There’s nothing like a bath at the end of a long day, and it’s a tradition with some serious clout behind it.
The ancient Greeks used ‘the water cure’ to promote their vision of healing the mind and body in tandem, while in the 19th Century, ‘taking the waters’ became something of an obsession.
Doctors on both sides of the Atlantic prescribed hydropathy as a cure for everything from ulcers to hysteria, as well to-do urbanites flocked to al fresco hot spots. And it wasn’t just quackery, either; even with the advances of modern medicine, recent research shows therapeutic bathing to be a powerful elixir.
Dr. Nigma Talib, a naturopathic doctor with clinics in London and LA, says that warm water bathing is a great way of relieving chronic pain, inflammation and stress.
‘Hot water can get your heart pumping in a similar way to when you’re working out,’ she says. ‘It causes vasodilation [the dilation of blood vessels] and increases blood to the muscles. It can improve sleep for people who have poor circulation and tense muscles. And it helps clear the mind, by getting blood flowing and removing tension from the body.’
Of course, it’s not just about the therapeutic benefits. As the Romans knew well, outdoor bathing is just a fun thing to do. It helps us to reconnect with nature and unwind in the Great Outdoors.
‘Al fresco bathing is always a highlight of our trips,’ says Lee Thompson, co-founder of adventure travel company Flash Pack. ‘Hot springs offer a brilliant and unique viewpoint on the world, whether you’re halfway up a Balinese mountain or hanging out in the snowy wilderness of Quebec. They bring a different kind of energy to the experience of travel.’
Scroll down to browse through our pick of the world’s most spectacular hot springs and get set to bask in the delights of al fresco bathing.
Aqua Dome, Austria
With its sweeping mountain valleys and wild flower meadows, the Tyrol region is stunning at any time of year. This sprawling retreat is a great way to appreciate its beauty, with outdoor thermal pools offering a front-row seat to the vast Alpine landscape. It’s particularly popular in winter, when water bubbling up from 1,800 meters below ground sends great gusts of steam across snow-capped trees and icy peaks
Kuroyu Onsen, Japan
If you want to live the rich Japanese tradition of hot spring healing, look no further than Kuroyu Onsen. Tucked away in the mountains of Japan’s northern Akita province, this wonderful old bathing spot dates to the early 17th Century. Step back in time as you soak in the mineral-rich waters of the wooden rotenburo (outdoor bath), surrounded by ancient forest and a serene mountain stream
Tabacón Hot Springs, Costa Rica
A natural playground of more than 20 waterfalls and in-river pools, Tabacón Hot Springs is the perfect place to get lost in. Secluded nooks and gushing ravines weave between thick tropical foliage, with the sun bouncing off the palm trees above. Wallow in the warm, cascading waterway as it snakes its way from Arenal Volcano in northwest Costa Rica through the heart of a private rainforest reserve
Dunton Hot Springs, United States
This bathing spot surely wins the prize for the most unique location at all: a lovingly reconstructed 19th Century mining town set deep in the Colorado Rockies. The hot springs spread out in a basin framed by miles of shrubland and forest, with boutique wooden cabins (including a ‘saloon’ and ‘dance hall’) nearby. Fall brings an extra dash of magic, as the steam clouds rise against a blanket of golden trees
Parco dei Mulini, Italy
There can be few finer backdrops for a bathe than the rolling hills of Tuscany. The hot springs around Bagno Vignoni are famed for their therapeutic powers, and pilgrims used to stop at Parco dei Mulini on their way to Rome in the Middle Ages. Take a dip in this invitingly turquoise pool, flanked by cliff shrubs and greenery, to evoke a strong sense of the past
The word Pamukkale means ‘Cotton Fortress’. It’s apt name for this majestic sprawl of brilliant white basins that spool out around the Roman ruins of Hierapolis in southwest Turkey. The cascading travertines here have formed over centuries of calcified waterflow. In wintertime, natural warm pools bubble up and turn blue under the sunlight, creating a magnificent bathing spot
Termas Geométricas, Chile
A beguiling red walkway forms the centrepiece of this hot springs ravine in the Andes of southern Chile. The 17 pools are flanked by Japanese-inspired architecture, but the natural environment of Villarrica National Park also plays a starring role. Thick woodland gorse, wild ferns and waterfalls stretch up around a tumbling stream, in a wonderland that can be enjoyed come snow or summer sunshine
Thermae Bath Spa, Britain
Grab a prime vantage point to the cinematic allure of Bath in this historic city spa. Thermae Bath Spa is the only retreat of its kind in the UK to have access to natural spring waters. Its rooftop pool is a thing of beauty, facing onto a panorama of golden spires and elegant Georgian buildings. Gaze upon the town that Jane Austen once called home, with gentle green hills rising on the horizon
Ma’in Hot Springs, Jordan
Make like King Herod and unwind beneath the steaming waterfall of Jordan’s time-honored desert spring. Ma’in Hot Springs lies 264 meters below sea level, and its mineral-rich water is thought to have similar soothing qualities to that of the nearby Dead Sea. A series of pools spill from giant rose-tinged rocks, with temperatures reaching well past 40°C
Blue Lagoon, Iceland
The rock star of geothermal sites, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon delivers theatre at every turn. First, there’s the setting: an 800-year-old lava field in the Reykjanes Peninsula, a UNESCO global geopark. Then there’s the unique healing quality of the milky-white water, which has been found to help people suffering from skin conditions such as psoriasis. Finally, there’s the scale of the place; a vast swath of water, heated to around 37-40°C, sending plumes of steam into the open sky
Hierve el Agua, Mexico
Don’t be put off by the name (Hierve el Agua means ‘the water boils’). In reality, these two mineral pools in southern Mexico bubble around the 26°C mark; the perfect temperature for a sunset dip. They sit on the cusp of one of the world’s only two petrified waterfalls, where water dripping onto the limestone cliff has calcified over a period of thousands of years – creating the illusion of giant cascades of ice
Banff Upper Hot Springs, Canada
Weary travelers have made a beeline for Banff to ‘take the waters’ since the late 19th Century, and Upper Hot Spring is still going strong today. Located 1580 meters up Sulphur Mountain, the cool air creates a pleasing contrast with the large and toasty pool. Head here on a winter’s evening for a twilight swim amid snow-clad fir trees, or beat the crowds with a morning bathe
Peninsula Hot Springs, Australia
Find a hidden lagoon of your own to while away the afternoon in at this award-winning spa near Melbourne. Scenic wooden bridges draw together a series of natural hot springs spread over the craggy rocks and bushland of the Mornington Peninsula. Over 20 pools (and more to open this year) are connected by winding pathways, in a homage to the Japanese ritual of bathing
Grand Prismatic, United States
Disclaimer: Grand Prismatic Spring is far too hot for bathing, but it deserves a place on this list for its good looks alone. The most photographed of pools and geysers at Yellowstone National Park, it falls together in delicate colored rings that gradate from dazzling oranges and yellows to a smoking aquamarine core. Grand Prismatic also packs a serious punch with its beauty; it’s the third largest spring in the world
The Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu, New Zealand
New Zealand is brimming with active geothermal parks, the most famous of which is Wai-O-Tapu on the north island. Perched on the Reporoa Caldera, a collapsed volcanic crater formed 230,000 years ago, it forms an other-worldly land of neon lakes and erupting geysers. The champagne pool is particularly eye-catching, with its bright orange and green hues putting Instagram filters to shame. Like Grand Prismatic, this isn’t one for swimming in