Food tourism seems like the trend du jour, and while I love sampling a country’s local cuisine, I don’t mind skipping some of the calories and indulging a traditional spa treatment instead. Memories of that perfect macaron in Paris or bibimbap on the streets of South Korea may linger for a moment, but the experiences for me that really stick and lead to the heart of a culture usually come in spa form. And I’m not talking about the typical day spa with sky-high treatment prices (although those aren’t a bad way to spend a rainy day in a foreign city)—I’m referring to holistic approaches that combine healing qualities with cultural ones.
The architecture in Turkey’s 16th century hamams, for example, are just as impressive as any artwork you’d find in a museum. Sure you may have popped into the hamam briefly after a spa treatment back home, but the hamam experience you think you know is nothing like the traditional one you’ll find throughout Turkey.
Dating back to Ottoman Empire, the tradition is still seen as a cleansing—both inside and out—and a quick way to get a true Turkish experience. Istanbul alone is a hotbed of hamams, home to 237, 60 of which still function. One of the newest in the city, the Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamami in the hip Karaköy neighborhood, is already a landmark on the Tophane skyline thanks to its stand-out dome, one of the largest hamam domes in the city dating back to 1580. Opening after a seven-year restoration, Kiliç Ali Pasa feels just as authentic as any of the Turkish baths you’d find around town, but boasts a more modern look that easily resembles a high-end spa, except when you look up from the heated marble slab to the light shining through the cut-outs of the 16th century ceiling. Men and women are separated, so ladies will be scrubbed by an attendant called a natir, while a tellak bathes the men in a ritual that not only leaves your skin clean and exfoliated, but also helps with blood circulation and revitalizes skin cells. While less a social experience than the time of the sultans, it’s still a cultural one, leaving room for meditation when you relax in the lounge post-bath.
You don’t need to get scrubbed to experience the benefits of a water cleansing. Budapest, the “City of Baths,” is perfectly placed on more than 100 thermal springs, which are the healing source behind the famous bathhouses. Spread throughout both sides of the city, each of the bathhouses takes on its own appearance, and the largest in town is the 18-bath Neo-Baroque Széchenyi Baths in Pest, built in 1881. The outdoor baths are stunning—especially in winter with the snow falling overhead—but indoors still maintains a hospital-like feel.
The Art Nouveau-style Gellért Baths, built in the early 1900s, meanwhile, is the opposite. The outdoor pools are nothing special, but inside, its mosaic-lined pools, stained glass windows and sculpture-spouting fountains have made it the most photographed spa in Hungary. If you want to feel like one of the locals, the hidden Veli Bej, built in 1570, is one of the oldest Turkish bathhouses in the city and one of the most intimate. Start in the main, octagon-shaped pool under the Turkish dome and then hop from cold to hot at the four surrounding thermal pools, resting on the chaise lounges in between hot and cold mineral plunges, said to help with inflammation, detoxification and pain relief.
Mud wraps have made their way into most spas across the globe, but why not start at the source in a bubbling mud bath next to the crater of a dormant volcano? The island of Saint Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean may be known for its twin Piton mountains and ridiculously romantic honeymoon hotels, but the volcanic beaches are also harboring another attraction good for sightseeing and holistic spa seekers—the sulphur springs.
Located on the western side of the island in a town called Soufrière, which means “place of sulphur, the springs stem from the Qualibou Caldera, one of the world’s only “drive-in volcanoes,” and known in Carib folklore as the place where the soul meets death. While the springs don’t smell the best, you’ll find a reason to get smothered in the stuff secreting from the crater in the nearby bubbling mud baths that are designed for bathing and indulging in all these volcanic minerals. Local legend says the mud will make you “look and feel younger,” improving your skin after the mud dries on. After a quick dip, I stepped out covered in black caked-on mud looking less than youthful, but I’d like to believe my skin felt a bit smoother that night when I returned back to my room on the other side of the island.
While these spa-like experiences may be just one element of a trip, some stays are designed entirely around this aspect. Bali is one place that lures travelers with its bohemian yoga retreats, and one spot that really capitalizes on this element is the COMO Shambhala Estate near Ubud. Part of the Singapore-based COMO Group, known for luxury lodgings that mix city and spa escapes, the COMO Shambhala brand is devoted entirely to holistic wellness with a team of resident experts from a yoga teacher to a dietician, osteopath and Ayurvedic doctor who specializes in alternative medicine practices.
Designed around the idea of creating lasting health results, the spa treats the inside out, covering nutrition with an on-site dietician and menu of fresh, raw and vegetable-heavy dishes; fitness with activities from hikes and biking in the jungle to onsite meditation and yoga; and mind-body mending with the help of the team of doctors, healers and massage therapists. Want to really get the full spiritual experience? Take part in the Water Temple Purification Ceremony, where you’ll be cleansed by “holy” spring water at the Tirta Empul Temple. Of course throughout this enlightening experience you’ll also be sleeping in luxury digs like standalone villas with private pools—all the better for the healing process.
Lane Nieset is Paste’s Jet-Set Bohemian columnist and a freelance writer covering all things travel from her home base in Nice, France.