Sitting in the heart of a major geological basin, Budapest claims to be the only capital city in the world with healing thermal springs. There are around 123 that have forced their way through cracks in the limestone hills, giving rise to a rich spa culture that began among the Celtic tribes in the first century AD.
The Romans were fans too, as ruins at spots like Obuda attest, however it wasn’t until the 16th century, during the Ottoman Empire’s 150-year occupation, that bathing culture exploded.
Popular spots, such as the recently renovated Rudas and Veli Bej Csaszar bath offer a chance to soak underneath typical, 16th-century Turkish dome roofs.
In the 19th century, global bathing culture was repopularised. Budapest quickly erected several new bath-houses, including tourist hot-spots Gellert and Szechenyi.
Nowadays, there are almost too many to choose from. Whether it be a warm soak, an outdoor swim at one of the “beaches” (read: cold pools) or a massage after a strenuous morning of pavement-pounding, you need to try at least one of these.
Locals’ favourite: Lukacs baths
Price: 2800FT (weekdays) ($14); free with a Budapest card
A favourite meeting place of intellectuals, artists and politicians, these baths are said to have the most curative powers of any in the capital and are among the least touristy. If the stink of sulphur is anything to go by (even in the drinking fountain inside the baths, where locals glug the foul-smelling water directly from one of the springs), these are the real deal.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, the baths were given a facelift in the late 19th century, and attracted visitors from around the world. You can still see the plaques of gratitude in the courtyard left by successfully cured tourists.
If you wander around inside you’ll see some weird and wonderful delights; elderly women hanging by their necks in traction pools (you need to produce a doctor’s certificate before you’re allowed to try this), old men gossiping and elderly women in bright turquoise and cherry red-coloured swimming caps.
Explore the outside area, including the easy-to-miss rooftop sunbathing spot, treat yourself to a thoroughly good massage for around $15 and don’t miss the salt room, which has salt-brick-lined walls that offer untold benefits for those with respiratory problems or asthmatic complaints.
The most beautiful: Gellert
PRICE: 4900FT (weekdays) ($25)
The St Gellert Spa and Hotel opened its doors in 1918. You can still marvel at the beautiful pyro-granite tiling around the pools, as well as stained-glass ceilings and marble floors – some of it still in its original condition – while you soak in one of the many indoor pools.
Be prepared to get lost in the labyrinth-like surroundings; keep an extra 30 minutes tucked up your sleeve. This spa is also the most child-friendly of the lot; kids (and adults) will be sure to get a kick out of Europe’s only wave pool.
There are a swathe of options if you want to treat yourself, including the delicious-smelling chocolate massage and the luxurious Cleopatra spa (bathing in milk and honey). If you opt for the couple’s red wine spa (supposedly jam-packed full of antioxidants and great to soak in) it comes complete with a large tiled bath, private sauna and a giant shower. It is best enjoyed with a lover, not your aunt. In order to retain some decorum, try an evening session rather than the 10am slot we opted for, when drinking a bottle of Hungarian red (which comes free with the spa) is vaguely more appropriate.
The biggest: Szechenyi
Price: 4100FT (weekdays) ($20.50)
Situated in the Unesco World Heritage City Park, Szechenyi was the first thermal bath on the Pest side and, with 18 indoor and outdoor pools, is one of the largest spa complexes in Europe and was an alleged favourite of Elizabeth Taylor.
The beach is a good spot to watch older men battling it out on the in-pool tables designed for chess. Bring your own chess pieces.
If that’s not challenging enough, try taking it to the corporeal extreme (or conquer your fear of being locked in a sauna and desiccating to death) by sitting in the 80 to 100C sauna. Refresh in the 16C plunge pool next door. Be warned: you’ll need a lie-down after.
Top tips for Budapest bathing
• Bring your own towel (even if you are just getting a massage), Jandals, and a bathing cap (a shower cap will suffice).
• Give yourself time to properly memorise the location of your locker (all tickets include one). They are damn near impossible to find again.
• Weekdays are cheaper than weekends, and some pools offer special deals for early morning, afternoon and evening baths. Check online at bathsbudapest.com
• Don’t leave without trying the curative gymnastics (aqua aerobics); the class is conducted in Hungarian, so be sure to stand at the back so you can copy others. Be prepared to (finally) break through the po-faced ambiguity of the locals.