- See spas for modern spas, and spa activities and treatments
The word spa is derived from Spa, a town in Belgium, though folk etymology, repeated through marketing, has claimed it to be an acronym of "Sanitas per aquam" ("Health through water") or other Latin phrases.
Springs have attracted travellers since prehistoric times, some of them with religious importance. While bathing was a virtue many in societies such as the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, it fell out of fashion in Medieval and early modern Europe, with some exceptions.
In the 19th century, springwater drinking and bathing were again promoted as healthy, with appeals to science as well as romanticism for nature. Rail travel and other modes of transport allowed the middle class to visit spa resorts. Many visitors came for entertainment and social life, rather than health.
Spa towns, some of the earliest resorts, later diversified to cope with increasing visitors and meet their expectations. Whilst the fortunes of many traditional spa towns peaked in the early 20th century, the legacy left behind can be both substantial and impressive.
With modern spas more or less everywhere, the traditional spa resorts have got tough competition.
This topic is a list of destinations that have been noted as spa towns (some historically); for more detail see the destination articles.
Many German Spa twons indicate their status through the word "Bad" in front of their name or legally part of their name. This word is a cognate of "bath" and means "health spa" in this context.
In the Black Forest region, Baden-Baden was home to Roman baths before being lost after the fall of the empire. The baths were only rediscovered in the 19th century and the town has become a magnet for the rich and famous.
The German seacoast has had a spa tradition since the late 18th century with East Frisian islands like Norderney getting recognition as spa towns in that time and some places on the German Baltic Sea Coast even earlier. During the 19th and early 20th century, crowned heads and high ranking government officials cured various ills by bathing in the sea and even today many combine leisure with physical recuperation.
Sitting on top of major fault lines has given Japan at least the benefit of Onsen culture. Japanese often use the opportunity to bathe in hot volcanic water to relax after a busy day, or bond with their friends and family on a weekend. Beppu is a famous spa town in the far south-west of the country with many public and private onsen to enjoy.
Mondorf-les-Bains is by far the most popular and the oldest spa town in Luxembourg.
Another country on a major geological fault line, New Zealand offers hot spa destinations in towns literally on volcanoes, such as Rotorua.
The Romans brought the concept of baths to England, with the great former Roman city of Bath, being the most prominent.