Travel: Visit Spa – the water capital of the world

Renowned for its mineral springs and thermal baths, Spa was once frequented by the likes of Queen Marie-Henriette, Tsar Peter the Great and King Gustav III of Sweden. Though its glory may have since faded, the picturesque town from which spa centres all over the world take their name remains one of Belgium’s most popular destinations for a weekend getaway.

See & do

Nestled within gently rolling hills, the town’s centre features a cluster of neoclassical architecture, including the abandoned 19th-century building that once housed the famous thermal baths. A two-minute walk east brings you to Pouhon Pierre Le Grand, the city’s main mineral spring, where you’ll find a permanent exhibition of works by Joan Miró and a temporary one dedicated to Henri Matisse; the building’s modern wing serves as a tourist office.

On the way out, head past the world’s oldest casino and the city’s main square to the Leopold II Gallery. This cultural centre from 1878 turns into a bustling flea market on Sunday mornings. Follow it up with a free afternoon concert in the adjoining Parc de Sept Heures. From here a two-minute uphill ride ride in a cable car takes you to Les Thermes de Spa, the modern thermal baths offering a range of health and beauty treatments, including outdoor swimming pools with a view of the valley below.

Where to eat

For the perfect balance between price and quality, stop by Le Sarani on Place Royale. Owned by racing enthusiasts, this quaint restaurant offers a wide selection of mussels and meatballs à la Liégeoise. For a more sophisticated dining experience, the nearby La Belle Epoque and La Tonnellerie won’t disappoint; the latter is also a two-star hotel. Top off your meal with a dessert at Marc Buchet, where the ice-creams and waffles come covered in a thick layer of freshly wipped cream.

When to go

From 20-23 July, Spa becomes a stage for the Francofolies, an annual festival dedicated to francophone music, while in August the city is home to a celebrated theatre festival. At other times, the streets are filled with motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts, who come from far and wide to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, 10km south of the city. The legendary race track hosts the Formula 1 Grand Prix at the end of August and smaller races throughout the year.

Insider tip

Spa is surrounded by dense forests and hills, which are ideal for hiking. “The 8km forest walk towards the Jean d’Ardenne stream and down the Chèvrefeuille trail offers a beautiful view of the Manoir De Lébioles, a manor house worthy of fairy tales” – Gaëtan Plein, a city guide and cartoonist who lives in Spa

This article was first published in The Bulletin Summer 2017

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