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8 of the Top Traditional Spa Experiences Around the World

These experiences give new meaning to the phrase “cultural immersion.”

A woman enjoys a Japanese onsen with a cup of steaming tea.
Hi, I'm Jen!

Vermont travel writer Jen Rose Smith covers adventure, remote places, and traditional cuisine from a home base in the Green Mountains. Her articles have appeared in National Geographic Adventure, American Way, Nexos, Condé Nast Traveler, Backpacker, AFAR, Rolling Stone, USA Today, and Outside Online.

There’s more to bathing than getting clean. In much of the world, traditional baths—from saunas to hot pools and steam rooms—are places to relax, maintain health, and connect with friends. Such practices have been popular since ancient times; the mineral spas of Italy’s Isola d’Ischia have drawn locals and travelers alike for over 2,000 years.

Whether you’re steaming in a Turkish hammam, sweating in Finland’s saunas, or visiting a geothermal Japanese onsen, traditional baths are also an opportunity to try local customs firsthand (and sometimes while naked). For travelers seeking the ultimate reset or soothing post-flight aches, these spa traditions are some of the best on Earth.

1. Turkish hammams

Inside an elegant Turkish hammam.
It's hammam time.Photo Credit: F. Serra Mubeccel Gulturk / Shutterstock

Lofty settings for bathing and lounging.

These steam baths once drew inspiration from ancient Roman bathhouses, but the refined rituals that unfold within some Turkish hammams elevate public bathing to a fine art. Istanbul’s most elegant baths date back to the 16th century, with soaring architecture and marble rooms dedicated to steaming and scrubbing your way to relaxation. Many include a vigorous scrub-down with entry to the spa, and some Turkish hammams even have dedicated spaces for lounging over post-bath Turkish tea and sweets.

2. Japanese onsen

A Japanese onsen with a view through the sliding doors to the winter forest.
Onsen are a great way to get back to nature.Photo Credit: dryadphotos / Shutterstock

Hot springs with beautiful scenery.

Geothermal energy simmers under volcanic Japan, fueling sulfurous natural hot springs, or onsen, that have long been seen as a source of health and pleasure. Bathers must be fully nude to enter the onsen, and the majority are gender-separated. (Visitors with visible tattoos might find themselves barred from some onsen, as well.) Options range from the spectacular natural setting of Hoheikyo Onsen to urban versions in central Tokyo, but there are thousands of hot pools to choose from.

3. Finnish saunas

The wooden interior of a Finnish sauna.
Finnish saunas are an integral part of the nation's culture.Photo Credit: Robert Nyholm / Shutterstock

Heat and relaxation for every season.

Finnish sauna culture is a year-round tradition. While many local people have saunas in their backyards—and some lucky visitors might be invited to enter one—there are also plenty of public saunas for travelers to experience. While rules vary, most Finnish people visit saunas fully nude, sitting quietly on towels and sweating in the heat. Be polite: If you talk too loudly, you might annoy the saunaton.

4. Mexican temazcal

The stone exterior of Mexican temazcal.
Mexican sweat lodges have been used for centuries.Photo Credit: Peter Versnel / Shutterstock

The spiritual experience of a sweat lodge.

Domed sweat lodges have been used by Indigenous people in Mesoamerica for centuries, and traces of ancient versions have even been found while excavating Maya ruins. While temazcals fell out of use in many parts of Mexico, recent years have seen something of a resurgence. Visitors can experience the intense steam heat of temazcals everywhere from Playa del Carmen to the Oaxaca highlands and Teotihuacan. Often, a trip to the baths includes massaging your limbs with bundles of fragrant herbs, and a ritual spiritual cleansing called a limpia.

5. Icelandic hot pools

An Icelandic hot pool right on the edge of the ocean.
Iceland's geothermic pools are dotted all over the country.Photo Credit: Ververidis Vasilis / Shutterstock

Geothermal waters by the city or the sea.

Much of Iceland is powered by geothermal heat, so it’s no surprise that there’s plenty of naturally hot water to go around—the famed (and artificial) Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik is just the most prominent example. Today, geothermal pools in Iceland range from elegant seaside spas with high-end treatments to undeveloped natural springs where the water simply bubbles up from the ground. Bring a bathing suit and don’t forget to scrub before you soak.

6. European spa towns

One of the Roman baths in the English town of Bath.
Head to Bath and beyond for a taste of Europe's old Roman baths.Photo Credit: aroundworld / Shutterstock

From Baden-Baden to Bath itself.

In the 18th century, a kind of international European spa culture emerged, one that eventually saw the continent’s rich and famous hopping between towns renowned for healing waters, palatial baths, and, usually, a lot of gambling. Eleven of these spa towns are now part of the UNESCO–designated Great Spas of Europe, where you can still enjoy the mineral waters that were once a royal rage. They range from Germany’s Baden-Baden to Bath, England, and Vichy, France.

Related: The 11 Must-Visit Great Spa Towns of Europe

7. Moroccan hammams

Inside a tranquil Moroccan hammam.
The hammams of Morocco are so worth getting to know.Photo Credit: PrakichTreetasayuth / Shutterstock

Cultural hot spots for a scrub.

These public baths share a name—and some history—with the Turkish version, but Moroccan hammams have rituals that are all their own. Traditionally, they were located alongside bakeries, so the hot ovens could do double duty by heating water. The fully nude and gender-separated baths range from neighborhood hubs to chic and silent spas; attendants with soapy loofahs scrub visitors until they glow. If you prefer not to dive straight into group bathing, some hammams also offer private experiences.

8. Budapest bathing

Budapest and one of its historic bathhouses, filled with bathers, on a grey day.
Budapest's bathhouses have their own culture (involving chess and more).Photo Credit: madaraen / Shutterstock

Grand locales for soaking in the springs (and the party vibes).

Thermal springs surrounding Budapest have been a draw since ancient Roman times, and the Hungarian capital has claimed the nickname “City of Spas” since 1934. The most popular surviving bathhouses are sprawling, extravagant complexes that can host thousands, from the art nouveau Gellert Baths built in 1918 to the mineral-rich indoor-outdoor pools at Széchenyi Thermal Spa. The baths aren’t all about relaxation: Széchenyi Thermal Spa is known for its weekend spa parties—or “sparties”—featuring DJs, dancing in outdoor pools, and laser light shows.

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