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8 Alternative Spa and Wellness Destinations in Europe

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Updated: 28th March 2024

Self-care and pampering have been extolled since at least classical antiquity, flourishing into a fully-fledged European tourism business by the 18th century. But unlike back then, when wellness retreats were reserved for the wealthy aristocracy, a spa getaway has become far more accessible for us everyday folk in recent years.

Sure, the old favourites such as Vichy, Baden-Baden, Iceland and Budapest are still going strong. Yet we’ve now also got our pick of previously hard-to-access resorts and up-and-coming spa destinations to choose from. And according to all the latest wellness trend reports, we can’t seem to get enough.

From Blue Zone vacations and upscale fitness retreats to yoga escapes and medical health therapy, there has never been more choice of where to flop ourselves for a pampering. But if you’re like me, a wellness vacation won’t be restricted to an inside spa circuit. I prefer to blend pampering with the great outdoors. Whether it’s combining salt therapy with some of Europe’s best beaches, thermal springs with epic hikes, or medical checks with e-bike adventures, these are some of my favourite alternative wellness destinations in Europe.

The renovated Sensi Azores Nature & Spa is a perfect retreat
Enjoying a silent evening at Sensi Azores before our fantastic, locally-sourced dinner

São Miguel, the Azores

Best for island escapes and hot springs, the main island of Portugal’s volcanic Azores archipelago bubbles with geothermal activity and an ever-growing clutch of serene spa hotels. 

Check-in and recharge: Choosing where to stay in the Azores for a spa break will depend on whether you’re keen on remote Atlantic Ocean views or being in the bubbling heart of geothermal activity. Many of the best spa resorts in this ever-growing wellness destination are clustered around the town of Furnas, where hot springs are plentiful. The most famous is the long-established Terra Nostra Hotel, with its giant murky outside pool fed by volcanic springs. Don’t overlook the ocean-facing options, though. Spots like the wonderfully renovated SENSI Nature & Spa have some of the best facilities on the island (and a very cute dog!). 

Reconnect with nature: Nearly everything to do in the Azores has some connection to nature. On São Miguel, there are lofty hikes around two-tone lakes to stretch those muscles, whale-watching trips to humble, and waterfall coasteering activities to get your heart rate racing. You don’t even need to splash out on a spa hotel to experience the healing thermal waters, as there are a few open-to-all options. If that’s your plan, I would advise going beyond Furnas’ Poça da Dona Beija and heading to Caldeira Velha (pictured in the header image) instead.

A yellow Kayak on Lake Levico in Valsugana
Get away to unsung Lake Levico in Italy’s Trentino Region

Lake Levico, Italy

Best for thermal waters and lakes, the thermal spa town of Levico in Trentino, Italy has watersports, the Dolomites beyond, and unfussy, welcoming accommodations.

Check-in and recharge: As a small Italian town, the list of resorts and spa hotels in Levico Terme isn’t extensive, which helps to keep it relatively off the beaten path compared to some of the more famous neighbouring lakes. However, the accommodation that are here make full use of the town’s thermal waters, offering treatments, therapies, and relaxing spa circuits. Parc Hotel Du Lac, set lakeside with a tiny beach – ask to eat lunch at the end of the small pier, it was my favourite spot – made me very happy. I especially appreciated having both the water views and the spa offering. However, there are also options in Levico town itself, such as BellaVista Relax Hotel. To save more money, stay at an affordable campsite and pair it with spa day passes.

Reconnect with nature: The twin lakes of Valsugana are this valley’s main draws beyond the thermal springs. Lake Levico is a tranquil retreat ideal for serene strolls around the fjord-like waters or gliding above on a kayak. On the other side of the forest, Lake Canzolino is more lively, with sailing and jet-skis. But this Italian hidden gem isn’t only about water sports – you’ve got some epic trails out into the mountains. My favourite was the low-intensity route up to and around Arte Sella, a sculpture-adorned park where wellness, creativity and nature intertwine. And if you’re thinking of devouring rather than detoxing, there are all the vineyards and farm-to-fork Italian-Austrian dishes that you could desire.

A rack of Spa Cups in Karlovy Vary
A rack of Spa Cups in Karlovy Vary

Karlovy Vary, Czechia

Best for storied spa culture and cups, the Bohemian thermal spring town of Karlovy Vary has excellent value resorts and a spotlight on ceramic spa cups.

Check-in and recharge: As one of the UNESCO-listed Great Spa Towns of Europe, you won’t struggle to find a retreat in or around the adorable streets of Karlovy Vary. Come in the low season as I did, and you’ll also be amazed at just how affordable your European spa escape can be. I opted for the Retro Riverside Wellness Resort, attracted by the fairy-tale nature of the building and its forested setting outside the city. With a small pier outback, fantastic rooms from the pools, and a full menu of massages and services, it ticked the box for an equally handsome price. 

Reconnect with nature: Hiking, summer kayaking, or horse riding will bring you deeper into Bohemia’s beauty. But what makes the spa town of Karlovy Vary so fascinating and worth visiting is its culture around the Spa Cup, which fully embraces the town’s thermal waters. Locally called Karlov Vary drinking cups, these cute ceramic stapes date back to the 17th century. Residents will carry their cups around and fill them up at one of the free fountains that are dotted around squares and cobbled streets. Pick up your cup on arrival from a local street stall, carry some herbal tea bags, and easily make a therapeutic brew to enjoy as you explore the pretty old town.

Luxury spas, endless mountains and cultured trails on Austria's Asitz
Luxury spas, endless mountains and cultured trails on Austria’s Asitz

Saalfelden Leogang, Austria 

Best for luxury, lofty mountain retreats, the cinematic landscape of Leogang, Sazlburgerland, snuggled cultured trails and sustainable, forward-thinking spa resorts. 

Check-in and recharge: Ever since I first set foot on the Asitz, locally known as the mountain of sense, I haven’t stopped talking about how wonderful it is. But it’s not just the jaw-dropping mountains that provide the magic. Here, in this often overlooked by international visitors part of Austria, you can find some of the best spas and wellness retreats on the continent. Leading the pack is the newly opened, state-of-the-art Atmosphere Spa by Krallerhof. Cocooned in the landscape’s natural contours so as not to disrespect nature, a retreat here means a mesmerising backdrop, first-class spa treatments, mirror-like pools, and even an ice grotto for cold therapy. Cheap? No. Impressive? Absolutely!

Reconnect with nature: If you want to blend your spa therapy with a fitness retreat, the Asitz will oblige. Not only are the trails absolutely spectacular, but they also bring Austria’s culture into play with artworks displayed along the way and little mountain huts playing classical music. But the Asitz isn’t Saalfelden Leogang’s only natural pull. You can also hike a shaded trail to Europe’s longest-occupied hermitage, strap on your skis in winter, or embark on a two-wheel adventure in the dedicated bike park. If you want true mountain adventures with a world-leading spa, this would be my top pick of everywhere on this list.

Bastei Bridge, Saxony, Germany
Hiking through the karst landscapes of Saxon Switzerland is good for the soul

Saxon Switzerland, Germany 

Best for outside therapy, the karst landscape of Saxon Switzerland National Park, straddling Germany’s border with Czechia, offers excellent rock climbing and spa-focused hotels.

Check-in and recharge: Unlike Switzerland, which is home to some of Europe’s most luxurious spa resorts, Saxon Switzerland is a lot more wallet-friendly. The spa town of Bad Schandau is the main gateway to the park, and there are plenty of spa stays to select from, including the softly decorated Hotel Elbresidenz, which peers over the Elbe River. You can even stay in the heart of the park itself at Berghotel Bastei, which is seconds from the famous bridge of the same name. Alternatively, strike out further afield at any of the spa resorts around Saxony to suit your needs and budget. 

Reconnect with nature: As one of the most popular places to visit in Saxony, escaping the crowds for a rejuvenating experience might seem like a challenge, but beyond the most famous sights, such as Bastei Bridge and the “Stairway to Heaven”, there’s still plenty of more serene trails to enjoy in both the German, and Czech sides of the park. Rock climbing is ideal for a more active, strength-building retreat, while canoeing trips along the Elbe or in the ethereal Kamenice Gorge are ideal for muscle-building mornings followed by an afternoon spa. Even just walking amongst the dense forests and admiring the rock formations was therapy enough for my mind, and I returned to Dresden feeling suitably renewed.

The National Park of the Forest with Clouds in Emilia Romagna
Bagno di Romagna blends medical spa town with forest trails

Bagno di Romagna, Italy

Best for a forested health retreat, the small, beautiful spa town of Bagno di Romagna in Emilia Romagna specialises in health tourism while affording easy access to trails in the Casentinesi Forest.

Check-in and recharge: Hidden away far from all the more popular places to visit in Emilia Romagna, Bagno di Romagna only has a handful of stays. But that’s all part of the charm of one of Italy’s I Borghi più belli d’Italia (Most Beautiful Villages). During my visit, I stayed in the Ròseo Euroterme Wellness Resort, a sprawling and renovated medical and wellness spa that was surprisingly good value. While I only made use of the vascular circuit, inside-outside pool, and a cheeky massage, you can undertake a full list of wellness and health checks in this verdant-backed resort. 

Reconnect with nature: Pretty as Bagno di Romagna is, the real draw for a wellness retreat in this part of Italy is the proximity to the Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi in the Apennines. Straddling the two Italian regions of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, there are plenty of excellent trails to bike, hike or simply amble along. Not that you’ll ever need to venture far or hire a car; numerous walking trails fan out from the teeny town where the resorts are huddled. If you fancy some further afield adventures, I’d highly recommend an e-bike tour out to the Ridracoli Dam, with a hearty Romagna cuisine lunch to feel the soul.

A swimming pool with aerial yoga hammocks
From aerial yoga at Alamos to water therapy in Vilalara, the Algarve’s retreat scene is ever-growing

The Algarve, Portugal

Best for seaside spa therapy, Portugal’s sun-kissed southern region has stepped up its game with various therapy-focused hotels that take advantage of the Atlantic views and the Algarve’s clean air. 

Check-in and recharge: No longer just a fly-and-flop package holiday destination, the Algarve has seen a multitude of resorts and retreats open in recent years. From affordable surf escapes and yoga getaways to more all-in, upscale luxury stays, you really have your pick of the lot. Seeking some seriously fancy seawater therapy? The indulgent Vilalara Thalassa Resort is calling in. Want to relax inland with aerial yoga on your doorstep? Check out Alamos Retreat, where I learned how hard balance can be. Prefer to put your health centre stage? Get in touch with the team at Longevity Health & Wellness Resort to plan a bespoke package. There’s even the thermal spa town of Monchique if you’d prefer a more traditional spa stay. 

Reconnect with nature: The EEA lists Faro, the Algarve’s capital city, as having some of the cleanest air in Europe, making it an excellent destination for getting outside. Plus, nearly all the best things to do in the Algarve are built around nature. Beaches, as are kayaking experiences to footprint-free bays and cinematic caves, are never-ending. Hiking trails crisscross all four corners, though the multi-day Fisherman’s Trail tracks the windswept and gorgeous west coast is arguably the finest. Then you’ve got all the magic of the Ria Formosa, a vast swathe of barrier islands, marshes, salt pans and mud flats where you can bird watch, sleep on a boat, or indulge in some salt-bathing therapy. Best of all? A wellness escape to the Algarve isn’t just good for the soul; it can also be easy-going on your bank balance.

An escape to the Algarve is an escape for the mind and soul
An escape to the Algarve is an escape for the mind and soul

Velingrad, Bulgaria 

Best for affordable hot springs, the “Spa Capital of the Balkans” is blessed with numerous mineral springs, baths and fairly priced resorts.

Check-in and recharge: Bulgaria boasts some 700 natural mineral springs and is second only to Iceland in Europe for thermal waters. But it’s Velingrad where the spa scene is most concentrated. That, coupled with the nation’s fair prices, makes Velingrad one of Europe’s more affordable spa destinations. You can pick from numerous spa hotels, but you’ll likely want to book one which offers a selection of treatments or mud therapies. Cosy Kashmir Spa, with its wood-cabin-style rooms and forest setting, or the quirky-designed Spa Hotel Rich for holistic therapies, are popular picks.

Reconnect with nature: While the town of Velingrad itself is a well-established European wellness destination with all the facilities you could need, its setting in the Rhodope Mountains means there are plenty of chances to embrace nature – and not just in an outside mineral bath or hot spring. Hiking trails for all abilities weave through the surrounding forests, and horse riding at the Sivek Equestrian Centre provides another trotting way to appreciate the leafy setting.

Pin it: Europe's best alternative wellness destinations (top image: lake in Velingrad, Bulgaria | bottom image: hotel pool in the Azores)
Pin it: Europe’s best alternative wellness destinations (top image: lake in Velingrad, Bulgaria | bottom image: hotel pool in the Azores)
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