It may sound lazy, but relaxing is one of my top five favorite pastimes. So, I really was looking forward to visiting Budapest, even months before we arrived.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Budapest? For relaxing? Gina, you crazy.” Well, sorry person, but you are wrong. Budapest is actually a great city for chilling out. There may not be white sand beaches and cabana boys, but, as we told you earlier this week, Budapest is sort of saturated in a quiet glamour of its own. And hands-down the most glamorous part of Budapest are the public spas and baths.
So, I don’t want to give you the wrong impression here. No one is going to bring a fruity cocktail with a tiny umbrella to you while you lounge on a luxurious chaise. (Well, that could happen. I really don’t know, but I imagine that’s how the other half lives.) I just mean that it feels really glam to hang out at a spa all day, soaking in the warm waters, sweating out some toxins in the sauna, and just letting all the stress melt away.
Budapest’s almost 50 spas, baths, and public pools are fed by over 100 thermal springs that lie just below the city. And the healing waters have been famous for a very long time. The Romans first took advantage of the geothermal waters nearly two millennia ago. Today, Budapest has more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital city in the world, and is one of the few cities where you can still experience traditional Turkish baths that date back to 16th century.
Some bathhouses are pretty swanky with ornate interior decorations and high-class amenities, and some are more low-key providing only the basics. There is a range of experiences to be had, which also means that there is a range of associated cost. For an extra fancy experience, check out the world-famous, Art Nouveau-style Gellért Baths, whose ultra-posh interior matches its high ticket prices. If you prefer to act like a local, try the longtime favorite, Lukács Baths. If you’re looking to score a bargain, the newly renovated Császár Baths (Veli Bej) is perfect for those on a tight budget with an admission fee of just 2800 HUF ($12 USD). There are so many bathhouse options in Budapest that it’s actually kind of hard to pick. It’s like a choose your own adventure game but the end goal is ultimate relaxation.
After much research and deliberation, we decided to visit the rather popular and very large Széchenyi Baths and the ancient, traditional-style Rudas Baths. Below is a short summary of our (very excellent) experiences.
Although it looks exactly like a Baroque palace, Széchenyi Baths is actually the largest medicinal bath in Europe and it’s one of the largest public baths in the world. The Széchenyi was also the first thermal bath to be built in Pest when it originally opened in 1881. The bath as it is today with its stunning Neo-Baroque interior was completed in 1927. We found it to be a great place to spend the day with over 18 pools (3 outdoors) and 10 saunas and steam rooms.
The Széchenyi is popular with both locals and tourists, so it was a bit crowded on the warm late-July day that we were there. However, this wasn’t a big issue for us. There is just so much to choose from that only rarely did we find a pool so overcrowded that we couldn’t fit in somewhere. And if it was too full, we just went on to the next one.
The Széchenyi Baths is not the cheapest bathhouse in Budapest, so you can expect to spend at least 4100 HUF ($18.25 USD) for a day pass that includes locker storage. You can cut down on other costs by bringing your own flip-flops, towels, and snacks. The slightly higher cost turned out to be a really great value, actually, since we spent the entire day exploring the complex. (And, yes, we went into each of the 18 pools and 10 saunas.) It felt so luxurious to spend the day at the baths. And it was exactly what I needed after three months on the road. We left the bathhouse feeling brand new and so relaxed it was like we had just received a full-body massage.
The Rudas Baths is a traditional Turkish-style bathhouse that was built in the 1560s. Located on the Buda side, just across the Elisabeth Bridge, the building exemplifies the classic Ottoman-style bathhouse architecture with its dome and octagonal pool.
We decided to check out the Rudas Baths because we read about their special night bathing on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 PM to 4 AM. (!!) It sounded like such a unique and magical experience that we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity, even if the tickets did cost a bit more. The average day ticket at Rudas is 3000 HUF / $13.50 USD on weekdays and 3300 HUF / $14.75 USD on weekends, so at 3700 HUF ($16.50), night bathing is a tad more pricey. Happily, the experience did live up to our expectations, and it was an
evening that we will likely never forget. So, I see it as a few extra bucks well-spent.
Rudas is much smaller than Széchenyi with just six pools, one sauna, and one steam room. Even though it was smaller, we, again, didn’t encounter too many issues with crowds. Plus, after 2 AM, most other visitors had left and only a few die-hard bathers remained.
I really can’t think of a better way to spend my Friday night. We floated in a tub of thermal water heated to (almost) body temperature and felt like babies in the womb. We hopped back and forth between the coldest pool (16C/61F) to the hottest pool (42C/108F) and temporarily lost our ability to discern hot from cold. And we stared up at the ancient dome and imagined all the sultans and nobility over the centuries who have spent their evenings relaxing in these pools too.
Budapest is spa city and everyone is invited to get in on the action. Honestly, no visit to Budapest is complete without a thermal bath experience so pick one (or two or three), book a ticket, and don’t forget to pack a swimsuit.
*Sorry for sub-par photos, they don’t allow cameras at the spas, so these were captured by phone.