For travellers making their way through the Eastern European countries, Budapest is often top of the list. From its turbulent nightlife to its fascinating history, there’s a whole lot to see and do in the Hungarian capital. In winter, this dynamic city becomes even more magical with its traditional Christmas markets. However, out of all the weird and wonderful things to explore, there’s one experience I urge you all to try. And I’m sure you’ve heard of it before. Whether its summer or winter, the thermal baths in Budapest are a must-see.
When I visited Budapest for Christmas, I may or may not have had several mishaps that caused me to miss three flights… in a week. Anyone who knows me knows that missing flights is a classic Mel move, so it wasn’t so much disastrous as it was plain annoying. However, as it turned out, my misfortune was a blessing in disguise. I was forced to stay in Budapest for one whole week as opposed to the original few days planned, and this meant I got to explore so much more.
Had I only stayed those few days, I would never have visited three of Budapest’s awesome thermal baths. That includes the most famous, the most opulent and the oldest baths in Budapest. Here’s what I thought about each one.
1. Szechenyi Baths: The Most Famous
The first spa to pop up when you do a Google search on ‘thermal spas Budapest’ is, of course, Szechenyi. The most famous in Budapest, Szechenyi is also one of the largest, housing 15 indoor baths and 3 grand outdoor pools.
Cost-wise, how much is Szechenyi baths? It cost me as little as 5900 HUF (around £14) for a full day ticket with locker included. I also rented out flip-flops because you are required to wear them around the spa. That cost around 4000 HUF (around £10). To do the baths on the cheap, make sure you bring your own flip-flops and your own towel. However, if you do forget to bring things, it’s handy that everything can be bought or rented there. Swimwear included.
What’s also pretty special about these particular baths is the parties they hold. Szechenyi regularly hosts evening ‘spa-rties’, where the relaxing medicinal waters basically turn into a massive rave. I don’t know about you, but I am LOVING the juxtaposition here. From healing waters to ‘f*ck me up fam’, it’s a big yes from me. However, over the Christmas period, the parties are made less regular. This meant that I just missed out on the last party before Christmas. I’m so sad to have missed out this time ’round, but it’s top of the bucket list for when I visit Budapest again.
2. Gellert Spa: The Most Opulent
On Christmas Day itself, I visited the most opulent (and the most expensive), Gellert Spa. Despite being the most exxy, the full-day ticket price is still only 6300 HUF (around £15), locker included. Again, it’s a fraction of the costs you would pay for your average western bathhouse (and not much more than Szechenyi, actually). What a great Christmas treat for my money-poor backpacker self.
Gellert Spa was open on Christmas Day whereas many other spas were not. It was a little more expensive to visit on a public holiday, but it was worth it seeing considering lots of things to do in Budapest were closed on Christmas Day. Another thing to note is that, over the winter, the outdoor thermal pool at Gellert Spa closes.
Gellert Spa uses the same deep underground springs that the Knights of St John used in the 12th century and, later on, the Turks. The history of Hungarian thermal baths is really quite an interesting one. Between 1541 and 1690, central Hungary was part of the Ottoman Empire. Ruled by the Muslim Ottoman Turks, it was thanks to these guys that Budapest has so many ancient hot springs and bathhouses laying about today. Many buildings built by the Ottomans can be identified in contemporary Budapest. However, only four of today’s existing baths functioned back then as they do now, and one just so happens to be next on my list: Kiraly Baths.
3. Kiraly Bath: The Oldest
Along with Rudas Bath, Kiraly Bath is the oldest thermal bath in Budapest. Construction of the bath began in 1565 by Arslan, the Pasha of Buda, then completed by his successor, Sokoli Mustafa. It is far smaller than both Szechenyi and Gellert, yet holds such an authentic presence. This authenticity crowned it my favourite out of all three thermal baths I visited in winter.
When I arrived on a cold day in December, there was a bit of a line up to get in. Seeing as the bath is so small, Kiraly has to adopt a one-in-one-out policy – like a nightclub – to control the number of people inside at one time. I can imagine it would get worse in the summer. However, I can vouch these baths are well worth the wait.
Pay 2700 HUF for a locker and day ticket (around £7), then step inside and prepare to feel as though you’ve travelled through time to the Middle Ages. The historical interior is so special and has so much character.
Largely unrestored, you can bathe in its ancient octagonal pools with rustic stone walls and gaze up at the 16th-century dome in awe. I recall floating to the centre of the main pool and just staring up at the dome for minutes on end, spinning around and appreciating the symmetrical architecture. The whole room is dimly lit, kind of romantically so. This is because the only light comes from small skylit holes dotted in the dome above. It certainly adds to the tranquil atmosphere of it all. And if you were wondering, I think I spent some 6 or 7 hours here, just repeatedly hopping between the spa, sauna, steam room and cold pools.
Interestingly, Kiraly Bath was once men-only. It is only in the last few years that the medieval bath has been operating as a mixed bath. Those who know a little about the history of Turkish baths will know that they were all once traditionally men-only. So if you’re after a men-only experience just like in the old days, the only bath today still operating as so are the Rudas Baths.