One of Europe’s largest bathing complexes, Szechenyi Thermal Bath’s labyrinthine interior consists of intricately tiled treatment rooms, pools and wooden saunas, but it’s the outdoor pools on the grounds of the Neo-Baroque palace that draw the crowds. Be it soaking in thermal water while watching elderly men play chess, or being massaged by bubbles in the activity pool, most people visit this bath on a pilgrimage to immerse themselves in Budapest’s spa culture.
On summer nights, disco lights flicker and deep bass throbs through the complex. The sparty transforms the relaxing Szechenyi into the hottest party in town, complete with top DJs and pop-up bars. Although the high entrance fee for the baths skews the complex towards an international demographic, this doesn’t mean it is just another tourist attraction.
2. Lukacs Bath
Lukacs Bath may be less photogenic than Szechenyi, but this modest complex flies the sparty flag in the colder months with its Magic Bath parties. Here, DJs spin electronic beats, while laser projections dance over partygoers in the geothermal outdoor pool.
It isn’t only the purported medicinal properties of Budapest’s baths that have elevated them to world fame. The architectural decadence of Gellert Thermal Bath, with its stained-glass cupola, Zsolnay porcelain tiles and colonnaded pools, also makes it a work of art.
Once the site of a mud bath, Gellert uses water suffused with carbonic gases from a neighbouring hill. Records dating back to the 15th century refer to the existence of these “miraculous” springs, though the bath itself didn’t open till 1918. Gellert also captures the innovation of the early 20th century – its outdoor wave pool made its debut in 1927.
Head around the side of Gellert Hill along the Danube to the historic Rudas Thermal Bath, which was built in the 16th century. Pinpricks of light filter through the cupola’s skylights, casting multicoloured reflections on the octagonal pool. A modern wellness centre was recently added to the complex. This Ottoman bath is popular among tourists and locals alike. Until recently, Rudas had been a male-only spa since 1936. Now, weekends are co-ed, and Tuesdays are reserved exclusively for women.
Built on the grounds of a hospital a short walk from Lukacs and hidden behind a glass wall, Veli Bej Bath is a place you’ll find only if you know where to look. Although recently renovated, echoes of its Ottoman past lie in details such as its stones inscribed with Arabic script. You won’t find the crowds here. It isn’t listed in the official bath network, and entry is restricted to 80 people at a time.
For a true local’s choice, head to Dandar Thermal Bath in Budapest’s ninth District, next to the Zwack Unicum Factory, where Hungary’s famous herbal bitters are made. Dandar has a proletariat charm. Surrounded by residential flats on either side, it feels like someone’s backyard. You won’t hear a single word of English spoken, since the majority of its clientele are older Hungarians who come here to soak on a regular basis. Think of it as a no-frills bar where everyone knows one another.
The indoor pool is nearly full even on weekday mornings, when its regular patrons gather to gossip. There is a small additional charge for its outdoor pools, which are also heated to the usual 36 to 38 deg C, making them pleasant to soak in, even in winter.
– TEXT BY JENNIFER WALKER
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.