Photo: If you’ve done more than five minutes of research about Budapest, you're probably already familiar with the city’s hot springs and centuries-old bathing culture. Ever since the Romans settled here in the 1st century AD, steaming, mineral rich thermal water has been gushing from beneath the surface (remains of Thermae Maiores, the enormous Roman public bath inside the Roman legionary fortress, can be visited for free).

After invading the city in the 16th century, Ottoman Sultans were particularly fond of relishing the hot springs of Buda. Some of the hamams they built are still open today (Rudas, Király, Veli Bej), where faintly-lit octagonal pools exude an impossibly unique ambiance. The next wave of bathhouse construction took place during the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the 20th century. These were grand, classical revival buildings erected during the city’s golden years (the best example is the monumental Széchenyi baths).

Contrary to popular belief, however, the vast majority of Hungarians don’t regularly go to thermal baths. The ones who do, mainly consist of diehard fans, 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. At the seven main Budapest thermal baths reviewed below, an estimated 75% of bathgoers are tourists on average.

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, pools, amenities, and crowds. Packs of tourists flock to the three most monumental 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 (it’s also slightly cheaper).

  • If you go to Széchenyi or Gellért, two baths with an almost all-tourist crowd, try to get there early in the morning (between 6 AM and 9 AM) - that's when the small groups of 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 outdoor pools even in the winter).

  • 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.

  • Additional services like massage, private baths, and pedicure are also offered for extra charge. Check the websites (see below) for the full list of services.

  • 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 can be accessed by wheelchair, except for Király.

The Top 7

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

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 LUKÁCS Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 6 AM to 10 PM) What’s unique about it? With a roughly equal Hungarian and foreign crowd, it feels real without being intimidatingly local. The dimly-lit, labyrinthine system of three interconnected indoor baths and the spacious outdoor swimming pools seamlessly combine intimacy and grandness. Check out the sunbathing terrace on the rooftop with sweeping views. Lukács has a reputation for being the bath that Budapest intellectuals like to frequent. A cluster of marble plaques have been places on the side of the building by cured visitors as tokens of gratitude, some from as far back as 1897.

Percent of locals: 70%.
Number of pools: 4 indoor, 2 outdoor.
Coed? Yes, every day.
Weekday Admission (adults): HUF3,500/c.€12 (includes the outdoor pools).

#3 KIRÁLY Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 9 AM to 9 PM) What’s unique about it? Part-Turkish, part-19th century, it’s a smaller, cozier bath. The Turkish built it away from the hot spring and within the city walls, so that in case of war, bathing could carry on uninterrupted. Above the faintly-lit main pool is a 16th century Ottoman dome interspersed with small openings to admit daylight. A refurbishment is long overdue to the building, but there is something congenial about the communist/retro feel infused into the centuries old walls (e.g. most foreign signs are still in German and Russian only). The snug interior garden with a wooden hot tub and cots shouldn’t escape your attention. 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.

#4 VELI BEJ Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 6 AM to 12 PM, and 3 PM to 9 PM) What’s unique about it? It was the largest, and according to a 1673 chronicle, the most gorgeous of Budapest baths during 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.

#5 SZÉCHENYI Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 6 AM to 7 PM; the outdoor pools are open until 10 PM) What’s unique about it? The Times Square of thermal baths. As first time visitors go to the New York landmark, you too may want to head to Széchenyi, just be sure to expect floods of tourists. With 1.6 million annual visitors, fifteen indoor pools and almost 3,000 sqm of water surface, it’s a serious operation. Make sure to enter through Kós Károly Walkway to marvel at the ornate 1913 mosaic decoration inside the Baroque revival building. During the winter months, the steaming, 37 degrees Celsius (99 Fahrenheit) outdoor thermal pool is the place to be.

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).

#6 GELLÉRT Baths (location; Monday to Sunday 6 AM to 8 PM) What’s unique about it? Budapest’s second most popular bath (after Széchenyi) is attached to the stunning-but-worn-down Hotel Gellért, a late art nouveau landmark from 1918. The Instagram-friendly indoor thermal pools are studded with ornate, floor-to-ceiling turquoise Zsolnay ceramics, and receive plenty of sunshine through the sky windows. Early on weekday mornings, one still gets to mingle with the few remaining locals in Gellért. The outdoor thermal pool and sauna is best enjoyed 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).

#7 DANDÁR Baths (location; Monday to Friday 6 AM to 9 PM, Saturday and Sunday 8 AM to 9 PM) Photo: dandarfurdo.huWhat’s unique about it? It’s the most under the radar of Budapest 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).