Best of Budapest: Spa in the City

By Mr. TWS

Nicknamed “City of Spas” because of its abundance of natural thermal springs, Budapest has had public baths since the Romans first built them there. Almost any list of top things to do in the city has a visit to a Budapest spa in the top five. So why was I thinking of passing on the baths while planning our second trip to the city — even after enduring shocked reactions from people when they learned that I had been to Budapest in March and not gone to the baths?

"One of the outdoor pools at the Széchenyi Baths, Budapest"

One of the outdoor pools at the Széchenyi Baths, Budapest

Well, it should have been from modesty – I had been far less diligent than usual on my fitness and had just finished Thanksgiving, but that wasn’t it. We had made a brief scouting visit to the Gellért Baths, one of the most famous of Budapest’s natural hot spring baths, during our trip in March last year. Our reaction was that the main entrance and lobby seemed a bit dismal and we just didn’t feel like putting on bathing suits on a very chilly and damp day. So with many other things to do on our first visit, we left it at that. But for me those weren’t the only reasons. I think mainly I’m a shower person and don’t particularly like baths. Even in the shower I don’t like really hot water. So the idea of sitting in a very hot bath for a period of time was just unappealing. But when we got home after the first visit, Sweeney regretted that she hadn’t tried the baths (since it’s one of the top things to do in Budapest), so she was determined to go this time.

She hoped I would join her but planned to go regardless. She tipped my hand a bit by placing a Facebook question about whether I should try the baths or not. You can guess the response — almost unanimously yes. It reminded me of years before visiting Negril in Jamaica. There was cliff diving into a beautifully clear lagoon. Having experimented at lower heights, I approached the top of the cliff but was surprised to find very sharp lava rock making it difficult to approach the edge with bare feet. As I got to the edge about 40 feet above the water, I also now saw that the face was not vertical but slanted forward so I would have to give a good jump to clear the rocks. As I contemplated whether I could get a good enough push off on the sharp rock, a large sailing cruise boat moved into the mouth of the lagoon. Over 50 people on deck began shouting: “Jump! Jump! Jump!” So my contemplation ended quickly as I made the jump.

But I digress…

Though less dramatic than my Negril experience, my choice was thus similarly made for me by Sweeney’s poll.

"Outside the famous Budapest spa, Széchenyi Baths"

Sweeney in front of the Széchenyi Baths in Budapest

We did some additional polling to decide which of the many baths to choose and ultimately decided on the Széchenyi Baths and Spa after numerous recommendations. It ended up being a very good choice.

It was easy to reach from our hotel, the Four Seasons Gresham Palace, just a few stops on the Metro and a very short walk from the station. As we planned the activity, we were trying to figure out what to bring with us. We heard that you could rent towels there but there were many online comments referencing that the long time it took to accomplish this had negatively affected their experience. Though we sometimes pack small backpacks on trips, we hadn’t this time and that would make bringing towels and other things more complicated. Our problem was solved when we found out that our hotel provided guests with a kit for visiting the baths that included a canvas laundry sack with a large thick towel, slippers, and numerous toiletries (shampoo, body wash and lotion).

We had already convinced ourselves that it would be fun to sit in the outdoor thermal springs pool when it was cold, but we were also a bit apprehensive about the exposure to the cold while getting to and from the water wearing only swimsuits and a towel. The day we chose ended up having an air temperature of about 28°F (-2°C).

We were pretty excited as the beautiful yellow Neo-Baroque structure came into view. We entered the first entrance we came to walking directly from the Metro (a side entrance that leads to the indoor steam baths), but found that in order to rent a dressing cabin which we had been advised to do (as opposed to individual lockers), we needed to go to the rear entrance on Állatkerti körút around the corner of the building.

"Széchenyi Baths rear entrance"

Széchenyi Baths rear entrance

Although there had been numerous online comments about the staff not being very helpful or friendly, we found just the opposite. The woman behind the ticket counter was helpful in getting us the right tickets and some information and the person at the turnstiles directed us to the changing room.

"Corridor of the Széchenyi Baths changing cabins"

Mr. TWS in the corridor of the Széchenyi Baths changing cabins

While Sweeney was changing (the cabin was big enough for one at a time), I went outside and took some shots at the outdoor pool. The steam rising from the three heated pools created an eerie mood, but it also seemed paradoxically cozy and enticing. There were three pools: the one in the center was a long lap pool (you need a bathing cap for this one) and the water was 26°C (79°F).

"Lap pool at Széchenyi Baths, Budapest"

Lap pool at Széchenyi Baths

On either end were two large semi-circular pools. The one on the west end of the swimming pool had one of the sights that I had seen in photos and intrigued me about visiting the baths — a table of chess boards in the pool. I was surprised to see that even on such a cold, grey day several games were in progress with a small group of observers watching amid the steam. My thought was that even with the cold air, its 38°C (100°F) seemed hotter than I wanted (though it would have really been fun to play a game of chess.)

"Chess players in the thermal waters of the Széchenyi Baths, Budapest"

Chess players in the thermal waters of the Széchenyi Baths, Budapest

The pool (on the east end of the center swimming pool) nearer our changing room had a similar waterfall on one end and two large concentric circle walls in the center which were open at one side. I snapped some pictures and returned to find Sweeney in her bathing suit and ready to get in. I changed quickly and went out into the cold. She was surprisingly cheerful about taking the time in the cold to let me takes photos of her entering the water.

"Sweeney at Széchenyi Baths in Budapest, Hungary"

Cheerful Sweeney ready to get in one of the hot springs pools

The air was cold and taking off our slippers and towel and getting into the water seemed to take forever. But then the water felt perfect: 33°C (91.4°F). The rising steam kept our above-water parts warm too. We ducked low and began wading around the pool almost hidden in the fog.

"Thermal waters of an outdoor pool at the famous Budapest spa, Széchenyi Baths"

Sweeney in the thermal waters of an outdoor pool at the Széchenyi Baths

We approached the semi-circles just as the water jets were starting. These circles were designed to create a whirlpool that moved people quickly around in a circle between the concentric walls. The powerful jets smacked forcefully on our backs and we were surprised at how swiftly they moved us and the other twenty or so people. Everyone was laughing and smiling, having a great time being tossed about in the currents for 15 minutes. It was Sweeney’s favorite part of the whole experience.

"Whirlpool in the center of the outdoor pool of the Széchenyi Baths"

Whirlpool in the center of the outdoor pool

After about ½ hour we’d had enough wrinkling so we prepared to exit quickly, grab our stuff and return to the changing cabin area. The building on three sides was like a circular track with a hallway in the center. We assumed that this led to the indoor pools, saunas and steam rooms. The attendant informed us that you couldn’t get through and had to get there by crossing the center outside, in essence passing the pool where we exited and continuing to the building on the opposite side. Brrrr! We momentarily considered passing on the indoor pools, but then got up our courage to move very quickly to the other building, getting there just in time.

"Széchenyi Baths - indoor pools and saunas are in this building"

Széchenyi Baths – indoor pools and saunas are in this building

Within this larger side of the building was a succession of pools, one-after the other, each of various sizes, depths, and temperatures (40°C/110°F to 20°C/70°F). They also had different therapeutic mineral composition. The coldest of these was a plunge pool for quick immersion and exit. It was only about two meters across and looked about 3 meters deep, designed for hopping in and then climbing out on the ladder, presumably after time in one of the hotter pools or hot saunas/steam rooms (temps range from (18° to 20°C/65° to 68°F). Dipping my foot in for a second seemed good enough. We didn’t spend more time than just a quick wade across any of the pools inside. I tried a variety of the saunas and steam rooms. These too had varying temperatures. All of them were too hot for me, though I have a low tolerance for high heat.  I believe that the hottest one goes to about 95°C/203°F). I stepped into one at 50°C/122°F and lasted about 10 seconds. Then I later tried the aroma sauna at 53°C/128°F and lasted one second — at most.

The baths are the only traditional style ones in Pest. They are fed by two thermal springs — one 74 °C (165 °F) and 77 °C (171 °F). This latter is the deepest and hottest in Budapest and the Széchenyi Baths are the largest medicinal thermal baths in Europe.

Some tips for enjoying Széchenyi Baths

1) Stay hydrated – water bottles are allowed inside, but we didn’t know that. Sweeney got a little dehydrated and after quite a search found one water fountain with drinking water. There might have been others, but she didn’t see any.
2) Though we didn’t try to rent towels, I saw enough negative online comments to convince me one should avoid this if possible.
3) Bring a bag for towels (at least 1 per person but probably 2, leaving one in the cabin), flip-flops, robe (if cold weather and you can manage), and for water bottles.
4) The Széchenyi Baths seemed like a very good start for first-timers.

a. Good place during cool weather; in the summer, I would probably go in the evening or stick to the swimming pool.
b. Bring a bathing cap for the swimming pool.
c. Take the M1 from (yellow Metro to the 2nd last stop (Szechenyi fürdő). From there it is a block or so toward your right as you exit the station.
d. I would get a changing cabin. You need to go around the building to your left from the first entrance you see approaching from the Metro.
e.There are many choices and different packages for traditional spa treatments and massages (perhaps so many as to be confusing according to online comments).
f. There are several nearby places that you might also want to visit on your day at the baths, such as:

City Park
Heroes Square
Zoo and Botanical gardens
Ice Skating Rink
Lake with boats
Nearby restaurants (including Gundel – highly recommended)

So are you ready to experience the thermal baths of a Budapest spa?

We’re contributing this post to Nancie McKinnon’s Budget Traveler’s Sandbox Travel Photo Thursday. Enjoy other links to photos and stories on her site, too.

34 thoughts on “Best of Budapest: Spa in the City

  1. Aggy

    Oh I loved my experience at Széchenyi bath! It’s such an amazing place and I loved relaxing and hopping from one bath to another. I did it this summer and absolutely loved it!

  2. Endre

    great post for the undecided yet to take the plunge. For me a large part of the experience is the ambiance, specifically the architecture of the baths. Each one is unique, so going it’s not the case that once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. But then again, i love the baths so i would go if they were in a wooden box 🙂

  3. Leigh

    Great article. I would definitely try out the baths and thank you for all those tips. I do like the Banff Hot Springs – and last year we visited them just before XMAS, after a day of really cold skiing when it was a frosty -25C. They were pure heaven.
    Now I just have to make it to Budapest.

  4. Henry | @fotoeins

    Even though it’s not all that cold here in the Canadian southwest, I feel warm just by looking at the steaming baths. It’s one thing I’ll try the next time I find myself in Budapest! Thanks for your post, Mr. TWS!

  5. Mike

    This was great, Mr TWS! As you know we’ve had an amazingly mild winter here in the West (there that should jinx it, huh?). But, the thermal baths look so inviting and I would definitely give them a try. I’m a shower not a bath person either, sir. I really liked the part of you cliff diving in Negril! 🙂

  6. Mary {The World Is A Book}

    This looks like a wonderful experience despite the cold weather. This architecture is just beautiful.Being in the water jets sounds fun too. I’ve read somewhere that kids aren’t allowed on many of the thermal baths in Budapest so we’d need to look into alternatives if we ever make it to Budapest. Glad to see you had a wonderful time.

  7. Lucy

    This was one of my favourite Budapest experiences – I went with a group of friends in mid-December and it was absolutely freezing. It looked gorgeous with all the clouds of steam but getting in and out was a bit painful in minus three!

  8. Jennifer Crites

    Great suggestions for visiting these baths. We went to Gellert, couldn’t find towels anywhere, and got so chilled after coming out of the warm water, we both caught colds.

    A question for you: While you were in the pools, especially the whirlpool, where did you keep your camera?
    Jennifer

  9. Michele {Malaysian Meanders}

    My husband really wants to go to Budapest this summer, so I am taking notes on your blog post. So much great information! I think some of those pools definitely seem too hot for me while others are too chilly. I probably like it right around 100F. It’s so nice that the Four Seasons has a thermal spa kit for their guests.

  10. Nancie

    I didn’t go to the baths in Budapest, but after reading this, it’s on the list for next time. The biggest reason was that I was there during a hot spell. If I remember correctly, the first or second day I was there the city was the hottest in Europe on that day! I could not even think of putting my body into hot water…haha. I did go to the Arabian baths in Granada, and really enjoyed them. I did a package that included a massage. It was one of the most amazing massages I have ever had.

  11. budget jan

    Thanks guys for venturing into the baths for us. I love the look of the building and I am with Sweeney in that the circular jet stream sounds like fun. Chess would be great too, because I do get bored in hot baths after a while. Good tips re the towels and caps. Great Review.

  12. Marcia

    Talk about multi-tasking. A game of chess at the spa!
    My horoscope said I should plan a day of pampering so I booked a day at a local spa. Unfortunately, it won’t be anything like your thermal spa visit, Mr. TWS. Thanks for taking us along. I can feel the steam on my face.

  13. Jennifer

    These are our favorite baths! We spend nearly all of our time at the outdoor pools. They are just so atmospheric! We have rented towels every time and have had no problems. You essentially leave a deposit, which is returned when you return the towels.

  14. Neva Fels

    I’m surprised that the thermal pools are one of the top “must see” places in Budapest. We have so many thermal pools in Utah and Idaho, that I wouldn’t have considered trying one in another country. The pools have a very unique and relaxing feel that you’ve captured. Glad you shared the great pics.

  15. Pola (Jetting Around)

    I never really considered trying thermal baths until I visited a town in Ecuador known for just that. It was fun, but not something I *have* to try again. However, I really like the setting of the Széchenyi Baths – what a beautiful building! (I suck at chess, so I’d probably just watch.)

  16. Life Images by Jill

    Fascinating, interesting and enjoyable account of your trip to the Baths. Thanks for taking us there. The whirlpool sounds fun. I think the most difficult thing would be to get into bathers in the cold weather.
    Have a wonderful week and thank you for stopping by my blog this week.

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  18. Louisa

    Great article and tips – loved the photos. We’ve just arrived in Budapest and it’s a must do for us! You have helped us choose which one to visit. I am now off to read your other Budapest posts…

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