Lights, Camera, Relaxation: Budapest’s Thermal Spas

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Szechenyi Baths of Budapest, Hungary
Photo by Julia Higgins


First Impressions

The sun dips below the horizon as pink clouds glide in, illuminating the sky with a soft, rosy glow. People of all ages and ethnicities are walking in and out of the majestic golden palace that is Szechenyi Baths, one of Budapest’s oldest and most popular thermal spa destinations. As I walk into the building and make my way down the stairs and into the women’s locker room, warm, steamy air hits my face, forcing me to inhale the musky scent of my surroundings. The sight of breasts and unashamedly naked female bodies fills my vision, and I feel a small wave of discomfort wash over me as culture shock sets in. After self-consciously shedding my shoes, dress, and underwear, I hastily pull on my bathing suit before grabbing a towel and heading outside. Szechenyi’s main attraction is impossible to miss; a huge, multi-section thermal pool dominates the outdoor courtyard, and it’s currently full of happy swimmers who come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The evening air in Budapest is crisp, making it hard for me to drop my towel and walk the last few steps to the bath. The end result, however, is worth my short-lived shivers and chilled skin.

As I dip my toes into the shallow water of the thermal bath, I’m rewarded with a sharp shock of warmth that shoots through my foot and quickly floods my entire body. Instantly, almost unconsciously, I sink lower into the deliciously warm water, my limbs loosening with every step I take towards the deep-end of the pool. Tiny jets of water hidden in the floor of the bath torpedo into the bottoms of my feet, kneading the muscles and massaging the worn skin. To my right, an ornately sculpted fountain sends strong surges of water into the naked backs of several swimmers, all of whom are closing their eyes in deep relaxation. As I lazily drift through the water in a state of budding bliss, it becomes crystal clear why thermal baths are a beloved component of Hungarian culture, and why Budapest is officially known as “the City of Spas.”

A Hungarian Perspective

“Hungary is extremely rich in thermal springs with healing qualities,” says Alexandra Dénes, a 22-year-old student from Hungary. “As far as I know, Budapest is the only capital in the world where the thermal water contains real, healing qualities, so I would say a trip to Hungary is not complete without a visit to at least one thermal bath.”

Dénes is correct in saying Budapest is the only capital in the world that is “rich” with this healing, thermal water. The Hungarian country was built upon many underground hot springs; Budapest alone sits upon 118 of these springs, according to the city’s official tourist website. These hot springs contain high levels of magnesium, calcium, sodium and other powerful minerals, all of which combine to give the water this legendary “healing” power. The baths were first popularized in the late 16th century, after the Turks discovered the extensive medicinal powers of the mineral waters. Since then, the construction of baths has abounded throughout Budapest, and today, there are 15 public baths within the city limits, as well as a handful of private spas.

Dénes lives in Budapest year-round while she studies law, and she is a frequent visitor of her city’s famous thermal baths

“I go to the baths a few times a year,” says Dénes. “They’re a great place to relax, and to socialize with friends or family.” Her bath of choice is Gellért, a world-famous destination housed within an Art Nouveau-style hotel. Gellért opened in 1918, and today it still holds the crown for being one of the most beautiful thermal baths in Budapest. Dénes herself is particularly fond of Gellért’s impressive atmosphere, as its stunning interior always leaves her breathless.

As Dénes notes, part of the charm and appeal of thermal baths is their stylized architecture; Gellért boasts a classy Art Nouveau interior; Szechenyi, a Renaissance-inspired courtyard; and the Rudas Baths are an exemplary display of Turkish architecture that dates back to the Ottoman Empire.

An American at Szechenyi

The outer courtyard of Szechenyi Baths
Photo by Julia Higgins

Ana Ryden, an American student at Emerson College’s European Center, recently traveled to Budapest, and had the opportunity to experience the city’s famous cultural attraction firsthand, by way of a daytrip to Szechenyi.

“Before going to Budapest, I had envisioned [the baths] as more of an indoor, salted-water, luxurious, steam-bath type of place,” says Ryden. “My Szechenyi experience was really fun, but the bath itself felt more like an amusement park pool than anything else.”

Though Ryden’s initial impression of the baths fell short, the subtle effects of the mineral water were not lost on her mind and body.

“While I was in the pool, I felt very safe, which is strange to me… I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way while in water before,” says Ryden. “I felt much more relaxed coming out of the baths than I had going into them.”

Relax, Rejuvenate & Refresh

The healing effects that both Ryden and Dénes speak of are a widely publicized benefit of the baths; they have been known to treat damaged skin, sooth sore muscles, and aid in the repair of ailing bones. Gellért Baths, for example, states on its website that the minerals within its bath waters can help cure blood circulation problems, pains of the vertebral spine, and neuralgia, among many other degenerative complications.

For these reasons, the most commonly spotted demographic at thermal baths is the elderly, as joints that ache with age and arthritis can find salvation in the baths’ warm, mineral waters. Those who are not in need of medical treatment can also reap a reward from a visit to a bath, as studies have shown that even a minimal amount of time spent within a thermal pool can lift spirits monumentally. In addition to the baths themselves, visitors of thermal spas can also pay for a number of extra services; these include deep-tissue massages, foot massages, and entrance to steam baths.

Overall, Ryden enjoyed her time at Szechenyi, and is interested in experiencing more of what the thermal bath culture of Budapest has to offer.

“[After going to one bath], I would love to see the different kinds of baths Budapest has to offer,” says Ryden. “I want to go to the Roman-style ones, which flush themselves out [continuously]. That seems very cool, and cleaner to me. I didn’t want to think about the dirt that might be in the actual water.” Contrary to Ryden’s belief, thermal baths are often so high in natural mineral content that the water is virtually unable to become violently dirty, even with the possibility of human contamination. Hypochondriacs, too, can safely enjoy a day at the thermal bath, free of infection or contagious disease.

I had entered Szechenyi curious for a taste of Hungarian culture; I left in a blissful state of peace and relaxation, complete with loose limbs and a happy heart. The baths of Budapest are famous for all the right reasons, and, as Alexandra Dénes rightfully said, a trip to Hungary is not complete without a dip into the warm, delightful waters that constitute Budapest’s rejuvenating thermal baths.



Julia Higgins

Julia Higgins

Julia is a student at Emerson College; it is here she studies journalism and publishing, with the hopes of one day becoming a women's interests magazine writer. She currently lives in the Netherlands, at Emerson College's European Center. Her hobbies include writing, traveling and sleeping.

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