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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.