Sharing baths with strangers

Budapest is famed for its thermal baths that are dotted across the beautiful city. It’s also one of the most beautiful cities in the world with incredible architecture lined up along the Danube River. I was lucky enough to experience the city’s beauty in the sunshine during my visit; but on my first day Budapest greeted me with hours of rain.

After opening the curtains in our hostel room to find the rain coming down in sheets, my travel buddy Caitlin and I decided that trying out the thermal baths would be a good rainy day activity. Soon after we found ourselves soaking in thermal spring water with strangers.

Where to soak?

Choosing a bath house proved difficult with almost ten well known ones to choose from. We had spent the night before narrowing it down to two: Gellert baths and Szechenyi Thermal Baths.

Gellert Baths

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The entrance to Gellert Baths. Built on the side of the river that was originally the town ‘Buda’. In 1873 ‘Buda’ and ‘Pest’ united to become Budapest. Pic: Heather Cameron.

Art Nouveau-style Gellert baths is built into the famous Gellert hotel and has been around, and refurbished, since 1918. It’s located in the middle of town, right next to Liberty Bridge making it easily walkable. But being one of the most well known bath houses means it’s also one of the busiest.

Szechenyi Baths

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Szechenyi Baths can be found in  Budapest City Park. The yellow walls – usually brighter than they are here thanks to not so great weather – draw in thousands of visitors every year. Pic: Heather Cameron.

Szechenyi is arguably Budapest’s most famous bathhouse thanks to its iconic yellow facade. Located in City Park, it is farther out from the city centre but easily accessible using the city trams. Due to its popularity, Szechenyi can become busy especially in the summertime when tourists allegedly flick to watch the local men playing chess in the outside pools. But it is slightly bigger than Gellert which makes the crowds less noticeable.

After some research, we realised we couldn’t choose between the bathhouses based on architecture alone as they are both gorgeous. Szechenyi was slightly cheaper for a day ticket but further to travel to so we based it on distance (and not wanting to walk too far in the downpour) and went with Gellert.

After trudging through the rain we arrived at Gellert Hotel and walked around to the entrance baths.

Taking the plunge

We visited Budapest in late October meaning the city was quieter than usual and we didn’t have to worry about the overcrowding. The bathhouses were still relatively full of people both locals and tourists.

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Mosiacs, sculptures an gilded walls in the entrance hall of Gellert Baths. Pic: Heather Cameron.

A gust of wind blew us through the door into a beautifully ornate, dark panelled foyer. We parted with some forints and were ushered through to the baths. Gellert has multiple thermal baths and pools both inside and outside. Mosaics cover the walls and floors in the different rooms giving the whole place an incredibly grand atmosphere. The most breathtaking is the main hall which houses a large swimming pool and a smaller thermal pool which was full when we arrived. This is the spot you’ll see in the pictures online.

Each side of the main hall has thermal bath rooms that were much quieter meaning we didn’t have to sit packed in next to strangers from across the world like we had to in the thermal bath in the main hall.

These thermal baths ranged from 36-40 degrees. The hottest one was a bit too intense sit in for too long so I ended up sitting half in and half out of the water on the stairs to keep my head cool.

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Details in the floor and on the walls in one of the auxiliary rooms. Pic: Heather Cameron.

If you really want to test your courage you can use the outdoors pools.

The day we were there the weather was rather morbid. The rain was coming down and it was 11 degrees.

At the door to the outside area, I wrapped my tiny towel around me as tight as it would go, steeled my will and pushed on the handle. My flip flops slapped the wet cobblestones and I suffered a minor speed wobble but made it to the bath. Sitting in Gellert’s outside area, with rain drops falling all around and steam rising from the thermal water surrounding me was a surreal experience but definitely worth the ticket price. Some tourists walking past Gellert’s palisade fencing – who were decked out in coats, beanies and scarves – stopped to gawk at all of the seemingly crazy people (us) soaking in our bathing suits outside in such horrible weather.

There are rumours that the hot spring waters have healing qualities and there are a variety of spa treatments available. The morning of our visit, I had woken up with a blocked nose and sore throat. After the afternoon in the thermal water, my scratchy throat had eased slightly (this could have actually been because of the water or the LemSip I took that morning. We’ll never know).

COST: 5100 HUF on weekdays and 5400 HUF on weekends (euro 16 and 17 euro)

All the bathhouses hand out waterproof silicon wristbands that give you access to lockers in the male or female changing rooms (changing cabins are available for anyone who would prefer some more privacy). This gave us some peace of mind while we soaked in the thermal waters.

TIME: We spent 2 and a half hours relaxing but its totally possible to spend a whole day jumping from bath to pool and back.

A few days later we took a walk to City Park to check out the outside of Szechenyi Bathhouse. The weather was incrementally better than our first day (so still pretty horrid). We took a walk down Andrassy Avenue under a sky heavy with clouds but luckily clouds that weren’t dropping any water on us.

Szechenyi’s outer Neo-Baroque architecture was beautiful and we got to see the entrance foyer. Unfortunately we couldn’t see the famous outside baths as the bathhouse is enclosed.

TIPS:

  • Take a swimming cap if you want to swim in any of the pools as they are required. The therml baths are fine to go into without wearing one.

 

  • Towels, bathing suits and caps are available to rent for a fee.

 

  • Early morning and late evening are the best time to visit.

 

  • Opening times vary depending on the time of year that you visit. Google the baths you want to go to and check the times beforehand to avoid disappointment.

 

  • The outdoor thermal wave pool at Gellert is closed during winter. (Luckily we made it there just at the end of Autumn).

 

  • Take a big towel to keep you warm during the cooler months when moving from section to section.

 

  • Stay hydrated! Sorry to sound like a concerned mom but soaking in the hot baths surrounded by steam can really take it out of you. Taps with fresh water are dotted throughout Gellert Baths.

 

  • Post-thermal bath we felt super relaxed but slightly drained. Refuel at the Grand Market (just across the river from Gellert Baths) with some langos; a local dish which is basically deep fried bread with toppings of your choice. Caitlin and I shared one topped with sour cream and cheese— the traditional way to eat your langos. We also split one covered in Nutella and banana for dessert (treat yo’self). Both cost us 800 HUF (euro 2.50). Bargain.
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Feeling toasty post-bath experience. Pic: Caitlin Courtney.

When the sun eventually appears during your time in Budapest, get out, walk the streets and indulge in the city.

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The view of the Parliament building from Castle Hill. Pic: Caitlin Courtney.

Budapest is as beautiful under the night sky as it is in the daylight. Getting to meander up and down the Danube on my last night and see the city lights glowing along the river was one of the highlights of my time in Budapest.

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Buda Castle, Chain Bridge and the Danube riverbank illuminated at night. Pic: Heather Cameron.

 

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