Finding yourself tired and achy after a long day’s sightseeing in Budapest? You’re in luck. Blessed by its location—it sits above numerous natural springs loaded with warm water fortified with minerals—the Hungarian capital offers visitors some of the world’s great public bath experiences.
With over fifty baths, spas and public pools, Budapest takes full advantage of the healing waters that burble up from its sediment. The experience of the spa/bath has become a way of life in this city, and integral part of its social fabric. Some baths date to the sixteenth century when the Ottomans first indulged in the bath craze, and others date from the early twentieth century. It is not unusual for a Hungarian physician to prescribe a visit to the baths, such is the strength of Hungarians’ belief in the restorative powers of the experience.
There are dozens of baths to choose from, but for the first-time visitor the popular Széchenyi offers a fine look into a top-notch Budapest bath experience. Housed in a grand old yellow building situated in the City Park, the enormous complex with the Baroque copper dome looks like every bit the grand nineteenth-century retreat it is; a recent renovation has given the historic building a fresh coat of gleam.
The brainchild of a Budapest mining engineer, Széchenyi was the first thermal bath on the Pest side of the city, with records showing that an artisanal bath existed on the spot by 1881. By 2014 a full panoply of options existed, including an outpatient physiotherapy department.
Upon entering, you’ll choose the options you want (children under 2 are free and there is a special student discount), rent your towel, and hit the locker room to change. If you get lost in the complex or just plain overwhelmed by the choices, attendants in white will try their best to assist, though many do not speak English. This being Europe, there are some swimsuit-optional areas, but the American visitor will be happy to know that most patrons are covered—minimally, by severely strained Speedos—but still covered.
Settling into the hundred-degree water, stress quickly melts away like an ice cube under the summer sun. There is nothing to do but watch the other visitors. An observant guest will find a a feast of people-watching opportunities like blissed-out regulars playing chess in their Speedos and local big shots discussing weighty political matters while struggling to stay awake in the relaxing water, their eyelids heavy as steam swirls around them.
There are older, more historic spas and baths in town (some of the Ottoman-era spas) and swankier spas (the Gellert Baths are justifiably popular) but for a locally-loved and affordable experience to introduce you to Budapest’s water wonders, spending a lazy afternoon relaxing under Széchenyi’s glimmering domes is a fine idea.
Author: James Ullrich, Writer/Editor – Seattle
Photo Credits Outdoor Pool: Orin Zebest via Compfight cc Men Playing Chess: Orin Zebest via Compfight cc