In the midst of a bitter cold Budapest winter, slipping on a bathing suit, stripping off your towel, and walking over the icy ground to an outdoor pool may be the last thing any sane person wants to do. But once you plunge into the thermal water, steam rising around you, you’ll see why the men playing chess on the waterproof boards are fixtures here, and why the women sitting around the edge of the pool seem so radiant. Slowly, your muscles will loosen up, you’ll relax, and your skin will become brighter and softer. This is the Széchenyi bath house—the grande dame of Budapest’s thermal bath houses—which draws throngs of people to its waters (and not just in the winter, though that is the most magical time at the outdoor thermal baths). Located in City Park, the jewel of the complex is this outdoor thermal pool, which has been immortalized on the covers of many Budapest guidebooks. When the neo-Baroque Széchenyi bath house was erected in the early 1900’s, it was the largest bath complex in Europe, and soaking in the natural thermal waters in these pools has long been part of a cherished routine for many.
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BUDAPEST: SPA CITY
Budapest is undoubtedly one of the world’s great spa cities, and there are many wellness options. But the historic bath houses, such as the Szécheny, are among the city’s most unique attractions, and each have unique characteristics. In Hungary, they say you can drill into the ground almost anywhere in the country and find mineral-rich thermal water. With 118 thermal outlets in Budapest alone, and an estimated 1,300 in the rest of the country, there’s probably some truth in that. Today’s Aquincum in Óbuda was once the border of the Roman Empire, and the Romans were the first to tap these hot springs nearly 2,000 years ago. Bath houses have been built here ever since, drawing both locals and visitors to take to the waters.
Twenty one baths from the Roman era have been uncovered, but bath house culture began to really flourish during the 150-year Ottoman occupation of Hungary (which ended in the late 17th century), when almost a dozen more bath houses were built. Several of those—like the Veli Bej, Király, and Rudas—are still in use today. These Turkish bath houses are all built in a similar style: stone buildings, with a dome atop a centerpiece octagonal-shaped pool surrounded by smaller pools. Sharp beams of sunlight pierce openings in the dome into the water below. Until not too long ago, the Király and the Rudas were never open for unisex bathing. Now the Király is always coed, and the old part of the Rudas is coed on weekends (annoyingly during the week women only get one day—Tuesday—while men get four; but the new wing is always coed).
Like Budapest’s elegant coffeehouses, some of its most beautiful bath houses (including the Szécheny)—worth visits for the architecture alone—were also built during the city’s Golden Age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and in the 1930s Budapest was given the title “Spa City.” Poets, composers, and architects in that era flocked to both the baths and the coffee houses. The ornate art nouveau Gellért, attached to the Art Nouveau Gellért Hotel, is the most stunning (and expensive) of the baths and has been open since 1918. The pools are decorated with majolica tiles, marble columns, stained glass windows and ceilings, mosaics, and lion-headed spouts. There are outdoor pools (including a wave pool). The neoclassical Lukács, once a haunt of writers and artistic types, has a wall of stone plaques given by bathers who have benefitted from the mineral-rich water.
The Lukács, Szécheny, and Rudas are also attractions for the “drinking halls”, where attendants serve up glasses of mineral-rich thermal water to drink.
THE GEOLOGY: WHY BUDAPEST IS SO RICH IN THERMAL WATER
Although it doesn’t matter much when you are lounging in the warm water, there are actually are a lot of geological reasons why Hungary’s location in the Carpathian Basin contributes to Budapest’s abundance of thermal waters. It has a unique geological composition which was at various times has been below sea level, even underwater, and then reclaimed by dry land. These changing positions brought cracks to the limestone and dolomite under Budapest’s surface, going thousands of meters deep, for water to seep through. The carbon dioxide in the water eats away at the rocks, creating an underground karst formation with passageways and chambers that store water.
The waters are constantly replenished from water seeping down from the surface, which then rises up to the surface again in the form of karst springs. The water that rises (sourcing the bath houses) is hot because the earth is so hot at the depth where these chambers and passageways are located. It remains hot as it travels upwards through the complex storage systems deep under the ground, causing the different surfaces to dissolve in the water. These dissolved solids added to the water are what give it its medicinal properties.
The water stored in the various layers of earth—formed at different points in the past few hundreds of millions of years—sometimes mix with each other. But the waters are usually stored separately from each other, which is why water from different springs has different healing properties. The Danube also contributes to Budapest’s thermal water wealth. It isn’t a coincidence that all of the bath houses (except for the Szécheny) are located within a block or two of the Danube. The river flows in a crack in the earth’s crust where the Buda Hills meet the Great Plain, which is where many of the thermal springs are located.
WHAT TO EXPECT
While most of Budapest’s old bath houses have been renovated and modernized, they remain as confusing as ever for the uninitiated. Be prepared for cashiers who don’t speak English, and brusque staff. It is highly recommended to bring your own bathing suit and towel (but at some bath houses you can rent towels). You’ll be greeted a long list of services (massages, manicures, pedicures, mud baths, and specific treatments for dozens of ailments) in several languages. Services and treatments must be paid for in advance at the cashier when you purchase your entrance ticket. Follow the crowds to the changing rooms (some bath houses have single sex changing rooms, others have rows of private cabins in which you can lock your belongings).
If you are getting a massage, don’t expect any soft music or scented oils. Massages will be straight to the point, with masseuses possibly talking loudly to each other through the dividers, stiff hospital-like sheets, and no luxurious touches, like scented oils or music. You can, however, expect an excellent massage. The pools can be crowded (especially in peak hours). There are signs everywhere recommending a thirty minute maximum soak. Most people ignore these, staying in the sulfurous smelling water, rotating from pool to pool, for hours. The best strategy: Go from hot (bath, steam room, or sauna) to the cold plunge pool, and repeat, repeat, repeat.
Soaking in Budapest’s thermal water feels decadent, and it’s addictive. And you can’t say you’ve experienced the city properly until you’ve slowly descended into the hot waters of an outdoor thermal pool when the air is chilly and the snow is falling. The mineral-rich water will relax you to the core, and is guaranteed to make you feel renewed.
SZÉCHENYI THERMAL BATH
Located in the middle of City Park (Városliget), this bathing complex is in a palatial baroque setting, which was built in 1913 and restored a few years ago. The undoubtedly picturesque chess boards in the outdoor pool are possibly one of the most photographed Budapest scenes. This was the first thermal bath built on the Pest side, and millions pass through its waters annually. There are 21 pools altogether, including three outdoor ones and a maze of indoor pools in varying sizes, shapes, and temperatures. The building also has a second level, with an exercise room, massage rooms, and various other treatment areas. Every Saturday, at an event unique to Budapest, a late-night party called SParty, is held here, with DJs, music, dancing, and lights taking over the normally tranquil spa.
KIRÁLY THERMAL BATH
Construction on this Turkish bath began in 1565 by the Ottomans, making it one of the city’s oldest existing buildings. The current façade was added in the 18th century, and the bath house was partly rebuilt in 1950 after being badly damaged in the World War Two. The stone building, with its metal dome topped with a Turkish crescent, retains much Ottoman ambiance. Sunlight breaches the dome through small holes, like bright spotlights on the dimly lit central octagonal pool below. Its location is notable—inside the former city walls, and not near a spring—and was chosen so that during war times it could be remain in use. Water was originaly transported through wooden pipes from the spring at the Lukács. Though the pipes are no longer wooden, the water still comes from the Lukács Bath. The Kiraly has three thermal pools, one small cold dipping pool, and a few saunas and steam rooms. First-timers may feel like newcomers to a party where everyone else knows each other, since many bathers are regulars who treat the place as a second home, even nibbling on salami sandwiches in the water.
RUDAS THERMAL BATH
Located on the Danube bank in Buda, near the Erzsébet Bridge, the Rudas is Budapest’s largest Turkish bath, built in 1578. Pieces of colored glass in the ten-meter domed ceiling lets in sharp rays of light. Beneath sits the octagonal pool, with several sets of stairs descending into the steamy green-tinted water, and four small corner pools and a cold plunge pool. The dome is supported by eight thick columns, which is why it was dubbed the “Bath of Green Column” in 17th century writings. In 1866 the city banned coed bathing at the Rudas, taking it back to how it was during Ottoman times. Only in 2005 when the Rudas underwent an extensive renovation were women were given their own single day to bath in the traditional part of the bath house (Tuesday). Weekends are also now coed, but Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are still reserved for men (however, the newer wing is always coed). The Rudas consist of two wings (which require separate tickets, or a combined ticket): the wellness department (which holds six swimming pools and the rooftop jacuzzi and deck) and the thermal bath area (with its six pools). In the newer wing (called the “wellness” section) the main attraction is the 20 meter-long pool in an atrium-like space with columns and arches. The rooftop deck has great views of Gellért hill, the Buda Castle, and the bridges crossing the Danube. Looking down at the foot of Gellért hill you can see the entrances leading to the springs bringing Rudas its slightly radioactive water (which is said to increase metabolism, and is and is recommended for degenerative joint problems).
Another Budapest institution is Rudas’ drinking hall, located under the Erzsebet Bridge, where you can get a big, mug of strong, warm, mineral water (three types!)—straight from the spring.
LUKÁCS THERMAL BATH
From the 1950s to the early 1980s the Lukács, just north of Margit Bridge on the Buda side, was a favorite of dissident writers and intellectuals. The building, which looks like a mansion from the outside, was built in the 1880s. But thermal baths have operated on the site since the 12th century when the knights of the order of Saint John built a monastery and baths. During Ottoman times, the place fell into disrepair, until the baths were transformed into a healing center in the 19th century. The courtyard entrance, full of old plane trees, has marble and stone plaques from grateful patrons claiming to have had their aches, pains, and illnesses cured by the bath’s medicinal waters. The waters here are rich in calcium, magnesium, hydrogen-carbonate, sulphate, chloride, and fluoride, and are said to be beneficial for degenerative joint illnesses, arthritis, spinal problems, and calcium deficiency. Lukács has eight pools, including several outdoor ones.
You can also have the “drinking cure” at Lukács’ drinking hall.
GELLÉRT THERMAL BATH
Attached to the Gellert Hotel, this is Budapest’s most stunning bath house. Rich in art-nouveau and Hungarian secession-style accents, the Gellért is worth a visit for the architecture alone (and there are separate viewing tickets for that purpose). Located by the Liberty Bridge on the Buda side, one of the main draws is the variety of pools, which include nine thermal pools, the fabulous indoor pool covered with a stained-glass skylight and surrounded by ornate pillars, several outdoor pools (including a wave pool), saunas, steam baths, and plenty of space for sunbathing in the garden.
VELI BEJ BATH
The former Császár bath was recently restored and reopened as the Veli Bej, which was its original name. The original building was built in 1575, and different additions were added over the years. The Classicist section was added in the 19th century by prolific Hungarian architect, József Hild (who also built St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Basilica of Esztergom). This section still holds a hospital and a hotel. Nearby, the Komjádi Pool is also on the grounds. Like the other Turkish baths, everything is centered around the octagonal pool under the dome, which is surrounded by four smaller thermal pools. There are also saunas and steam rooms, a jacuzzi, and treatment rooms. The Veli Bej is supplied by water from springs at the Lukács and Margit Island. Rich in calcium, magnesium, hydrogen-carbonate, sulfate, and sodium, it waters are said to help with joint problems, arthritis, and post-injury healing.
PALATINUS STRAND – BATH
Palatinus, Budapest’s largest swimming complex, is where Budapest comes to cool off during the summer. Located on the western side of Margit Island, it has 11 different pools, including an adventure pool, a wave pool, two open-air thermal pools, and several water slides. All pools are open-air, and the many shallow pools make it especially popular with families. There are playgrounds, plenty of grassy areas for sunbathing, and vendors selling beer and junk food. Water is sourced from the thermal springs on Margit Island (though in all but the two warm thermal pools it’s filtered, so it loses most of its mineral content). Expect long lines during summer weekends.
DAGÁLY STRAND – BATH
The Dagály, which opened in 1948, has its own spring. It’s a large swimming complex sitting on nearly eight hectares of park-like grounds next to the Danube (near the Pest side of the Árpád Bridge). It includes playgrounds, a tennis court, and lots of fast-food vendors during the summer. But the two outdoor thermal baths are the oldest part of the complex. During the summer crowds come for the range of outdoor pools—including children’s pools, slides, and a wave pool. The attraction during the rest of the year is the large open-air thermal baths (where you’ll find fewer crowds than the traditional bath houses). Dagály’s thermal water is effective for degenerative joint problems, arthritis, back problems, and rehabilitation. There’s also a fountain, a statue of a woman bending over, spurting medicinal drinking water.