Courtyard of Szechenyi Baths, Hungarian thermal bath complex
Courtyard of Szechenyi Baths, Hungarian thermal bath complex
September/October 2016

Baths of Budapest

Immerse yourself in the heritage of the City of Baths

BYBeverly Burmeier
Budapest, Hungary, is one of the prettiest capital cities in Europe. It was once two separate cities divided by the Danube River. On the western side is the older, majestic Buda. On the eastern side is Pest, which is more modern (by European standards). Today, they are one united, magnificent city.
 
At night, its beautiful bridges glow against a dark sky. During the day, visitors are attracted to the city’s embellished thermal springs. With more than 160 public baths, 50 of which qualify as thermal spas, Budapest has earned the title “City of Baths.” 
 
Budapest’s rich spa heritage dates back to first century B.C. when Celtic tribes settled in the area. They were the first to discover and soak in the “magical healing springs.” As new cultures, including Romans and Hungarians (when Hungary was part of the Roman Empire), took over the land, bathing customs developed, although the springs were still valued for healing purposes. The Turks recognized the importance of Budapest’s thermal springs and turned them into public bathhouses. These baths, which were used for social gatherings and ritual cleansing, became a significant part of their Muslim culture.
 
Traditional Turkish Baths
Although most of the baths in Budapest today have been modernized, it’s still possible to have a traditional Turkish bath — with warm spring water rather than steam — at Rudas and Király. Both of these baths were built in the second half of the 16th century when Turkish-style bathing flourished during the Ottoman occupation. 
 
With its octagonal pool gleaming beneath the traditional Turkish dome, Rudas is one of the oldest and most beautiful baths in the city. Six thermal pools range in temperature from 62 degrees to 114 degrees F, and an 88-degree swimming pool was built in 1896 under a two-story building. 
 
As was the custom, Rudas was originally open only to men. Today, the bath is open exclusively to women on Tuesdays, and on weekends the bath is coed. On single-sex days, a bathing suit is optional. Follow your warm-water soak by sampling Turkish-Hungarian cuisine at the restaurant and bar.
 
Király, which retains a traditional Turkish dome that gently filters light through numerous glass-covered openings, is available to everyone (bathing suits are mandatory). As the oldest bath in the city, it appeals to visitors who want to submerge themselves in the historical aspect of the springs. You might even call it a hidden gem of the city. The waters feeding Király’s four thermal pools come from a neighboring bath and are rich in minerals, giving it a slightly metallic smell. 
 
The springs that flow through Budapest are said to have healing properties and are recommended for post-injury rehabilitation treatments. They also are purported to cure degenerative joint illnesses, chronic and acute arthritis, and spinal problems. But you don’t have to have any ailments to enjoy the experience of being submerged in these gentle waters.
 
Soothing Waters Are Still Popular
Most new visitors to Budapest choose to luxuriate in one of the two largest, best-known, and modern public baths, Gellert and Szechenyi.
 
Both complexes are built around huge palaces and include a maze of pools to explore, so plan to spend at least half a day sampling the different areas. It’s easy to get lost in the long corridors of lockers and changing facilities on multiple levels, so don’t hesitate to ask for directions when trying to find where you stashed your belongings. 
 
Whether or not the calcium, magnesium, hydrocarbonate, alkalis, chloride, sulfate, and fluoride (all minerals found in the thermal waters) actually alleviate aching joints, improve circulation, or cure a variety of ailments doesn’t matter to most contemporary visitors. The baths have become a social gathering place where people go for fun and entertainment more than relaxation and healing. A day at one of the baths is like spending a day lounging at the beach.
 
Gellert Thermal Bath and Spa
Located on the right bank of the Danube River, Gellert gets its water supply from springs inside Gellert Hill. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the earliest bath houses were built there to make use of the thermal springs. The modern structure, which opened in 1918, has only been coed since 2013. The complex was damaged during World War II, but rebuilt after the war. Located in the same building as Hotel Gellert at the bottom of Gellert Hill (one of the most photographed sights in Budapest), it is architecturally beautiful with wall mosaics and stained glass windows reflecting the Art Nouveau style of its reconstruction.
 
Today Gellert Thermal Baths and Spa includes saunas, several indoor pools, and a large outdoor swimming and manmade wave pool. As part of Gellert’s modernization, the outdoor sitting pool and children’s pool have been equipped with state-of-the-art water filtering and circulation devices.
 
Szechenyi Bath
Szechenyi is a huge public coed bath located in the largest green space in Budapest, the City Park. The thermal waters of Szechenyi, the first bath on the Pest side of the city, were discovered in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1913, millions of people were immersing themselves and claiming the warm water had therapeutic powers.
 
The grandiose main entrance of the palace, which was specifically built for Szechenyi Baths, leads to indoor thermal pools situated under a baroque dome. One of the largest medicinal baths in Europe, Szechenyi features a total of 18 indoor and outdoor pools. Ten saunas and steam baths also are available, as are aromatherapy massages and other spa services — another reason it’s easy to spend a whole day there pampering yourself.
 
Decorative statues and a water beam back massage are special features of Szechneyi’s main outdoor pool. Circular corridors filled with warm water and built-in seating provide excellent venues for socializing. You might even see a group of men playing chess in the pool while submerged to their chests in
the warm spring water.
 
Since the baths feature both indoor and outdoor facilities, they operate year-round and can become crowded, especially during summer months. The long list of ticket options for Gellert and Szechneyi can be confusing (which pools will you visit, do you want a massage, type of changing room or locker desired, etc.), so it’s best to decide your preferences prior to arriving. Before entering, you’ll be issued an armband that acts as a key for any locked facilities.
 
After the Baths 
After you’ve had your fill of baths, there’s plenty more to explore. Budapest is a beautiful city, and that’s especially evident at Castle Hill, a high point on the Buda side that is visible from almost anywhere in the city. This World Heritage Site has many must-see attractions including shopping, restaurants, and the two most imposing structures: Matthias Church, with its glazed tile roofs, striking tower, and perfect acoustics; and Fisherman’s Bastion, with its white limestone stairs, terraces and turrets, and panoramic views of the city.
 
Throughout the city, the bridges — including the massive Chain Bridge, decorative Liberty Bridge, and graceful Elisabeth Bridge — and the House of Parliament glow after dark. A scenic evening cruise on the Danube River is a great way to enjoy the sights while sipping champagne or dining on a Hungarian buffet.
 
To satisfy your appreciation for music and architecture, attend an organ concert at St. Stephen’s Basilica, famous throughout Hungary for its performances by esteemed musicians. The elegant Neoclassical church, the largest in Budapest, features a triumphal arch entrance and colorful marble mosaics.
BEVERLY BURMEIER has written about travel adventures for National Geographic Traveler, AAA Home and Away, AAA Going Places, and more.
The Szechenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest
The Szechenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest
If You Go
Tips for Budapest's Baths
  • Bring towels, flip-flops, and a swim cap (caps are required in Gellert’s indoor swimming pool but not in lounging pools), or rent them at Gellert (gellertspa.com) and Szechenyi (szechenyispabaths.com).
  • Drink plenty of water, since spending hours at the warm springs can be dehydrating.
  • At Rudas Baths (rudasbaths.com), a 52-degree plunge pool was added in 2014. It's a refreshing way to cool off quickly.
  • The hot Király Bath (bathsbudapest.com/kiraly-bath) is not recommended for children under age 14.  
  • Purchase tickets online prior to arrival to skip long lines.
Learn More
Let a AAA Travel agent help you plan an international vacation by visiting AAA.com or calling toll-free 1-888-870-9392.
Welcome to AAA Highroads
To enjoy customized local content, please enter your ZIP Code below.
Zip Code
AAA Arizona proudly serves AAA members in the state of Arizona
×