Bathing in Budapest

One woman navigates the healing waters and rocky seas of the city’s thermal spas

By: Judy Koutsky

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 city.

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