Heat-focused wallowing has been the hot ticket for more than 2,000 years thanks to the Romans’ knack for building settlements around hot springs, most famously Aquae Sulis, which we now know as Bath. The Swiss, too, have been tapping into the benefits of toasty underground waters for centuries.
These days, experiencing thermal thrills is generally a more sophisticated affair. Across the Alps there are numerous steamy retreats that people flock to in the depths of winter.
It’s not just water that warms things up. Across North Africa and the Middle East, sweltering hammams act as a social gathering places. Russian banyas, Nordic saunas, Japanese onsen and French thalassotherapy centres all speak the restorative language of heat.
Heat-seeking travelling – let’s call it therma-tourism – is nothing new, but it’s at this time of year that we are reminded why this ancient wellbeing ritual, simple and effective, is such a good idea.
Here are 20 healing hot spots around the world to turn up the temperature.
Skip to therma-tourism hotspots in:
Aire Baths, London, England
Following on from the runaway success of the originals in Spain and then outposts in Copenhagen and New York, the London version of Aire opened in 2021 – a theatrical reimagining of ancient Roman baths underneath a 17th-century townhouse. Vaulted rooms echo, candlelight flickers, hydromassage jet baths bubble away and clouds of peppermint-scented steam fill the air. Even the padding from room to room, pool to pool is a calming and pensive process, warming up and winding down. More so if you add a massage at the end. It all feels a million miles away from the hubbub of the Covent Garden streets above.
Beach Box Spa, Brighton, England
It’s an unexpected location for a reset, just off Brighton’s busy Madeira Drive behind the Volks Railway workshop. But this patch of the pebbly beach offers a wellness experience that has community at its heart, as a place to get together with friends and neighbours. Two Scandi-style cedar-lined saunas are fired up inside converted horse boxes. There’s an invigorating ice bath (or indeed the English Channel) if things get too steamy, and icy showers to rinse off salt and sweat, followed by mugs of chai tea around the firepit. Silent Sauna sessions, where no talking is allowed, are hugely popular, as are the gong ceremonies.
Fritton Lake, Norfolk, England
On the eastern reaches of Norfolk’s flatlands, five miles out of Great Yarmouth, lies a hideout with an ambitious mission for rewilding and conservation. Sustainably built eco-efficient cabins are scattered through the woods where not only Exmoor ponies and Large Black pigs snuffle about, but water buffalo roam free along the edges of the lake. Spot them through the viewing window of the toasty, floating wood-fired sauna, a charred timber-clad structure that bobs on its own pontoon. On a full moon, there are nighttime sauna sessions followed by submersion in the dark water under the stars.
Sauna open to members or guests only – doubles from £140 (01493 484008; frittonlake.co.uk)
Finn Lough, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland
Quite unlike any traditional spa experience, the Elements Trail in this lush green corner of Northern Ireland is a rootsy kind of nature-first exploration. The self-guided two-hour-long pathway leads you through a forest, following arrows from cabin to cabin. It meanders from warm salty floatarium to torrid Finnish sauna, dipping in the lakeside hydrotherapy pool and ending by a crackling log fire in the relaxation room. Rhythm is cleverly kept by sand timers that nudge guests two at a time round the circuit, so that the spaces always feel private. Also remarkably private are the bubble domes to bed down in, deep in the trees, under a blanket of stars.
Two-hour Elements Trail experience from £60, for hotel guests – doubles from £175, including breakfast (0286 8380360; finnlough.com)
Hammam Al Andalus, Granada, Spain
The traditional Kessa treatment at the Hammam Al Andalus, which involves lying on a heated marble plinth and being lathered up in a soapy scrub, is not to be missed. In the shadow of the Alhambra in a renovated 13th-century building, the spaces are like an original Arabic public bath with ornately tiled mosaic walls and domed ceilings. The trickling sound of water pervades, as do church-like echoes and hushed voices, which make the four-pool circuit contemplative and serene. Candle flames dance and Islamic-style wooden-slatted windows let in pinpricks of light – suspend belief and it’s like stepping back in time.
Lago Specchio di Venere, Pantelleria, Italy
Pantelleria is a rugged little island midway between Sicily and Tunisia; not really Italy, not quite North Africa, it feels wild and hard to pin down. That sense of the whimsical also plays out at Lago Specchio di Venere, where the shades of turquoise and green water are technicolour and trippy. Carved out of the caldera of an extinct volcano, the natural hot springs here can hit up to 50C. When the rainfall levels are low, the waters recede to reveal warm thermal mud. Smooth it on for a DIY spa exfoliation and then sink into the alkaline-rich shallows to rinse off. The bird-watching is incredible too.
Naturhotel Forsthofgut, Leogang, Austria
Here is one of those supreme Austrian hotels that hits all the high notes – alpine outdoor adventures, great food, slick design, top-level wellness and family-friendly too. Views from every window are of snow-capped peaks and steamy mists rolling off the outdoor swimming pools. The onsen pool is based on a Japanese bathhouse and overlooks the blue run that swishes past in winter. Infra-red cabins warm your bones, while heated waterbeds promote deep snoozes. There are saunas at every turn, big ones for group therapies – be brave, no clothes allowed – plus smaller, more private ones, and even slightly cooler saunas for children to try out too.
Doubles from £181 including spa access (00 43 6583 8561; forsthofgut.at)
Therme Vals, Vals, Switzerland
It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully designed hotel spa than this. Architect Peter Zumthor’s radical interpretation of a stone quarry as thermal baths is still as talked about today as it was when it opened in 1996. Rather than dating, the 60,000 slabs of local quartz somehow continue to feel current and relevant, while those precise angular lines encase a place of ancient ritual. The sound of the 42C waters pouring into troughs reverberates off all the stone. During the day, that noise recedes into the background. After dark – for the silent night-bathing experiences from 11pm to 1am – it thunders religiously.
Spa access for non-guests from £56 pp; included for guests – doubles from £696 (00 41 58 7132 000; 7132.com)
Poça da Dona Beija, Furnas, Azores
These hot springs on the volcanic island of São Miguel have undergone a recent spruce, and two new pools lined with basalt, the native stone, have been added to the acid-green tropical jungle backdrop. As the running thermal stream tumbles noisily down the hill in a series of mini waterfalls, the iron-rich flow leaves behind a rusty trail – a good reminder to forgo any light-coloured swimwear here. The soothing water is said to help with skin conditions, energy levels and the symptoms of anaemia.
Löyly, Helsinki, Finland
Taking a sauna is pretty much the national sport in Finland, where there are almost as many saunas as inhabitants. Löyly, an imposing architectural folly in the industrial part of Helsinki where cruise ships dock, is drawing in a new curious crowd to the area. The angular, low-slung pine structure crouches around an authentic Finnish sauna fired by wood smoke. Inside, a mix of steel, blackened concrete and Scandinavian birch keep things looking tightly modern. A waterfront setting means Baltic sea views from between the slats and access straight to its icy depths for a cool-down dip. Refuel on sustainably caught fish for lunch in the adjoining restaurant afterwards.
Soria Moria Sauna, Dalen, Norway
For 30 years, the Norwegians have used architectural rest stops, walkways and viewpoints along their Scenic Routes to boost tourism in rural parts of the country. Here at the end of the Telemark Canal, the project that includes Soria Moria has similar intentions – to shine a light on the area and attract new visitors. The destination sauna sits on stilts in Bandak lake, boundary-pushing and beautiful from the outside, and with thick evergreen-forest views from within. The V-shape of the roof echoes the surrounding mountains, wooden cladding nods to traditional building methods and golden tiles stud the exterior in reference to the fairytale castle it’s named after.
Ästad Vingård, Halland, Sweden
With its one Michelin star and a Green Star too, Restaurant Äng at the Ästad Vingård hotel is being uttered in the same breath as some of the Nordic greats. But the hotel’s other stellar offering is its Sinnenas Spa. Not just for the underwater sauna – surely the only one in the world – where crayfish and trout swim past as the temperature rises. But also for the heated pools and hot tubs like wooden wine-makers’ barrels, scorching steam rooms and extraordinary above-ground batsu sauna with its undulating sculptural pine walls and ceiling. At the new lakeside cabins, each room has its own private sauna and you can jump directly into the cold spring water from the terrace to wake up.
Day spa access from £34pp for four hours. Doubles from £230, including a four-course dinner, breakfast and spa access (00 46 340 46061; astadvingard.se)
Sky Lagoon, Kópavogur, Iceland
A considered (smaller and newer, and therefore less well-known) alternative to the very popular Blue Lagoon. Instead of the famed steaming lava rock surroundings, here you get big-scale panoramic views and broad horizons out over the wild North Atlantic Ocean from the 70-metre infinity edge of the main geothermal pool. Sky Lagoon champions the Icelandic cultural tradition of communal bathing, but on a smaller scale. It may be only 15 minutes’ drive from Reykjavík but the setting still feels far-flung and exposed, occasionally lit by the colours of the Aurora Borealis. As well as the 38C lagoon and a glacier pool, there is a seven-step ritual that takes you through the sauna with its huge picture window and onto scrubs, steams and mists.
Zeyrek Çinili Hamam, Istanbul, Turkey
After well over a decade of restoration, this historic bathhouse is just a few months away from living and breathing again. It’s been a painstaking process, reviving the abandoned hammam, with utmost reverence for the history of the building, which was commissioned in the 16th century by the Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy. Wall carvings and paintings were uncovered in the process, ancient artefacts too, and everything that can has been preserved and/or revived. The marble inner chambers and star-pierced domed ceilings are timeless. And with a museum, contemporary art space and private gardens, this communal space is open for the community once again.
Riemvasmaak Hot Springs, Northern Cape, South Africa
The Riemvasmaak community was the first to return to its land when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s president and the restitution project was initiated in 1994. Right up by the Namibian border, this is a remote, rugged, mountainous desert. About 40 miles from the small Northern Cape town of Kakamas, north of the Augrabies Falls, is a deep ravine where ancient volcanic activity heats the spring water. This is a part of South Africa that many visitors never reach, so it’s a just reward for the intrepid traveller. Hikes in the canyon where antelope and baboon wander the rocky lunar-like landscape can be followed by muscle-soothing soaks in the therapeutic waters.
Dunton Hot Springs, Colorado, United States
For proper, remote, out-there seclusion, this ghost town sits in the middle of a 1,600-acre ranch in the foothills of Colorado’s San Juan mountains. The abandoned 19th-century mining village was reimagined in the 1990s as a wildly smart retreat, mainlining wholesome outdoorsy activities – hiking, trout fishing, river rafting, rock climbing, horse riding. All of those are a precursor to the main event: soaking in one of the five natural hot springs on the property. Make a beeline for the piping hot, mineral-rich pool in the restored bathhouse with its huge wall of windows and dense woodland views beyond.
Doubles from £838, full board, including hot springs access (00 1 866 976 4397; duntondestinations.com)
Termas Geométricas, Pucón, Chile
Such is the power of the surrounding volcanoes that occasionally a few of the slate-lined pools at Termas Geométricas are closed off because the water gets too hot to bathe in. Fortunately there are 17 to choose from, each different, some as large as a swimming pool, others barely big enough for a lone plunge. Linking them all through the forest ravine is a cherry red angular walkway that pops against the backdrop of lush mosses and ferns. The place feels mystical with its permanent haze of mist from the waterfalls and steam flowing off the thermal springs, and the unfaltering acoustics of the bubbling water.
KAI Yufuin, Kyushu, Japan
With natural geothermal water bubbling under the ground all the way from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa and the Southwest islands, it’s not surprising that this is an intrinsic part of the culture in Japan. Onsens – the bath houses set around the hot springs – are found in almost every village and town. This is the focus of hotel group KAI, whose new ryokan in the Ōita Prefecture revolves around a moody, black panelled indoor bathhouse by revered architect Kengo Kuma. The spaces may look highly contemporary but they are equally respectful of traditional architecture with bamboo flooring, washi paper screens and tatami grass chairs.
Onsen limited to hotel guests – doubles from £191, including breakfast, dinner and spa access (00 81 50 3134 8096; hoshinoresorts.com)
Alba Thermal Springs, Melbourne, Australia
Mornington Peninsula is perhaps best known as Melbourne’s weekender, where city dwellers flock to the vineyards and beaches. But it has wellness clout too thanks to the hot springs discovered bubbling away in the late 1970s. Fast forward to today and there are plenty of spas to access them, but the newest, Alba, is the most architecturally impressive. Vast raw concrete walls curve around sunken courtyards and 31 geothermal sulphur and magnesium-enriched pools and water features are all linked by winding pathways. It is minimal and modern with satisfyingly sharp and sophisticated design, scruffed up by silvery saltbush and tea tree shrubs.
Aro Hā Wellness Retreat, Glenorchy, New Zealand
The epic scale of the surroundings at eco-wellness retreat Aro Ha – the towering craggy Humboldt mountain range, the stillness of Lake Wakatipu, the huge skies – is humbling. Connecting with nature is one of the main goals, which means exhilarating hikes, yoga, meditation and Pilates. But also sitting back in a moment of pause and appreciating the solitude. In the hydrotherapy spa, contrast therapy is the focus; warming up, cooling down, then warming up again. The traditional sauna has 180-degree views of the lake below, as does the magnificent outdoor hot tub. Massages are scheduled daily and all food is vegan and raw. Soothing, spirit-lifting stuff.
Six-day retreats from £3,416pp, all inclusive (00 64 3 442 7011; aro-ha.com)