When I was first told that much of our Budapest trip would involve checking out the city’s thermal baths, a bubble of panic immediately formed inside my chest.
I’m the sort of traveller that relishes the chance to pack in as much sightseeing and as many activities into a short time frame as humanly possible. There have been travel days where I have literally not been able to walk one step further due to achy feet. So, the idea of visiting baths and lazing about in hot water initially filled me with horror. After all, when would we be doing our sightseeing?
Trying to fight the urge to desert Chris and run away clutching my Budapest guidebook, on our first morning in the city, he managed to coax me into our first thermal bath building. He pleaded, “It’ll only be for an hour max, Kasha, and then we can go see all of those castles, monuments and museums you want to see.”
An hour? Doing the calculations in my head, this didn’t seem like a bad trade-off (maybe we could also start running inbetween sightseeing spots to catch up on even more time??), I hugged my bag containing my swimming gear and followed him through the doors.
Navigating the rules and norms of the thermal bath turned out to be a series of comical exchanges, but soon we were ready for our first thermal bath experience. And the rest our bath trips followed the same formula.
I was wrong. Very wrong, in fact.
What I had thought was a waste of sightseeing time turned out to be the opposite. Visiting Budapest’s thermal baths is sightseeing, albeit a different sort from the type I’m most used to. Instead of seeing beautiful buildings and learning about local customs while racing around on foot, we were doing the exact same thing but from the comfort – and accompanying luxury – of mineral-rich thermal pools.
As you’ll soon see – and as I discovered – Budapest’s thermal bath-houses and complexes form some of the city’s best architectural masterpieces. And, better yet, while you might learn about Hungarian customs and behaviour from a museum, what could be better than being surrounded by locals going about their daily/weekly routine of meeting up with friends at the neighbourhood hot baths?
Suitably hooked from the first go, Chris and I went on to visit three thermal baths in Budapest. What follows are our experiences of them, as well as what you need to know if you’d also like to visit these – and partake in this very different form of sightseeing!
Gellert Spa and Bath
Closest metro stop: Szent Gellert ter
Having crossed over into the Buda side of the city for the first time, the initial moments inside Gellert Spa and Bath‘s light-filled, grand entrance hall were welcome ones – if only for the sudden contrast to the frosty winter weather outside. But we were quickly distracted by the gorgeous interior. Sterile, decoration-free public pool this was not.
Perhaps my expectations were tainted by the gym swimming pools and leisure centres that I had recently come into contact with, but the Gellert Baths couldn’t be farther removed from the former aquatic experiences. All glass, wood and with a heavy touch of decorative flair, the Art Nouveau entrance hall looks more like the entrance to a palace or art gallery.
But rest assured, this is a bath, and our first obstacle was the ticket booth. There are various prices depending on when you visit the baths (weekday vs weekend), whether you need to hire items like towels or whether you’d like to throw in an extra massage treatment or two. At Gellert, you can also choose between hiring a locker or a private cabin. We went with the cheaper option – the lockers – and ended up paying £12 (5,100 forint) for our weekend day visit.
After changing and figuring out the lockers (don’t worry, there are posters explaining exactly how to use these), it was time to go into the baths themselves. Be prepared: there’s a lot to choose from! There are heated baths, each holding different water temperatures, there are conventional swimming pools and, if you can handle the quick, chilly run back to the changing rooms in the wintertime, outdoor heated pools too. In the summer, there’s even a pool that creates artificial waves.
Despite the modern treatments and facilities here, the healing waters of this location were written about as far back as the 13th Century. Containing a unique blend of calcium, fluoride, magnesium and much more, these waters are associated with alleviating symptoms of ailments including joint disease, asthma as well as spinal and circulatory problems.
All of this sounded excellent to me, so, finally, when I waded into the pools at Gellert, it was bliss. Surrounded by locals and lounging around in 38-degree-Celsius water, the stunning tiled interiors of the thermal baths completed this picture of perfection.
Much more so than the other baths we visited, Gellert Baths, with its large range of options, felt less busy than the others, and it also seemed to be less frequented by tourists.
Needless to say, we stayed well beyond the ‘max one hour’ promise, but that was largely due to the fact that I didn’t want to part with the lovely surroundings of Gellert Spa and Bath – nor the divine heated water either!
Closest metro stop: Szent Gellert ter
Slightly less opulent on the exterior side of things, Rudas Baths are not that far away from Gellert and are also well worth a visit.
Enjoying Rudas Baths is a slightly complicated matter, unless your visit coincides with a weekend, that is! On Tuesdays, the baths are women-only, while Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are reserved for men. Saturdays and Sundays are unisex. But don’t let these rules put you off.
The different areas (swimming pool vs thermal baths) are separate at Rudas, with a weekend ticket for the thermal baths setting you back £8 (or 3,400 forint). The perk here? If you’re going to the thermal baths, you will have your own little private cabin in which you can change and store your belongings while going for a soak. Since communal changing areas give me anxiety, this worked out particularly well for me.
Once changed, we moved into the hot bath area. Unlike the baths at Gellert, Rudas’ options are restricted to a single room. Dating back to the 16th Century, when Budapest was still under Ottoman rule, it looks like little has changed since the baths were first built. Designed as a Turkish bath, the dark chamber is only illuminated by the skylights in the domed ceiling above, each displaying a different colour of stained glass. Due to the steam and lack of light, it’s almost impossible to take a photo here (see below for evidence).
With the central bath providing the best temperature for leisurely soaking, the four smaller baths around it range from scorching (42-degrees-Celsius!) to a much-cooler 16 degrees. Like all of Budapest’s thermal baths, the water here is said to have healing qualities, with Rudas offering a ‘slightly radioactive’ blend of sulphate, calcium and fluoride.
Since there are only five hot baths, Rudas Baths can definitely feel a little cramped on the weekends, but, in terms of the building itself, it offers one of the most exotic experiences. I love it when travel presents swatches of time where an experience manages to transcend both time and place. And, while I was sitting in the hot bath at Rudas, with only the occasional shard of coloured light breaking through the gloom and with the quiet all around, it felt like I could be anywhere in the world at any time of day.
Apart from the setting itself, my favourite moment in Rudas had to be when Chris found a rope hanging from a bucket over his head. Without really thinking it through, he yanked the rope and was treated to a downpour of ice-cold water. That’s a surefire way to wake yourself up!
Closest metro stop: Szechenyi furdo
“If there’s one thing you do in Budapest, it’s got to be the Szechenyi Baths.”
This is what our co-passenger, a local, said as we disembarked our flight from London. He admitted the Szechenyi Baths were undoubtedly Budapest’s most touristy thermal pools, but he said that even locals overlook this fact for the chance to visit again and again.
Since I’ve learned that local tip-offs tend to deliver on the goods, we paid heed to this piece of advice. So, on another crisp winter’s morning, we stepped out of the metro station – conveniently located right in front of the baths entrance – to experience Szechenyi for ourselves.
I was already well acquainted with what we would see once inside, since images of the Szechenyi Baths have adorned just about every Budapest postcard or blog post I’ve ever seen. The exterior, though, with its bright-yellow walls, white trim and elaborate decoration immediately brought to mind some gigantic, extravagant wedding cake. And, even though it’s the city’s most renowned bath-house, Szechenyi was only built in 1909.
Paying 5,400 forint (£13) for our weekend visit, we were again ushered into private cabins to change, and then to lockers to stow away our belongings. Before we locked the cameras away, though, we had some photos to take. Although there are a lot of different baths to see (15 indoor and three outside), Szechenyi’s centrepiece is, without a doubt, it’s outdoor thermal pool.
With almost as many people outside of the pool as in the water, everyone was trying to get their best selfie – despite the freezing weather outside. Even with a quick glance, it was easy to see why. The outdoor pool, featuring mini fountains, huge flower pots and surrounded by more of the yellow wedding-cake-like building, it will feel like you’re inside the inner courtyard of someone’s opulent palace.
Dashing back into the locker rooms to lock away our cameras, it was our turn to step into Budapest’s most famous hot baths. The warm waters were a well-earned respite from the chilly air all around us. Composed of a mixture of minerals like calcium, fluoride and magnesium, the water at Szechenyi is also meant to soothe aches and pains.
While there were signs prohibiting eating and drinking in the baths, chess isn’t off the cards, and a group of elderly men were engaged in a game while enjoying the hot baths. Given their constant chatter, I suspect they might make an appearance here every single weekend.
I could’ve easily remained in this particular bath for hours, as I knew (and still know) that I’ll never see one as pretty as Szechenyi. One of my highlights from our time in Budapest actually happened while we were at Szechenyi Baths.
With steam constantly rising from the surface of the water, visibility was reduced to maybe two or three metres around us. So, imagine our surprise when we heard someone start singing, soon to be joined by a number of other voices. We swam slowly towards where the sound was coming from and came across a group of local men, who were obviously part of a choir and had just come to the baths for a casual get-together. Laughing and joking in between songs, it was wonderful to hear the singing start up over and over again. Even though we couldn’t understand the words, the melodies were calming and, within the setting of Szechenyi Baths, this whole little episode felt surreal. I will never forget it.
After a long session of thawing out in this pool, we ran (literally – it was that cold) back into the main buildings, lounged about in some of the indoor pools before heading out again into Budapest to do some more conventional sightseeing.
Was the man on the airplane right? Without a doubt, yes. Szechenyi Baths is an unmissable spot, largely due to its highly photogenic appearance!
Practical tips for visiting Budapest’s thermal baths
- Swimming costumes – Most attire seems to be ok here, whether it’s speedos or baggier shorts for the guys, or one-piece or bikinis for the ladies. If your decision to visit a thermal bath in Budapest is a spontaneous one, you can also hire swimsuits at most of the baths. Note: On single-sex days at some baths, nudity is A-ok!
- Make sure that your locker/cabin is locked and that the electronic wristband you use to unlock it is firmly attached to your arm.
- Although the rules differ between baths, if you’re keen to swim in the traditional swimming pools, then you’ll most likely need to have a swimming cap.
- Flip flops are required for a visit to most of Budapest’s baths.
- Some of the baths will require you to have a shower before getting in the heated pools. Just keep an eye out for signage.
- If, like us, you’d start doing other city sightseeing straight after a bath visit, remember to take a plastic bag in which to carry your wet clothes and towels. Otherwise, you’ll have a soggy backpack. Yes, we did learn this the hard way.
- Stay hydrated. You would think that, since you’re spending hours soaking in water, it’s impossible to get thirsty. After my first visit, I felt a bit light-headed and dehydrated, so I made sure to drink more water on my next few bath trips.
- Go for a wander. All of the baths listed above resemble mazes, and you have to do a bit of exploring to find new pools, saunas and areas.
With these three visits to Budapest’s baths – one for every day of our trip – my opinion on what sightseeing truly consisted of was easily dispelled. After seeing some of the city’s loveliest buildings, partaking in the local tradition of visiting thermal baths and even some memorable sights and experiences, I’m convinced that spending time in Budapest’s baths should be a compulsory item on everyone’s itinerary.
When I next have a serious bout of stress or some aches and pains, I know exactly where I’ll be heading to. And, since I loved the thermal baths so much, I may just leave out the other type of sightseeing on my next trip!
Have you visited Budapest’s thermal baths? Which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below.
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