Budapest is a city of thermal springs, and its baths are famous all over Europe. The Celts and Romans, who lived here in ancient times, actively used them to maintain health. Even the name of the ancient Roman city of Aquincum, settled between 41-54 AD on the territory of Óbuda, means “abundant water”.
Groundwater having a temperature of 20 °C and above is called thermal. In mountainous areas, thermal waters often appear on the surface having a temperature of 50 to 90 °C (hot springs). A centuries-old history of the use of hot springs also confirms their healing effect – it is especially well known for its good influence on muscle and joint pains, on the condition of our skin, and, of course, on stress relief. The reason for this effect is still little-studied by modern medicine and is most likely a complex combination of the effects of the water temperature and dissolved minerals on the skin pores and blood vessels.
The amazing thing about the thermal baths in Budapest, is that they are located all around the city centre, some in the most beautiful bathing houses! In Budapest there's no need to take vans riding half a day to reach a bath far away. No, here you'll find many excellent baths inside the city! With all those nice baths, which one should you choose? And what should you bring to a bath?
In our travel guide of Budapest we have selected the 7 best-known baths in Budapest. Generally you can distinguish between large and busy baths on the one side, and small and calm baths on the other side. In this edition of Streetwise Stories we will focus on Gellért Baths, one of the most popular and stylish bathing houses of Budapest, and Veli Bej Bath, which is small and hidden but nevertheless absolutely worth a visit. In any of the baths, you will see people of all ages enjoying the relaxing effects of thermal waters, so don't feel pushed to a specific kind of bath.
Looking at the luxurious building of Hotel Gellért, built in the Art Nouveau style, it is impossible to believe that once the place was known as 'muddy baths' (“sárosfürdő”). This unattractive name has its roots in the 11th century, when the monk Gellért, who settled in the mountain's cave, discovered the healing properties of the source located here. By mistake, he thought that it was the mud that had healing properties, but over time it became clear that it was the water.
The first so-called hospital appeared on this place in the 13th century. With the arrival of the Ottomans in Budapest, it was converted into a typical Turkish bath. During these early bathing days, mud from the spring was sifted into the pools, for which it was nicknamed 'muddy'. Only after King Franz Joseph I had ordered to build a new bathing complex here in the 20th century, the baths turned into a real work of art, inviting people to indulge in the power of the healing waters of Gellért Hill. The interior of the baths is striking in its magnificence. Stained glass windows are depicting heroes from epic poems, marble columns, bronze statues, leather sofas and fountains with mineral drinking water – all of this is pleasing to the eye and creates an atmosphere of luxury. If you are interested in learning more about this architectural style, read our recent article about Art Nouveau in Budapest.
Gellért Baths is also one of the more expensive options, with an entrance fee of about € 20, which includes a private cabin. Compare that with an entrance fee of about € 10 for Veli Bej Bath – the oldest Turkish bath in Budapest – which includes a private locker.
What you need to bring to a thermal bath does not differ fundamentally from what to bring to any other regular pool. Make sure you bring your swimwear and slippers, a towel, and douche gel if you want. Exceptions can apply though, at some baths. For instance the old-Turkish Rudas Thermal Baths, is a place where men tend to be separated from women. On weekdays the baths are reserved for men only, except on Tuesdays, when it is women's only. On weekends, bathing in Rudas is mixed, but then the place still stands out by requiring bathing suits over bikinis.
All your clothes and valuables can be stored inside a locked cabin or a locker, which only you can open with your personal bracelet. Interesting thing to note is that cameras are allowed inside Gellért Baths, so you could decide to take your phone with you. The guests who bring their cameras generally use them prudently, taking selfies or just filming the setting of the bath.
Now the moment has come to head for the pools, hoping that Budapest’s thermal waters are going to fix all your private wounds. Gellért Baths offers many different pools, not all of them with thermal water – therefore, be sure to double check with the staff where to find the area with thermal baths.
You will see that the thermal pools differ in the temperature of the water, with for instance pools with water of 36 or 40 °C. Whatever pool you choose, try to sit a moment close to the source, having the fresh thermal water flowing around you, and preferably also over your head. It does feel healing!
Another spectacular side of Gellért Baths are its outside pools, some of which filled with thermal water. A magnificent experience during a summer evening, or amidst the freezing snow of December.
As is common for thermal baths in Budapest, Gellért Baths also offers a number of other wellness facilities, such as steam baths, ice cold baths, and even an outside Finnish sauna, complete with traditional tub. Services like massage are not included in the entrance fee.
The Veli Bej Bath is not as large and popular among tourists as the famous Gellért and Széchenyi Baths. It is one of the bathing houses that date back to the Ottoman occupation of Hungary in the 16th century. Fortunately, it has managed to preserve good parts of its historical interior thanks to a careful restoration that was carried out in 2011, with the help of archaeologists and art historians.
What you will find here today is a beautiful dome-covered octagonal pool, typical for the classical Turkish bathing houses. Around this central pool, there's a number of smaller pools with thermal water of varying temperatures.
The atmosphere in Veli Bej is nice and calm, making it an excellent place to enjoy the healing effects of thermal waters in dimmed light – not many people bring their cameras in this dark and calm setting. The bathing house uses a counter to make sure that the place won't get overcrowded. Baths usually get more crowded during evenings and on weekends.
If you are looking for rest, or for a calm bath to visit with your partner, our advice would be to head for one of the smaller baths in Budapest, like Veli Bej Bath. If you are with a group of friends, one of the bigger baths like Gellért or Széchenyi Baths is likely a better fit. Also note that there can be a considerable price difference between the baths, with the entrance fee of Gellért Baths being about double the price of Veli Bej Bath.
Whatever your bathing preferences may be, our best advice would be simply to go, and to visit the magnificent baths of Budapest!