I had wanted to go to Budapest for a long time. I am not sure why. It seemed exotic, almost the edge of Europe. A strange city on the banks of the Danube, with Buda on one side and Pest on the other. As we toured through Eastern Europe and got closer and closer, I started to learn about the Budapest baths. I had no idea what to expect. I sort of imagined a bunch of sweaty old men lounging around a Romanesque bath house in various stages of undress. Where did I fit into this environment?
I, like all fly by the seat of my pants indie travelers, did plenty of research before heading out. I found the official website of the baths here, a Budapest tourism site, and even a blog about them. I thought I was prepared. I knew that you were expected to buy a ticket for the day, which comes with a plastic wrist band that provides you a locker for the day. I knew the Szenchenyi Bath was open for both men and women, whereas some of the baths have women days and men days. I also knew there were 3 large outdoor pools and 12 indoor pools varying in temperature, plus saunas. I also knew not to expect a lot of English to be spoken. So, we grabbed our suits, flip flops, and some sunblock and rode the Metro up to the Szenchenyi Baths – the largest bath complex in Budapest.
The Budapest baths were opened in 1881, using the thermal waters of St. Stephan’s well. The current building was completed in 1931, so the feel of the complex is old world European. I can imagine the area as a “wellness” complex during the late 1880s. On a Monday, it was a mix of retirees, young adults, and tourists popping in from one pool to the next and exploring all of the nooks and crannies of the place. That is, once you can figure out how to get in.
The Blue Watch and the Locker System
After buying our tickets, the surly woman at the counter gave us each a blue rubber watch, which I assumed was the bracelet for our locker. I read that if you forgot which locker you had, you can hold the watch up to an electronic screener on a wall and it will tell you your locker number. After walking through a turn style, wooden closets lined the wall – changing areas. Continuing down the hall, we searched for locker rooms to change. Several locker room areas appeared, but there was no designation of men and women.
We tried sticking our heads in to see who was in there, and both men and women walked around. After tentatively asking for some help, we were told lockers were upstairs, but we could not even find the stairs. The complex was such a labyrinth, we just kept turning in circles, with scantily clad retirees greeting us at every corner. Finally, stairs led up to separate locker areas, but they were not closed from each other. We ducked into one of the changing closets and attempted to lock our stuff with the little blue watch.
With all our stuff in hand, I tried the lockers. This should have been explained better on the websites I read, so now I feel this is a public service announcement to future Budapest bathers. Each “lock” is a small round sensor. When it is pressed in, the locker is locked. When it is depressed, it is unlocked. The question is, how to lock it at all. I kept trying to press and depress, touching the watch to it. I tried everything, but met Eric at the bottom of the stairs deflated, with our bag of clothes still in hand.
Eric climbed the stairs to try his hand, and that was when I realized the sign, in English explaining the lockers. It explained that you are not assigned a locker. You can use whatever locker you would like. Once you lock the locker, it becomes yours. That is when you can use the sensor on the wall to remind you of your locker number. I still did not know how to use the stupid watch, though I felt at least somewhat more enlightened.
I climbed the stairs again and a young woman was up there and I just asked for help. To that point, we had only seen older, retirees, who did not look like they wanted to help a couple of tourists. This kind and generous lass FINALLY showed me the light. You use the watch face to press and depress the lock. So simple, yet it eluded Eric and I for a good 10 minutes while we tried to figure things out. Our stuff stowed safely we, finally, were ready to emerge into the baths.
Show me Water. Please. I Just Want the Budapest Baths.
Walking out of the lockers, we stepped into a room with several large and small baths, loaded with people and slippery floors. A mix of damp and mineral in the air hung with a slight, chemical smell, but not chlorine; instead it was more mineral. You get use to it. I was glad I wore my flip flops on the slippery floor.
We continued until we saw light at the end of a hall way. We figured the safest bet was to head outside to acclimate and figure things out. To get out, there is a small exit way with about 4 inches of water in it, to help wash off your feet and shoes between the indoor and the out. Fine for most people, but my flip flops were orange, leather Chacos. Not really made for full immersion. Oh well, here goes it. We sloshed through and emerged into the outdoor pool area. Three large baths surrounded by bathing beauties (ok, very few of those; instead we saw a topless retiree with quite tanned tatas which she placed on an inflatable pillow as she lounged around the pool) and a gorgeous yellow, almost Victorian building, with Romanesque statues, which encircled the baths on all sides.
The first bath seemed the safest and closest, and at 38 degrees Celsius (100F), the warmest one outdoors. We left our flip flops at the end of the pool, and following the lead of others, dunked our feet into a cool foot wash area and then submerged into the toasty warm water. There were fountains with strong currents coming out that acted as a back massage, assuming you could stand long enough without falling over. It was fabulous.
After the recommended 20 minutes basting in the hot bath, we set to explore a little more. The middle bath was reserved for hard core swimmers with bathing caps required. There seemed to be only two rules observed by the life guards – caps on in the center pool and beers out of all the pools. The third pool had a miniature wave pool, almost like a lazy river, in the center. Peoples’ heads bobbed up and down as they followed the current in a tight circle. They looked like they were all in a washing machine. We entered and got carried away with the rest.
Yet Another Labyrinth
After a lunch at the cafeteria (passable, but bring snacks to save a few bucks), we tried to explore the inside. After getting lost trying to find me a toilet, we made our way to the basement following the signs for the sauna. This sauna was between 80-100 degrees Celsius (100C = 212F). We managed to stay in for several minutes, longer than some other tourists. My biggest problem was the little metal Buddha medallion around my neck, which immediately felt like irons in a fire. I had to hold it away from skin, or it would have burned me. After, Eric plunged into the 16 degree, ball shrinking, ice bath to cool down. I made it about half way in, and was cool enough. On my second attempt I submerged up to my shoulders. Ok, now, we were feeling settled in, and Eric no longer felt hungover.
We continued to explore the inside, working our way from one end of the building to the other. Pools of varying temperatures, from 26C to 38C, lined the building, with some listed as medicinal. There was a water aerobics class with water weights in one room. Branching off of each room there were showers, more saunas, and steam rooms. We attempted one of the warmer steam rooms, listed as 60-70C. The sweat, and the prior night’s drinks, poured out of us.
I felt pounds lighter when I emerged. An aromatherapy sauna and a light therapy sauna completed the offerings, with the latter offering changing lights, from red to blue to green. One of the medicinal baths felt strange, almost like the thermal spa version of zero gravity. I could not keep my arms still and my shoulders would automatically shrug. I had to use force to keep them down. After hitting a few more of the indoor baths, we finished with another dip in the warmer outside pool before calling it a day.
After successfully removing our belongings from the locker, changing, and returning our watches at the turn style, we emerged puckered and pruned back out into the park. After a quick metro ride home, I passed out for two hours in a deep, deep nap.
By the way, at the end of the day, the bottoms of my feet and under the thongs of my flip flops were totally orange. I felt like part Oompa-Loompa. I had walked through so much water, that my shoes showed it. I hoped they survived another day. Even if they do not, it was worth it for a wonderful day at the Budapest baths.
Check out these recommendations on where to stay in Budapest.