Stuart Wadsworth visits five of Budapest’s famous bath houses, where he encounters boardgames, beers, rub downs and raves… and still allows himself plenty of scope for a relaxing soak.
“This is the place where Budapest comes to chill out,” Laszlo, a banker in Pest, tells me. “Many people come here to relax, but some come to do business deals, discuss politics, socialise, or meet members of the opposite sex – I even met my wife here!” he says with a glint in his eye. A visit to Budapest is not complete without a visit to one of its many marvelous bath houses.
I decided to investigate… braving sub-zero temperatures, flip-flop-wearing, moustachio-ed middle-aged men with pot bellies and more speedos than you could shake a towel at…
A leftover gift from the time of the Turkish occupation, most Budapestites today could not imagine life without baths, and they form a vital part of the social life of the city. From the neo-baroque masterpiece that is the Szechenyi complex in the outskirts of Pest to the more basic Turkish-style Kiraly Baths in Buda, there is something to suit everyone’s taste. There is even a world-famous club night in Rudas baths once a month now; the so-called ‘sparty’ that is Cinetrip has gained fame and notoriety in equal measures in recent months. I decided to investigate all that the five best baths in Budapest have to offer, braving sub-zero temperatures, flip-flop-wearing, moustachio-ed middle-aged men with pot bellies and more speedos than you could shake a towel at, in search of the perfect bath….
Szechenyi Baths, being the biggest and most popular baths in Budapest, are the first I made a bee-line for. Located out on the eastern fringes of the centre, close to Heroes’ Square and the City Zoo, this really is the ultimate bathing experience in the capital, and, arguably, Europe – it is the largest medicinal bath on the continent.
The first thing you notice about the Szechenyi baths is the stunning architecture. Neo-baroque, the pastel-yellow painted buildings were built in 1881, when they were known as the ‘Artesian Baths’; only completed in 1913, the sweeping colonnades and arches lend the whole complex a dignified, Habsburg feel which adds to the ambiance of the already relaxing baths. This is really a snapshot of Budapest society, and absolutely central to the city’s down time. Young, old, men, women, there are no social, sexual or age barriers here. “Guys even come here to play chess here,” continues Laszlo, whilst motioning to a group of older gentlemen, up to their necks in steaming water, intently staring at a game in progress. Once you leave the outdoor zone and step inside the regal building another world opens up; fifteen pools spread over several hundred square metres, countless steam rooms, saunas, freezing plunge pools… one sauna is 80 degrees Celsius – this is a sauna you want to visit sparingly. Only for the truly hardcore, I manage two minutes and then sprint out the door before my eyeballs burn, and leap into the freezing plunge pool instead. I spend a further few hours slipping contentedly from sauna to bath to steam room to plunge pool and the afternoon passes in a steamy haze of carefree relaxation and pleasant chat with friendly locals and tourists, before retiring to the bar to sip a pint of Szoproni beer, feeling as chilled out as I can remember feeling.
Bath Rating 10/10: A near-perfect bathing experience. Extremely social, fun and welcoming, it’s also the number one tourist choice.
Address: Allatkerti korut 11-14
On the opposite side of the Danube (as are all of the remaining baths), Gellert is probably the most well-known after Szechenyi. It is housed in an impressive art nouveau palace right by the river, down the hill from Citadella. It’s one of the prettiest baths in Budapest – where else can you swim below a stained-glass atrium?
Ornately decorated with beautiful mosaic tiles and regal pillars supporting high arched ceilings and marble balconies, Gellert can certainly claim to offer the most aesthetic of bathing experiences in Budapest, and its legendary curative thermal waters that flow from Gellert hill just above attract young and old for a healthy dose of relaxation. Unlike Szechenyi, Gellert is a single-sex affair with mens’ and womens’ baths separate. I was treated to a rub-down and massage before embarking onto the pools. With the radio blaring Hungarian music, a monosyllabic, stern-looking guy got me to strip down and lie on a couch in a rather stark room. Twenty minutes of vigorous pummeling later, my back was left feeling a trifle sore, and I left wondering if it was worth the extra 15 Euros. Slightly maze-like, the Gellert Baths are not straightforward to navigate, and all of the sign-posting is in Hungarian; this might not be a problem if the staff were a bit more helpful, but unfortunately they aren’t, and none spoke any English. Still, I had a pleasant swim in the massive pool, looking ridiculous with a blue plastic bag on my head (swimming caps compulsory), before heading to the steam baths and thermal waters to wind down. With only two pools – 38 and 42 degrees Celsius respectively – and one steam room, it’s far smaller than Szechenyi, and it’s also a lot less crowded. Indeed, one old man of about 80 had the freedom of the place to stretch his legs, pacing endlessly up and down (I surmised as some part of a health programme), wearing only a small apron to hide his modesty. A far cry from the sexy daytime club vibe of Szechenyi, then, I thought as I headed out into the cool evening air and over the Danube to Pest for some refreshment and a bit more life.
Bath Rating 6/10: Good for people wanting a quiet bath experience in pleasant surrounds, and for health treatments. Bad for meeting anyone.
Address: Kelenhegyi út 4
Kiraly, a bit further along the river and tucked away discreetly on a side-street, is a bit of an anomaly in the bath-culture of Budapest, in that it is not at all aimed at tourists, is a single-pool bath and has not been renovated. It’s the most Turkish in feel of all the baths in Budapest, and the oldest – built by Arslan, the Pasha of Buda, in 1565, it’s brickwork domes and arches take you back to Ottoman times.
Mainly a men-only bath (though women are allowed on two days each week), this bath house does have a reputation for being a gay hang-out, and your enjoyment of it may very well come down to how relaxed you are in a room full of naked men who appear to be checking each other out. It wasn’t this that made me feel a bit deflated, but the peeling paintwork, smelly toilets and almost complete lack of atmosphere – as well as one or two ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ moments from slightly lascivious staff. “If you’re gay this is heaven,” Isztvan, a middle-aged guy here with his partner tells me. It is like a real Roman bath and people are very friendly with each other. And there aren’t so many tourists here, which is why we like it.” Which is fair enough – but I’d rather not be ogled by bald men with moustaches personally. Best advice – unless you are gay, choose a co-ed day here if you fancy checking out Kiraly’s faded Turkish charm.
Bath Rating 5/10: Not very good except for those who fancy a bit of cruising.
(UPDATE: Since this article was researched Kiraly has become a mixed baths on every day).
Address: Fo ut. 84
A bit out of the way, tucked away in a quiet area at the north end of the Buda by the river, Lukacs is by far the most family-oriented bath house, and is a co-ed experience with a friendly and welcoming vibe. I had a fantastic foot and leg massage before doing the round of baths and pools – two heated outdoor swimming pools are augmented by six indoor thermal pools, ranging from 25 to 45 degrees.
“We come here because it’s close to our home and we always meet our friends here,” Reka, an attractive young student tells me. “It’s relaxed and we know everyone here.” People come here to cure their colds in the chamomile steam bath, or wrap their bodies in mineral-rich mud in the skin-treatment room. Although not on a par with the elegant surrounds of Szechenyi or Gellert, Lukacs is smart, clean, modern and very pleasant – a nice family option.
Bath Rating 8/10: Best for families or couples, this is very decent if inconveniently located.
Address: Frankel Leó ut. 25-29.
Not only one of the city’s most mystical Turkish-style baths, Rudas is home to the monthly Cinetrip ‘sparty’ – that’s a party in a spa. Deciding to leave this till my last night in Budapest – it seemed fitting after a week of flitting in and out of bath houses that I’d spend my final Friday night out in one – I checked it out by day also.
The baths are similar in character to both Kiraly and Lukacs – similarly male-oriented to Kiraly but as clean and modern as Lukacs. However they took on a completely different aspect by night. The party was like nothing I had ever seen before: on entering, I was confronted by pounding techno, flashing lights, gyrating, bikini-clad bodies, fire-throwers, acrobats and DJs dressed in skimpy speedos and sunglasses. A night blurred by alcoholic excess in an environment which clubbing has rarely taken place before, this level of bacchanalian revelry has to be seen to be believed, and yet seems completely in keeping with Budapest, where liberal attitudes prevail. “People come from all over Europe for these nights – they happily pay the 30 Euro entrance because they know this does not exist anywhere else” says Tomek, a Polish hipster who is traveling back to Krakow on the 6am bus. “It only happens here”. I make my way home back over the Danube, bleary eyed, as the sun comes up, and think – he’s right. Where else, after all, could it happen?
Bath Rating: X-rated
Address: Döbrentei tér 9.
For more info and stories about the Hungarian capital visit Urban Travel Blog’s weekend guide to Budapest.