A little thermal bath history
Ever since the Romans settled here in the 1st century AD, locals have enjoyed the steaming, mineral-rich thermal water that simmers beneath Budapest's surface. (You can visit the excavated remains of Thermae Maiores, the Roman public bath a bit outside the city center.) The Ottomans—after invading the city in the 16th century—were particularly fond of Buda's hot springs, and some of the hammams they built are once again functional today (Rudas, Király, Veli Bej). These faintly lit octagonal pools inside centuries-old buildings exude an adorably mysterious ambiance.
The last wave of bathhouse-building frenzy dates back to Budapest's golden years under the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 20th century. These baths are inside grand, classical revival buildings, looking more lavish than the modest hammams. The best examples are the monumental Széchenyi and Gellért.
Why should I go to a thermal bath?
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 water is 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 hot water inside stunningly beautiful old buildings. Bathing is also a great way to relax, reflect, or socialize.
In fact, bathhouses in Budapest have always served as places for social gatherings and information exchange. This was especially true during the most oppressive 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.
But despite what you may think, the vast majority of Hungarians don’t regularly go to thermal baths. At the seven main baths reviewed below, about 75 percent of guests are tourists on average. On one end is Széchenyi, a tourist favorite, on the other Dandár, where almost all visitors are locals. Budapesters 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.
Budapest has a total of nine medicinal baths today (and 123 hot springs). While the water’s mineral content is similar across the baths, each venue is unique in terms of its architecture, the number of pools and amenities, and the type of visitors it draws. Tourists mainly flock to Széchenyi, Gellért, and Rudas—the ones with the most impressive surroundings—which in turn is driving locals away to quieter locations with lower admission fees.
Know before you go
A swimsuit, a pair of sandals, and a towel are all you need to bring. And a swim cap in case you want to use the swimming pools, too. The general admission, which ranges from €10 to €20, includes the price of a small locker (you can also rent a cabin for a surcharge).
On weekends, baths operate at full capacity, meaning 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 you'll find the few remaining local regulars and the baths won't be so crowded.
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.
Bathing is a year-round activity, but soaking in steaming-hot water feels all the more reviving in the gloomy winter months, especially in the outdoor pools (except for Veli Bej, all baths have both indoor and outdoor sections).
In most bathhouses, expect a labyrinthine system of lockers and changing rooms with few signs to help you find your way. Instead of losing your patience as you keep getting lost, think of it as part of the experience.
Water temperatures usually range from 30 to 40 degrees Celsius (86 to 104 Fahrenheit). The general admission ticket covers the use of cold pools, saunas, and steam rooms.
Some of the baths offer refunds for shorter stays. Tickets for less than two hours and afternoon-only stays are the most common.
Baths offer additional services like massages, private baths, and pedicures for extra charge. Check the baths' websites below for the full list of amenities.
Thermal water enthusiasts can buy mineral-rich water to drink. Széchenyi, Rudas, and Lukács each have a thermal water fountain with sulphurous water for consumption (if you bring an empty bottle, you can also take some to go). Prices won’t set you back much: a glass costs about ten euro cents.
All bathhouses except Király can be accessed by a wheelchair.
The Top 7
What’s unique about it? The dark, octagonal bath chamber was built under Ottoman pasha Sokollu Mustafa in the 16th century. On weekdays, except Tuesday, only men are allowed in the Turkish section. They saunter from pool to pool under the vaulted arcades in apron-like cloths, kötény, which covers little of their bodies. The other highlight is the hot tub perched atop the building, offering sweeping views. It must be on purpose that the water isn’t a few degrees warmer—people would never leave (be sure that your ticket covers both the indoor and outdoor sections).
Percent of locals: 50% (on weekdays locals, on weekends tourists are over-represented). 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): HUF5,500/c. €18 (includes the outdoor hot tub).
What’s unique about it? Budapest’s second most popular bath (after Széchenyi) is attached to the worn-down-but-grand Hotel Gellért, an art nouveau landmark from 1918. Expect Instagram-friendly indoor pools studded with floor-to-ceiling turquoise ceramics that receive plenty of sunshine through the sky windows (these pools are hidden in the rear of the indoor bathing area). Early weekday mornings, you can still mingle with locals here. Be sure to also check the outdoor thermal pool and sauna, which remain open year-round.
Percent of locals: Less than 10%. Number of pools: 8 indoor, 2 outdoor. Coed? Yes, every day. Weekday Admission (adults): HUF6,300/c. €21 (includes the outdoor pools).
What’s unique about it? The Times Square of thermal baths. As first time visitors 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, the place can feel more like an amusement park than a thermal bath. Use the main entrance from Kós Károly Walkway to glance at the interior mosaics inside the impressive Baroque Revival building. Soaking in the steaming outdoor pool here during the winter months is an especially memorable experience.
Percent of locals: Less than 10%. Number of pools: 15 indoor, 3 outdoor. Coed? Yes, every day. Weekday Admission (adults): HUF5,900/c. €20 (includes the outdoor pools).
What’s unique about it? With plenty of locals and a modest, functional layout, Lukács feels more like an actual bath compared with the bombastic Gellért and Széchenyi. Apart from the dimly lit, labyrinthine indoor section, there are also outdoor swimming pools. In the summer, you can sunbath on the rooftop terrace with sweeping views. Note the cluster of marble plaques placed on the side of the main building by cured visitors as tokens of gratitude, some from as far back as 1897. Lukács has been long known as the bath that local intellectuals frequent.
Percent of locals: 50%. Number of pools: 4 indoor, 2 outdoor. Coed? Yes, every day. Weekday Admission (adults): HUF4,100/c. €14 (includes the outdoor pools).
What’s unique about it? Part-Ottoman, part-19th century, Király is the smallest bath on this list. Using underground pipes, the Turkish built the bath away from its water source and within the city walls to ensure that bathing could continue uninterrupted even in case of a war. A refurbishment to the building is long overdue, but there is something endearing about the communist vibes this place exudes (most foreign signs are still in German and Russian). Visit also the snug interior garden featuring a wooden hot tub and several cots.
Percent of locals: 50%. Number of pools: 4 indoor (an outdoor hot tub during the warm months). Coed? Yes, every day. Weekday Admission (adults): HUF3,000/c. €10.
What’s unique about it? According to a 1673 chronicle, Veli Bej was the largest and most gorgeous bath in the city 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. Veli Bej is managed by a Roman Catholic order, which apparently doesn’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): HUF2,800/c. €9.
What’s unique about it? This under-the-radar, no-frills bath, which is located a bit outside the city center inside a 1930s art deco building, comes closest to offering a truly immersive local experience. The hot outdoor pool is best for dreary winter evenings. Next door to Dandár is the Zwack Unicum Museum, home of the iconic Hungarian herbal liqueur (yes, there's a gift shop, too).
Percent of locals: Over 90%. Number of pools: 3 indoor, 2 outdoor. Coed? Yes, every day. Weekday Admission (adults): HUF2,800/c. €9 (includes the outdoor pools).
If you've found this useful, please consider supporting Offbeat. Our content is free, so your contributions go a long way toward maintaining and growing the website.