Taking the waters in Budapest

One of the things Budapest is most famous for is its thermal baths. It is the thermal / hot springs capital of Europe. There are 123 thermal hot springs within the city limits and the highly mineral-rich water that bubbles up is believed to have profound healing benefits. These baths aren’t just for tourists by any means, the oldest baths date back to 1500 and earlier and ‘taking the waters’ is a Hungarian institution.

We visited 2 baths over the last 2 days (and wished in retrospect that we’d done more). On the final day we went to Gellért which is one of the grand dames of the bathing world, built between 1912 and 1918 in the (Secession) Art Nouveau style.

Gellert Baths in the snow
Gellert Baths in the snow
Gellert baths main lobby
Gellert baths main lobby

Gellert was good though on the expensive side and behind the faded grandeur of the baths themselves it had a bit of a Soviet feel to it, especially the changing rooms. The highlight was the thermal baths themselves (as opposed to the main swimming pool). These are sex-segregated and it’s like going back in time in the art nouveau bathing area. It wasn’t very busy when we there and it was mostly just locals. Naked bathing is quite common (by the older generation more so than the younger generation). Those that don’t bathe naked either wear trunks or a loin cloth/apron type thing. It used to be compulsory (in the single sex areas) to bathe without costumes but the rules changed last year and old habits begin to die out. The two thermal baths at Gellert are at 36 and 38c.

As well as the baths there are saunas and steam rooms. The steam room in the men’s area had the most steam of any steam room I’ve been in. You literally couldn’t see more than about 30 cm in front of you. At 100% humidity you’re practically breathing water, but it’s very good for the chest and sinuses.

Anyway, on the previous day we went to Széchenyi Baths in city park which was for me the highlight of the trip. This bathing complex is the largest of its kind in Europe and is a temple to bathing and “taking the waters”. It’s also like walking into a living museum as little has changed in the century or so it’s been running. And the whole complex is huge.

Széchenyi Baths, front facade
Széchenyi Baths, front facade
Széchenyi Baths, main outdoor thermal pool
Széchenyi Baths, main outdoor thermal pool
Széchenyi Baths, outdoor thermal pool
Széchenyi Baths, outdoor thermal pool
Széchenyi Baths, outdoor thermal pool
Széchenyi Baths, outdoor thermal pool

I wish I had photos of the interior but it’s not really easy to do so. The whole place is a labyrinth of pools, saunas, plunge pools, steam rooms, etc. And it all feels so old fashioned, like you’re in the 1930s. And the unisex changing area is like something from the Victorian era as it’s made up of really old fashioned cubicles which are white wood and have little grilles and curtains on them in long, long rows. We didn’t have one of these, instead changing in the men’s changing and locker room.

I did take the photos above in the outdoor area. The air temperature was just above zero although the wind chill was certainly below this. It was a case of making a mad dash from the main building into the pool itself. And the pool was huge, made up of a series of sub pools with the hottest (38c) at the far end, which we soon made a beeline to.

Széchenyi is cheaper than Gellért and felt more relaxed and less stuffy. I think any visitor to Budapest should put it firmly at the top of their list. If we’d had more time we would have gone to Rudas Baths which is Turkish, dating to 1550. It is also men only (though it has a ladies day once a week) and it’s also the most traditional.

I am not, generally speaking, a big fan of swimming pools or water in general (can take or leave it) but the thermal spas leave you feeling amazing. They smell sulphurous (a bit like rotten eggs) but your skin feels incredible when you come out and you genuinely feel recharged. And moving between the hot saunas, the steam rooms and the pools themselves (which are at different temperatures) is very enjoyable and cathartic. It’s also great to see the different generations using the pools as it’s such a mainstay of Hungarian life.