When the city of Budapest is mentioned one of the first things that people associate with it is the fact that it is famous for the thermal baths. The thermals have an extensive history that reaches the Roman era.
However, it was the Turks who started building them in 1565 in order to have a place to bath in case of a siege on the city. Budapest as well as many other parts of Hungary sits upon innumerable hot springs providing easy access to acquiring the mineral rich waters for bathing.
Most Europeans are great believers in the varying medicinal powers of thermal bathing. It is not uncommon for each of the thermals to be a medical clinic which treats disorders of the skin, muscular system, and bone ailments. Each thermal has its own unique mineral content, which is prescribed for different treatments. Even if you are not in need of the health benefits, time spent in thermal baths will lift your spirits.
What to Know Before You Go:
Thermal bathing is beyond cleanliness; it has evolved as a deeply engrained social activity in the Hungarian culture. Although all of the major baths are owned by the Budapest Spa Authority, each bath has its own protocols. These are known to change often and without any advanced warning.
For the most part, one needs to remember that these civil service positions are paid minimum wage, so don’t expect them to be unduly welcoming. Most do not speak English, and have little patience with anyone who does not speak Hungarian, but this should be seen as a challenge rather than an obstacle.
Often tourists find their baths excursion to initially be stressful or intimidating, but after plunging forward, it transforms into a cultural experience with wonderful memories to take with them. When in doubt, try to spot a native to follow their example of what to do.
What most people report as the first inhibiting experience is when they approach the ticket window. The lengthy list of services and prices can be confusing, but often they are without English translations adding to the anxious feelings. Chances are you’re coming to use one of the following facilities or services: uszoda (pool); termal (thermal pool); fuerd (bath); gzfuerd (steam bath); massage; and/or sauna.
You are in charge of deciding which you want to use and in what order. Go from one facility to the next as your comfort level dictates. As most of the thermals are also medical clinics, a number of the services available will not be of interest. Depending on the thermal, they may or may not provide a towel or large sheet for your use. If needed, a towel rental is toeruelkoez or leped. If you don’t want to rent one, bring your own.
Once inside, don’t be fearful of exploring; you’ll find you will feel comfortable and confident after a short time if you allow yourself to relax. Envelope the foreignness of the experience, because after all, this is the reason you are here.
An entry ticket generally entitles you to a free locker in the locker room (oeltoez); or, at some bathhouses, you can opt to pay an additional fee for a private cabin (kabin). Most of the thermals now have a strange plastic wristwatch type band that is used to lock and unlock your locker. There have never been any reports of robbery from these lockers or cabins, so your things are safe. However use common sense; don’t flash anything around before going into the locker.
Remember to pack a bathing suit. The rule for wearing a bathing cap for swimming in the pools seems to change often. If you don’t have one and want to swim, you will have to rent one of their vintage 1970 models.
As of this writing, these are the current rules. Flip-flops are generally a good idea. It is proper to shower before getting into a thermal or pool. Soap and shampoo are only allowed in the showers, but you should bring everything you will need from the locker or cabin to avoid multiple trips.
Some of the waters are high in mineral content, so you will most likely want to shower well and shampoo your hair before leaving. All of the thermals have different pools, each with its own designated temperature. The temperatures are listed in Celsius only, so if your metric knowledge is limited, approach with caution.
Depending on the pool, you may find strong sulfur or other mineral smells, but remember it will do wondrous things for your skin and body parts. If it is possible to see without them, leave your glasses in your locker as they will get fogged up once in the water.
Generally, extra services (massage, pedicure) are received after a bath.
Anyone who has attended to you appreciates tips, especially if you plan on returning. A tip of 200 Ft is typical, unless you have repeatedly needed assistance; in that case make it a bit more. Masseurs and manicurists expect a tip in the 500-Ft-to-700-Ft range. There are drinking fountains in the bath areas, so it’s a good idea to drink plenty of water before, during, and after a bath. Bathing on an empty stomach can cause nausea and light headedness for those unaccustomed to the temperatures.
Some of the pools will show that you should not stay in the hot water for more than 10 minutes at a time. Most bathhouses have snack bars in the lobbies where you can pick up a cold juice or sandwich on your way in or out, but you must eat it there. Be sure to stay hydrated and have a great time.
Some of Our Favorites:
Here is a cautionary note; the hours and prices change often. In fact, the changes are so often that the ‘official’ Budapest thermal website is generally out-of-date by months or longer, not atypical of businesses here. That said, the rules of segregation or not for the Kiraly or Rudas may suddenly change. You can try the website www.spasbudapest.com, but the most assured way of knowing is to actually stop by to check. Even the tourism office has been known to give outdated information. As of this writing, the website still had events listed for December 2011.
Address: XIV. Allatkerti ut 11-14 in Varosliget (City Park). Metro: Szechenyi fuerdoe (Yellow line).
This holds the title of being one of the largest spa complexes in Europe. As the first thermal on the Pest side of the city, it was first built as a temporary structure in 1813, but later became a permanent establishment in 1913. In 1927 it was expanded to its current size. Located in Varosliget (City Park), the Szechenyi Baths are the most popular with locals and tourists. This is one of the few nicer thermals that are mixed sexes. Once inside the complex, you will not believe the enormity as the outside view is deceptive. The 16 different pools, each with different water temperatures has something for everyone. For those with a playful spirit, one is a whirlpool that will spin you around. As crowded as this thermal can get with families and tourists who come to enjoy the palatial unisex outdoor swimming pool every month of the year, it never feels overcrowded. Turkish-style thermal baths are segregated and are located inside off to the sides of the outdoor pools. In warm weather, there is segregated nude sunbathing on the roof. When you see the ubiquitous photo of older men playing chess on floating chess boards in a pool of water, you can be assured it was taken at this bath. If you like the water, you will certainly want to spend the day here.
II. F u. 84. Metro: Batthyany ter (Red line).
This is thermal has the honor of being one of the oldest baths in Hungary. The Kiraly’s construction was started by Arslan, Turkish Pasha of Buda in 1565, but was completed by his successor. They built this bath so they could easily bathe and be ready for battle. Legends claim the Turks needed to make bathing fun to get the Hungarians to bathe. The Kiraly Baths are still one of Budapest’s most important Turkish architectural tributes. Bathing under the octagonal domed roof with sunlight filtering through small round windows in the ceiling, gives the water a special glow. In late afternoons in winter you can look at the night sky watching the stars hanging in the distance. In addition to the thermal baths, there are sauna and steam room facilities, but no swimming pools. At one time, this was the thermal of choice for gay men. It was notorious for resembling a Roman orgy. However, after a TV news reporter secretly filmed the goings on and broadcast it, things changed significantly. Now, it is integrated women and men every day, so bathing suits are required at all times and you have to keep your hands to yourself. You can enter up to one hour before closing, but it is not worth the effort since everyone is required to head to the lockers hour before closing time.
I. Doebrentei ter 9. No. 7 Bus
Near the Erzsebet Bridge, on the Buda side of the city, this is the second oldest of the classic Turkish baths. These baths are for men only every day except Tuesday during the day or Friday night, and mixed men and women on weekends. Truly one of the most authentically beautiful, especially after an extensive renovation, the centerpiece is an octagonal pool under a 10m (33-ft.) domed roof with some of the small window holes in the cupola filled with stained glass. Others are open to the sky; diffused light stream through. There are four corner pools of varying degrees of temperature. Older men predominantly comprise the early morning crowd. The services here are the same as at Kiraly: thermal baths of varying degrees, a sauna, and a steam bath, but in much more glorious surroundings. This sauna has been refurbished. Any sexual activity is strongly frowned upon by the locals as well as the attendants.
XI. Kelenhegyi ut 4. Trams 47 or 49 Szent Gellert ter.
Gellert Baths are located in Buda’s Hotel Gellert, the oldest Hungarian secessionist-style spa and hotel. Be aware that although the thermal and the hotel share the building, the thermal area is owned by the Budapest City Spa Authority. The entire thermal area, both men’s and women’s sections, have been remodeled to their near-original glory; in the men’s area they used authentic Zsolnay porcelain tiles, while women’s side has replicas. The only integrated areas are the swimming pools, one inside and one outside, which is included in the cost of entry (the outdoor pool is only open in summer). This is the most expensive thermal in the city and many leave there, stating it is overrated and not worth the cost. An employee shared that it is too expensive for Hungarians, so those who frequent it are foreigners or hotel guests who get free entry.
A common complaint is the staff’s boorish attitude toward guests. If you still feel a need to go, the bath entrance is outside through the right side of the hotel. Inside the lobby, the details are lovely, especially the stained-glass windows; photos are not allowed unless you are on a tour. The unisex indoor pool has marble columns, majolica tiles, and stone lion heads spouting water. The summer outdoor pool has the attraction when 10 minutes of every hour on the hour, the artificial wave machine churns out ocean type waves. Prices include a cabin. At the cashier’s desk, there is an extensive list of services in English. The last entrance is an hour before closing.
An Outdoor Pool Complex
Palatinus Strand XIII. Margit-sziget. Tram: 4 or 6 to Margit-sziget and then walk to the pool.
On the lovely Margaret Island is Budapest’s best located strand (literally “beach,” but in reality a water park). Sadly, this is a summer only complex, but if you are lucky enough to be here then, this complex is huge and a great way to beat the summer heat. Margaret Island thermal springs feed the three thermal pools, an extra-large swimming pool, and the smaller artificial wave pool.
There is a water slide, a grassy area for picnicking, and segregated nude-sunbathing decks on the building roof. Rumor has it that the men’s side can get rather festive. If you tire of water sports, other facilities include Ping-Pong tables, pool tables, trampolines, and dozens of snack bars. Rates include either a locker or a cabin. Children 13 and under are discounted; children 5 and under are free.
BudaBaB Bed and Breakfast is situated in the historic Jewish district of the downtown part of the city. It is within 2 blocks of the Red metro line, 2 tram lines, and 5 bus lines. For those who enjoy walking, many of the attractions are within 15 minutes. Although Budapest does not have a designated gay district, one of the oldest gay bars is 2 blocks around the corner.
BudaBaB is owned and operated by an American gay couple. Although small, only two rooms, it is the perfect size for giving the utmost personal care for guests’ needs. Having lived here for over 11 years, Ryan and Ron are city experts. During the summer, BudaBaB offers the Feri Place, a self-catering apartment on the 4 or 6 tram line and one block from Sauna 69.