Budapest is well known as a spa city thanks to the many thermal springs that provide endless hot water to the city’s numerous baths. A traditional part of life for local Hungarians, the baths have been here for centuries and are a must-do for visitors. Plus, with so many to choose from, it’ll take a lot of trips to run out of spas to visit!
Dotted all over the city, each thermal baths is unique in size and style and many are housed in beautiful buildings that are worth a visit in their own right. They are usually made up of a collection of different thermal baths, swimming pools and steam baths that you can move between freely for the price of one entry ticket, with extra treatments such as massages coming at an extra cost.
Thermal baths in Budapest
With so many thermal baths to choose from, and often having limited time, many visitors only get to scratch the surface of the Budapest spa scene by experiencing just one or two of the city’s many baths.
As our first trip to Budapest was a short one, this was the issue we faced so we made the decision to focus on two of the city’s most well known baths: Gellért and Széchenyi.
Gellért thermal baths
Our first trip was to the Gellért thermal baths, part of the Gellért Hotel on the Buda side of the river. Our plan was to end our busy day of sightseeing around the Var district with a relaxing dip in a warm pool, however, it took us longer than expected to reach it by foot and we discovered that the opening times we’d spotted online were wrong so we were left with a lot less time than originally planned.
Even so, we went ahead and paid the ‘day spa’ entrance fee and went off to get changed and showered. For early risers it’s worth knowing that you can get an ‘early bird’ ticket that is slightly cheaper, but if you come in the afternoon you’ll pay the same price whether you turn up at 1pm or 6pm, so we didn’t really get very good value for money!
Gellért thermal baths are the oldest in the city and are rightly known as the prettiest. The hotel’s art nouveau influence is clear, and the baths are decked in beautiful blue tiles and mosaics. Inside the baths the design turns more classical, with Roman-style columns running the length of the main pool, and water spilling forth from the lion heads that greet your entrance.
Getting to grips with the locker and cabin allocation system
As thermal bath newbies, we were a bit lost once we walked through the turnstile and into the baths. A labyrinth of passages and stairways took us to the changing area, and we were given a blue rubber wristband for our cabin..But inside staff were scarce and little was written anywhere in English.
We wasted even more precious time trying to work how to get into a cubicle before we discovered that the answer lay in panels found on the tiled walls of the changing area. Simply placing your bracelet against it sends a message to the chip inside the bracelet and a number pops up on the panel – it’s allocated you this number locker or cabin. Now you’re only job is to walk around the large changing area to find it!
At Gellért we found that the changing cabins, which you can share, were downstairs with separate male and female changing areas upstairs. Only a small sign by the staircases lets you know which is which, so be sure to check before marching up into the wrong area, as my other half almost did!
You can only unlock your cabin with the allocated bracelet, so we knew that we could securely leave our bags and belongings inside and then it was time to head towards the echo-y sounds of talking that will led us to the main baths.
One quick word of warning – we also fell foul to another ‘end of day issue’, which is the time you must return your towels if you want your deposit back. Thankfully one of our friends was eagle-eyed enough to spot a sign over the rental desk that stated that towels must be returned by 15 minutes before closing time. This sadly left us with even less time in the baths, as we had to be dried and dressed ready to return our towels before 7.45pm. Why that was case though, I have no idea!
Széchenyi was a completely different spa experience, and not just because we weren’t rushed for time!
The biggest of all the city’s baths, Széchenyi is a huge indoor and outdoor complex of 16 baths, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to experience them.
Not having to clock-watch meant that we were able to embrace the Budapest spa experience properly by going from room to room and dipping into any of the baths that took our fancy.
My favourite was the wonderfully steamy outdoor thermal pool and although it took all of my willpower to leave it, I was eager to see more of what Széchenyi had to offer. And so I painfully tiptoed across the concrete floor (note to self – take flip-flops next time) and through ice-cold foot baths (I’m sure they weren’t really, but after being in a 400C pool it felt like it!) to check out the myriad of baths that lay inside.
It’s so much fun to explore. I wandered past baths of different temperatures and sizes, discovering small pools hidden around corners, or following the smell of eucalyptus towards the steam rooms. With plunge pools and saunas to boot, any spa lover will feel like Charlie in his chocolate factory!
Spoilt for choice, having walked through much of the complex I’d decided that the beautiful outdoor pool was still my favourite, thanks to the powerful hot fountains you can stand underneath and the fun of watching visitors and locals alike playing chess whilst bobbing in the water. A word of note however, the outdoor pools aren’t open all year round, so do check before visiting, as out of high season they use this time to undertake any necessary maintenance.
We spent a morning at the baths, before having to make a move to catch our flight. Although you’d probably end up quite wrinkly, I’m pretty sure you could easily while a day away here, especially as there’s a decent café for you to fuel up on food when you drag yourself back onto dry land. Perhaps one of the better options for those who would like to have a full-on spa day?
Hints and tips: what you need to know about Budapest’s thermal baths
I’m far from an expert when it comes to Budapest’s thermal baths, but I did pick up a lot of useful tips from both fellow travellers and locals during my visits.
Although I only got a small glimpse of what the city offers when it comes to its spas, I’ll definitely be back to try out some more of them. One local lady said it’s important to visit a variety of baths as each has a unique ambience and offers different things. For example, she said Rudas is great for sun lovers, thanks to its rooftop pool and loungers, whilst the baths on Margaret Island, popular in summer with the locals, are great fun thanks to its wave machine. I also discovered during my stay that some of the baths also hold late night spa parties – known as ‘sparties’ for short, where there’s booze, laser shows and pumping music.
Held at the Széchenyi Baths in the summer and then moving to the Lukács
Baths for the winter nights, these sound amazing, and I most definitely will be checking one out the next time I’m back in the city!
Here’s some final advice to help out first time visits to Budapest’s thermal baths.
- Don’t worry about using sites like Viator to prebook your tickets – if you just turn up you’ll most likely be able to walk up to the counter and buy your ticket straight away.
- Unless you’re in time to pick up a ‘morning’ ticket you’ll be charged the same ‘day price’ regardless of what time you turn up. Be aware of this if you want value for money.
- For a small charge you can hire towels to save from carrying them with you.
- Whether you rent or bring them, leave your towels in your locker or cabin – they’ll only get wet if you carry them around with you and be useless for when it’s time to get dry and dressed.
- Swimming caps are only compulsory if you want to go into the main swimming pools of the baths. It is not necessary to wear them in any of the other baths unless you want to.
- I’d definitely recommend wearing flip-flops when you wander between the different bathing areas. If your balance is suspect you’ll want to be aware of how slippery the floor can get, but also the outdoor areas can be rough on your feet, and in summer may burn!
- Be sure to check all nooks and crannies – you’ll be surprised to discover how many of the smaller baths or steam rooms are hidden around corners.
- Be aware that the outdoor pools aren’t open all year round.
Find out more about Budapest’s thermal baths – and the ‘sparties’ at www.bathsbudapest.com.
Have you visited one of the baths in Budapest and have any tips of your own to share? If so I’d love to hear them – please leave your comments in the box below!