A trip to Budapest will not be complete without a visit to at least one of its historic thermal baths. It’s said that the Romans settled in the area because of the abundance of thermal springs – I would too! The first Roman baths were constructed around the 2nd century AD but it wasn’t till the Turks occupied the city in the 16th century that the city’s most beautiful baths were built and the thermal bath culture blossomed. The baths quickly became a place to relax and socialise but were also used for wellness purposes: the spring water contains medicinal qualities and locals also visited the baths for massage treatments.
I was going through a rather stressful period when I visited Budapest for the first time in the 1990’s. My busy banking job was taking its toll on me and I developed stomach ulcers which were excruciating at times. I’d read somewhere that the thermal springs in Budapest are known to alleviate all sorts of ailments so I visited several baths. I drank big gulps of water at the Lukács and Rudas baths and lo and behold, my ulcers miraculously disappeared after a few days. I’m not a doctor and I have no idea what medicinal qualities the water contains but it certainly helped me.
I visited other baths on subsequent trips to Budapest such as the Gellért, Széchenyi and Király baths. Each has its own history, style, customs and architecture. Some baths are for mixed bathing (men, women and children) whilst some, like the Rudas bath has specific opening times for men, women and families. Here are my three favourite thermal baths in Budapest:
Built by the Turks in the 16th century, Rudas is one of the oldest baths in Budapest. I personally find it one of the most atmospheric. Sitting in the central bathing area is like taking a step back in time. A large dome with rays of light streaming through little holes is supported by eight columns and beautiful arches. The stunning dome covers the main pool which is octagonal in shape. In each corner of the hall are pools with different temperatures. There’s also a series of steam rooms which get hotter as you go further. The bath also offers a variety of spa and massage treatments.
The Széchenyi Bath is arguably one of the most beautiful and elaborate thermal bathing complexes in Budapest. Built in 1913, the complex resembles a palace and there are both indoor and outdoor pools. This is the bath that’s often featured in many photos and brochures – the famous scenes of elderly men playing chess in the water – and rightfully so. It certainly is an impressive sight. Both locals and tourists mingle in the many pools, each with a different temperature. There are separate areas for spa and medicinal treatments.
If you love Art Nouveau architecture, you’ll love the Gellért Baths. The bath/hotel complex was built in 1918 and expanded in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Like its counterpart Széchenyi, the Gellért is an elaborate complex with indoor and outdoor pools (there’s even a wave pool!). The interior, with its gorgeous mosaics, marble columns and stained glass windows, is absolutely breathtaking.
There are often queues to enter the popular baths like Széchenyi and Gellért so if you wish to skip the queues, I recommend purchasing advance tickets. These are a bit more expensive than the tickets at the door but they’re worth every penny, especially on a busy day. You can purchase these tickets at your hotel.
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