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From Blue Lagoon to Desert Hot Springs: 8 Affordable Thermal Spas Around the World

By Emily Manthei
June 3, 2019
Couple At The Springs
Known since ancient times for their curative properties, the hot springs at these destinations are sure to rejuvenate your body and mind.

In ancient times, Romans considered natural hot-water springs a gift from the gods, with healing properties that cast a spell on anyone who entered the water. Today, science explains the healing magic of thermal hot springs as an effect of the minerals that build up in the water on its way to the surface. Mineral waters are often credited with aiding blood flow, releasing muscle tension, calming mental stress, and even improving cardiovascular activity. And despite the extensive luxury-spa industry, many of these natural springs still flow for everyone, thanks to free or low-cost admission, offering their restorative properties to parents and children, the elderly, and those with limited mobility. Travel to one of these natural thermal baths and let the earth treat you to a rejuvenating embrace.

1. Chena Hot Springs: Fairbanks, Alaska

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The Chena geothermal system is cracked by a fractured bit of granite underneath the resort, allowing water to bubble up at nearly 150°F. It’s cooled to 106° for bathers. The year-round outdoor Rock Lake receives a flow of geothermal water that circulates, drains, and refills naturally every two to three days. The handicap-accessible indoor pool and smaller hot tubs are, however, regulated by chlorine. The resort offers cabins, yurts, tents, and RV camping, but a visit to the hot springs does not require an overnight stay. A day pass is $15. (chenahotsprings.com)

2. Mammoth Lake: Mono County, California

Natural hot springs around Mammoth Lake are mostly small holes in the earth, and you can visit them for merely the price of a state park entrance fee. The result of ancient volcanic activity, the bubbling springs brim with natural minerals. Dozens of steamy tubs surrounded by nature lie between Bridgeport and Mammoth, on the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park. Two favorites: The family-friendly Travertine Hot Springs, in Bridgeport, is in the Bodie Mountain Wilderness Area, about two miles from the Bridgeport Ranger District Office on the main highway. A quick walk brings you to crude rock-bottomed pools with a continuous feed directly from the hot springs, against the backdrop of the stunning eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. For something more sophisticated, Benton Springs offers above-ground natural pools on the site of wild west-era Benton Hot Springs Inn, near the ghost town of Bodie. Visitors can stay at the inn, or rent one of 11 campsites, each with its own private tub. Fair warning: These springs are clothing-optional. (monocounty.org)

3. As Burgas Thermal Pool: Ourense, Spain

Deep in northwestern Spain, along the Camino del Santiago, Ourense has been known for its healing water from the spring of As Burgas since Romans built their bath houses and places of worship there nearly 2000 years ago. A handful of thermal pools dotted along the Minho River, most of which can be visited informally, give visitors many scenic choices for enjoying the city’s healing waters. In the center of the city, however, the thermal pool offers a return to the experience of the city’s ancient residents. A free and open expanse of almost 2200 square feet, the As Burgas Thermal Pool situates bathers in the heart of the historic city to absorb skin-nourishing lithium and alkaline, which were long thought to be the spiritual secrets of the spring’s healing powers. (turismodeourense.gal/en/recurso/piscina-termal-de-as-burgas)

4. Blue Lagoon and Secret Lagoon: Iceland

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In recent years, Iceland has become a popular stopover destination for transatlantic tourists, and the Blue Lagoon, located about 20 minutes from the airport, is a major attraction to travelers passing through, many of whom plan their flights to include a long layover in Iceland. (There are shuttles to and from the airport.) A Silica mud mask and a drink of your choice are included in the basic entry price of $56. Pools here are made from lava-formed craters and filled with runoff water from a geothermal energy plant nearby. Although the mineral-rich water is filtered and clean, the pools are not the naturally occurring phenomenon many expect. Travel a bit further to the Secret Lagoon in Fludir, where mossy craters between geothermal springs release steam, creating a moody natural atmosphere around the man-made lake that was Iceland’s first modern swimming site, opened in 1891. Water from the hot spring flows directly into the man-made lake, then into the Litla River. The lake offers a great vantage point for watching the Litli Geysir erupt. Nearby, discover several other bubbling springs at the source, all for a $33 entrance fee. At both thermal springs, kids under 14 enter free. (secretlagoon.is)

5. Las Hornillas Volcanic Hot Springs: Guanacaste, Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, the earth is in constant motion. While most spas and natural pools focus only on the relaxing hot water at the surface, Las Hornillas, situated at the foot of the active Miravalles Volcano, gives visitors an understanding of what’s going on at the core of the earth too. Bathers can tour an active crater, where bubbling mud and hot water constantly regenerate themselves and steam escapes from below. Emerald green hot-water pools, fed directly by the tension and steam of the crater, make a visit here a touch more dramatic than other spas. At these hot springs, kids can learn a geology lesson while parents indulge in a bubbling mud bath, complete with skin-smoothing sulfur and clay. The family-owned business also has a restaurant, cabins, and camping areas. (hornillas.com)

6. Miracle Springs Resort and Spa: Desert Hot Springs, California

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Seated on top of North America’s most heated geological fault line, Coachella Valley is home to several mineral springs, at or near ground level. Hotels, resorts, and spas tap these wells for medicinal springs, but in Desert Hot Springs, the both hot and cold water bubbles to the surface. The Cahuilla Indians, the original locals, discovered the springs hundreds of years ago, but it wasn't until Cabot Yerxa, an early-20th-century homesteader and renaissance man, settled here in 1914 that the area gained popularity. While many resorts here only allow access to their pools for overnight guests, Miracle Springs offers day passes ($14) and caters to teens with a special spa menu for guests 12 to 17 years old. Pools fed by Miracle Springs and massage and spa treatments at the resort combine for a day of luxurious family-friendly pampering. (miraclesprings.com)

7. Hot Springs Historic District: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Choosing between the 10 thermal hot spring resorts in the tiny spa town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, is nearly impossible. A geological rift along the Rio Grande resulted in an abundance of groundwater flowing to the surface, bubbling into a hot spring paradise. Most of the spas and hotels in the Hot Springs Historic District offer private tubs, which can be used by one or two people at a time. The tubs are drained and refilled with unfiltered hot spring water after every session. The boutique experience costs anywhere from $8 to $40 and lasts from 30 minutes to a few hours. Some hotels include an in-room bathtub and access to the thermal hot-spring water, directly from the tap. Each spa offers its own quirky, serene, and sometimes mystical take on hot water healing. (sierracountynewmexico.info/attractions/truth-or-consequences-hot-springs/)

8. Caracalla Therme: Baden-Baden, Germany

The Romans discovered southwestern Germany’s 12 thermal hot springs 2000 years ago, and they remain the region’s highlight today. Located in the historical spa quarter, near several other thermal baths as well as the ruins of those Roman baths, Caracalla Therme offers beautiful indoor and outdoor bathing pools, a rock grotto with hot- and cold-water plunges, and a salt-water inhalation room, which Germans believe has a healing effect on respiratory illness. Children between 7 and 14 are welcome to accompany their parents to the Badelandschaft, which encompasses the aforementioned bathing areas, where swimsuits are allowed. The various saunas, however, are “textile-free” zones, where Germans practice Freikorperkultur, or social nudity. For parents of small children, don’t fear: Caracalla offers childcare for kids over 18 months, so parents can take their time without a baby on board. Pricing is by the hour and tops out at $30 for an all-inclusive day pass. (carasana.de/en/)

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Inspiration

Crazy Delicious Ice Cream Flavors Inspired by Camping Trips

Just in time for National Camping Month (June), one of America’s most unique ice cream shops is rolling out a collection of special flavors to honor the great outdoors and—the cherry on top—benefit the National Park Service at the same time. From now until June 27, in scoop shops from San Diego to Seattle, Portland-based mini-chain Salt & Straw (saltandstraw.com) will be serving up a camping-inspired selection that reimagines summertime eats in ice cream form. And, in keeping with the company’s ethos, there are plenty of unexpected combinations in the mix. Ice Cream Flavors Inspired by the Great Outdoors Riffing on West Coast foraging trips for inspiration, with touchstones like the deserts of Southern California and Washington state’s redwood trees, the series covers a truly wild range of flavors. Can’t get enough of Oregon’s towering pines? Try the Spruce Tips and Huckleberry Crisp, spruce-tip ice cream with huckleberry jam and hazelnut crumble. Or maybe go for the Campfire S’mores, a woodsy chocolate ice cream laced with graham crackers and smoky, toasted marshmallow fluff. That’s co-founder and head ice cream maker Tyler Malek’s personal favorite, and one he predicts will be a big hit with the customers. “It transports you to sitting around a campfire with friends and family,” he says. “We're betting on the classics like Campfire S'mores and Buttermilk Pancakes, Bacon & Eggs to be crowd favorites.” Yep, that’s right. Buttery griddled-pancake ice cream with maple-praline bacon bits and sunny-side caramel, a full breakfast in a single cone. Even more unusual-sounding are the Berries, Beans & BBQ Sauce, which marries dairy-free raspberry ice cream with molasses-rich baked bean ganache and zingy strawberry barbecue sauce, and the Skillet Cornbread with Candied Nettles & Pine Nuts, a savory brown-butter cornbread ice cream with pine nuts and nettle brittle. Taking to the trails? Mushroom Muddy Buddies references that quintessential hiking snack, a pile of peanut butter-and-chocolate-coated Chex, with hazelnuts standing in for the cereal and scattered throughout a candied-mushroom ice cream base. This one “could be a sensation for the more adventurous types,” Tyler says. And what’s a trek without some trail mix? North Coast Foraged Trail Mix channels that old-school vibe, a sea-salt ice cream swirled with tart salal-berry jam and an inspired combination of seaweed, apricots, figs, and nuts. Salt & Straw Ice Cream Is Available by Mail If a trip to the West Coast doesn’t mesh with your immediate travel plans, not to worry—the pints, clad in a classic Pendleton print for extra nostalgia, are also available by mail. And, with Salt & Straw putting a portion of the proceeds toward the parks, you’ll be doing good by treating yourself. “When we dreamed up this series, we all started sharing stories of our collective camping memories, the places, tastes, feeling of gathering around the campfire with friends and family,” Tyler says. “We wanted to celebrate summer and encourage people to get outside, but also remind them that our National Parks need our help more than ever. Our parks are such a treasure and great reminder of what’s most important. We'd like to do our part in supporting them.”

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Cincinnati

About three minutes into conversation with Molly Wellmann you fall under the spell of her enthusiasm for Cincinnati. Her lineage here goes back seven generations, so it makes sense that after 12 years working as a bartender in San Francisco, she couldn’t justify staying away any longer, so she went back home and opened a bar. Then another bar. Then another. And she cannot imagine doing that anywhere else. “There’s magic in Cincinnati. I’ve traveled quite a bit, but I never found the je ne sais quois we have here. There’s something about its heritage or history. It doesn’t matter who you are or what background you’re from. I think it feels welcoming to everyone.” We checked in with her to get the inside scoop on where anyone visiting the Queen City should eat, drink, hangout, and shop. Just one word of advice: arrive hungry. Very hungry. Eat Your Heart Out Cincinnati was once an enclave of German immigrants, and their legacy endures in some of the city’s longstanding eateries. Molly is particularly fond of Arnold’s (arnoldsbarandgrill.com), one of the city’s oldest bar that dates back to the 1860s. “You walk in and you feel like you’ve gone back in history,” she says. The gorgeous slab of mahogany, wooden booths, and vintage booths are only the start of it. It’s the lack of TVs that really makes her a fan. And the world-class bourbon selection. And the year-round outdoor patio that regularly hosts bands. And the blueberry chicken dish. And their spaghetti. And a few other things on the menu of eclectic comfort food. She’s also a regular at Salazar (salazarcincinnati.com) which features exposed brick walls and tiled floors, remnants of its storied past, and turns out very modern fare. “I’m enamored by what Chef Jose Salazar does in the kitchen,” she gushes. “He’s inspired by old recipes, and he brings them into a modern way of eating—but it’s never too far off the map. It’s just always something lovely.” And, as per her usual preference: there aren’t any televisions. Situated in a unique cross-section of alleys, it’s located one block from Washington Park, one of the city’s biggest public spaces. When an occasion calls for a splurge, her choice is Please, a nod to the term the local German immigrants use with a quizzical tone to mean everything from “what did you say?” to “what do you mean?” to “are you for real?” “He thinks completely outside the box,” Molly says of Chef Ryan Santos. “His food isn’t molecular, but it’s close. He’s worked in kitchens all over the world, and he’s taken bits of what learned and put them together in a really cool way.” Molly couldn’t consider herself a true Cincinnatian if she didn’t recommend Ruby’s Steakhouse (jeffruby.com/Cincinnati), which dates back to the 1980s and now has five outposts across the region. It is “a force to be reckoned with,” Molly says. “I hold all steaks up to Ruby’s steaks. Everything here is just over the top—from décor to food to staff uniforms. There’s never a time when someone says no. they always say ‘always ‘We’ll work it out for you.’” Experience Regional Flavor Philly has cheesesteaks, NYC has pizza, and Cincinnati has whippy dips. And you shouldn’t leave Cincinnati without eating one. Or three. Whippy dips are the Midwest’s seasonal fix to soft-serve ice cream cravings. Sold mostly out from nostalgic little stands all over town and pretty much every local has a favorite that they frequent. Molly’s is Putz’s Creamy Whip (putzscreamywhip.com), which greets guests with a hand-written menu. Don’t bother reading it, though. Chocolate/vanilla swirl with chocolate sprinkles is the only thing that’ll do the trick, Molly insists. But the city’s ice cream obsession doesn’t end there. Another one of Cincinnati’s culinary signatures is French-style copper-pot-made ice cream, and Graeter’s (graeters.com), which started in the early 1900s and now has 16 soda-fountain-style parlors around town, makes some of the best. You’d be remiss if you didn’t try the chocolate chip, made with big chunks of chocolate. (“Not chips,” Molly clarifies. “Chunks of chocolate!”) Grippos is another brand that’s inextricably linked to Cincinnati. A bag of the hometown potato chips is a must if you’re at any of the number of low-key neighborhood bars with a burger and a beer, and if you are anywhere that you spot a menu item with Grippos in the description, take note that it may come crushed up and used as seasoning. It’s how locals like theirs. Make an Afternoon of It Cincinnati is a city of neighborhoods—52 neighborhoods, to be exact. And with its location so close to Kentucky, there are several Bluegrass State areas that are included in that count, including Covington, a hip Kentucky enclave that Budget Travel named a Best Affordable Discovery in 2017, and Newport. It’s hard for Molly to pick favorites, of course, as each neighborhood has its own things to love about it, but whenever a visitor is in town, she recommends Mount Adams, a neighborhood on to of a hill (Cincinnati has seven of them) on the east side of the city. The bucolic Eden Park lives up to its name, she assures. It’s anchored by the Krohn Conservatory (cincinnatiparks.com/krohn/), a magnificent paradise with bonsai trees, a desert garden, orchards and more, and is home to the Cincinnati Art Museum. There’s no shortage of choices where food and drink go, so spend the day and explore the diverse bars and restaurants. For something offbeat, check out the Vent Haven Museum (venthaven.org), the world's largest--rather, only--ventriloquist museum, displaying 900 ventriloquist figures from 20 countries and lots of oddball memorabilia that's sure to, well, get you talking.

Inspiration

New TWA Hotel at JFK Airport: What It Feels Like to Visit

I was standing, suspended in midair on a red-carpeted gangplank in the dead center of the new TWA Hotel’s cavernous hub, the newly reanimated version of architect Eero Saarinen’s 1962 midcentury aeronautic wonderland, when the full force of his design hit me: The vertigo kicked in. The sensation of peering down from the uppermost peak of the catwalk, high above other travelers relaxing in the glamorous, oft-photographed rouge-carpeted Sunken Lounge, transmits a godlike feeling to anyone who dares perch there. It’s best described as a cross between “I can’t believe they let me up here” awe and healthy “I should come down now” fear. It’s dizzying. And therein lies the genius of Eero Saarinen. What Was the TWA Hotel Originally? Designed to resemble a winged bird, Saarinen’s majestic, blinding-white, red-accented, super-’60s love letter to aviation wasn’t just for show: From 1962 to 2001, this modernist palace was wholly functional, as an airport terminal for Trans World Airlines at New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport (originally called Idlewild Airport until it was renamed in 1963). After TWA shuttered the building in 2001, the whole cantilevered clamshell-like landmark structure was in danger of falling into neglect, but a series of preservation and repair measures prevented that from happening. Almost two decades later, after a joint Herculean effort from MCR/Morse Development hotel owner/operators, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, JetBlue, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects, the Gerber Group, and many others, Saarinen’s Jet Age masterpiece has been brought back to life—this time as an airport hotel, with a rooftop infinity pool and a mall-like, commerce-and-cocktails-heavy “hub” in place of a working airline terminal. To the left of the entrance, former TWA ticket counters now function as hotel reservation desks, with several of them dedicated to renting out Blade helicopter rides to Manhattan. To the right, the ticket counters are food hall stands. Restaurants, sleek shops, coffee bars, and cocktail lounges—along with several amusing touches, such as replicas of Howard Hughes’ and Saarinen’s offices—populate the rest of the structure. Courtesy TWA Hotel Eero Saarinen’s Original TWA Design Say what you will about the changes, but the new TWA Hotel’s near-slavish deference to the past is alive and well. So evident is the painstaking restoration of Saarinen’s boundary-pushing architecture that you can feel the Jet Age energy in your bones. On opening day, I certainly did. Making your way through the flight tubes and mezzanine landings of Saarinen’s designs involves letting your body rise and fall, dip and soar. The low ceilings of the Saarinen and Hughes wings to the left and right of the entrance give way to the main cavernous, skylit hub with multiple sinewy levels connected by grand staircases. A catwalk slashes precariously through the center, the whole beautiful architecture sundae topped with an analog clock as the cherry. Ascending a flight of stairs next to a constantly chattering wooden split-flap departures board — housed in a Jetsons-style oval, flashing red and green, and flip-flip-flipping to dream destinations like Basel and Nairobi — brings you closer to descending into the famous Sunken Lounge, where a sheet of towering black-framed windows leans away from the iconic curvy red banquettes. Ducking into eggshell-textured tunnels and following the smooth perimeter of the massive structure can induce nerve-jangling disequilibrium. There are no right angles in this space, which makes every vignette look as though it was shot through a fish-eye lens. In other words, skyscrapers, in all their cloud-busting glass-and-steel pomposity, have nothing on Eero Saarinen’s vision of flight. Courtesy TWA Hotel Who Can Go Inside the TWA Building? Everyone, Basically. Despite the not-exactly-cheap hotel rooms, from which one can see planes taking off through soundproof windows; the prices of the TWA swizzle stick–festooned cocktails, which include riffs on oldies but goodies, including a classic Aviation; and the numerous shops, which hawk everything from Shinola watches to Warby Parker glasses to TWA-branded merch, the best part about the newly refurbished TWA Hotel is how egalitarian the structure itself is. Anyone who flies into New York City’s JFK Airport or hops on the subway and forks over the mere $5 for an Airtrain ticket can go up and stand at the very point that I did and play god—or Saarinen, as it were. But if you’re an aviation geek or if you really like being on time for your flights, staying in the hotel couldn’t be more convenient to JFK, and the allure of watching the planes ascend from the comfort of your room is a draw that might be worth the price. Viewing the vintage TWA air hostess uniforms displayed on mannequins on the mezzanine level costs nothing. Making a call on the throwback rotary pay phones will run you a dime (if that). Unabashedly geeking out about aviation, design, or how the space compares with Mad Men’s Season 7 TWA-themed promo images is always free of charge. Are there $16 cocktails? Yes. Is the Jean-Georges Paris Café guarded by three employees ready to bounce you out if you don’t have a reservation, like they did me? Yes. But the travelers sitting on tulip stools and banquettes in the Sunken Lounge and above it, on the balconies, aren’t all partaking in witty repartee over $20 Sunken Lounge Martinis (served with TWA flight wings). Some are eating plastic-bagged halal food they bought in the Hughes Wing, which is really just a long tunnel filled with decent takeout. Some are JetBlue customers killing time in Terminal 5. Technically, as with every airport terminal, everyone is just waiting. What Will Aviation Geeks Like About the TWA Hotel? Before the original TWA Flight Center was built, Saarinen and one of his employees, architect Kevin Roche, made a 3-D model out of cardboard and tape — a structure fashioned after extensive, meticulous research on airports and airplanes. “He was interested in the pragmatic aspects: how long it took a plane to taxi; where passengers arrived; how long they spent at the ticket counter,” Roche told Metropolis magazine. “When we traveled, Eero went around with a stopwatch, measuring everything: ‘This took four seconds more than last time.’ Of course, I was just waiting for the goddamn plane to take off so I could get a martini.” There is perhaps no better metaphor for the new TWA Hotel, an oasis of majestic design with an ocean of booze lapping at its edges. A total of five bars are on property. There’s even a wet bar retrofitted into the back of a (stationary) 1958 Lockheed Constellation L-1649A directly outside, the cockpit left intact so you can “fly” the plane tipsy. As viewed from the mezzanine balconies, two circular bars rising up from the floor look like life preservers. Depending on one’s perspective, the hotel’s entire concept could be art or commerce: an ode to architecture and a great excuse to make a Don Draper reference (yes, there are old fashioneds on the menu, but the ashtrays of yore are long gone), or a bastardization of the space’s intended utility—a ghost in the shell. But, as a wise person on the internet once wrote: Why can’t we have both? The evening that the TWA Hotel opened, I spoke to Roxane Hartfield, a former TWA flight attendant and gate agent who worked at the company for 33 years, from 1988 to the day the Flight Center closed in 2001, when the employees were told to leave the building. “It’s like coming to see an old friend,” she said of the newly refurbished space while gazing at a vintage TWA photograph and holding a full martini with lemon twist. “It’s like coming to a part of life that’s in a particular corner that you never thought you’d see again, and here I am.” Whatever this place is — or is not — walking through the white space and feeling the Saarinen design close in, open up, shrink, and expand again is worth a visit all on its own. And if the vertigo or the waiting gets to be too much, well, there’s a deluge of booze to quell the sensation. But I recommend feeling your feelings instead. For travel inspiration, know-how, deals, and more, sign up for Budget Travel's free e-newsletter.

Inspiration

Tap Into Your Creative Side at the Columbus Arts Festival

Ohio’s state capital might have a serious case of college-football fever, but thanks to a deep-rooted artistic community, it’s also home to a thriving creative scene. From art schools and museums to galleries, collectives, and events galore, the city offers a warm welcome to artistically inclined visitors—especially during the annual Columbus Arts Festival (columbusartsfestival.org), when the downtown riverfront becomes a beacon for hundreds of artists and the crowds that follow. Now in its 58th year, 2019's celebration runs June 7 to 9 and features a full slate of activities, demonstrations, performances, and more. Here’s what to see and do during the city’s premiere summer event. Augment Your Reality Ever wanted to jump right into a work of art, a la Dick Van Dyke’s chalk-wielding chimney sweep in Mary Poppins? Well, now’s your chance. Making its debut this year, the White Castle presents VR at the Fest tent will allow curious onlookers to step into paintings and check out venues on the opposite side of the globe, via multiple virtual and augmented reality experiences. Meet and Greet In the Big Local Art Tent, Columbus artists and collectives sell their works, demonstrate techniques, and lead workshops where budding creatives can make their own masterpieces—and take them home with them. Look for booths from emerging central-Ohio artists, selected by the festival’s jury and given an extra hand with marketing and presentation to help them launch their careers. Festival mascot the Art Shark will also be on hand to say hello to his adoring young fans. Get Your Groove On This year's entertainment takes place on five stages boasting local and regional talent—musicians, dancers, thespians, poets, and storytellers among them. Columbus troupe BalletMet kicks things off on Friday night, and a huge array of acts are on deck to keep the party rolling. The Big Local Music Stage hosts everything from hip hop and R&B to folk, rock, and Americana, while Sunday’s main stage features an a capella performance by the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, the big-band stylings of the Capital Pride Band of Columbus, and a drag show starring Virginia West with Flaggots Ohio, a LGBTA colorguard. Check out the flamenco ensemble, watch the clog dancers go at it, or take in the Celtic steppers; there’s also spoken-word, comedy, and an acoustic lounge. For travel inspiration, know-how, deals, and more, sign up for Budget Travel's free e-newsletter.

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