Budapest is the spa capital of Europe. Its Turkish baths, palatial Art Nouveau spas and five-star hotel complexes offer swimming, beauty treatments and even games of chess!
Budapest has more spas and thermal baths than any other capital city in Europe. Some are ancient Turkish complexes; others are sumptuous Baroque or Art Nouveau affairs. You can swim, have massages and all kinds of health treatments (Budapest is big on medical tourism), drink the mineral water, even play chess! Some establishments have now also been restored as parts of top-end hotel complexes.
The hot springs of Budapest were well known as far back as Roman times. It was, however, the Turkish conquerors in the 16th century who brought with them the culture and expertise to develop the natural resources. The Király Baths – built within the old Buda walls on Fő utca 84, so that even during a siege the Turkish garrison could come for a good soak – retain their 500-year-old domed structures and pools. The front of the complex was, however, given a neo-classical façade in the early 19th century.
The baths are open to women on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and men on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The baths can be crowded at weekends, so weekdays are better. Inside the Turkish domes, visibility is reduced to just a few feet by the steam, shafts of daylight filter through the ceiling to the large octagonal pool, and a soft echo completes the experience. It’s extraordinarily relaxing. There are smaller pools through arches around the sides, one extremely hot, the other icy cold, and the idea is that you alternate according to preference. There is also a sauna (dry heat) and a hammam (wet heat).
Gellért Hotel and Baths
After the Turks had set the standard, Budapest continued to build spas and bathing establishments long after the Habsburgs had driven the Turks out. One of the most famous complexes is the Gellért Hotel and Baths. This palatial, mosaic-clad Art Nouveau complex features a marble-columned indoor swimming pool, a series of thermal pools and an outdoor pool with a wave machine. In the 1930s, debutantes danced on a glass floor over the pool at the Gellért’s famous balls. Today, visitors in summer can swim to musical accompaniment.
Inside, the Gellért has a very different feel to the old Turkish bathing establishments (such as the Király Baths, or the nearby Rudas Baths). On entering you have to decide whether you want an ordinary “swimming” ticket (which also allows access to the thermal pools and steam rooms) or various treatments from the lengthy menu – which includes massages, salt baths, mud baths, an inhalation treatment, manicure... You then go and find a cubicle to change (an attendant locks the cubicle while you are in the baths). Bring a swimming costume for the baths’ mixed areas, a cap for the swimming pool, shampoo, a towel, and perhaps some flip-flops too. Inside, there is a large pool and small thermal pool, followed by segregated areas for men and women. In summer, you can also use the outdoor swimming pool, which has a wave machine and a smaller thermal pool. Children are welcome to use both the indoor and outdoor pools.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths
Another famous spa complex is the Széchenyi Thermal Baths at the other end of town, on the edge of City Park (Városliget). This is the one you often see in pictures in books, where people bathe all year round in the outdoor pools and play chess, with the steam rising around them. Thankfully, these are hottest baths in Budapest: the spring waters reach the surface at a temperature of 38°C.
Inside the extravagant neo-Baroque bath buildings (recently renovated) are fun pools with water currents, champagne-effect bubbles and water beam back massage in the sitting banks. Other facilities include steam rooms, Finnish saunas, salt baths, underwater gymnastics classes, mud-packing, a gym, Thai massages, foot massages and pedicures. A buffet-restaurant overlooks the courtyard. The baths are not segregated, so you’ll need your bathing suit, though the complex is well suited to families.
Look out too, just to the east of the baths, for a modern glass-walled pavilion called the Szent István Forrás. For a few small coins, this ivócsarnok (drinking hall) allows you to drink the health-giving waters, direct from the spring. Good for all aches and pains!
Best of the rest
The three spas above are the probably the most famous bathing establishments in Budapest. There are, of course, many others – including those of the Danubius Health Spa Resort on Margaret Island (Margitsziget) – but the ones above should be your first bathing destinations on a trip to the city. One new complex that is, however, worthy of special mention is the Ràcz Hotel & Thermal Spa. It’s just about to open (summer 2010), and while I haven’t visited it yet, it looks quite spectacular from pictures on the hotel’s website. The core of this five-star complex is the original set of Turkish baths (dating back to 1550 and newly renovated) and, in addition to the six thermal pools, there are swimming pools (both indoor and outdoor), a hammam, saunas, a fitness centre, treatment rooms for all kinds of therapies, and beauty salons.