Romans, Ottomans, Hungarians...

Ever since the Romans settled here in the 1st century AD, locals have enjoyed the steaming, mineral rich thermal water that's gushing from beneath Budapest's surface. (Remains of Thermae Maiores, the Roman public bath, have been excavated and can be visited for free.) The Ottoman Turkish leadership, after invading the city in the 16th century, was particularly fond of the hot springs of Buda. Some of the hamams they built are once again functional baths today (Rudas, Király, Veli Bej). Their faintly-lit octagonal pools lend a mysterious ambiance to these centuries-old buildings.

The third wave of bathhouse construction took place during Budapest's golden years at the turn of the 20th century. Enclosed in grand, classical revival buildings, architecturally these baths are much different from the hamams. Like other buildings at the time, they meant to convey Budapest's imperial ambitions which at the time was a capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The best examples are the monumental Széchenyi and Gellért baths.

Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of Hungarians don’t regularly go to thermal baths. At the seven main Budapest thermal baths reviewed below, an estimated 75% of bathgoers are tourists on average. On one end is Széchenyi, which has a practically all-tourists crowd, on the other is Dandár, where most people are locals. Locals who do go to baths mainly consist of diehard regulars, and patients looking to treat ailments like rheumatoid arthritis, muscle pain, or skin diseases. As an added incentive, the Hungarian national health insurance plan subsidizes these prescribed visits.

Science has yet to verify the healing effects of balneotherapy, the treatment of pain by bathing in thermal water. It’s possible that mineral-rich waters are a useful supplement to standard treatments, but there is insufficient evidence to prove it. So what’s all the fuss about thermal bathing then? Well, healing isn’t the only reason to soak in natural hot springs inside stunningly beautiful old buildings. It’s a pretty awesome thing to do regardless, and it also allows time to relax, reflect, and socialize.

In fact, bathhouses in Budapest have always served as platforms for communal gathering and information exchange. This was particularly true during the most repressive years of communism in the 1950s: hiding amid clouds of mist and the background noise of running water was as safe a refuge for covert political discussions as one could find.

Budapest has a total of nine medicinal baths today (and 123 hot springs), leaving a plethora of options for bathgoers. While the water’s mineral content is similar, each bath has its own unique qualities in terms of architecture, number of pools, amenities, and crowds. Packs of tourists flock to the three most popular ones (Széchenyi, Gellért, and Rudas), which in turn is gradually driving locals away to quieter baths with lower admission fees.

Know Before You Go

  • On weekends, Budapest baths operate at full capacity, which means that people are packed like sardines. You will do yourself a favor if you go on a weekday (they're also slightly cheaper then).

  • If you go to Széchenyi or Gellért try to get there early in the morning (between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.) - that's when the remaining local regulars can be found.

  • Bathing is a year-round activity, but soaking in steaming hot water feels all the more reviving in the gloomy winter months. Particularly in the outdoor baths (except for Veli Bej and Király, all baths have both indoor and outdoor pools).

  • Like it or not, nudity is no longer accepted. Except for Rudas, all Budapest baths are coed and require a bathing suit. See details below on Rudas.

  • In most bathhouses, expect a labyrinthine system of lockers and changing rooms with few signs leading the way. Instead of working yourself up as you keep getting lost, think of it as part of the experience.

  • Some of the baths offer refunds for shorter stays. Tickets for less than two hours and afternoon-only stays are the most common.

  • Water temperature usually ranges between 30 to 40 degrees Celsius (86 to 104 Fahrenheit). The use of cold pools, saunas and steam rooms are included in the general admission ticket.

  • Baths offer additional services like massage, private baths, and pedicure for extra charge. Check the websites below for the full list of amenities.

  • What you should bring: a swim suit, a pair of sandals, and a towel. And a swim cap in case you want to use the swimming pool too.

  • Thermal water enthusiasts can buy the mineral-rich water for drinking. Széchenyi, Rudas, and Lukács each have thermal water fountains with sulphurous water for consumption (if you bring an empty bottle, you can also take some to go). The prices won’t set you back much: a glass costs about ten euro cents (HUF30).

  • All bathhouses except Király can be accessed by wheelchair.

The Top 7

#1 RUDAS Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; night bathing on Friday and Saturday from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.) Photo: MTI / Kovács TamásWhat’s unique about it? The 16th century octagonal bath chamber was commissioned by Ottoman Pasha Sokollu Mustafa. On weekdays, except Tuesday, only men are allowed in the Turkish section. Local regulars can be observed moving from pool to pool under the vaulted arcade in apron-like cloths, kötény, covering little of their bodies. The hot tub, perched atop the building with sweeping views, is an absolute must. It must be intentional that the water isn’t a few degrees warmer than 36 Celsius – people would never leave (be sure that your ticket covers indooor and outdoor sections).

Percent of locals: 50% (on weekdays locals, on weekends tourists are overrepresented).
Number of pools: 11 indoor, 1 outdoor.
Coed? Only on weekends. The wellness section and the outdoor hot tub are coed every day. Tuesday is “women’s day” at the Turkish pools.
Weekday Admission (adults): HUF4,800/c.€16 (includes the outdoor hot tub).

#2 GELLÉRT Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.) What’s unique about it? Budapest’s second most popular bath (after Széchenyi) is attached to the worn-down-but-still-impressive Hotel Gellért, a late art nouveau landmark from 1918. The highlights are the Instagram-friendly indoor pools studded with floor-to-ceiling turquoise Zsolnay ceramics, which receive plenty of sunshine through the sky windows (they are hidden in the back of the indoor bathing area). Early on weekday mornings, one still gets to mingle with locals here. Don't miss the outdoor thermal pool and sauna, which stays open during the winter months.

Percent of locals: Less than 10%.
Number of pools: 8 indoor, 2 outdoor.
Coed? Yes, every day.
Weekday Admission (adults): HUF5,300/c.€18 (includes the outdoor pools).

#3 LUKÁCS Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.) What’s unique about it? With a meaningful local crowd and a functional layout, Lukács feels more real than the monumental Gellért and Széchenyi baths. The dimly-lit, labyrinthine indoor baths are supplemented by outdoor swimming pools. In the summer, visit the sunbathing terrace on the rooftop with sweeping views. Don't miss the cluster of marble plaques that have been placed on the side of the building by cured visitors as tokens of gratitude, some from as far back as 1897. Lukács is known as the bath that local intellectuals like to frequent.

Percent of locals: 50%.
Number of pools: 4 indoor, 2 outdoor.
Coed? Yes, every day.
Weekday Admission (adults): HUF3,500/c.€12 (includes the outdoor pools).

#4 SZÉCHENYI Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.; the outdoor pools are open until 10 p.m.) What’s unique about it? The Times Square of thermal baths. As first time tourists go to the New York City landmark, you too may want to head to Széchenyi, just be sure to set your expectations. With 1.7 million annual visitors, 15 indoor pools and almost 3,000 sqm of water surface, it feels more like an amusement park than a thermal bath. Use the main entrance from Kós Károly Walkway to appreciate the interior mosaics inside the Baroque Revival building. During the winter months, the steaming outdoor thermal pool (37 degrees Celsius/99 Fahrenheit) can be an especially memorable experience.

Percent of locals: Less than 10%.
Number of pools: 15 indoor, 3 outdoor.
Coed? Yes, every day.
Weekday Admission (adults): HUF4,900/c.€16 (includes the outdoor pools).

#5 KIRÁLY Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 a.m.) What’s unique about it? Part-Ottoman, part-19th century, Király is a smaller, cozier bath than the rest. The Turkish built it away from its hot spring and within the city walls, so that in case of war, bathing could carry on uninterrupted. A refurbishment is long overdue to the building, but there is something endearing about the communist/retro vibes exuding from the centuries-old walls (e.g. most foreign signs are still only in German and Russian). Visit also the snug interior garden featuring a wooden hot tub and cots. The staff is young and cheerful.

Percent of locals: 50%.
Number of pools: 4 indoor (an outdoor hot tub during the warm months).
Coed? Yes, every day.
Weekday Admission (adults): HUF2,700/c.€9.

#6 VELI BEJ Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 6 a.m. to 12 p.m., and 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.) What’s unique about it? Veli Bej was the largest, and according to a 1673 chronicle, the most gorgeous of Budapest baths during the Ottoman times. After a recent gut renovation, old and new harmoniously blend together: through Turkish domes and ogee arches leads the way to a glass-roofed arcade with modern steam rooms and saunas. It’s the only Budapest bath managed by a Roman Catholic order, who don’t exactly run it for profit, making it one of the cheaper and least crowded options.

Percent of locals: 50%.
Number of pools: 7 indoor.
Coed? Yes, every day.
Weekday Admission (adults): HUF2,400/c.€8.

#7 DANDÁR Baths (location; Monday to Friday 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.) Photo: dandarfurdo.huWhat’s unique about it? Dandár is the most under the radar of Budapest's baths. This no-frills bath inside a 1930 art deco building in District 9 will come closest to being a truly immersive local experience. The hot outdoor pool can be a special refuge for dreary winter evenings. Next door is the Zwack Unicum Museum, where they make the famous Hungarian herbal liquor (and also sell them at the retail store).

Percent of locals: Over 90%.
Number of pools: 3 indoor, 2 outdoor.
Coed? Yes, every day.
Weekday Admission (adults): HUF2,400/c.€8 (includes the outdoor pools).