City of Spas: Budapest Bath Culture
Wellness and spa culture have been part of the Hungarian lifestyle for hundreds of years. Bubbling up from the country’s limestone foundations are more than 1,300 thermal water springs, with water rich in dissolved minerals that are curative and luxuriously calming. Some are salty, others are sulfur-scented, and some have other special properties. While Hungary’s spa culture was born in Roman times, some of Budapest’s most beautiful bathhouses were built during Ottoman rule in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The layout of most of the baths is similar: indoor thermal pools with temperatures ranging from warm to hot, saunas, steam rooms, frigid plunge pools, and rooms for massage. Some baths have outdoor pools for swimming laps, or with fountains and whirlpools. Which bath you choose on your visit here is a matter of personal taste, but with more than 100 in Budapest, it’s hard to go wrong. Here are five of our favorites.
Dating from the Turkish conquest of Budapest in the 16th century, Rudas Baths is tucked in at the base of Gellért Hill on the banks of the Danube River. Reminiscent of a traditional Turkish bathhouse, a large octagonal plunge pool is set under a domed roof and occupies the central part of the facility, and is surrounded by smaller thermal pools, sauna, steam room, and massage rooms. The drinking hall offers therapeutic cures from the mineral-rich waters of three springs: Hungária, Attila and Juventus. A favorite feature is the rooftop hot tub, with views of the Pest side of the river.
Ridiculously stunning Gellért Baths—with its Art Nouveau architecture, stained-glass windows, and porcelain tiles—makes bathing feel extremely luxurious. The Turkish bath that was the original foundation for the spa you see today was called Sárosfürdő, meaning ‘muddy bath,’ for the mineral mud that came with the spring waters, and settled at the bottom of the baths.
Based inside the Gellért Hotel, the current spa was opened in 1918, and its sheer opulence has made it a star in guidebooks, and many local and international films. The large palace with a Roman-style swimming pool, thermal pools, sauna, steam room, sun terrace, and massage rooms make you feel as if you’re in an artsy labyrinth, but don’t miss the outdoor wave pool during your visit.
In the heart of City Park, Szechényi Baths is one of the largest medicinal baths in Europe and extremely popular with travelers. Built in 1913, it’s the only thermal spa on the Pest side of the city. The sprawling spa complex includes three grand outdoor pools that are open year-round—a great place to sunbathe in summer and a bracing experience in winter’s colder months. Indoors, there are 15 baths, saunas, steam cabins, and massage rooms. Summertime Saturday nights feature huge, celebratory “sparties” that continue until the wee hours, featuring high-octane partying with electronic dance music, laser lights, and fire shows.
The thermal springs at Lukács Baths have been in use since the 12th century, and this historic building became a treatment center and healing spa at the end of the 19th century. As you wander the inner courtyard, pause to look at the stone tablets etched with messages of gratitude from visitors who have been cured by the healing waters here over the years. Aside from its thermal baths, cold plunge pool, and massage and treatment rooms, Lukács houses a drinking hall that offers healing waters that are rich in calcium, hydrogen-carbonate, sulfate, chloride as well as sodium and fluoride ions.
Király Thermal Baths
Dating from 1565, Király Thermal Baths occupies one of the few buildings in the city that was built during the time of the Ottoman rule. It, along with Rudas Baths, are the oldest in Budapest. Then, as well as now, it sources its water from nearby Lukács Baths. Its distinctive octagonal bath is placed under a stone cupola with small openings covered in glass that let rays of daylight stream into the room. For a moment, you can gaze up at the dome and pretend you’re living in the Ottoman era. The bathhouse also includes a thermal pool, sauna, steam room, and massage rooms.
Fresh off the plane, nothing beats a good soak in one of Budapest’s legendary thermal baths. Warm water melts away jetlag as you literally immerse yourself in historic Hungarian culture. Read about Classic Journeys tours to Hungary, where we explore Budapest and Prague here.
Images: Budapest Gyógyfürdői