A guide to Budapest's historic baths
Budapest is a spa city with thermal springs bubbling up from the deep and with a bathing culture dating back to Roman times. Thermal baths are one of the best features of Budapest and taking a dip in one of the historic baths should be on every visitor's to-do-list. It's a fun and pleasant way to relax after touring the city and the thermal water's healing power is an added benefit. But, which are the best baths in Budapest? 'Should I visit Gellért or Széchenyi?' is a question I'm often asked. So, inspired by Budapest's rich spa heritage, I recently visited all the famous baths in the city (lucky me) to find the best. Here is a round-up of the city's best baths, which should come in handy for anyone planning a trip to Budapest.
Best with family & friends
The palace-like Széchenyi Baths in City Park is a great choice for families and friends. Széchenyi is one of Europe's largest public baths with 18 pools, including 3 outdoor pools, offering something for everyone. All pools are coed, the bath complex is open all year and the opening hours are long. There are no slides or dedicated kids pools, but one of the outdoor pools is suitable for children. The main outdoor swimming pool is ideal to do a few laps in should you fancy a swim, plus you can challenge your friends for a game of chess in one of the outdoor pools while immersed in the steaming water. With its 3 outdoor pools, including a wave pool, Gellért is also a summertime favorite for families with kids.
Families with small kids should know that children under the age of 14 are not allowed in the thermal water pools in any of Budapest's baths. Most baths also have regular pools.
Gellért Baths is the most beautiful bath in Budapest, period. Built in Art Nouveau style between 1912 and 1918, it combines two of Budapest's best features, healing waters and stunning architecture. From the entrance to the pools and changing rooms you'll be surrounded by beautiful sculptures, floor- and wall mosaics and stained glass windows, all in Art Deco design. Even if you don't want to get wet, Gellért Baths is a must-see for its remarkable architecture. Chances are that it will even look familiar from guidebooks and travel magazines, as it's the most photographed historic bath in Budapest. Gellért Baths has 13 pools, including a swimming pool and 3 outdoor pools, and all are equally pretty. Gellért is partially coed, meaning that 3 indoor thermal pools are in a women-only area and another 3 are in a men-only area.*
Best kept secret
Still in a pre-opening phase, the Turkish-style Veli Bej is a unique experience. Built in the 1570s, this historic Turkish bathhouse was recently restored to its original splendor and updated with state of the art facilities. Tickets are a steal at HUF 2,000, all pools are coed, opening hours are long and the pools are rarely crowded. The dimly lit octagonal pool under the Turkish dome has a romantic feel. History buffs will enjoy a small on-site exhibition featuring a number of archeological finds dating back to the Ottoman era in Hungary. Imagine going to a museum in your bathing suit.
Best to mingle with the locals
Tucked away in a group of buildings by the Buda end of Margaret Bridge, Lukács Baths is the locals' favorite. It's smaller and more intimate than Széchenyi or Gellért, and perhaps even more authentic. As tourists rarely frequent the complex, everything here is written in Hungarian, so if in doubt at any time, just follow what the locals do, or ask them and they will be happy to help. Lukács is coed and has 8 pools, including a swimming pool and two outdoor pools. Once a favorite meeting place among writers and artists, Lukács still remains popular in the local literary circles.
Best for a girls’ day out
Originally open for men exclusively, the Turkish-style Rudas Baths now has women only days every Tuesday. In operation since the 16th century, this bathhouse consist of two equally impressive areas, an octagonal Turkish pool beneath a dome and a Classicist-style swimming pool, an addition built in the 19th century. The tiny holes in the Turkish dome let just enough sunlight shine through to keep the pool beneath dimly lit, making it feel like part of a fairy-tail. Regularly voted as one of the best baths and the best Turkish bath in Budapest, Rudas is an excellent venue for a girls’ day out on Tuesdays. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are men only and weekends are coed.
Best for couples
Couples are best off by selecting a coed bath and Széchenyi should be at the top of your list. This bath is entirely coed, meaning that not only the pools but all saunas, aroma cabins and steam baths are shared by both sexes. Veli Bej is another ideal choice, especially for those hopeless romantics, as this is a much smaller and less crowded bath and it has a more intimate feel. Another option is Rudas Baths, which is coed on weekends only.
The oldest and most historic functioning thermal bath in Budapest is Király Baths. Built in the 16th century, at the beginning of the Ottoman Turkish occupation, Király Baths has exclusively thermal baths, retaining many of the key elements of a traditional Turkish bathhouse. Today, it's in need of renovations, but the waters are great, the history and authenticity add character and guarantee a one-of-a-kind experience. In addition, the entrance fees at HUF 2,300 are also reasonable.
While it's not a historic bath, the Danubius Health Spa on Margaret Island is worth a mention. Fed by a hot spring rising from deep beneath the island, the spa features thermal pools, regular indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, steam baths and a large gym. It's location on Margaret Island makes this spa complex a great place to recharge all year round.
In addition to the recommendations above, you'll find a detailed review of my experience at each one of Budapest's baths along with opening hours, entrance fees and useful tips.
*Update: As of January 1st 2013, Gellért Baths has become fully coed and all areas are open to everyone.