In Baden-Baden, there is a saying. “You shouldn’t talk about money, you should just have it.” Baden-Baden Tourism Board city guide Renate Effern explains this while we walk around the most famous spa town of Europe. You might not notice when you walk around its cobblestone center, but over 800 German millionaires own a house here. “The thing is, they don’t drive around in big cars. They walk, or ride their bikes. This is their place to relax,” Effern says.
Ever since the Romans discovered the thermal springs here, Baden-Baden has been the playground for the rich and famous. Napoleon III, Queen Victoria, Victor Hugo, Nikolai Gogol and even Marlene Dietrich all took the waters here. This former ‘Summer Capital of Europe’ is not a typical German town, Effern likes to emphasize. The French opened a casino, the English brought the horse races and after Catherine the Great married off her grandson Alexander to Princess Louise of Baden, the Russians sent their writers. In their wake came many tourists, but often they tend to visit for a few hours, as part of a tour to or from the Black Forest or Switzerland. However, if you really want to wind down and get a feel for this no-stress town, you need to spend the night.
Tuesday Morning: Drink in the Trinkhalle
With its Corinthian columns and gorgeous frescoes of local legends, you would think that the imposing building called the Trinkhalle was a major museum, perhaps housing an impressive collection of Renaissance paintings. Instead it’s the place where the rich and famous of the 19th century would meet every morning for a drink of water and see who else was around. “There was even a small newspaper telling everyone who had arrived and in which hotel they were staying, so you could go and visit them there,” Effern says.
The free curative mineral water that gushes from the faucet here was once believed to be an elixir of youth, and drinking it could cure ailments from arthritis to obesity. This old custom was rudely disrupted a few years ago, when local health authorities decided that the spa water is not suitable for drinking, and that the curing effects could better be felt when only bathing in it. Effern, who grew up drinking the water, proclaims：“We have drunk this water for 2000 years. It was great for coffee!” Nowadays, the ornate hall is the place of the tourist information office, which is planning to reinstall part of the drinking ceremony.
Noon: Climb Mount Merkur
Time to escape the people and enjoy the view at the Baden-Baden lookouts and trails. A small funicular railway that was built 100 years ago takes me up to the mountaintop at Mt Merkur. The top is a perfect place for a picnic or to eat at the restaurant. Even though the Merkur is not very high, on its top you have widescreen views of Baden-Baden and the Murg Valley. It’s also a popular spot for paragliding, and gentle spa hiking as part of thermal treatment. From the top, the so-called terrain spa walks of different lengths can take you back down. One of these paths will lead you to the wildlife park at the foot of the mountain where there are red deer, fallow deer and mounflon. About half-way up the Merkur on the Baden-Baden side is the most important footpath, the Panorama Way.
Afternoon: Do Some Shopping
The advantage of a small town inhabited by the rich is that there are many tailor made, original shops. From bespoke shoes to arts and crafts, to major brands, for those who want to spent money, this town has shops. The Sophienstrasse is called the “Fifth Avenue of Baden-Baden.” And, yes, you’ll find Hermès, Max Mara, Escada and other global brands here. The stores display their elegant wares artistically, competing with the smells from the nearby pastry shops that summon you to an afternoon tea break.
Late Afternoon: Go to the Spa
It’s time to take the famous waters. There are 29 natural springs in the area, varying in temperature from 46 to 67 °C. The water is rich in salt, flowing from artesian wells through pipes to the town's baths. “I left my rheumatism in Baden-Baden,” American writer Mark Twain reported. Roman emperor Caracalla felt much the same when he cured his arthritic aches around 210 AD.
Today the healing thermal waters flow into the modern Caracalla Spa, named after the emperor. But if you expected ancient Roman baths, think again. This is a very modern indoor-outdoor water wonderland of pools, waterfalls, showers, saunas, tanning lights, cold plunges, and sunbathing, while upstairs features a Roman Sauna Scape. You can spend hours here, enjoying the thermal bathes, drinking fruit juices and eating strawberries on the terrace.
In the old days, doctors prescribed patients with arthritis and rheumatism to spend three weeks in Baden-Baden. “They spent their days in tubs of thermal water, sometimes as long as 10 hours at a stretch. This happened in the hotels, and hotel staff would serve food and drinks to the bathing patients. When the weather was good, the tubs would be put in the courtyard,” Effern told me while showing me one of the preserved old courtyard hotels.
Next to the Caracalla Spa, lies the amazing Friedrichsbad, according to fans another beautiful temple to traditional bathing culture. Built in 1877, it’s complete with statues and decorative tiling, all this culminating in a circular central pool in an ornate domed hall. In these elegant surroundings, the visitors go through a Roman-Irish bath, a program of heat, massage, steam and water that will detoxify and rejuvenate. The incredible art-nouveau building has a strict no-clothes policy. No one sees the inside of the building unless they leave their clothes in a locker. “Many have tried, no one has succeeded,” Effern says drily.
Late Night: Gamble at the Casino
As someone who is not a fan of gambling, I wondered aloud why I would visit the casino at all. “Because it’s a museum,” Effern told me. “Go wander the halls, watch the people gamble and then eat asparagus in the restaurant. Don’t go too early.” Here the gambling goes on until 3:30 in the morning.
The French wanted to make Baden-Baden into a town where you could relax without becoming bored, so they built this casino, much in the style of their Versailles palace. Marlene Dietrich called it ‘the most beautiful casino in the world’. Soon the town found out that it wasn’t only the French who liked to gamble. The Russian writers who flocked to the town, turned out to be avid players as well. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler while compulsively gambling away all his money at the casino. In June 1857, Leo Tolstoy paid tribute to the Baden-Baden casino and his long-standing passion for the roulette. He wrote in his diary “Lost everything! How stupid, how disgusting!” to finally declare “I am surrounded by scoundrels! And the greatest scoundrel of all is me!”
There’s a strict dress code here, and the gambling is a classy affair with ladies in long dresses sitting at tables while the well-suited men wander from place to place, winning a little here and losing a little there. Even here, the stress that might come from gambling away your money is not to be found. Under the same roof is the super-stylish restaurant The Grill and upscale club Bernstein, where the dance floor heaves with beautiful people.
Wednesday morning: Sit in Obama’s chair
When Barrack Obama attended the Nato summit in Strasbourg in 2009, he stayed in Baden-Baden. The summit's first official event was a working dinner at the Kurhaus and anyway, hotels in Strasbourg were deemed not as suitable for a president as they are here. The private building next to the town’s most luxurious hotel, the Brenner's Park Hotel, where Obama stayed is closed to the public and so is the private spa building next to it. But a side entrance leads us to a restaurant and piano bar, where visitors can have a selfie moment sitting in the same chairs as the former US president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Later that morning: Take a walk in the park.
In 1865, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev wrote to Gustave Flaubert: “Do come to Baden-Baden. Here are the most magnificent trees I have ever seen. They do wonders for the eyes and the soul.” Trees and flowers are in abundance along this ribbon of greenery called the Lichtentaler Allee. It is quite a picture: fountains and sculptures and carpeted with flowers, crocuses and daffodils in spring, magnolias, roses and azaleas in summer.
You might not be able to recognize the millionaires as they walk around town, but their houses are certainly on view at this beautiful stretch, where early 20th-century villas recall the Belle Époque. Apart from majestic mansions, the rich also like to display their sponsored artworks, ranging from giant flowers to modern shapes.
Unexpectedly, modern art is a favorite in Baden Baden. Effern’s favorite piece is right in the middle of the park. To show that Baden Baden is not only old money and tradition, artists from Berlin brought over some modern craziness and put it here. The wooden box that is built around a cut tree trunk is called ‘Exhibiting the exhibition’ by artist Fabian Knecht. Inside you find yourself in a room with white walls and even brighter white lights, the foot of the tree becoming a piece of art, exposed in all its details. The artist makes a clear point - almost any site can be transformed into a temporary exhibition space by the mere creation of a curatorial situation.
For more art, there are two modern museums in the Lichtentaler Allee, one of them the Museum Frieder Burda. This sleek, white box of a building, designed by Richard Meier and with light pouring in from every corner, is dedicated to modern and contemporary art, much of it based on the impressive private collection of Mr. Burda, descendant of a wealthy German publishing family who decided to share his collection with the world. His museum has turned out to be yet another reason for people to visit Baden-Baden.