The Baths of Budapest

budapest thermal bathsOverhead the storm that had followed us through Europe from Krakow to Budapest roared in the sky and the torrential downpours that we had become so used began once more in earnest. From the windows of the car, we could hardly make out the wide avenues of Pest, or the stoic post-communist frontispieces of the buildings through the rain. We were on our way to the Széchenyi thermal baths, a sprawling complex of natural spa pools in the heart of Budapest’s City Park, famed for its medicinal powers. We were already wet we thought, so why not make a day of it?

budapest thermal baths

The baths are set in a grandiose baroque building with Art Nouveau adornments that testify to its early 20th century origins. Inside, a variety of pools of different temperatures were humming with chattering locals and throngs of tourists escaping the rain just like us, and we quickly joined those enjoying the warmth of the 27 degree mineral pool.

All day I had been suffering from the lingering pains of a Hungarian-beer hangover, and had been prescribed a trip to the baths by my hostel staff who claimed it was the local cure for alcohol-induced ailments that are curiously common in Budapest, a city where the nightlife has attained a reputation for being seriously heavy. They weren’t wrong. Everything, from the enveloping heat of the spa pool to the softly echoing acoustics of the high-domed interior of Széchenyi is something of a cure-all, and my hangover promptly ascended from my body.

Feeling rejuvenated, we made our way through the series of transitory rooms daring to dip toes in the ice pool and drop in on the 70 degree sauna where the ubiquitous Eastern European fat-cat sat sweating on the top seats. Széchenyi baths are one of many in the city, but they are certainly the busiest and most famous of the lot and it was easy to see why as moved from room to room; the interior decoration was something of a work of art in itself, where colonnaded pools cut from rich red marble are punctuated by elaborate chandelier lights, and magnificent mosaic art works colour the domed ceilings.

As our hangovers subsided, so did the rain, and the bath-goers gradually made their way to the outdoor section of the spa. This massive central courtyard is home to the iconic triptych pool that’s become the classic image of the Széchenyi baths. At its middle, locals began their exercise routines in the lane pool, while others floated in the 37 degree sections on either side, wallowing in the post-rain freshness of the Hungarian outdoors.

budapest thermal baths interior

If bathing isn’t your thing, then there’s plenty of people-watching opportunity here too. There’s a bar terrace where you can sip an after-swim beer while watching the clusters of old Hungarians playing chess on the poolside boards as they sit contently in the warm water pondering their next move.

In the true spirit of Eastern European travel, a visit to the baths is not expensive. A single ticket costs around 4000 HUF ($19), and there’s no time limit on your stay, which means you’re free to laze without checking the clock.

It’s easy to see how the baths have become an iconic institution in Budapest and Hungary as a whole. Above being a totally replenishing experience that left us readier than ever for another night on the town in our favourite haunts, the bohemian Szimpla Kert or high-energy Instant bar, or perhaps one of the city’s many other multi-roomed, multi-storied beatnik joints that opened late and closed early (the next morning that is), it was clear that a visit to the baths represented a social outing for these city-dwelling Hungarians, a national pastime that was as much about chatting as bathing.

About Rich

Rich is young and energetic writer with a versatile form and published pieces in an eclectic range of subject areas - from medieval witch trial manuscripts to jungle trekking in Southern Thailand.

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