A trip to Budapest just wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Hungarian Parliament building or trying a bowl of goulash soup, and as this European city is known for its thermal waters, a trip to one of the baths is a definite ‘must-do.’ While a nice swim in a thermal pool may be the perfect way to relax aching muscles after a day of sight-seeing, in Budapest, bath houses are much more than a tourist attraction – they are a way of life.
Locals put a lot of faith in the water’s healing properties and for many of the city’s older residents, the baths remain as important today as they were to the Ottomans.
Many of the thermal waters found around the city are sulphurous and thought to be effective in treating rheumatism, arthritis and even Parkinson’s disease. While you may not be in need of the bath’s health benefits, time spent in the thermal waters will definitely lift your spirits and leave you feeling relaxed.
Baths like the Király and Rudas were built by the Turks in the 16th century. Still in use today, both are among the great architectural buildings of the Turkish period. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several more bathhouses were built including the beautiful Széchenyi Baths in City Park, the grand Gellért Baths and the powerful Lukács Baths, all of which are also still in use today.
As my time in Budapest was limited, I decided my one bath adventure would be the famous Gellért Baths. The Gellért Hotel and Baths, built between 1912-1918, were heavily damaged by bombing in WWII and rebuilt in the late 1940s.
While many of the bathhouses survived the Communist era, none came out with the grace and beauty of the Gellért. A fine example of Budapest’s neo-classical style, walking through the door is like taking a step back in time.
The central foyer’s marvelous dome sets the tone, accented by statues, benches and elaborate stained-glass windows casting a glow over the room.
After paying your admission fee (which is discounted if you go after 5pm), you enter through the turnstile and make your way through a long, dimly lit tunnel filled with peepholes, allowing you to watch the swimmers go by above you as you make your way to the change rooms.
Stepping out to the terrace area, you are greeted by what could be the set of an old Hollywood mansion. A stone wall is built up on either side of the wave pool, with statues watching over the bathers.
While the wave pool (above) was a little chilly as evening came, the popularity of the warmer baths was evident. The pools were filled with a mix of locals and tourists, languages floating through the air as the warm, relaxing waters washed away the tension of the day.
Following proper bath etiquette will not only make your bath experience more enjoyable, but also help avoid embarrassing mishaps. Many of the more traditional baths still have separate pools for men and women. Be aware that in those baths, swimsuits are not usually worn and sometimes not allowed. In co-ed pools, bathing suits are required at all times. Towels and swimsuits are usually available for rent, but save the money and possibly the humiliation of donning an outdated, often over-priced swimsuit by bringing your own. Best advice – if you are unsure in any situation, always follow the lead of the locals!
While there are numerous baths located around Budapest, below are a few of the city’s most popular places to soak your cares away.
Gellért Hotel and Baths
The Gellért is known to be the finest of all the baths in Budapest. Located in Buda, in the Gellért district, the baths are open everyday of the year with both indoor and outdoor pools, including one of the world’s first artificial wave pools! While the Gellért is one of the pricier baths in Budapest, if you wait until after 5pm you can enjoy the last 3 hours relaxing in the pools at a discounted price.
The Széchenyi Bath was the first bath built on the Pest side of the city. The beautiful Széchenyi is located in City Park and hosts 15 baths of varying temperatures for guests to relax in.
Kiraly is one of the smaller baths in the city. When it was built in 1565 it was the only bath within the walls of the castle. This ensured the Turks would be able to bath even while under siege. In 1796, it was bought by the König family, who rebuilt it. Then, during World War II, Kiraly was damaged and a complete renovation took place in 1950. At one point, this bath had specific days for men and women, but now both sexes can enjoy the five separate pools any day.
The Rudas Bath, built in the 1550s, is one of the baths built in Budapest during the Ottoman rule and today the Turkish influence can still be seen, especially in the bath’s main dome. From 1936 until 2007, the Rudas’ six baths were men-only pools, but today women are allowed on Tuesday and the pools are open to everyone on Saturday and Sunday.
The Lukacs Bath has long been known for its healing powers. The bath has had a varied history, from knights curing the sick to Turks using it to produce gunpowder and grind wheat to becoming property of the Treasury. Then in 1884, the spa hotel was built and the swimming pool was transformed to meet the times. Hearing of the bath’s healing waters, people came from all over the world to reap the benefits. Today, the Lukacs bath has eight pools, both inside and outside, with a small park surrounding the outdoor ones.