The Essential Guide to Budapest’s Thermal Baths

This plunge primer will dampen your fears about coed nudity, tipping, and mean masseuses.

You can enjoy the outdoor pools at Szechenyi even in the winter.

You can enjoy the outdoor pools at Szechenyi even in the winter.

Shutterstock / Izabela23

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, and even invaders since the Romans settled here nearly 2,000 years ago.

For those new to Budapest’s bathing culture, a few questions often come up: Do bathers have to be naked? Are men and women together or separated? What should I bring? How much does it cost? What about tipping? How does it all work? And, ultimately, is it worth it? Below, a rundown of their history, tips for visiting, and suggestions for our favorite baths in Budapest.

The history of Budapest’s baths

The original Roman baths remain only as archaeological sites, but they kicked off centuries of soaking. Hammam-style baths with octagonal main pools, like Rudas, 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: The Danubius Hotel Helia and Aquincum, both contemporary hotel baths, have brought Budapest bathing up to date.

Arched baroque yellow entryway to Széchenyi Thermal Bath, with two columns; outdoor pool in background

Széchenyi Thermal Bath is a historic bathhouse.

Courtesy of Visit Hungary

Taking the waters is an integral part of Budapest’s culture, and joining in is an 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.

Do you need to be naked?

No, nudity is not required. Budapest’s baths no longer allow it because most went coed within the past decade. The only places where bathers are expected to remove all of their clothing are the showers and the changing rooms. 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 (women wear the same thing); 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, according to balneology, the study of mineral hot springs and their medicinal effects.) 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, which was built in 1918 as part of the Hotel Gellért. With its beautiful art nouveau–style Zsolnay porcelain tiles, turquoise walls, and stained-glass windows, it’s an excellent example of Budapest’s vibrant early 20th-century bathing culture.
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 to a bathhouse?

Avoid the tourist rush and go to the larger baths as early as you can, even at 7 a.m., when most open. (Gellért doesn’t open before 9 a.m.) 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.)

Is there a sulfur smell?

Yes, there’s a sulfur smell, but don’t let that stop you. At times, you may notice a mineral-y smell—some may say sulfuric. This is because the water in these baths is packed with, you guessed it, minerals. Calcium, magnesium, and sodium are big players and they can help ease symptoms of eczema, psoriasis, and other ailments. If you’ve been to Iceland’s hot springs, it’s far less stinky than that.

Aerial view of large curvy pool at Szent Lukács Bath, with people in water, surrounded by yellow walls

Szent Lukács Bath is like a scene out of a Wes Anderson film.

Courtesy of Visit Hungary

What should you bring to a thermal bath?

While all the following 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
  • Sunscreen, especially if you’re visiting an outdoor pool during the summertime
  • And lastly, a pair of flip-flops—floor tiles can be hot, and catching a foot fungus is no fun

What shouldn’t you bring?

There are a few things you’ll want to leave somewhere safe in the hotel room or Airbnb when you head off to the baths. Some of the places we’ve mentioned have private lockers, but some don’t—and you don’t want to spend the afternoon worrying about whether or not Grandma’s necklace is getting damaged by the water or steam.

  • Jewelry
  • Outside food and drinks
  • Cameras or other recording devices

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, and 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, alternatively, 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.

Budapest’s Thermal Baths for Beginners

The cultural experience of visiting Budapest’s grand spas, like Szechenyi, should not be missed.

Photo by Roman Belogorondov/Shutterstock

Work from medium-warm baths up to the hotter ones. Remember that 37 degrees Celsius is body temperature—in many baths, the temperature is marked in Celsius on 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 are abound and you should indulge. Common treatments include massages, mud therapy, and soapy hammam sessions 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 costs between 4,000 and 8,000 forints (US$11–$22). 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—800–1,000 forints (about US$2–$3 ) 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.

Tranquil turquoise and gold interior of Gellért Thermal Bath, with no one in water

Gellért Thermal Bath is a tranquil place to rejuvenate.

Courtesy of Visit Hungary

Our favorite thermal bathhouses in Budapest

Some of our favorite baths in Budapest to visit include:

  • Gellért Baths: Built in 1918 as part of the stately Hotel Gellért, this is a fine example of Budapest’s early 20th-century bathing culture.
  • Széchenyi Thermal Bath: Budapest’s most popular thermal bath among locals and tourists alike, it’s also the largest spa complex in Hungary. It has multiple outdoor baths as well.
  • Rudas Thermal Bath: Located at the Buda end of Erzsébet Bridge, this bathhouse has been welcoming bathers for upwards of 450 years. A rooftop pool has some of the best views of the city.
  • Veli Bej: This bathhouse was built in the 16th century but recently renovated.
  • Szent Lukács Bath: Known for the healing properties of its waters, this bathhouse also has specialty treatments, such as the Weight Bath used for stretching the back and spinal injuries.

This article originally appeared online in 2019; it was most recently updated on March 14, 2024, to include current information.

Kimberly Bradley is an American writer living in Berlin and Vienna, but her love affair with Greece in general and Athens in particular dates to the early 1990s. Read her writings on travel and culture at
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