Switzerland’s most mineral-rich thermal water and a long tradition of wellness treatments: the city of Baden truly lives up to its name, which means “bathing” in German. Take a trip through the thrilling history of this cultural spa town.
The thermal water in Baden bubbles out of 18 different springs. Already the Romans believed the 47°C water to have healing properties, which is why they founded a settlement at the bend of the Limmat, called “Aquae Helveticae”. What they didn’t know, though, is that Baden’s thermal water indeed contains more minerals than any other in Switzerland. The rest is history.
Already at the time of ancient Rome, the bathing culture and rituals played an important social role. Roman legionnaires from their camp in Vindonissa (around seven kilometers from Baden) captured the hot springs at the bend of the Limmat which were deemed to have healing powers. What the Romans didn’t know at the time, though, is that this thermal water contains the highest concentration of minerals in Switzerland at 4.6 grams per liter and at around 47°C it is among the warmest as well. From depths of up to 1,200 meters, the water naturally rises to the surface from 18 different springs and is a source of blissful warmth. It has been stored for between 4,000 and 12,000 years in the bedrock underneath the spa town, which gives it its unique high mineral content.
Roman legionnaires built the first large-scale thermal baths here in the 2nd century AD, which paved the way for the spa settlement of Aquae Helveticae. The baths at Aquae Helveticae made up the most prominent Roman spa settlement in the territory of present-day Switzerland, and served as a place for medical treatments, as a religious center and as an important social meeting place. It did not take long for more and more people to settle near the thermal waters, which led to the founding of the town of Baden. Helvetians, Habsburgs and Swiss confederates, they all benefited from the therapeutic effect of Baden’s thermal water and helped to shape the spa culture in the area. The spa district as it stands today still bears strong traces of its heyday in the Middle Ages, when two public and around 30 private baths welcomed guests from far and wide.
The Middle Ages
Though people did continue to use the thermal baths after the end of Roman rule around 400 AD and through to the early Middle Ages, little is known about this period.
Under Habsburg rule the baths underwent a new period of substantial development from the mid-13th century and the 14th century onwards. At that time, Baden was the most famous spa resort in German-speaking Europe. The inns and guesthouses on both sides of the river Limmat hosted nobles, church dignitaries and scholars from all over Europe and especially the urban bourgeoisie from Zurich. The rich and high-class guests enjoyed the private thermal baths. Normal citizens as well as the poor and the sick used the “Freibad” and “St. Verenabad” on the central square or the “Freibad” at the other side of the river. The delegates taking part in the Federal Diet of the Swiss Confederation, often held in Baden, regarded the baths to be the perfect place to meet informally where they could enjoy a pleasant “recreational program” as well.
19th to 21st century
During the spa and wellness boom of the 19th century, the baths experienced a revival again, with new thermal springs being tapped and modern hotels built. The opening of the first railway line in Switzerland – which ran from Zurich to Baden and was known as the “Spanischbrödli-Bahn” – made the thermal baths even more popular. Contemporary infrastructure arrived in the spa town in the form of an entertainment hall (now the Grand Casino) and a green park area. Around 1880, guests from all over the world could choose from nearly 900 rooms and 600 individual baths. Those who were less well-off headed either to the “Armenbad” (bath for the poor) or one of the spa clinics if they required medical treatment.
The spa industry that thrived during the Belle Epoque was stopped in its tracks following the outbreak of the First World War. The writer Hermann Hesse immortalised the spa business of the interwar period in his novel "Kurgast" in world literature. After the Second World War, the spa town of Baden increasingly focused on medical services and rehabilitation. The baths were faced with a crisis at the end of the 20th century, with some of its infrastructure, particularly the public thermal bath built in 1963/64, no longer meeting the expectations of its guests.
Since the turn of the millennium, the baths have been restored step by step with the aim of making the unique thermal springs a thriving social center once more – as it has been for thousands of years. The ground-breaking ceremony for Mario Botta's new thermal baths in April 2018 marked the start of the revival of the baths. Together with the foundation "Gesundheitsförderung Bad Zurzach + Baden" (Health Promotion Bad Zurzach + Baden) and other partners, the city of Baden wants to give the baths a future-oriented identity in the fields of health, work, leisure and living.
In addition to the construction of the new thermal baths by the famous architect Mario Botta, a health center and residential building are being built, along with a prevention and rehabilitation clinic with a gastronomy offer. The public space around the site is also being upgraded: The redesigned "Kurplatz" and "Mättelipark" as well as a lavish "Limmatpromenade" will soon invite visitors to linger.
With its long history and the preserved buildings from 2,000 years of bathing history, the Baden baths represent a unique ensemble of great cultural and historical significance throughout Europe. The healing waters, the unique scenic landscape in the Limmatklus and the bathing area, characterised by numerous historic buildings, offer a special experience and allow visitors to become part of a great history.
Blog post by Andrea Schär for the Swiss National Museum