Beginning to become museum and architecturally fatigued with our cross continental tour of Europe, there was not much on Budapest’s streets that we wanted to see. While there is not doubt this is a beautiful city, after waltzing through Seville, Paris, Amsterdam, and other European mega cities, Budapest’s streets felt rather ordinary. We hit the highlights of St. Matthias Church, the Danube river, the Parliament building, the Citadel, and St. Stephen’s Basilica, but after that, we had little desire exploring the rest of the city streets. Good thing for us, that Budapest is famous for a leisurely activity that will melt your entire body into mush: Thermal baths.
Hot Spot Budapest
Budapest sits on top of more than 200 thermal springs which have been taken advantage of since Roman Times. The Romans, Ottomans, and Hungarians all left their mark here, building thermal and medicinal baths throughout the city. Many of these have crumbled with time but many still stand to this day. With plenty of baths while each with its own distinctive personality, you could easily spend days ‘spa hopping’ throughout this city.
What to Expect
Traditionally the baths used to be strictly single sex, no clothing affairs. But with tourist dollars at stake, most of the baths today are co-ed. Due to this, swimwear is required so most people should feel comfortable with their spa experience in Budapest. Day passes to the spas are of good value, costing only between $20-$25 from open to close.
Online you will read countless reviews of people complaining about the cleanliness of the spas, commenting on how confusing it is to get around the bath complexes and how rude the workers are. Don’t listen to these people because they really don’t know what they are talking about. These people have clearly never been to a public bathing facility before and could not be more wrong. While not spotless, the baths are much cleaner than your average public pool (I spent years in these as a competitive swimmer and I didn’t grow a third eye). The facilities do a good job at keeping the floors clean and the water is drained and cleaned regularly. Having your own pair of flip flops and a towel will leave you with nothing to worry about. As for the staff, during our time in the baths, they were very helpful, pointing towards which direction to go and ready to answer any questions. Maybe people were expecting to be pampered but that is not what they are there for. Getting around was not a problem as the baths are well signposted and if you get lost somehow… follow the steam!
Two Baths, Two different Experiences
No two baths are alike in Budapest. From Art Nuveau Oasis to Neo-baroque Palaces, Budapest baths are no ordinary affair. Claire and I soaked our achy traveling bones in two of Budapest’s most famous baths, The Széchenyi thermal baths, and The Gellért Baths.
Széchenyi thermal bath
The most well known of Budapest’s baths and the largest thermal bath found in Europe, Széchenyi is most likely on your list if its your first time to the city. The complex, built in the 1920s, boasts 20 pools of varying temperatures and is set in a Neo-baroque style. The natural thermal spring waters contain calcium, sulphate, magnesium, bicarbonate, flouride acid and meteboric acid.
While you most certainly can soak it all up and relax to you hearts content, this bath encourages more of a party and social atmosphere. Compared to other baths, the crowd here is much younger, louder, and looking to add a little fun to their spa experience. Don’t expect any peace and quiet, or your own personal space at this bath.
While the indoor pools are nice, the highlight to a visit here is the outdoor pool complex. Surrounded by the building itself and littered with fountains and statues, immersing yourself into one of these three pools truly feels like a royal experience. With a constant temperature in one of the pools at 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), swimming and lounging in the pools is no problem all year round. In winter, after battle the cold air on your way to the pools, you will not want to ever head back inside. Hanging out in these pools was a highlight of the city and is a must do experience while in town. The atmosphere is fun, the architecture is appeasing to the eyes, and the waters will melt you and your heart away as you let loose with locals and tourists alike.
*If your looking for the best party in town, every Saturday night the outdoor pools are turned into a wild party, with lights, music, and DJs all night long*
Gellért is where you go to let all of your worries, aches, and pains be absorbed in peace by the healing waters that are found in this Art Nuveau Bath house. While much smaller than Széchenyi, Gellért is a more relaxing and meditative experience. The waters in some pools reach up to a bone melting 40 celcius (104 Fahrenheit) in rooms adorned with statues and fountains. The swimming pool that adjoins what was once separate sections for men and women is the most atmospheric part of the building, aligned with columns and has a glass ceiling that naturally lights the room. There is also an outdoor bath which offers some views of the city (you freeze your butt off getting in and out to the pool). In the warmer months, there is a wave pool as well.
While not completely quiet, silence is encouraged at the bath, offering visitors a much more tranquil experience when compared to Széchenyi. Claire and I had a hard time leaving this bath and getting home was a challenge with our wobbly muscles not feeling like doing much after a good days soak. Reward yourself during you travels with a day at this bath. You (and your body) will not regret it.
Dipping into Bath Culture
By bathing in Budapest, you are continuing a tradition that has presided in this region for thousands of years. As long as the thermal springs keep pumping, this is likely to continue into eternity. After 4 months on the road, taking a few days in the city to slow down and relax in the baths of Budapest was much needed before venturing into the Balkans.