A group of local Hungarian men meet regularly at Szechenyi to play chess in the healing waters. // © 2016 Josalin Saffer
Feature image (above): The outdoor thermal pools at Szechenyi, the largest bath in Europe. // © 2016 Josalin Saffer
Visiting the ancient bathhouses of Budapest is not only recommended when visiting Hungary’s capital city — it is required. Sitting atop medicinal springs that emerge from deep below the Earth’s surface, the buildings are works of architectural grandeur, some of which have stood since Roman times. Soaking in the warm, mineral-rich waters is both a ritual and a respite for locals, who attest to their healing powers. Now embraced by foreigners wanting in on Hungary’s best-kept secret, this communally celebrated R&R tradition will leave even the weariest travelers rejuvenated.
Gellert is the most opulent, best-known and most expensive bath in Budapest. Though the original Gellert building was destroyed at the end of the 19th century, the current bathhouse that sits at the foot of Szabadsag Hid (Liberty Bridge) is just shy of 100 years old and was reconstructed in a beautiful art nouveau design. Gellert has indoor thermal pools, swimming pools, an outdoor pool, saunas, a range of medicinal treatments and even a dentist’s office. Go here to feel like royalty and to soak with class.
Located on the hilly, less developed Buda side of Budapest, Gellert is the perfect bath to decompress in after a day of sightseeing. It’s just across the street from Gellerthegyi-barlang (Gellert Hill Cave), a chapel housed in a network of grottoes, and the Citadella, an old Habsburg fortress that offers stunning views of the City of Baths across the Danube.
Kiraly is the oldest and most historic bath in Budapest, built during the Ottoman Empire. Noted for its medieval Turkish architecture and octagonal dome roof, Kiraly’s facade is quite worn but not without charm. In the past, it was used by Turkish “pashas” who once ruled the Buda castle, and the baths were open only to men. Though the building hasn’t been restored in quite some time, the bathing rules at Kiraly have been modified. Now everyone can enjoy the ancient baths every day of the week.
For those who wish to venture off the tourist trail, no truer advice has been given: Go where the locals go. The Lukacs bathhouse is one of those places, a long-time favorite among local Budapestians and also the most affordable. Tourists rarely visit, so go here for a more authentic, modern experience of an ancient tradition. In the 12th century, the Lukacs baths were used by monks for healing purposes, and many of the practices and medicinal treatments are still used today.
However, Lukacs has gained more popularity in recent years for an entirely different reason — its nightlife. Every Saturday night, Lukacs hosts a unique spa party (also known as a “sparty”) with DJs, electronic music, light shows, laser beams and copious amounts of booze. The Lukacs sparty season is from October to April, then the venue changes to the Szechenyi baths from May to August. Tourists who have a Budapest card receive free admission into the baths, but the sparty tickets must be purchased separately.
Built during the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the 16th century, Rudas was recently restored and modernized but still retains features of traditional Turkish design. There are six thermal baths of varying temperatures downstairs in one dimly lit, intimate and steamy room. When soaking in the center bath, don’t forget to look up, especially at sunset. The ceiling is a patchwork of small, jewel-like windows, and light beams stream through them, creating an entrancing bathing experience.
On the weekends after dark, head upstairs for a night soak in the rooftop Jacuzzi, which allows for a panoramic view of Pest and the Liberty Bridge lit up across the Danube. Keep in mind that Rudas has gender-specific days for bathing, and women are allowed admission only on Tuesdays and the weekends.
The largest bathhouse in Europe is a spa-goers paradise. Built in 1913, Szechenyi is an expansive complex of neo-baroque design consisting of 11 thermal baths, steam chambers and an outdoor swimming pool surrounded by a fortress of white and primrose-yellow walls. You’ll be tempted to try every single bath here — and you should, as they all have something slightly different to offer.
After a long flight or train journey, there is perhaps no better introduction to Budapest than a dip in the steamy outdoor pools of Szechenyi. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a group of local Hungarian men who meet regularly to play chess here while half-submerged in the waters.