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If you want to immerse yourself in a foreign culture, simply follow the locals. Go where they go, eat where they eat, and (this is the fun part) relax where they relax. In some countries, spas are quiet places to calm and recenter yourself, in others they are social hubs for gossiping and people-watching. Whether you’re in it for relaxation, health, beauty, or to get that travel-induced knot out of your shoulder, here are the best countries for spa lovers to visit.
Nicknamed the Land of Fire and Ice, this island is full of glaciers, volcanoes and loads of geothermal activity. There are so many hot springs and thermal pools that you could bathe in a different one every day, or take in a couple on an organized tour. They range from rustic and natural (such as the Reykjadalur valley, which requires an hour’s hike to reach) to man-made swimming pools (Seljavallalaug is the oldest) and high-end complexes like the famous Blue Lagoon, where you can enjoy spa treatments like in-water massages and silica mud wraps.
Tip: Game of Thrones fans might want to seek out Grjótagjá, the hot spring cave where Jon Snow and Ygritte had their steamy love scene. In the 1970s, bathing here was banned when the water became dangerously hot; temperatures have now dropped to more comfortable levels but check the status of the pool before you go.
You’ll need several hours to properly enjoy a Korean jjimjilbang — a combination bathhouse, sauna and spa. These mini-resorts have multiple tubs and saunas (often with themes and supposedly therapeutic benefits, such as a detoxifying salt sauna or a nerve-balancing gold sauna) as well as shops, dining, fitness and entertainment zones. Seoul’s famous Dragonhill Spa even has its own movie theater. To make proper use of all the facilities, it’s quite common to stay overnight and sleep in the communal nap areas.
Tip: Get a traditional full-body scrub, or seshin, in which an attendant spends half an hour scouring your naked body with a sandpaper-like “Korean Italy towel.” To prepare your skin for optimal exfoliation, wash with bar soap (avoid shower gels or lotions that might coat it) and soak in a hot tub for half an hour beforehand.
Budapest — aka the City of Spas — sits on more than 100 underground thermal springs. These naturally heated mineral waters are piped up into a dozen or so public baths as well as a number of private ones. Choosing between them is a matter of taste: The art nouveau Gellért Baths has one of the most beautiful indoor pools in the city, the historic Turkish-style Rudas Baths dates back to the Ottoman era, the medicinal waters of the Lukács Baths are said to cure all manner of ailments and the family-friendly Palatinus Baths has water slides and a wave pool.
Tip: On Saturday nights some baths host spa parties, or sparties; think booze, beats and bikinis/board shorts. At the neo-Baroque Széchenyi Baths you’ll find the usual daytime crowd — which always includes old men with floating chess boards — replaced by 20-somethings drinking mojitos.
The Moroccan hammam ritual is not for the faint of heart: It involves steaming in a super hot room, washing, being exfoliated to within an inch of your life and then rinsing with cold water. For a really authentic experience, visit a traditional public bathhouse such as Hammam Dar el-Bacha in Marrakech. If you’d prefer something more spa-like, then choose a hammam at a riad guesthouse or hotel — they’re more private and usually offer add-ons like massages and argan oil treatments.
Tip: Make sure you wash yourself with the traditional beldi soap, which gets its black or brown color from the inclusion of crushed olives. The rich, buttery goop leaves skin feeling soft and ultra smooth — and ready for an intense scrubbing with a kessa bath mitt.
A Turkish hammam also begins with warming up in a heated room — usually a large, airy space with a domed ceiling, skylights and a central marble slab that a number of people can lie on. During the washing and (gentler) exfoliation, an attendant will use something that looks like a pillowcase to create mounds of soapy foam that cover you from head to toe. After you’ve rinsed off you’re free to linger in the heated room or move to a cooler area to lounge, sip tea and maybe even take a nap.
Tip: If your itinerary allows, plan a trip to Pamukkale, a day’s travel from Istanbul. This series of stunning white travertine terraces and swimmable mineral pools is the most visited attraction in Turkey, along with the ruins of Hierapolis, an ancient spa city adjacent to the hot springs.
Sauna is actually a Finnish word and a good cleansing sweat session is a Finnish national pastime — the country reportedly has 5.5 million people and 3.5 million saunas. Having a sauna here is a social activity, often involving a few beers. If you partake, make sure you’re also drinking plenty of water, as the locals like to heat the wooden rooms to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. You might see people smacking themselves with birch branches or emerging between sessions to dunk in icy cold water; both are to improve circulation and worth a try (if you dare).
Tip: Although nudity is the norm, some saunas such as Loyly in Helsinki are unisex and require swimwear to be worn, so check the policy before you go. If you’re going bare, remember to keep a towel between yourself and the bench. It’s also good form to shower before you enter the sauna room.
There’s a complicated code of conduct at Japanese bathhouses. Tattoos, which are sometimes associated with organized crime, must be covered. Nudity is mandatory. Your hair should be cleansed before entering the bath, but once in it you should not submerge your head. Your towel should not make contact with the bath water. Talking too much or too loudly is frowned upon and so on. It might seem finicky but the result is a meditative, zen-like atmosphere that is so relaxing you’ll forget all about the long-haul flight you just took.
Tip: There are two types of public baths: sento, which use regular water and onsen, which use mineral hot spring water. A sento can range from a simple and functional neighborhood bathhouse to a mega spa complex, called a super sento. Onsen also vary in size and sophistication. Try visiting one which has a rotenburo, an outdoor thermal pool.
Jordan and Israel
Visitors to both countries flock to the shores of the Dead Sea to slather on the greenish mud and float in the water. The liquid is so dense with minerals that you can bob effortlessly on the surface and so salty that no marine life can survive, hence the name. Located in the desert at the lowest land point on earth, the salt lake is said to improve skin conditions such as acne and psoriasis and to relieve aching joints and muscles. It’s an easy day trip from Amman or Tel Aviv, but you’ll want to make a pilgrimage sooner rather than later since the lake is shrinking rapidly.
Tip: Most of the luxury spa resorts along the water offer day passes, which include access to swimming pools, restaurants, change rooms and other amenities. But for something a little more budget-friendly, head to a public beach such as Ein Gedi on the Israeli side or Amman beach in Jordan.
Russian bathhouses, or banyas, are social places where people spend a few hours relaxing and hanging out. Most have food and drink available, but skip the vodka in favor of the traditional (and healthier) option, tea. The bathing itself involves alternating between a scorching steam room and a frigid pool as many times as you like. You might see some people wearing funny looking felt hats, which protect the head and ears from overheating. You’ll also see people carrying bunches of leaves called veniks. These are used to fan heat around the room and onto the body and to smack against the skin, which improves circulation and releases essential oils.
Tip: A venik massage is usually performed by someone else. It could be a friend, a friendly fellow bather, or a professional banya attendant — just request and pay for the treatment when you enter. You may even be given a choice of which leaves to use: birch is said to rejuvenate joints and muscles, oak treats oily skin and eucalyptus relieves sore throats.
Featured photo of the Blue Lagoon, Iceland by ronnybas/Getty Images
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