedly, Baden-Baden, meaning “baths-baths,” is the most prestigious and historic thermal spa in Germany. Fed by 23 hot springs, the area produces more than 200,000 gallons of mineral water a day—hence the name. An absolute must for gesundheit, or good health, the hot springs of Baden-Baden have been known as a curative resort since Roman times. Perched at the northern border of the Black Forest, the city’s development peaked in the second century. People throughout the Roman Empire, including the emperors, came in search of a medicinal cure for their illnesses. The Baden-Baden spas persisted as a social center for European nobility into the 19th century.

The waters of Baden-Baden contain small amounts of minerals, such as lithium, cesium, silica, boric acid, magnesium, cobalt, zinc and copper. These elements are believed to have a healing effect for ailments such as cardiovascular problems, metabolism distress and respiratory conditions. In addition, the warmth of spring water improves blood circulation in the muscles, joints and skin.

Today, one of the most famous spas in the area is Friedrichsbad. More than a century old, this spa has been revered as a temple to the art of bathing. Visitors enjoy a two-hour, 16-step Roman-Irish bathing experience. The ritual begins with a shower, followed by thermal steam baths at various temperatures, a cold water immersion bath, a soap and brush massage, and, finally, a session in the inhalation room to absorb the water into the body.


It seems that no other country subscribes to the belief in the therapeutic powers of water more than Hungary. Doctors are resolute in their claims that the minerals potassium, magnesium and sodium within thermal water can cure an array of health problems. It also is maintained that thermal water treatments can lessen the symptoms of everything from digestive disorders to psoriasis. In fact, so ardently is this belief held by Hungarians, that many medical spa treatments are provided as part of the national public health system.

Hungary’s topography has made the region a veritable hotbed of thermal waters, providing the country with more than a thousand hot springs. Here, the Earth’s crust is naturally thin, allowing thermal water to rise easily to the surface.

Whether due to a strong cultural belief in water’s healing attributes or the fact that spas and bathhouses are so abundant, the denizens of Hungary and abroad flock to Budapest and its surrounding cities to relax and soothe their bodies. Treatments range from galvanic baths—in which a mild electric current is transported via the water into the body, to parafango—a treatment mask of paraffin and peat applied onto the skin.


The western coast of France is the country’s epicenter of hydrotherapy—especially Brittany, which boasts a soaring number of spa tourists. The birthplace of thalassotherapy, the province’s marine climate and sea air long have been thought to renew health. However, the water most often is obtained directly from the English Channel, resulting in an abundance of mineral salts, trace elements and living matter, such as phytoplankton.

Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician who often is referred to as the father of medicine, frequently is credited with discovering the therapeutic properties of seawater by noting its healing effects on the injured hands of fishermen. Seawater not only keeps infection at bay, but patients who utilize seawater treatments find that they promote pain relief. In addition, sea salt therapy is believed to assist in the rejuvenation of skin cells, promoting a healthy exchange of minerals and toxins between the blood and water.


Italy is rife with volcanic phenomena and packed with a dense network of groundwater channels. In northeastern Italy, many spas have developed on the slopes of the Euganei Hills in Veneto—volcanic highlands where numerous hot water springs surge. Mud therapy is the most common form of treatment recommended for rheumatic illnesses and respiratory problems. The spa of Abano Terme has nearly 2 million visitors a year, with half of those being tourists from abroad.

Moving farther south, a series of thermal resorts in Emilia-Romagna, in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, predominantly contains sodium chloride, iodide or bromide. These waters are recommended for a wide range of afflictions—from metabolic disorders to eczema.

Another Italian region with a high concentration of spas is Tuscany. The consumption of thermal waters also has a long tradition in this region. A number of springs that were used in Roman times are still popular today, including Montecatini, Roselle, Chianciano and Chiusi. In the past century, the Tuscan resorts have transformed from exclusive meeting places of European royalty to favorite vacation spots for families.

Thermal water and the skin

Although no one disputes that pure water is best for drinking, mineral-rich thermal waters are wonderful for incorporating into your clients’ skin and body treatments. The natural elements contained in balneotherapy, thalassotherapy and thermal water products provide overall balance, tone and incredibly healthy skin.

More in Industry News