Visiting one of Budapest's thermal baths is a right of passage for anyone's first time in this historic city. The baths are as important to the culture and the city as anything else you'll see and do he. Although the concept might seem strange to foreigners once you get over the first time jitters, you're bound to find the experience something you'll want to do over and over again.
The term ‘taking the waters’ is a saying the locals frequently mention. They believe that bathing in these thermal springs helps with many different health problems from arthritis to eczema and even can help soothe the mind if you've been experiencing any level of stress in your life. Since most baths in Budapest are unisex, this is the perfect place to go with your family, friends or as a romantic and relaxing day with your partner.
One of the reasons the Romans came to colonise the city we now call Budapest, was to utilise their rich wealth of thermal springs. Even today, you can visit the ruins of some of these Roman baths. Romans long used baths for both medical and cleansing purposes, since most people didn't have running water in their homes. The Romans knew there were many benefits gained by bathing in thermal springs. Healing elements in the water include magnesium, calcium and sulphate. These are effortlessly absorbed into your skin while bathing and help with poor circulation, arthritis and many skin conditions. Once the Turkish invaded, they constructed their own unique bath houses in the 15th century, some of which still are standing today.
WHAT TO EXPECT
To prepare for your first time in the waters, it's best to know what to expect, that way you won't be surprised by any unforeseen steps. All baths have different opening times and may differ on some policies, but for the most part, they all have the general layout and process.
For our first time visiting a spa, we settled on the Gellert Baths. Not only are the baths here arguably the most beautiful setting, and slightly less touristy than the Szechenyi Baths, they also have a great set of amenities. But finding a spa that caters to tourists isn't a bad thing for your first time. Although some people might want to avoid this to get a more traditional experience, having a spa that caters to the language barrier and provides ample signage and instructions will make you feel more comfortable on your first time inside.
Some spas have male-only or female-only days and the hours vary from spa to spa, so be sure to check their websites before you go. If you're interested in these same-sex days, be warned that these will be clothing optional. You are more than welcome to wear your bathing suit, but many will opt to go completely nude. This may make some people uncomfortable, but if you're brave enough, the experience is very freeing.
WHAT TO BRING?
Towels are necessary for bathing, and they won't be provided for free. You must bring your own, or you can rent one at a relatively low cost. They usually tend to be around £3 so if you're only going once or twice its worth it not to having to lug around a wet towel. But if you plan on visiting multiple times, it might be worth bringing the towel from your hotel.
Flip flops are another essential item to carry with you since the wet, cold floors aren't the best for bare feet and in the summer the tile can get hot underfoot. Leave them on the side of the pool before getting in, don't worry, everyone does it, so you don't need to worry about them getting stolen.
Most of the spas require bathing caps if you choose to swim in the main pools - not the hot baths - so bring your own or be prepared to pay for a disposable one. Again, this will be listed online, so you can always check for their requirement before you leave. It's a good idea to bring a bottle of water with you if you easily get dehydrated from hot tubs. You can always buy water inside, but it will no doubt be pricier than if you bring your own.
Admission prices vary, mostly depending on the size and quality of the baths, but are around £6-10. If you feel like getting a massage, be sure to book these in advance to guarantee a spot. It isn't necessary to buy tickets to enter the bathhouse in advance. These cost anywhere from £15-60 depending on the length and kind of treatment. Some sites sell these at a higher price than at the door, and it is never necessary since even on the busiest days you can always get in.
Once you pay your admission, you will be given an electronic bracelet or key to a locker or cabin where you can get changed. To open the lockers with the electronic bracelets, place your bracelet against the number on the locker and it will pop open. Magic! A locker is only big enough for storage, and you will have to change in the public change room. Cabins, on the other hand, are large enough for one person to change inside, as well as storing your items. If you're a little shyer, opt for the cabins. They cost a little bit more but are worth it for the comfort.
The layout of many of the spas follows a similar design. There is a large, refreshing pool where people can swim laps or just float. Then there are various hot tubs for relaxing, each with a different temperature and sometimes different elements to help heal what ails you.
There are also various saunas, steam rooms, a cold plunge pool, massage rooms and areas to sunbathe outside. Be sure to explore. Many of the spas contain dozens of different baths, some in rather obscure or hidden places. If you ever get too far off course or enter an off-limits area, a kind employee will guide you back, so don't be afraid to walk around.
WHERE TO GO
If you're pressed for time and only have time to visit one of the many baths, Széchenyi Baths is the place to go. It's so iconic and has a myriad of pools and baths to explore. Inside the main outdoor pool, you can play chess while lounging in the water and even stop for a bite in their cafeteria. This bath was built in 1913 and boasts a beautiful bright yellow Neo-baroque design which gives stunning views inside and out.
Király Baths is one of the most authentic spas to visit. Although it's rather small, with only four pools, this place has stood in the same spot since the Ottoman-era and bathing in here is like stepping back in time. It's worth visiting if you love ancient architecture or are a big history buff.
Gellert Baths was built in 1918 and is my favourite of all the spas. It might not be as big as Széchenyi or as historic as Rudas, but the art nouveau designs throughout make it a stunning building relax inside. Their indoor "cathedral" swimming pool with enormous skylight is the perfect place to swim no matter the season. If you feel brave enough, dip into the carbonic acid tub-bath. This bath is supposed to help with cardiovascular problems, osteoporosis and rheumatic pain.
The Rudas Baths are another Ottoman-era spa built around 1550. There is one large octagonal pool and four smaller pools surrounding it, all under the quintessential Turkish dome. This pool is only mixed sexes on the weekend and throughout the week rotates between female-only or male-only, so check the schedule before you come.
No matter where you visit you're bound to have an amazing experience. Take the plunge and leave your inhibitions at the door. Soak up all the elemental goodness in those thermal waters and leave feeling ready to continue on your adventures, renewed and refreshed.