BUDAPEST, Hungary For many travelers, there is a point during one’s
journey when a decision needs to be made: to adhere to your own
rules or throw caution to the wind and join the locals. I
encountered such a situation on my second day in Budapest. As I
lowered my body into the 100-degree-thermal bath, I tried not to
think about the number of germs that thrive in steamy, hot water.
I’m not a germ-a-phobe per se, but I generally don’t like bathing
with my fellow man. If I want a relaxing soak, I prefer to do so
alone, in a bathtub, with only my own germs to keep me company.
But you can’t go to Hungary without experiencing thermal baths;
it’s like visiting Kenya and not going on safari. Hungary boasts
over 1,000 thermal springs, of which over 120 have been made into
public bathhouses. And of these, Budapest has some of the most
extravagant baths in the world, with Art Noveau halls, high Roman
columns and vaulted glass ceilings.
Visiting a spa, however, is no simple excursion. Very few of the
attendants speak English and all signage is written in Hungarian.
Add to that a maze of passageways, various baths (ranging from warm
to scalding water), swimming pools and massage rooms and very
little indication of proper etiquette, like clothes or no clothes
and the experience can be daunting.
One of the most visited spas in Budapest sits grandly on the
Danube River. Opened in 1918, the Gellert Hotel attracts travelers
from around the world. Known as one of the most elegant hotels in
Budapest, it also has one of the best views of the river and its
location makes it easy to visit the sites in the capital city.
Of course, the baths are one of the top draws. The mosaic
floors, domed glass roof, large Rococo cabled columns and ornate
bathing areas won me over on my first visit. The fact that there
was a large thermal pool, an outdoor pool with wave machine and
four indoor baths, not to mention the sauna, steam room and massage
area, made me want to stay a few days. This took pampering to a
whole new level and, to my pleasant surprise, everything looked
very hygienic and clean. I moved from warm to hot to hotter bath
and back again over the next few hours and made friends with the
locals looking to practice their English.
After visiting Gellert, one of the larger tourist attractions in
the city, my guide suggested that I visit the Lukacs Baths, which
the locals frequent. She assured me that many of Hungary’s most
famous actors could be found there, and the medicinal healing
powers of these waters, I was told, were among the strongest in the
True to my guide’s word, the place was packed with native
Hungarians. English, which was spoken haltingly in the Gellert
Baths, was not heard at all here. After trying to communicate with
the attendant, I realized I was on my own and took off down one of
the passageways. After ending up in the men’s changing room
(twice), I discovered the steam rooms and multiple baths. Here, the
spa was not about the architecture (it was a basic Turkish-style
bath without a lot of ornamentation or mosaics), but about the
healing water. Although I didn’t currently have any ailments, I sat
down, closed my eyes and let the medicinal affects of the water
take over. The locals quietly talked in Hungarian around me; this
was clearly a meeting place for many. I found out later that this
bathhouse in the 1970s and 80s was a favorite meeting place for the
city’s dissident intellectuals. What better place to meet and
discuss the problems of the government then a therapeutic
bathhouse? Today, it certainly is a great spa for those looking for
an authentic Hungarian experience.
Finally, I hit the Szechenyi thermal baths, which is said to be
the largest bathhouse in Europe. The beautiful yellow exterior was
as ornate as it was grand (the sheer size can be a bit
overwhelming). This bath attracts Hungarians and tourists alike and
is well worth a visit for the Neo-Baroque architecture alone.
The focus of this spa is the large Olympic-size outdoor swimming
pool, with water a consistent 100 degrees year-round. This attracts
people in all seasons and it’s common to see locals playing chess
in the pool while letting the healing waters said to help arthritic
disorders and digestive problems work their magic.
Hungarian Tourist Authority