Resting in a valley close to where the Ardennes massif meets the Hautes Fagnes plateau is the world’s original spa resort.
Spa grew up around a natural source long praised for its supposed healing properties.
Charles II of England and Peter the Great came to take the waters at Spa, but these springs had been frequented for many centuries by that time, and were even described by Pliny the Elder.
Such was the importance of the resort for the upper crust in the 1700s and 1800s that “Spa” became the generic English term for hydrotherapy.
There are still lots of monuments left over from Spa’s apogee, from the oldest casino in Europe to the last place Marie Henriette of Austria called “home”.
1. Parc 7 Heures
In the 18th century Spa’s posh clientele needed somewhere to take a turn, and so this promenade was laid out on meadows by the Wayai stream.
The Parc de Sept Heures (Seven O’clock Park) maintains an aristocratic air with its alleys between hornbeams, limes and elms, and its surfeit of monuments, most from the 19th century.
The main sight is the 130-metre Galerie Léopold II (1878) with a coffered wooden ceiling and elegant cast iron columns.
This covered promenade is bookended by two regal pavilions, Pavillon Marie-Henriette (for Léopold II’s wife who died in Spa in 1902), and Pavillon des Petits Jeux.
There are also many more recent monuments scattered around the park, including one for the Armistice and for the opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (1891-1864). Just off the promenade is a neatly tended mini-golf course, and a funicular shuttles up the Colline d’Annette et Lubin hill for a pleasing view of Spa and surrounding woodland from the new spa centre.
2. Pouhon Pierre-le-Grand
The spring sheltered in this Neoclassical pavilion from 1880 is the most famous of the many that rise around Spa.
This is the source that gave birth to Spa as a resort, and takes its name from Peter the Great who “took the waters” on this very ground in 1717. Inside is the “Fontaine aux dauphins intérieure”, the most ornate of the many fountains in the town.
After a refurbishment, the pavilion reopened in 2012 as the new home of Spa’s tourist office.
The winter garden here was reworked into a venue for exhibitions and events.
3. Domaine de Berinzenne
Climbing out of Spa on the road to the south you’ll soon arrive at a beautiful estate, with misty moorland couched in forest.
A boardwalk lifts you over a patch of peat bog typical for the Hautes Fagnes.
A wonderful feature at Domaine de Berinzenne is the long avenue of limes leading up to the Musée de la Forêt et des Eaux.
This attraction uses creative exhibits to present the biodiversity of the Spa-Bérinzenne region.
There’s also a sweet little pond and an observation tower with vistas extending far to the east over the Hautes Fagnes.
And if you want info on hikes and cycling routes into Spa-Bérinzenne region, the Maison de la Nature is on hand, putting on temporary exhibitions and boasting a cafeteria.
4. Musée de la Ville d’Eaux
The plush Villa royale Marie-Henriette (1863) was the final address of King Leopold II’s wife, Marie Henriette of Austria (1836-1902) and has been home to the city museum since 1970. The permanent exhibition deals with fine art and local craftsmanship, and includes a large array of handmade wooden items known as Jolités de Spa.
Originating in the 16th and 17th centuries, the name applies to expertly fashioned and finished clothes brushes, jewellery boxes, fans, sewing boxes, frames, writing cases, cups, snuffboxes and hearth brushes, to name a few.
On the ground floor the exhibition guides you through Spa’s past, explaining its progress as a resort and hydrotherapy trailblazer using videos, artefacts and historic documents.
5. Thermes de Spa
In the 2000s Spa’s hydrotherapy centre was relocated to new upscale premises atop a hill overlooking the town.
You can follow a path beaten by centuries of years of visitors and come to “take the waters”, claimed to increase circulation, increase metabolism and benefit the skin.
Needless to say, things have changed a lot since the days of Peter the Great, and Thermes de Spa has up-to-date facilities, combining modern wellness with time-honoured hydrotherapy.
Available at this cylindrical glass building are an extensive range of wellness and beauty treatments, centred on the spring water, but including massage, facials, saunas, steam rooms, meditation sessions and much more.
There’s a long list of packages to pick from, while the Maman-Bébé institute specialises in care for new mothers and babies.
6. Lac de Warfaaz
After a series of floods in the 19th century the Wayai stream was dammed to the north-east of Spa in 1892, giving rise to this 6.5-hectare lake, 600 metres in length.
Lac de Warfaaz is a couple of kilometres out of Spa and has paved banks lined with lofty horse chestnut trees for walkers, cyclists and anglers.
There’s a small huddle of restaurants, cafes and bars on the south shore, and in summer you can hire a pedalo from a little jetty for a paddle on the water.
7. Église Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Remacle
Spa’s waters started to gain an international reputation in the 16th century and a Catholic parish was established in 1573. The solemn neo-Romanesque in the heart of the town is the third on the site and was ready in 1885. Before heading in you can check out the reliefs on the tympanums over the portals.
In the centre these show the risen Christ and Mary on her thrown, while below the left tower is Saint Remaclus with the wolf and below the right is Saint Hubertus (patron saint of hunters) and the deer with a vision of a crucifix between its antlers.
Standing out inside are the 17th-century Baroque sculptures of Remaclus, Mary, Joseph with Baby Jesus and Saint Roch.
There’s an eye-catching Byzantine-style Christ Pantocrator in the dome of the apse, and where the right transept meets the sanctuary you’ll find a masterful polychrome statue of Saint Remaclus from the mid-16th century.
Not far away on the right side of the choir is a votive canvas of Christ on the Cross, accompanied by Saint Roch and Saint Sebastian, produced in 1598 by Liège artist Jean Ramey (c. 1530-1612).
8. Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
The venue for the Belgian F1 Grand Prix was built in the early-1920s and is just a ten-minute trip from Spa via the N62. This circuit, with its rippling topography and coniferous backdrop is billed as the most beautiful in the world.
It’s a claim that is hard to deny, and even people unfamiliar with motorsport may recognise the world-famous Eau Rouge and Raidillon combination, where drivers speed down a hill into a sharp left and then back up the slope into a fast, blind right-hander.
The Belgian Grand Prix usually falls around the end of August or start of September, but there’s something happening at the track every day of the week between mid-March and mid-November.
On a typical day you can head off on a guided tour at 14:00, with a multilingual guide pointing out the press room, commentators’ booths, podium, race control room and the paddocks for the Grand Prix and the Spa 24 Hours race.
9. Casino de Spa
No self-respecting destination for aristocrats and industrialists would do without a casino.
But what makes Spa’s special is its great age, going back to 1763, so it could be the oldest casino in the world.
This grand Neoclassical building is named the Redoute, which was the preferred French term for a gambling establishment in the 18th century.
The casino has come through prohibitions on gambling in 1872 and 1902, as well as fires in 1909 and again in 1917, which required reconstruction work until 1929. There are table games like roulette, Texas hold’em poker and blackjack, as well as slot machines shipped in from Las Vegas in the 2010s.
The minimum age is 21 and the casino stays open from 11:00 ’til sunrise.
10. Anciens Thermes de Spa
Spa’s stately Renaissance Revival bathhouse was built in the 1860s to a design by Léon Suys, who also designed the Brussels Stock Exchange.
This is actually the third set of baths in Spa, the first established in 1828 where Spa’s town hall stands today.
For 135 years, bathers would head to this palatial building, which originally had 54 baths, six shower rooms of varying descriptions, two hydrotherapy rooms and two plunge pools.
There’s rich statuary cresting the pediment by Jacques Van Omberg and the Van Den Kerkhove brothers, and an interior with opulent stuccowork and frescos.
The Thermes de Spa moved home up the hill in 2003, and since then the building has lain empty awaiting a new purpose.
As of 2020, a long-term project was underway to turn it into a five-star hotel.
11. Spa Eaudyssée
The headquarters for the Spa mineral water brand is within walking distance of the centre of Spa.
Awaiting you there is a visitor centre, open Monday to Friday and explaining every stage of the epic underground journey that Spa’s water makes from rainwater to the pure, naturally filtered product in its bottles.
In these experiential galleries with tablet computers and tactile displays there’s also information about the importance of the water cycle and the origin of the Spa brand and the leapfrogging Pierrot on its logo.
At the end you’ll be able to select a bottle of still, carbonated or fruit-infused water from Spa’s range take with you.
In Spa’s wooded backyard there’s a high ropes centre where you’ll shimmy from treetop to treetop via fun and challenging transitions, all the while clipped onto a safety line.
There are three courses to try out, with rope ladders, ziplines and all manner of precarious bridges that will need coordination and a sense of balance to conquer.
SpaForest has a wide choice of other activities on offer, from Nordic walking to archery to survival workshops, and has just stocked a fleet of all-mountain electric scooters.
13. Château de Franchimont
For an easy excursion, this ruined Medieval and Renaissance castle can be reached in 15 minutes from Spa.
The Château de Franchimont is thought to have been raised in the 11th century by the Prince-Bishopric of Liège.
It is roosted on a spur over the right bank of the Hoëgne, a left tributary of the Vesdre.
The castle was modified all through the Medieval period, but what’s compelling is how it was adapted in the early 16th century for gunpowder.
Added at that time are casemates, pentagonal outer ramparts and an artillery tower that now houses an exhibition about the site.
The bastions on the corners, accessed via underground passages are a thrilling artefact of Renaissance warfare.
By the end of the 16th century artillery to the point where the castle could be picked off from nearby hills and so it was abandoned and later partially destroyed by Louis XIV.
14. RAVeL Spa-Stavelot
Wallonia has opened up vast swathes of its countryside to cyclists via the 1,400km (and growing) RAVeL path network.
Mostly on former railway lines and canal towpaths, RAVeL stands for Réseau Autonome des Voies Lentes (autonomous network of slow paths). In the Ardennes the system has a special value, giving access to a beautiful but otherwise impenetrable upland region to people on two wheels with flat trails that never have more than a 2% gradient.
RAVeL Spa-Stavelot is along the old Ligne 44A from 1867, connecting Spa to Gouvy in Belgian Luxembourg and shut down in 1974. The 22-kilometre route takes you through upland forest, granting distant views and passing directly above the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.
15. Musée de la Lessive
This specialist museum on Park de 7 Heures is all about laundry, showing you how the washing got done before the days of electrical machines.
Presented over thousands of years, some of these methods are surprising in their ingenuity.
Each technological milestone is covered by documents, a reproduction or an antique appliance.
Many of the museum’s hand-operated 19th and early-20th-century machines are in working order, and a guide will give demonstrations.
There’s also an in-depth history of soaps and detergents and a chronology of the humble iron.
The museum is open every afternoon in July and August, weekends in April, May, June, September and October, and just on Sundays for the rest of the year.