Sometimes called the “city of spas, Budapest is home to over a dozen thermal spas. The bathhouses make perfect destinations for weary tourists, sore backpackers, and families – as well as hung-over concert-goers.
I visited two of Budapest’s biggest and most visited baths, Szechenyi and Gellert last summer. They were filled with 20-somethings wearing bracelets from the annual Sziget festival, a seven-day music event that’s one of the biggest in Europe.
Many of my fellow spa-goers looked like they could have used some of the healing powers the therapeutic waters have to offer. A week of partying can have that effect on your facial expressions.
The Szechenyi baths are located in City Park. The Neo-Baroque building is beautiful inside and out.
The three outside pools are decorated with various statues of water gods and marine life. Many of the statues have hot water shooting out, creating popular spots for hot water massages.
Visitors have their choice of 18 pools, five swimming pools and 13 thermal baths. The water temperatures range from 68 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 40 Celsius).
The inside is huge and made up of many different rooms, making it easy to get lost. In addition to hot and cold pools, there are sauna and steam rooms at various temperatures. There was even a pool with medicinal mineral water.
Bathhouses with indoor pools are open year-round, of course, but Szechenyi also has one huge hot pool outside that remains open all winter, with clouds of steam rising into the cold air.
Several outdoor pools outside of Budapest also operate in the winter, including those in Harkany, Heviz, Visegrad, Egerszalok and Hajduszoboszlo.
The Gellert Baths have many of the same features as Szechenyi. The baths are in the Hotel Gellert, on the opposite side of the Danube River. Gellert is on the Buda side of town, while Szechenyi is in Pest.
The Gellert’s facility is beautiful, if somewhat touristy. It features outdoor pools, including a wave pool and eight indoor thermal baths. But be prepared for a wait in the locker room on busy days. There were some 20 people waiting for their lockers to be opened or locked and only one attendant on the day I visited.
Later, we headed to the Kiraly baths, which has alternate days for men and women. I had read a brief description of Kiraly in a travel article and had seen a beautiful framed photo of the bathhouse, which dates to the 16th century, hanging on a wall in our hostel.
But the outside of the building, with chipped green paint and graffiti, was nothing like the beautiful exteriors of the Szechenyi and Gellert baths.
I had my swimsuit with me. My buddy and traveling companion, Ryan Johnson, went to the counter to purchase a swimsuit for himself and entry tickets for both of us.
“Oh boy, Williams, he said. “This is going to be interesting.
We were given white-cotton loincloths to wear. We headed to the changing rooms and I couldn’t hold in my laughter trying to figure out how to wear this tiny garment. In the other spas, we and all the other guests had worn swimsuits. We later saw a couple of others at Kiraly wearing swimsuits too; something had been lost in translation when we were handed the loincloths.
The main sauna room was dimly lit by the sunlight coming through small openings in the domed cupola. After submerging in the main spa, I realized the loincloths left nothing to the imagination: They were completely see-through when wet.
We also soon realized the bathhouse was a gay hangout. We’re not in that target audience, but it was no big deal. Then we observed some behavior that would have made me uncomfortable in a mixed-gender spa. We decided to leave after a half-hour.
Unfortunately, Kiraly was the only spa we visited that didn’t offer a refund if you left the facility prior to two hours.
At Gellert and Szechenyi, we’d reluctantly pried ourselves out before the two hours were up in order to get some money back. The refund system is electronic, so even if you stay a minute over two hours, you miss the refund. At Gellert, we were slowed down by the wait in the locker room and didn’t make it in time, but at Szechenyi, we got back 300 forints.
It sounded like a lot of money, even in a country where we were withdrawing local currency from ATM machines by the thousands. Later we did the math, and realized that the 300 forints we had torn ourselves away from those wonderful spas in order to get back was worth all of $1.57.
If you go
Budapest bathhouses:http://www.spasbudapest.com/tartalom.php. Entry prices vary from spa to spa. Gellert was $18.40 (3,500 forints) for entry and locker rental. Szechenyi was $16.30 (3,100 forints). Kiraly was $13.60 (2,500 forints).