For some, the mere mention of Budapest evokes images of steamy, tiled pools, tough-love masseuses, and lots of exposed skin. This is the City of Baths after all, and the 123 geothermal springs bubbling in caves under its hills and vales have soothed and healed locals, visitors, even invaders since the Romans settled here nearly 2,000 years ago.
The original Roman baths remain only as archeological sites, but they kicked off centuries of soaking. Hammam-style baths with octagonal main pools, like Rudas and Király, date to the 150-year Ottoman occupation era (1541–1699). The century-old tiles and vaulted ceiling of the Gellért baths and the distinctive wedding-cake yellow palaces of the Széchenyi baths date to the late Austro-Hungarian empire and are grandly Beaux-Arts and neo-baroque. A smattering of Budapest’s bathhouses are much newer (post-communist Hungary didn’t want to stay stuck in history forever): The Helia and Aquincum, both contemporary hotel baths, have brought Budapest bathing up to date.
Taking the waters is an integral part of Budapest’s culture, and joining in is a instant lesson in understanding the Hungarian soul. While the therapeutic effects of the calcium, magnesium, and bromine-laden waters might be medically disputable, floating weightless in hot water in a subdued atmosphere is simply relaxing. And for Budapesters, communal baths have long been a place to both unwind and socialize; tales abound of communist-era whisper deals cut in a haze of thick, drippy fog.
For all the historical, architectural, and demographic differences in Budapest’s baths, a few universal questions plague the uninitiated. Do bathers have to be naked? Are men and women together or separated? What to bring? How much does it cost? What about tipping? How does it all work? And, ultimately, is it worth it? Below, some answers:
Take it all off?
No, nudity is not required; in fact, Budapest’s baths no longer allow it, as most went coed within the past decade. The one exception: Rudas bath, where men wear little aprons on men’s days, which are held every weekday but Tuesday, which is women’s day; weekends are for mixed crowds.
Who goes where?
In the vintage baths, especially Széchenyi, retirees often meet at dawn in the various saunas and springs to fulfill their “bath prescriptions.” (The water allegedly cures arthritis and other joint ailments, as well as pretty much everything else. Balneology, the study of mineral hot springs and their medicinal effects, is an official thing.) But they’re also there to shoot the breeze and famously play floating chess in the steaming outdoor pools. It’s about community and tradition, wet and mostly undressed.
Younger couples or friends meet at Gellért or Király, the latter of which has dark stone walls and skylights whose perforations look like stars (a long-overdue renovation and expansion of this Turkish-style bath is set to be complete in 2020).
Guy groups spend the men’s days lounging at the atmospheric Rudas, under a domed and vaulted interior built in the 16th century by an Ottoman pasha and in continuous operation since the year 1572 (it was tastefully renovated in 2014).
When is the best time to go?
Avoid the tourist rush and go to the larger baths as early as you can, even at 6 a.m., when most open; or linger on Friday or Saturday nights at Rudas, which stays open past midnight. Or go where the locals go: Less ornate baths like Lukács are where Budapesters, especially the intellectual set, hang out. (Try the drinking water here, which apparently cures many ills, too.)
What do you bring to a thermal bath?
While all these things are available to rent on site, lines can be long and dispensed towels can be more like bedsheets than absorbent terry. So plan to bring along the following:
- A swimsuit
- Two good towels—one to use during the bath and one to dry off with after the last shower
- A swimming cap, if you intend to use a bath’s conventional swimming pool
- Your own soap and hair products; there are no spa-style dispensers here
- And lastly, a pair of flip-flops—floor tiles can be hot, and catching a foot fungus is no fun
Seriously, what do I do when I get there?
Shower before a bath session. Remember where your locker is, tie its key around your wrist or ankle, then venture into the hazy maze with your towel in a waterproof bag.
It’s recommended to stay in a thermal bath for 20 minutes, then rest on a recliner. Or, alternately, dip quickly into a cool pool or take a cold shower, both of which revive circulation and act as a “reset” for the next round.
Work from medium-warm baths to hotter ones. (Remember that 37 degrees Celsius is body temperature; in many baths the temperature is marked, in Celsius, in tiles on the wall; the hottest is usually 40 degrees, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.) Relax and cool off in between.
Understand your body’s limits: If you feel dizzy, get out and cool down. Saunas and steam rooms are common, too.
Spa treatments abound and you should indulge; there’s nothing quite like a vigorous Hungarian massage, mud therapy, or soapy hammam session to literally beat or scrub the tension and toxins out of a weary body.
Most baths are quiet zones. Speaking is certainly not forbidden, but unless you’re in an outdoor area of a bathhouse complex, do keep conversations low. Some Hungarians call the baths “water monasteries” for a reason.
How much does it cost? Do I tip?
Entrance to most of the older thermal baths in Budapest cost between 10 and 20 euros.
The layout of larger baths like Széchenyi and Gellért can be utterly labyrinthine and their price lists seem to follow the same baffling patterns—half- or full-day? With cabin or without? You can avoid some of it by booking in advance: Some established baths now offer online tickets, which saves time waiting in lines, and the separate costs are spelled out a little more clearly.
Tipping is welcome for the massage therapists and aestheticians providing other spa services like mud treatments—two or three euros will do it, and note you should tip before the service.
And never forget that, indeed, simply hanging out is what you’re here to do. Give yourself time, move slowly, breathe deeply, float, unplug. Listen to the lapping water and just think. Beyond the obvious soothing qualities of hot water, there’s a strange intimacy and sense of tolerance and ritual to the Budapest bath experience, one that’s clearly endured for many centuries and won’t stop anytime soon. Enjoy.
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