Late afternoon light filtered through the glass-domed Caracalla Spa, in the southwestern German city of Baden-Baden, as I eased into a thermal pool bubbling at 100 degrees. To my right, a young couple dipped under a wall of water cascading from above. To my left, two retirees giggled nervously and then dropped into an adjacent cold-plunge pool chilled to 64 degrees.
Romans first built thermal baths in Baden-Baden (named for the German word for "bathe") some 2,000 years ago. In more recent centuries, this charming Oos River community has capitalized on its natural hot springs, cultivating a culture of wellness with destinations like Caracalla and its sister facility, the Friedrichsbad. The Roman-Irish bathing establishment, which opened in 1877, offers a 17-station circuit of au-natural steam, shower, scrub and spa experiences.
Caracalla Spa's sister facility Friedrichsbad opened in 1877. Source: Courtesy of Baden-Baden Kur & Tourismus
A few minutes' walk from Baden-Baden's noteworthy baths, the Heliopark Bad Hotel zum Hirsch also taps into the town's famed waters. Most of the property's 71 rooms and suites have thermal bath connections — simply turn the thermalwasser faucets in the tub — and the on-site spa includes a dry sauna, steam bath, relaxation room and massage venue. A complimentary breakfast buffet, contemporary lobby bar and old-school cigar lounge are among other hotel amenities.
The Heliopark's central location makes it a fitting base for exploring scenic Baden-Baden. Framed by the Black Forest and dotted with elegant castles and churches, the popular summer vacation spot appeals with year-round offerings ranging from exhibits at the Faberge Museum, to opera performances at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, to a lively holiday market featuring regional foods and crafts.
The Baden-Baden Health, Visitors & Convention Office leads guided walking tours in several languages, showcasing the city's rich heritage, spa highlights, cultural attractions and culinary gems. (Prices vary by theme and tour structure.)
Travelers can easily craft their own itineraries, too. The pedestrian-friendly city center is a tangle of tranquil alleys and cobblestone streets lined with art galleries, chocolate shops, perfumeries and boutiques by major fashion brands.
Several significant structures are clustered across the river from the main shopping district.
The Trinkhalle was a pump house in the 1800s; today it houses Baden-Baden’s tourism information center. Source: Courtesy of Baden-Baden Kur & Tourismus
Fronted by exquisite murals and Corinthian pillars, the Trinkhalle is an 1800s pump house that now houses the city's tourist information center.
The neighboring Kurhaus Casino Baden-Baden is an ornate venue outfitted in Versailles-inspired tapestries, dramatic artwork and glittering chandeliers. Tours are available by day; well-dressed patrons gather to gamble at night.
A stroll down Lichtentaler Allee, the tree- and flower-lined path that parallels the Oos, passes gems like the Museum LA8 and the Museum Frieder Burda, an airy, four-level institution exhibiting works by Picasso, Miro and several contemporary German artists.
From the town center, it's a brief bus ride through Baden-Baden's hilltop neighborhoods to the Merkur Funicular Railway. The cable rail car climbs to a station on Merkur Mountain, where the Restaurant Merkurstuble serves regional dishes on a bustling outdoor patio.
When I arrived for a hosted hilltop visit, I passed the restaurant, followed a footpath to the mountain's summit and took the stairs to the top of a stone observation tower. From there, I snapped photos of the surrounding Black Forest and watched paragliders take flight in the skies above Baden-Baden.
Visit www.heliopark-hirsch.de/en/home and www.baden-baden.de/en/tourist-information.