The process of visiting Budapest’s baths can seem baffling, until you’ve experienced them – and even then they can confound. Never fear. There’s a reason they call me SPArky… Here’s the lowdown on testing those waters.
Enter grand building. Gawp at ceiling. Pick jaw off floor and locate ticket desk. Choose ticket option (if in doubt, standard day ticket!) and pay. Receive high-tech wearable (plastic wrist strap), tap in to enter changing rooms. Locate locker or cabin (depending on ticket) and change into bathers. Once ready to enter baths, ask attendant to lock cabin or locker. Go forth and bathe!
It’s simple really – besides the fact that the largest bath complexes are positively labyrinthine. The confusion doesn’t come from a lack of signage – in fact, there are so many signs with so many options it’s hard to know where to go. But I assure you, you’ll get the hang of it. Take my advice: find a base where you can leave your towel and bag – then go and explore; you’ll soon be soaking in the city’s healing waters wondering what all the fuss was about.
Top tip: if you’d like a treatment (massage, pedicure etc.) during your visit, book as soon as possible upon arrival – slots can fill up fast!
Where to go
szechenyibath.hu Állatkerti krt. 9-11
Explore Széchenyi’s vast interior to find the bath that’s just right for you © Emma Sparks
Sunshine yellow Széchenyi is the largest thermal bath complex in Europe, and naturally Budapest’s most famous. The outdoor pools are undoubtedly the main attraction, with a toasty 38°C pool, a popular activity pool and a 50m swimming pool – refreshing after a soak in the steamy baths. Inside you’ll find pool after pool, some ornate and historic-looking, others more sanitised, some complete with OAPs doing underwater weights – all supposedly do wonders for what ails you.
Széchenyi’s activity pool is popular with families and groups © Emma Sparks
Széchenyi is a huge draw for tourists, so arrive early to beat the crowds. In the summer, sunbeds can be hard to come by past 11am. There’s not an umbrella to be seen beyond the cafe terrace, but sensitive-skinned folk will always find shade somewhere. Despite the large numbers of people on my visit, the atmosphere was still one of calm and I happily bath-hopped and people-watched all afternoon.
Entry and locker ticket: Ft5000 (around £14)
Entry and cabin ticket: Ft5200 (around £14.50– treat yo’self)
gellertbath.hu Kelenhegyi út 4
Forget the local leisure centre – Gellért’s spa is luxury on a budget © Emma Sparks
Gellért is my absolute favourite bath in Budapest – I went twice in one week! Found just over Liberty Bridge on the ‘Buda’ side of the river, these Art Nouveau baths are connected to the fancy Danubius Hotel Gellért (apparently guests get one free spa entry and 50% off repeat entries). Although of course popular with foreigners, Gellért felt more relaxing than the other baths – and the tiered outdoor area overlooking the swimming pool was a divine setting, tucked away from the rumbling trams and busy roads just outside.
Pure relaxation not your thing? Gellért’s pool turns into a huge wave pool once an hou © Emma Sparks
Can you handle 40° heat? Gellért thinks you can. You’d be surprised how cool the other baths feel after this bad boy. There’s always the ice-cold plunge pool if you need to cool off quick, but I didn’t quite make it around to trying that one…
Entry and locker ticket: Ft5100/5300 (£14.25/£14.80 weekdays/weekends)
Entry and cabin ticket: Ft5500/5700 (£15.35/£15.90 weekdays/weekends)
kiralyfurdo.hu Fő u. 84
Welcome to the hot tub time machine © Emma Sparks
There’s a whiff of 1960s boarding school about this place, but the peeling paint and squeaky-clean corridors just add to the charm. Király hasn’t been revamped and modernised like so many of Budapest’s ancient baths and that’s part of the appeal. It’s far smaller than the likes of Széchenyi and Gellért – with just four indoor baths and a garden with a wooden hot tub – so it’s lower on the priority list for city breakers and far more popular with the older, spa-going generation of Budapestians.
Go back in time in Király’s inner sanctum © Emma Sparks
The octagonal pool is Király’s crowning glory. The Turks began building Király in 1565 and the centuries of history are palpable as you bathe beneath a ceiling studded with holes, which allow the sunlight to stream through; the effect is not unlike those chill-out LED light installations you find in modern spas.
Entry and locker ticket: Ft2400 (£6.70)
Entry and cabin ticket: Ft2700 (£7.55)
What to pack
Bathing suit / bikini / swimming trunks – nude bathing is on the decline, so cover up your unmentionables
Flip flops – only if you’re squeamish about going barefoot
A swimming cap – only required for the cooler, full-length swimming pools
A towel – you can rent them, but why pay?
Waterproof phone case or camera – you will succumb to the call of the spa selfie
Water and snacks – the policy on bringing personal supplies seems relaxed, so if you’re on a budget, bring a picnic! Be sure to drink plenty of water too - all the heat can be dehydrating
Plan your trip
I flew London Stansted to Budapest with Ryanair, £90 return. I booked in April for travel in August.
Find out more on the offical Budapest spa site: spasbudapest.com