Fancy a weekend of relaxation, culture and nature? Then head to ‘Spa’ in the ‘south’ of Belgium. Known for its fantastic springs, mineral water and located in one of the most beautiful natural areas Belgium has to offer, this town deserves the name ‘Pearl of the Ardennes’ for a reason. A weekend with something for everyone. Enjoy my top five.
#1 Visit at least one original source
Spa is world-famous for its mineral water. In this region, the Hoge Venen, is a lot of rain that virtually does not evaporate. So all the water is ‘sucked up’ like a sponge. It seeps down slowly and passes through several geological formations absorbing minerals. The purified water resurfaces via the town’s various springs.
So no visit to Spa without visiting at least one natural source. The springs, called ‘pouhons’, are scattered around the town and have been known since the 16th century Many walking and cycling paths pass by them. An interesting cycling tour is ‘De Ronde van de bronnen met de fiets‘, allowing you to come across all sources in about 1 hour.
The oldest and most famous well is the Peter the Great Source, originally only protected by a modest niche. It’s one of the city’s most abundant and carbonated sources. Very rich in iron, laden with mineral salts and invigorating, it has a flow rate of about 21,000 liters per day. It’s located in the city center, besides the tourist office, you can’t miss it.
Other souces are the source of la Sauvière and the Groesbeeck. The Sauvenière Source is the oldest, and the most visited source of Spa in older times. In the 1300s, it became a place of pilgrimage for newlyweds: the water was said to promote the fertility of women.
We also stopped at ‘la Fontaine du Tonnelet’, dating of the first years of the 17th century. The water was initially collected in a small barrel, hence the name. This spring is housed in a little red gazebo. Here too, the water tastes very strongly of iron. The spring water is transported through underground pipes to the Bathhouse of the Spa Thermal Center.
#2 Explore the city center
Spa’s city center is famous. As part of ‘The European Historic Thermal Towns Association’ Spa was in 2021 recognized as Unesco-world heritage. The town is full of historic buildings with beautiful villa’s and art nouveau houses.
It’s an easy city to explore by yourself. The tourist office mapped out various routes to explore Spa’s heritage in a small and pratical guide, offered for free.
There is the ‘blue’ city route leading you to the major sight of interests. It takes about 1 hour and gives a good impression. The ‘villa’ route passes by the various impressive villas of the city. And a third highlights the beautiful art nouveau heritage.
We combined all three, so in essence, exploring Spa’s city center means 4 things to me
First, marvel at Spa’s main historical sights, such as the famous Saint-Remaclekerk and next to that, the small Cascade Monumentale, a small green oase with a fountain in the city. But there are also the Ancient Thermes, the city Hall and the old ‘royal palace’.
Second, discover Spa’s rich art nouveau pearls, with their colorful fronts and steel and iron decorations, finding their origin in the world of plants.
To be found spread out throughout the city. You find details of each house in the small city guide which you can obtain for free at the Tourist office.
Third, there are beautiful villas to discover in and around the city. The villas breathe the former grandeur of the thermal town. Some date of the 1900, majestic and static houses of the 1900 with their impressive fronts and major staircases.
Fourth, go looking for Pierrot, the famous ‘little guy’ on the Spa mineral water bottles. You already spot him when entering the city, in blue colors towering high above one the roundabouts. And then he is everywhere. In bright vibrant colors, adding some colors to this cosy little town. A very photogenic little guy indeed!
#3 Hike the Fagne’s peculiar landscape & Spa’s vast forests
Located in the heart of the beautiful natural reserve the Hoge Venen, Spa offers a lot of beautiful hiking and cycling routes.
These too are neatly bundled in the brochure which you can pick up for free at the tourist office in the city center, where on top friendly advice is offered.
A hike in the Fagnes is a real treat. Head towards the splendid Domaine de Bérinzenne, about 5 kilometers south of the city center. This domaine is nestled at the heart of the forests, by the Fagne de Malchamps.
We chose a hike of about 12 kilometers, leading us through the Fagne and, partly, forests.
The 28 meter high panoramic tower, at the start of the hike, offered splendid views over the region.
It’s a strange landscape, yellowish and spread out, wet, with muddy pools and grasslands.
Just be careful. The start of the hiking path is in good conditions, with a decent wooden track. As soon as you take the longer trail, as we did, the path deteriorates. Sometimes you have to leave the wooden track and partly walk on the grass besides it, which may be muddy. Not accessible for strollers thus!
About 2 miles before the end of the hike, we came across the small aerodrome de Spa, an ideal place to take a break. The ‘Sunset brasserie‘ offers great views on the tarmac. We enjoyed the small airplanes come while having refreshments and a small bite. And if you are in a real adventure mood and the weather is good, you can even go skydiving here !
Next to the Fagnes, there are much more hikes in Spa. We hiked the ‘Promenades des artistes‘ a hike of about 7 miles through vast forests with several bridges named to painters across water. We combined this hike with a hike through the city center, which, in essence, took us about 5 hours.
#4 Visit the thermes of Spa
Spa is world famous for its thermes. So if you are in for some relaxing, book yourself a special treatment or simply enjoy the various indoor and outdoor baths, saunas, hammams and relaxation areas. There are also daily activities organized.
Quite some guests stay overnight at the Radisson Blu hotel, located in the city center. A small funiculaire brings you to the thermes, leaving from the city center. On top, you have a beautiful view over the city.
#5 Enjoy delicious pastries
Spa is known for its good dining. Since we stayed in a self-catering house, we didn’t go out for dinner. But we had the opportunity to taste some great patisserie.
A couple of steps from the Tourist office and in front of the Peter the Great source, in the Rue Général Bertrand, is an small patisserie artisanale, Patissier Demartin offering delicious pastries. We enjoyed an excellent ‘tarte citron vert’ (lime pie), ‘croûte fraise’ (strawberry crust), ‘tarte chocolat’ (chocolate pie) and more with refreshments. With its pleasant outside terrace and friendly service, this is a great spot to take a break from your city explorations. Or, if you don’t have time, hop in and take some pastries along. Or just order them. They have mouth-watering ‘gateaux’ for all occasions as well!
So where did we stay?
We rented a luxury five bedroom house just outside Spa with jacuzzi, sauna, an outside terracce and a great garden. The house offers accommodation to 12. It had 2 bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen and a rather small living room (with wood stove). Although there is quite some place, I believe this house rather suits 10 persons. There is one bedroom in the basements, which is pretty humid and has a very low ceiling. The 4 rooms upstairs are OK.