10 Mangshan Lu, Changping district
Nestled in the mountains by the Ming Tombs, this hot spring impresses when it comes to sheer numbers. With over 50 mini pools inside and 18 pools outside, all filled with natural hot water, you should find at least one that’s free of other people. And, if you don’t, you can arrange private use (6,800RMB per pool for four hours, 20 people maximum).
Scenery Inside, the decor is all fake boulders and identikit tropical greenery, albeit more classily done than most resorts. Some of the pools tend toward an amusement park, with rain-shower beds, elephants spouting water and a backdrop of cheesy windpipe music. We suggest instead heading outdoors, where simple hot pools, hot stone kang beds, mountain views and trees provide a more authentic experience.
Facilities The entrance fee covers free use of the 25m by 12.5m swimming pool; a fruit-and-biscuit-filled snack bar; a 63-person cinema, which often shows English-language films (fittingly, the watery Titanic was playing when we visited); and an internet café. Extras include massages (from 98RMB for 40 minutes) and herbal baths (from 98RMB). The restaurant serves a Chinese-style buffet for 60RMB.
Luxury factor Ten years ago, this resort would have been the height of opulence. Today, its charms have faded with wear and tear but the pools and towels are clean, the changing rooms are well-stocked with decent shampoo, soap and hairdryers, and there are mountain views (albeit obscured by trees in places).
How to get there Take bus 925 from Jishuitan station to its final destination. The spa’s entrance is opposite the stop.
Best for City Indulgence
8 Chaoyang Gongyuan Xi Lu, Chaoyang district
Admission 198RMB; 158RMB(kids below 1.4m) for 18-hr pass
Located west of Chaoyang Park, this city-based spa feels more like a classy bathhouse than the usual sprawling resorts found in the suburbs. The spring here is natural and has been tapped from 2,500m below ground.
Scenery Tasteful and understated decor and a cave-like aura. Expect to see people chatting quietly, brushing their hair or lolling naked asleep. The single TV screen showing CCTV-3, and the lack of music, is a small dent in an otherwise supremely soothing space.
Facilities Men and women bathe in separate areas and nudity is mandatory. Submerging into the soothing water feels like entering an enormous bath, and each area also includes a spacious sauna and a steam-filled Finnish bath. While a basic buffet is included in the price (the club provides faux silk peach pyjamas to protect your modesty), massages, manicures and scrubs are available for an additional cost.
Luxury factor 198RMB is a lot to pay for a long soak, but the hushed atmosphere, clean facilities and myriad lotions and potions at the dressing tables mean this is relaxation at its best.
How to get there Take a taxi or one of many buses (31, 117, 302, the list goes on) to Chaoyang Park. The club is next to the west gate of the park.
Best for Kitsch
Xiaotangshan Zhen, Changping district
Admission 120RMB(indoor or outdoor only); 200RMB(both)
The vast Longmai Hot Spring Village boasts two hot spring areas – the outdoor Bamboo Grove Hot Spring and the indoor Hot Spring Natatorium. The pools contain natural hot spring water extracted from underground and said to be good for those with skin problems, arthritis and gastritis. Try to ignore the insects and particles floating around and enjoy the 20 herbal pools, including ‘rose’ and ‘peppermint’.
Scenery Over-the-top China kitsch with a plethora of fake foliage. Green plants and arch bridges cluster around the Natatorium, while the outdoor spring area evokes a classical Chinese garden, with bamboo from Henan.
Facilities While there are separate indoor and outdoor packages (each 120RMB), go for the 200RMB all-inclusive deal for the total experience, including use of an Olympic-sized pool, sand bath, herbal sauna, man-made wave pool and heated stone beds. If that isn’t enough, there’s a bowling alley, badminton, table tennis, pool and archery for the active. Hungry? There’s also a buffet restaurant (58RMB per person) and a snacks bar.
Luxury factor Think popular, not exclusive, with local aunties and uncles playing cards in the corner and shrieking children running around. If you value peace, this is not the place to find it, but those with a sense of fun will have a blast.
How to get there Take subway Line 5 to Tiantongyuan station, and leave through exit A. Walk to Dongsanqi Nan Zhan and board bus 52 or 985. Get off at Xiaotangshan Zhengfu Zhan, turn right and walk ahead for 500m.
Best for Romance
Yu Zhuang, Gaoliying Town, Shunyi district
Admission 168RMB (Mon-Fri); 268RMB (Sat-Sun)
There is no fake jungle or garish music at this Shunyi hot spring, which instead is classy and stylish. Go for the outdoor pools, which give the option to bathe while peeking up at the stars. All the pools – of various sizes, temperatures and bubbliness – are filled with different remedies, including flora, rose, red wine and milk. Make sure to also search out the lakeside hot spring, where views over an expanse of water are prettily lit by the buildings opposite.
Scenery The outside areas are replete with wooden trellises, and the intimate indoor hot stone beds are perfect for lounging in small groups.
Facilities As well as a large indoor pool, the complex offers a series of saunas (rated low, medium and hot); two hot stone areas; clean, comfortable and spacious changing rooms; and a dining area (with options ranging from hotpot to cheaper snacks).
Luxury factor This is discreet comfort rather than out-and-out luxury – however, the emphasis on outdoor springs in chic surroundings and the serene atmosphere makes it a perfect retreat for a couple.
How to get there Take bus number 942 from Dongzhimen station to Yu Zhuang. From the stop, turn left and walk just under 2km to the resort.
Best for history
Xiaotangshan, Changping district
Admission 188RMB (3 hrs at weekend; no limit on weekdays)
Nicknamed Xiaotangshan (‘little hot soup mountain’), Jiuhua is built on a site where the Qianlong Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi used to bathe. There are a staggering 80 hot springs in total, and 17 types of herbal baths. A monorail lets visitors see all of them, along with uninterrupted views of blissed-out bathing bodies. While the springs at Jiuhua used to belong to the Emperor (with concubines reportedly flocking to the outdoor pools), today there is a strong whiff of nouveau riche China among the clientele.
Scenery The open-air courtyard complex delivers a whole other imperial world, with traditional Chinese roofing and countless dragon fountainheads.
Facilities Access to the swimming pool and the hot springs (many filled with herbs and spices said to relieve ailments) comes for the basic price of 188RMB, but pay slightly more to add options including massage (unnervingly delivered en masse in a large hall with no partitions) and a sauna. The changing rooms are clean and well kept by a small army of helpful staff, while snacks and drinks are available to buy.
Luxury factor Standards have slipped slightly and one fears that the resort’s originally grand ambitions have fallen by the wayside. Still, monarchs once bathed here...
How to get there Take subway Line 5 to its northern tip at Tiantongyuan Bei and then it’s a 20-30RMB ride in a taxi.