Spa Central: Europe’s New Wellness Wave

By, Alia Akkam

The spa is quiet when I emerge from the salt grotto. A woman swirls lazily around the pool, and a couple in robes lounge on a plump waterbed. A sense of calm prevails. At Waldhotel, a luxe, contemporary interpretation of the bygone sanatorium, wellness is the sole mission, and it can take many forms, from a facial to an EKG. The 160-room hotel and hybrid spa/medical center is one of four properties that make up the latest incarnation of Switzerland’s historic Bürgenstock Resort, perched on a hilltop 1,600 feet above Lake Lucerne and infused with crisp alpine air.

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Sprawling Bürgenstock opened in 1873. It evolved into a glamorous celebrity hangout in the 1950s, attracting leading ladies such as Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn. Today, a $550 million reboot has revived that sophistication to much fanfare, with Waldhotel playing a key role in the resort’s transformation. The exterior of this sustainable, Matteo Thun-designed building incorporates latticed larch wood and limestone; inside, guest rooms adorned with illustrations of herbs pop with hues of orange and tomato red. At Verbena, Waldhotel’s only restaurant, which serves low-sodium but flavorful Mediterranean cuisine, the faint clang of cowbells sounds from the farms below as I wash down my chock-full-of-spinach egg-white frittata with bitter celery juice.

Waldhotel puts health at the forefront, pairing its 17,000-square-foot spa (not to be confused with Alpine Spa, the larger facility in the resort’s 102-room Bürgenstock Hotel, set in a striking, cantilevered cube of glass) with a 37,000-square-foot medical center. So while I’m scrubbed, massaged, and cocooned in blankets on a waterbed during an 85-minute detox treatment with natural, made-in-Austria Susanne Kaufmann products, elsewhere in the complex, visitors are undergoing sports-medicine treatments, cosmetic and dental procedures, physical therapy, and more.

This explains the handful of guests hobbling on crutches or pushing walkers. People come to Waldhotel’s medical center to recuperate, perhaps after knee surgery; for medical testing or a mindfulness boost; or for seven-day detox programs and nutritional counseling. With on-staff physicians and an actual hospital permit, the center offers myriad healthful getaway options, from the three-night Waldhotel Basic Med, which includes a dermalogic check and a volley of diagnostic testing, to a 14-night weight-management regimen involving training sessions, cooking lessons, spa treatments, and a personalized meal plan.

Austere treatment rooms and deprivation diets may have dominated the Swiss spa scene of yore, but Waldhotel showcases a warmer alternative indicative of the current shift toward more grounded, nurturing wellness rituals. Below, six more European spas that also place a premium on in-depth, personalized treatments culled from diverse disciplines.

Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, Germany

The worn-down and weary have long sought a salve in Baden-Baden’s restorative thermal waters. Brenners Park, an institution since 1872, draws on the curative powers of this elegant nineteenth-century spa town at the edge of the Black Forest for its treatments. At Villa Stéphanie, the adjacent mansion turned medical spa – complete with plunge pool, hammam, and, with the push of an in-room button, Wi-Fi blocking – guests often check in for long-term bespoke retreats. Revolving around detox, fitness, and weight loss, these visits put nourishing cuisine and on-site physician consultations front and center. What’s more, a walk through the leafy grounds of the 104-room property is as recuperative as the thermal algae mud wrap and pulsating underwater massage.

Lefay Resort & Spa Lago di Garda

Grounded by a fusion of classical Chinese medicine and Western research, this 93-room Lake Garda resort is best known for its customized programs that address specific issues, such as weight management, detox, beauty, and sleep. Guests who choose, say, the “Integral” option, which rebalances mind, body, and spirit, can look forward to five days of treatments that include osteo-physiotherapy analysis, traditional Chinese tui namassage, hydro-aromatherapy, and qigong in the therapeutic energy garden. Across the property, Lefay presents a playground of pools, saunas, and relaxation zones, such as the Turquoise Grotto’s revitalizing warm-water loungers. 


Aman Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

Whether they’re holing up in a Villa Milocer suite or at a cottage in the fifteenth-century village across the bay, guests at this 58-room resort can spend ample time at its spa, which overlooks the beach. Treatments embrace the Balkan country’s ancient harvesting traditions and medical botanicals, such as lavender, myrtle, and wild thyme. The Montenegrin Heritage, for example – one of three hydrotherapy-based experiences – melds a chamomile-eucalyptus bath with a detoxifying sage-and-clay wrap and a rosemary- and mint-infused olive oil massage. Pampering isn’t the only objective here: Personalized treatments might incorporate flexibility, strength, and endurance exercises as well. 


Six Senses Douro Valley, Portugal

Mornings at this 57-room, nineteenth-century hilltop manor house a four-hour drive north of Lisbon often begin with stretching in the outdoor yoga pavilion. Guests come here to partake in immersive yoga discovery, detox, and sleep programs that are supplemented by guided meditation and cuisine enlivened with herbs from the property’s organic garden. Others select more-customized options: A sleep and resilience program, for instance, might start with a wellness screening, followed by expert-recommended therapies, from yoga nidra meditation to low-intensity workouts. 


SHA Wellness Clinic, Spain

Natural healing philosophies, good nutrition, and modern medicine merge at this 104-room resort in Spain’s eastern Alicante province, where wholesome meals and multiday programs tailored to promote healthy sleep, weight loss, stress management, fitness, and healthy aging are the main draw. The SHA Detox, for example, features liver detox therapy and a seaweed wrap or lymphatic drainage massage; the SHA Healthy Aging program includes treatments aimed at regenerating tissues and organs. 

Sally Winston