Tucked onto a cozy corner of the Black Forest is a once legendary – and still classic – destination for culture and the ultimate in leisure. Winter in Baden Baden, with the romance of the Black Forest in the snow, is particularly wonderful.
History of Baden Baden, Germany
Secret to the success of this quiet, verdant corner of southern Germany is the “Aquae” – the warm therapeutic waters so prized by the romans. The baths fell slowly into decline over the centuries. But the waters were then rediscovered by the elite of Europe, and built up at the time when they needed refuge the most – French nobles fled to Baden Baden to ride out the French revolution in safety and – importantly – in sumptuous style.
Baden Baden became a destination of fashion – drawing Queen Victoria, the composers Wagner, Brahms, and Clara Schumann, and authors Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, among many.
Of course, the elite of the planet could not simply lounge in the baths all day and all night. The minerals in the water would eventually be hard on the delicate patrician skin. Therefore, a host of other elegant diversions sprang up. Some, like the opera, are ennobling. Others, like gambling, somewhat less so.
This is a great destination if you are looking for culture and relaxation in utterly peaceful surroundings.
The countryside of Baden-Württemberg is gorgeous. It’s perfect for long walks along the river Oos and hiking through the Black Forest – the Schwarzwald. Baden-Württemberg is a fairy tale landscape of dense woods and pure crystal lakes.
The heart of the Baden Baden experience is of course the famous therapeutic waters, but there is actually as much to do in Baden Baden as you would wish.
Staying in Style in Baden Baden
Baden Baden has many excellent hotels. It’s a city perfect for strolling, and it’s very nice to be in the thick of things, steps from the Kurhaus and the Lichtentalerstrasse, as well as very close to the baths. The Hotel Am Sophienpark does indeed have its own park, as well as elegant rooms with classic decor and lovely large windows. For photos, reviews, and availability, check the Hotel am Sophienpark here. To really splash out and wallow in luxury in grand Baden-Baden style, the five-star Maison Mesmer, of the Homage Luxury Hotels collection, features chic rooms with a contemporary touch, sumptuous dining areas, and a fantastic in house spa. Check the Maison Messner here for photos, review, and availability.
Christmas in Baden Baden
Like the other charming cities in nearby France – Colmar and Strasbourg, as well as the German cities of Heidelberg and Freiburg, there is a wonderful Christmas Market – “Weihnachtsmarkt” in Baden Baden. Good cheer and gluhwein will keep you warm against the chill of a Black Forest night.
Baden Baden – A Paradise of Spas and Leisure
Baden is an old German word for “Bath” – so the name of the town announces its central identity – the therapeutic natural springs that bathe the town and feed the world famous spas of Baden Baden – the Friedrichsbad and the Caracalla Baths.
The springs can be enjoyed in two fantastic bathing facilities we will explore – one modern, and one classic. The central focus of Baden Baden though is not the springs, but the opulent Kurhaus, which overlooks the well-manicured Spa park. Adjacent to this is the Trinkhalle. This is where you really feel the soul of the place.
The Caracalla Spa Baden Baden, Germany
To enjoy Baden Baden in style, you first need to “take the waters” – then you can dress for the evening ahead. The Caracalla baths, of the Carsana Spa, are Baden Baden’s modern bathing facility. The Caracalla Spa is named for the Emperor Caracalla, who so enjoyed the springs in Baden Baden’s Roman past. This large modern spa was built in 1985.
The Caracalla baths open also in the evenings. A visit here a perfect prelude to an evening on the town. These large pools – both indoor pools and outdoor pools – have a variety of temperatures, plus lots of massaging jets. It’s wonderful to enjoy the outdoor pools on a cool evening in the darkness – they are festively lit up, and steam rises from the warm waters into the darkness. The elaborate poolscape is a family-friendly bathing experience.
Upstairs is the “Roman Sauna-scape”. In this case, the word “Roman” seems to mean “Naked” – because that is what you will be – absolutely naked. As set forth in the (inflexible- this is Germany) rules, the mixed-gender sauna scape is a textile-free zone. This is a great way to get used to the experience before you go to the sumptuous, historic Friedrichsbad. We found that learning How to Love Being Naked ended up being a transformative part of the Baden Baden experience.
The Kurhaus of Baden Baden
Baden Baden’s Kurhaus is an architectural masterpiece. This opulent structure, built in the early 19th century (1824), is still the center of Baden Baden’s festive and elegant social life. One can enjoy a full program of events, including concerts and recitals, as well as galas and balls under the elaborately painted ceilings. Any given evening, this is definitely the place to be.
Stop by your hotel to dress up a little before you go to the Kurhaus. You’ll be glad you did – Baden Baden has a glamorous history, and a glamorous present. The baths will have left you glowing!
The Casino of Baden Baden
The Baden Baden Casino is not like any Casino you’ve ever seen. Even if you’re not a gambler – as I am not – you’ll enjoy the surreally glamourous neo-classical and baroque surroundings. Tuxedoed and evening-gowned international patrons play baccarat and roulette in hushed tones. Around them are the gilded walls, and high overhead frescoes depicting of the surrounding towns of the Black Forest, with their names painted beneath. Chandeliers cast a flattering light everywhere, as do the wall lanterns held by life-sized sculptures of female (semi) nudes.
A bar adjoins the Baden Baden casino. Done in muted brown shades of marble, the casino bar captures German 70’s elegance at its best, including Barry White on the HiFi. Somehow it works with the baroque casino. There’s a good menu if you’d like to dine here, or just have a beer at the bar as you watch the high rollers as they exhibit impressive sangfroid.
There is a modest admission of 5 euros to the Casino. Note that there is a 2 euro admission to a completely separate area which is only slots, and holds no aesthetic interest at all.
The Casino of Baden Baden was much in vogue when gambling was illegal in France in the 1830’s – France is just an air-kiss away from here.
This is the pump room of Baden Baden, adjacent to the Kurhaus, and it’s very impressive. It was built a little after the Kurhaus (1839-1842). It’s actually not so much a room as it is a promenade – an opulent colonnade open to the park on one side, and decorated lavishly with murals on the other. It’s 90 meters long, so doing a couple of turns would provide a light stroll with – once – fascinating people watching, as it still might today.
Day 2, Morning: The Nature of Baden Baden
This is an idyllic corner of Germany in the legendary Black Forest that is delightful for walking and hiking, taking in the clean and sweet-smelling air. In addition to the rich natural therapeutic mineral springs, there is the lovely river Oos that flows by the town. Strolling along its banks is a favorite leisure activity. And the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) is also a bountiful hiking destination.
The Lichtentaller Allee
Hugging the banks of the river Oos, this promenade of about 2 kilometers was during the 19th century planted with native and exotic trees and shrubs, like a park. Before that, it was the path that connected the market of the town with the Lichtental monastery, from which the allee takes its name. It remains a favorite stroll.
The Altes Schloss Hohenbaden
Schloss means castle, and Hohe means upper or high – therefore this is the old castle overlooking Baden Baden. It makes an ideal destination for a hike of about 45 minutes from Baden Baden. You’ll enjoy the panoramic sweeping views from its fortress-like roof. This was once home to the Margraves of Baden, who inhabited it from the 12th to 15th centuries. You’ll find a windharp harnessing the beautiful sounds, and also a restaurant and beer garden – Fidelitas – for traditional fare in a lovely setting. This is a fine place for lunch and you’ll have an appetite after your hike.
Day 2, Afternoon – the Historic Friedrichsbad
After a brief rest, it’s time for the quintessential Baden Baden experience. The historic Freidrichsbad was built at the very beginning of the Belle Epoque, in sumptuous style. This is a vast bathing palace, of many chambers offering specific experiences. Bathers follow a prescribed and specific 17-step procedure of saunas, steam chabbers, various baths, and rigorous treatments. The Historic Friedrichsbad Experience is a fascinating and transformative ritual of bathing, and an essential cultural experience. And the architecture is absolutely amazing!
Day 3, Morning – Culture in Baden Baden
Exploring the Old Town of Baden Baden
The Old Town of Baden Baden is lovely, especially the tranquil Sophienallee – which has a tree-lined promenade running along its center. The Heron’s Fountain – “Reiher Brunnen” – is a popular landmark. Enjoy some window shopping and even a visit to a pharmacy – you’ll find them elegant and well-appointed.
Day 3 – Black Forest Cake – Café König for “Kaffee und Kuchen”
The time-honored German ritual of Kaffee und Kuchen – “Coffee and Cake” is nowhere better observed than in elegant Baden Baden. Make like Tolstoy, Lizst and other illustrious visitors and head to the Café König for a delicious slice of tradition in the form of Black Forest cake – Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte – the queen of Black Forest desserts. The social ritual of conversation over a leisurely coffee and a slice of cake has been perfected by the Germans – join them!
The Fabergé Museum of Baden Baden
The fanciful works of Carl Peter Fabergé – the jeweler to the Russian Imperial Court known to most for his signature Fabergé Eggs – is fascinating. This private museum is the initiative of a Russian Art collector. The collection numbers over 1500 works and is stunning. Baden Baden with its aristocratic history is the perfect setting for such an unusual and elegant collection.
Day 3, Evening – The Baden Baden Festspielhaus
Hopefully, your visit will coincide with a grand performance at the Festspielhaus, one of Europe’s premier concert halls and stages. Once a beautiful train station – built in 1904 -it was transformed at the end of the 20th century into a magnificent performance space. It is now one of the chief cultural draws of the region, bringing many visitors of culture to enjoy the many world-class performances – operas, recitals, concerts – on their calendar, which generally runs from September through July.
Days 4 and on – Further Exploration of the Region: Strasbourg, Colmar, Heidelberg, and Freiburg
If you can afford more time, Baden Baden makes the ideal base for exploring this unusually compact and culturally rich region of Europe. We are close to the border of France here, and Strasbourg – with its wonderful cathedral – and enchanting Colmar with its half-timbered houses and renaissance architecture on a series of canals – are each within an east distance by train. So is justifiably famous Heidelberg – one of the jewels of Southern Germany, and also enchanting, medieval Freiburg – a delightful university town.
Beautiful Baden-Württemberg is fun to explore by train. You’ll find special day tickets for the whole network, with discounts for groups. Enquire at the Baden Baden train station.