City of spas: The thermal baths of Budapest

I’ve already admitted to being fairly lazy when it came to exploring Budapest’s nightlife, but what of its culture? The city is an ideal location for a museum marathon, if that’s the kind of break you’re after, but to really understand Budapest’s culture you can quite happily eschew the lot — providing you’re willing to strip off.

With thermal springs bubbling under the city, public bathing is very much in the water here, so to speak. It’s medicinal too… or at least so they say. To me all this ‘taking the waters’ business stinks of Georgian quackery. I can’t prove it, but I suspect it’s all a great wheeze that everyone’s in on but goes along with anyway, offering up comedy winks and wry smiles alongside spurious claims of gout and consumption.

Medicinal schmedicinal — I still can’t help but admire any society that’s shaped its cultural routine around some kind of communal lazing about in steamy, grandiose settings. As far as I’m concerned, this is evidence a nation has reached the pinnacle of civilisation. (Well done, Morocco! You go, Turkey! Great work, Hungary! Italy… what happened?)

I’ll be honest, while I was tempted by the Helmut Newton exhibition, all I really wanted from this trip was to catch up with a couple of my oldest friends as I wallowed neck-down in soupy spa water. And wallow I did. I visited the two most popular and impressive bath houses in the city, and on both occasions stayed until I was truly prunified. Read on for pictures, descriptions and details.

Gellert Baths


Adult ticket on weekday/weekend with locker: 4,900/5,100 HUF, £14.50/15, $21.70/22.60, 16.90/17.60 euro

Open: 6am-8pm every day, always mixed

The Gellert hotel and spa with its curious towers and  pools first opened in 1918 against the lush, green backdrop of Buda’s Gellert Hill. It’s been through some tough times has Gellert, what with various wars and occupations and burst water pipes and such. Fortunately after a revamp in 2008, it’s in perfect shape these days.

Above and below you can see the outdoor wave pool (sans waves) and the sun loungers. This is a pretty sweet spot to be on a sunny day, and let me advise you that if it isn’t sunny, stay away from that wave pool – it is NOT heated, and I found this out the hard cold way. Brrr!

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Below is the iconic indoor art nouveau indoor swimming pool. Aside from the changing facilities here, which are very cramped, the interior at Gellert is just as attractive and exciting as the exterior.

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Szechenyi Baths


Adult ticket on weekday/weekend with locker: 4,100/4,300 HUF, £12.10/12.70, $18.20/19, 14.15/14.85 euro

Open: 6am-10pm every day, always mixed

A little way out of the centre, the opulent, mustard-hued Szecheyni Baths sprawl across Pest’s City Park. Anyone who’s ever taken a primary school art class knows that the blue and yellow are complementary colours, but rarely have I seen them used together on this scale and to such glorious effect. The moment the sun breaks through the clouds, everything is illuminated and happy bathers bask in the glow.

I hear though, that the best time to come here is mid-winter, very early in the morning. With these being the hottest baths in the city at 38 degrees, it’s apparently the perfect spot to watch snowflakes slip silently into the rising steam at first light.

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As I say, it’s a little way out from the centre, but the walk to the baths is definitely worthwhile. Heading east from the river, you’ll pass along Andrassy Avenue — a wide boulevard they call the Champs Elyseesof Budapest — and through Heroes Square. Conveniently, Szecheyni also has its own metro stop, so there’s no need to walk back again if you’ve overdone the relaxation (oh, poor you!)

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I preferred the changing facilities here to those at Gellert, but aside from this, there was little to keep me indoors here on a beautiful day. With a total of 18 pools, the outdoor ones are clearly the crowning jewels. If you like bubbles and whirlpools (who doesn’t?), this is the place for you.


Bath house tips

  • Some baths have gender-specific days. Be sure to check first.
  • Make sure you take a bathing suit, a towel and a swimming hat if you want to swim lengths in the main pool with all the old folks. I’d also recommend flipflops.
  • You don’t need a padlock or money to secure your locker. On entry you’ll be handed a wristband with a circular bit on it. Once you’ve chosen your locker, hold the circular bit against the button as you press it in and this will lock it. Do the same to unlock it. If you want private changing facilities, you can pay more for a cabin.
  • The recommended way to use the baths is as follows: shower > relax in a warm pool > cold pool > sauna >cold shower > steam bath > cold shower > pools of different temperatures > shower > rest and relax while wrapped in a big towel. Just go with whatever you feel like though. I don’t know about you, but there’s a limited number of cold showers/plunge pools I can endure in one day. And that number is one. Max.
  • Be nosy and explore. The thermal baths are warrens of corridors and rooms, and it’s not always super clear where everything is.
  • Keep an ear out for late-night events at the – some bath houses screen films and others host wet and wild parties that last until the early hours.

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