When the days get short and the nights get cold, there's nothing like a good long soak in a hot bath — with 50 of your closest friends. Europe's hot springs have been making wintertime feel like a summer beach party since the days of the ancient Greeks, but nowadays they're often housed in posh spa complexes with such attractions as Finnish saunas, Celtic temples, Ottoman-styled nap lounges, indoor Mediterranean palm gardens and the ever-popular swim-up bar. Here's our list of some of the best hot baths on the continent.
Terme di Saturnia
Set in spectacular Tuscan countryside below a classic hill town, Saturnia's sulfur springs send up clouds of steam you can see for a mile. While locals dip in the calcium-decked open-air waterfall at the end of the hot stream, a few miles below town, the best place to take the waters is at the source, in the massive travertine pool around which the luxe Terme di Saturnia spa complex is built. While there's every kind of treatment here from massages and mud packs to steam inhalation therapy, everyone's favorite activity is just bobbing quietly in the hot water.
Where to Stay: You can't beat the location of the Hotel Terme di Saturnia, 140 expensively neutral rooms and suites built around the thermal pool itself. The hotel restaurant, all'Acquacotta, even has a Michelin star.
Terme dei Papi
The “baths of the popes” isn't just a fanciful name: Gregory IX started splashing around here in the 13th century, Boniface IX came for a cure in the 15th, and Nicholas V built his country getaway here a few decades later. The hot spring in Viterbo, Italy, also gets a nod in Dante's Inferno. The Terme dei Papi is still a favorite spa getaway for Romans in the know, who buy a day ticket to float in the 1930s-era stone pool and sprawl on lounge chair. The water is shallower and very hot where thermal water flows from the original stone faucets, and cools down enough to allow for a relaxing swim in the deep end.
Where to Stay: Set amid gardens at the end of a long, cypress-flanked private drive, Alla Corte delle Terme evokes the time of the popes in an up-to-date, brand-new resort complex. For maximum relaxation, mini-vans shuttle guests to and from the spa in their bathrobes and sandals.
Self-styled as Europe's biggest hot spring spa, this glass-domed complex set in farmland outside Munich, Germany, is a thermal Disneyland with a selection of themed pools, saunas, solariums and lounges complete with a faux-tropical palm garden and swim-up bar. Therme Erding's spas are divided into two sections, family-friendly and “textile-free,” and each covers the continent's attractions, from a Finnish sauna with its own Northern Lights show to an Ottoman-style relaxation lounge to hot tropical rain showers in a stone grotto. Other exciting attractions include wintertime hot waterslides for the kids, late-night pool parties for adults, and several good restaurants to cover a full day's entertainment.
Where to Stay: Until Therme Erding's on-site resort hotel opens in 2014, the best place to stay for a visit here is in Munich, 45 minutes away. The soberly stylish Hotel Louis has an award-winning Japanese restaurant and its own rooftop sauna with views over the city.
The mineral-rich hot spring that feeds the Spreewald Therme near Berlin was discovered just 12 years ago, but the spa makes up for lost time with a grand glass-and-steel complex reminiscent of a very fancy airport—one that just happens to be set a rural town near the Polish border amid picturesque woods and fields. Inside are hot and cold pools, saunas, a restaurant, and spa. The indoor pool has a fountain and massage jets; the outdoor pool a man-made river that pulls you along through the warm water.
Where to Stay: No need to get dressed in anything beyond your bathrobe; the brand-new Spreewaldthermen Hotel connects to the spa via a glass walkway. Simple, quiet, smallish rooms with German-style split beds are fine for a night's rest.
Therme de Vals
Hands-down Europe's chicest hot spring, the Therme de Vals near St. Moritz, Switzerland, sets its natural hot water pools in a stark, '60s-modernist architectural context, all slab walls and sunken staircases. Like the hideaway of a James Bond villain, it's built into a mountainside in the Alps. Inside, it looks like a very stylish nightclub but feels more like a church, as reverent bathers quietly immerse themselves in indoor and outdoor pools, “fire” and “ice” baths, and a purpose-designed sound installation. In summer, you can take in a jazz concert or chamber music while you take the waters.
Where to Stay: Therme de Vals is so remote that you don't really have a choice, so it's a good thing that the spa's on-site Hotel Therme de Vals is a comfortable stay. Remodeled “temporaries” rooms are leather-and-steel sleek; original (and less expensive) sixties-style options have built-in twin beds and private balconies.
For the rest of Europe's best hot springs spas, like Budapest's gorgeously tiled Gellert Baths complex, visit Fodor's.