Germany is a beautiful country and Baden Baden is no exception.
In fact, it’s so good they named it twice.
Perched on the edge of the Black Forest, straddling the River Oos and just a stone’s throw from the Rhine, the historic spa town has been a favourite of the rich and famous for centuries. Now, it’s a favourite of mine too.
Once named Aurelia Aquensis, Latin for ‘Aurelius of the Waters’ (after the last emperor of the Severan dynasty, Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus), the town has officially gone by the more humble Baden-Baden since 1931. ‘Baden’ , of course, meaning ‘bathing’ in German although technically here the name is a derivative of an earlier form of the plural of ‘bad’ (bath), hence ‘baden’ (baths).
However, spa towns built around hot springs are not uncommon throughout Europe and, not unlike the UK’s Bath, there are other towns with the same name: Baden in Vienna, Baden near Zurich… The doubling up for Baden Baden was an attempt to distinguish it (although for fact-fans, prior to ‘Baden-Baden’ it had been known as ‘Baden in Baden’… I’ll leave it down to you to find out why).
And worth distinguishing it is.
Given as the town has almost exclusively developed around the 50-68°C hot springs, it would be unreasonable to expect the town to have a great deal of activities on offer. Besides shopping, the majority of interesting things in Baden-Baden are there to be seen (it is necessary to venture a little further outside of the town to find activities such as paragliding, mountain biking etc.). However, the 3 most defining attractions of the town do involve interaction…
The first of the 2 high profile spas in the town, Caracalla is without a doubt a relaxed way to spend a few hours. In fact, a visit to Baden-Baden positively requires it and if using spa facilities in Germany is a new experience for you, then Caracalla is a great start.
Split over two levels: a pool complex on the lower, a sauna one on the upper, the spa is a mini-paradise of relaxation. The pool waters go up to a very warm 38C and offer a variety of features, including mini-waterfalls, to enjoy. Down here is also a large steam room, a cold plunge pool, several outdoor pools and a large sun lawn. Upstairs is the unclothed section that is filled with a variety of saunas, plunge pools and sun decks.
You’ll find you have a variety of entrance options and my advice is to pay for the full day ticket so that you wont have to worry about overstaying and paying the extra 70cents every 10 minutes – it’s more economical to pay the extra few Euros for an unlimited day stay.
You can read a more in-depth post about Caracalla Therme here.
Top Tip: take a towel unless you want to rent one.
The other notable spa in the town is Friedrichsbad, the Roman-Irish bath containing precisely 17 stages of mind-body relaxation. This is the far more unique experience of the two, although not for the reasons one may assume. However, the thing that seems to interest everyone most about this spa is that it is to be experienced entirely naked.
For the uninitiated this might come as a shock, or a thrill, but once those British/American reservations about nudity are shaken off along with the clothes, being in such environments with clingy swimming shorts or bikinis will soon seem unnatural. Frankly, you’ll get a lot more attention if you turn up in anything other than your birthday suit. So, for about 3 hours you roam around the spa, experiencing the steam rooms and pools fully unclothed.
Towards the end, of course, the process slows a little and you’re wrapped in a blanket, made all snug like some bug in a fluffy rug and can doze or meditate for a little while in the Reading and Relaxation rooms.
The other thing about Friedrichsbad that is somewhat curious is just how regimented it is. The 17 stages are timed and are practically policed in order to ensure your experience is optimal. You even get a watch to keep you aware of time spent here and there. Go over the time you paid for and you’ll incur additional costs.
Yet, the thing that really makes the place unique is the building itself. The 17th century (built 1877) building is majestic from the outside but experiencing it from the spa itself makes for a wonderful environment. Particularly the central, domed hall, beneath which is their largest pool.
Between the architecture, lack of pretension and just shuttling through the remarkable variety of water temperatures, rooms and procedures it was a thorough adventure and I loved it.
But you can read a more in-depth post about Friedrichsbad here.
Top Tip: That thing you’re worrying about? Don’t worry about it. No one else is.
The third of Baden Baden’s Big Three Attractions is the charming Casino at the heart of the town.
Whilst the building was original designed in 1824, the casino element only came into its own about a decade later when gambling was prohibited in France.
- Between 23rd and 28th September, 1981, the 11th Olympic Congress was convened in the Kurhaus.
- The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was inspired by his visit to the Kurhaus casino.
- Marlene Dietrich once declared the Kurhaus to be “the most beautiful casino in the world.
Romische Badruinen: The Roman Bath Ruins
The town has been a go-to destination for relaxation for centuries thanks to the Romans who really put it on the map. They loved the waters so much that they developed the area to really make the most of them, evidence of which can still be seen today.
Right by Friedrichsbad Spa, two particular areas to look for are:
- The Soldier’s Bath beneath Friedrichsbad spa where you can see the ancient heating system
- The Roman Wall that still reaches 2m high.
The ruins are preserved behind a glass case after an excavation unearthed them in the mid-1800s. Of course, you can have a guided tour but a little self-exploration is usually much more satisfying.
The Old Town
Baden Baden is a treasure trove of cobbled streets, little nooks hiding a peaceful home/cosey coffee shop/winery, and historical sites. There’s a lot to appreciate in terms of architecture but there are also a lot of artisan shops, jewellers, cafés, bakeries, restaurants and ice-cream parlours. Sure, the the population is not big (50,000 approx.) but it is well served.
A wander around the Old Town might also reveal other little treats like:
- The Stiftkirche (housing the tomb of Margrave Ludwig Wilhelm, Chief Commander of the Imperial Army, who died in 1707)
- The Convent of the Holy Sepulchre
A favourite place for the Romans to bath back in the day, you can check out the ruins of those baths within a rather charming little garden.
This is the garden in front of the Kurhaus and is immediately accessible from the centre of the town, and even more so should you have arrived via public transport as this is the heart of town. It’s tucked in amongst a handful of the town’s biggest draws, like:
- Theater Baden Baden
- Museum LA8
- Stadtmuseum Baden Baden
Catch it at sunset on a warm summer day and you’ll have found another wonderful slice of tranquility although bear in mind that this is a popular area. In fact, the Kurgarten is frequently host to a number of events, including the New Pop Festival, the Oldtimer Meeting and the Christmas Market.
Perched at the bottom of the pleasant hillside walkway up to Mamutbaume, and just a stone’s throw from the Kurhaus, the Trinkhalle was actually built as an 1839 addition to it. Step into the portico for a stroll by several 19th century frescos of some of the famous locals or take a pew on one of the several benches that line it.
Inside, to quench your thirst, take a sip from the mineral water. It’s free and, legend has it, Baden Baden’s Elixir of Youth.
In the Florentine mountains on the edge of the Black Forest, Baden-Baden’s historic New Castle (Neues Schloss) was built by Margrave Christoph I in 1479 and was occasionally used as a residence by the former grand-ducal family. Purchased by a private group in 2010, it’s currently under development as a luxury hotel under the Hyatt name. Once it’s reopened, it will certainly be worth a visit for its interesting architecture and fine views.
The pretty Byzantine-style Russian Church was completed in 1882 and is probably most recognisable from it’s impressive golden dome and fresco decoration.
This abbey, founded in 1245, lies at the end of the Lichtentaler Allee. The Cistercian abbey also houses a church where several generations of the town’s margraves are buried.
Perhaps the place for a picnic, or certainly a moment or two of quiet contemplation, these Italian gardens are filled with water features and provide wonderful views over the Aldstadt and the surrounding hillsides.
The perfect place for a little additional adventure, the mountain is a great spot for hiking, picnics and, yes, paragliding. A short bus ride from the centre of town will drop you at the funicular, which will take you to the very top. If not for the activities, head up for the stunning views of Baden Baden and the Murg Valley.
The museum’s striking architecture will let you know you’ve found the place long before the signs do and the quality of the art inside (including Picasso, Gerhard Richter and Jackson Pollock originals) will let you know it’s the real deal.
German art collection, Frieder Burda had originally planned to open a museum closer to his home in France but ultimately settled on Baden Baden. The €20 million building designed by architect Richard Meier houses temporary collections as well as permanent.
The Fabergé Museum
A new addition to the town’s portfolio of attractions, the museum worships all things Fabergé. Home to over 700 pieces, the museum’s centrepiece is the Rothschild Fabergé Egg – built in 1902 and worth more than 11 million Euros. You’ll also find the last egg Fabergé made as well as the diamond, gold and birch wood Karelian Birch Egg.
Tucked away inside Brahm’s House, the building Johannes Brahms spent his summers for the best part of a decade [1865 – 1874], is the Blue Room. Frozen in time just as he might have left it, the room is a pleasing insight into the environment he wrote many of his most famous pieces.
Built inside the 1904 building that was originally Baden Baden’s central train station, the Festspielhaus is a colossal concert hall (currently the second biggest in Europe) that seats 2,500 guests and is home to a huge, eclectic variety of performances every year.
Taking centre stage in the middle of Marktplatz is the Stiftskirche – an unmissable, pink church standing proud and like a mish-mash of Gothic, baroque and Romanesque architecture.
In the tombs of the Princely House lie the remains of 13 margraves, whilst several other officials lie in the various other tombs. For history buffs, the Collegiate Church has undergone several renovations over the last 150 years.
If you happen to pass it by one afternoon, check out the stained-glass windows.
An area of fountains and cascades, the Paradies was built in 1925. Look out for the ornamental garden which stretches along 3 streets of of the town’s bigger homes and mansions. Interestingly, the water comes from an underground spring and its waters fall a cool 40 meters.
Altes Schloss, Hohenbaden
Built in 1102, the Altes Schloss or Hohenbaden Castle, was home to the Margraves from the 11th to the 15th centuries. Whilst it is mostly ruins now, you can head up to the Old Castle for outstanding views of the town and surrounding countryside. It’s a little out of the way though so bear that in mind if you planned on walking everywhere.
The Baden-Baden Museum
Should you have the time, a visit to the museum will provide an insightful education about the town’s rich and eclectic past. You’ll find a generous number of displays regarding it’s Roman heritage, various stone monuments, more typical artworks and a collection of interesting antiquities and paraphernalia. Not essential viewing, but worth it if you have a spare hour.
I had a bit of a rule for this trip and, in hindsight it sounds odd, but it was instigated for a reason. The rule was this:
- no eating in restaurants.
Ok, so even now it sounds odd (especially as I, like the rest of us, enjoy a meal out) but hear me out. The reason I imposed this was so that I could maximise my time spent doing other things and, moreover, to force myself into situations where I had to be creative and rely more on my German language skills. Sure, it would be easy to wander into a restaurant and be served in a very quick, and clinical way, but I wanted to work a little harder, glutton for punishment I am.
So, I thought that by bypassing restaurants I could get up and out, maybe explore further afield for, say, a grocery store where English was a genuinely limited option or hunt the streets for a food stall or somewhere a little more rustic and authentic of the local experience. And you know what? It worked pretty well!
My hotel did not come with an included breakfast option so I opted to hit the road, both mornings, and find something, somewhere, that would be a good start to the day.
On the Saturday morning, I wandered the town in the beautiful rising sun, already in my t-shirt, and picked up a coffee to go from a cafe that had just opened and dropped into a bakery for a nutty pastry and pretzel. Ensuring I got also my fibre and protein intake in, I spotted a supermarket and grabbed an apple, a handful of cucumbers and a carton of quark.
Sunday morning I repeated the walk as I enjoyed it so much and loved being out in the brilliant morning sun but this time settled for another coffee to go and a cream cheese pretzel. On the way to the airport I snacked on a few banana chips.
Fresh wholemeal baton with low-fat cream cheese, tomatoes, ham and a smoothie on Saturday.
Sunday is not applicable as I was already at the airport.
Friday night dinner, immediately post Friedrichsbad was a margarita pizza from a small pizzeria as at 10pm this was literally the only available option.
Saturday night dinner was a homemade salad with cured meats, fresh bread, almond milk and a banana.
**Altogether it is clear that the trip was not built around food. I’d used the weekend as a physical and mental detox and so ate a lot less than is typical for me.
Coffee is such an integral part of any city break it’s pretty much a prerequisite to stake out some strong candidates. Here’s a handful of highlights:
Literally, ‘the drink hall’, this building contains a water pump tapped into the 17,000 yea-old Friedrichsbad spring. Completely accessible, the town has long been hailed for its healing waters and this is Ground Zero for tasting it straight from the source.
The building itself is also rather charming and makes for an ideal spot for a few photos en route to take a coffee, which you’ll find at the Trinkhalle’s cafe and bar.
The other useful thing about the site is that thanks to its tourist appeal, a tourist desk is tucked away on site.
Over 250 years and showing no signs of slowing down, Tolstoy is one of several notable patrons of the cafe and it’s no wonder the rich and/or famous have dropped in. Head over for a coffee, stay for the delicious Kuchen (cakes).
Despite lacking originality in its name, Kaffeehaus Baden-Baden amply makes up for in quality and ambience thanks to the alluring aroma of freshly ground beans and the gentle whiff of baked goods.
Another pleasant little artisan coffee joint, you’ll find this one up a cobbled street in relative privacy.
A town like Baden-Baden has high standards, so depending on budget, preference and approach, one could opt to pay £100’s per night or £10’s.
In general I believe that travel is not defined by the opulence of one’s accommodation simply because I don’t plan on spending much time inside a hotel when there’s a whole new world to be exploring. Yes, expensive hotels are fun and lovely and comfortable, but unless you’re looking to impress someone or thoroughly treat yourself then I’d suggest using that excess budget for more interesting, culturally specific things.
In my case, I opted to shoot for an available room at Hotel Magnetberg. Certainly towards to the lower end of the budget, Magnetberg is nonetheless somewhere I can happily recommend. Clean, fantastically located and incredibly peaceful, it’s a 10 minute stroll into the centre of town and perched on the hill as it is provides excellent views of the surrounding area.
Interestingly, my original booking was £140 although after cancelling that booking and making a new one, I paid £113. They also have an on site sauna should the options in town not be to your liking (not likely, but possible) or you simply can’t get enough of that sweet, sweet steam.
In fact, the reason for booking here was, as always, entirely practical. Having hunted through the AirBnB ads I found that staying in the hotel was a cheaper option than 95% of the available options. And, moreover, the location was second to none in terms of convenience.
As we all know, travel is never an excuse to get lazy. In fact, travel is quite the opposite: it’s the perfect opportunity to get a little creative with your workouts as well as to take in a host of new environments to be active in. Here’s a couple of ideas to help make sure you don’t lose any of those hard earned gains…
T’s Workout Game Plan
So, you’ve got 36 hours in the town and, as luck would have it, you forgot to schedule your rest day to coincide with the trip so it’s business as usual. I chose to do only one ‘workout’ during the stay, as the town is a place to be explored on foot and so I anticipated covering a healthy number of miles just by walking.
Hire a bike and take to the roads before your morning coffee. The roads will be even more quiet during the magic hour, you’ll get to see the sunrise as you glide around the town and will work up a nice pre-Pretzel-and-cream-cheese sweat.
There are a lot of open spaces in Baden Baden. Find your own and try the following bodyweight circuit, with each exercise done for 30 seconds and no rest until a circuit has been completed. Once you complete it once, rest for 60 seconds, and start all over again. Aim for 5 times round:
- Jumping Jacks
- Mountain climbers
- Plank press
Once complete you’ll find your heart rate elevated nicely. Take a 2 minute break, but keep moving. A slow walk around your area dynamically stretching will keep the blood flowing. Now, try the following:
- Pushups – 50 reps at whatever level you choose (dive bomber, full, half etc.)
- Jumping Squats – 100 reps, achieved through any combination of reps
- Lying leg/knee raises – 3 x failure
And to cool back down:
- Walking lunges – 20 steps one way, 20 steps back. Do this 3 times and you’ll be set.
Job done, you’re on holiday remember…
Sample Itinerary for a 36 Hour Stay/ Weekend Break
5pm: Arrive at airport. Take bus to centre, find hotel and check in.
7pm: Head down to Friedrichsbad – it’ll be super quiet by this time so you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself.
10pm: Dinner at the hotel as most restaurants will close by 9pm.
7am: Lay-in followed by an early morning run and bodyweight circuit
8.30am: Back to the hotel for a quick shower
9am: Head into town for breakfast of a coffee and a pastry (because, hey, you’re in Germany and the bakers know what they’re doing)
10am: Take a walk through the town and see:
- Lichtentaler Allee
11.30am: Jump on a bike and try looking at the world from a new perspective. Find a nice spot for a lunch-picnic.
1pm: Head to Caracalla Therme
6pm: Leave the spa and take an early evening stroll around the town.
8pm: Find a restaurant around the centre of town for Bavarian cuisine and some of the famed local wine.
10.30pm: Back to the hotel, pack, bed.
8am: Final packing, checkout
9am: Final stroll through the neighbourhood – aim for no place in particular so as to get [mildly] lost for the last time. Pick up breakfast en route to the bus stop.
10.30am: Begin journey to airport
What To Pack
I travel light. Lunking huge backpacks around, the stress and tedium of waiting for stowed luggage…it’s not for me. So over the years I’ve refined my packing to the bare minimum and find the following itinerary for a weekend/short trip ideal:
- Change of underwear [socks, boxers] per day of travel (if less than 10 days – any more and provision to do some laundry or buy cheap, fresh undies out there)
- 1 t-shirt per day of travel
- Pair of jeans
- 1 pair of functional footwear (trainers/walking shoes = perfect if you don’t plan on a fancy restaurant or business meeting)
- Water bottle
- Laptop, charger, adapter
- Notebook and pen
- Various high protein snacks
- Sunglasses (if sunshine is expected…)
- Yoga strap
- Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, comb/brush, anti-bac gel, cleansing face wipes, grooming kit [although all consumables could be bought out there too]
- Compressible jacket (in case of rain or drops in temperature), or the jacket you wear to the airport
- Passport, tickets
…you’ll find that you will wear a good percentage of the above and can comfortable keep the rest in a small backpack or holdall.
For a weekend break, whether as a solo-retreat or some romance, Baden Baden is not too different from the UK, unless you decide to stick to the many high-end boutiques that line the streets…
Travel is particularly cheap and convenient and in general you could get by on a very modest budget.
- Flights: £33
- Hotel: £113
- Stansted Express: £25 [return]
- Transfer to hotel: EUR40 [Taxi]
- Transfer back to the Airport: EUR3.50
- Caracalla Therme: £23 + EUR6 towel rental
- Freidrichsbad: £32
- Coffee and pastry budget: <EUR10
- Food budget: EUR25
- Additional spending money: sky’s the limit…
- TOTAL: £226 + EUR88.50
Daily flights from London Stansted to Karlsruhe-Baden Baden airport [aka. FKB] are served by Ryanair
General information can be found here
This post is part of an ongoing account of the final 364 days of being a 20-something.
All other images are the author’s own.