Visiting Budapest baths can be confusing, but soaking into these steamy hot springs is one of the most fun ways to connect with Hungary and Hungarian culture. The healing thermal water that lies under the city burble up in ancient hospitals, stunning art deco architecture and in wonderful soaking pools. Read on for my experience at Lukacs Thermal Baths, or scroll down for the rundown on how to bathe in Budapest, and for all the best Budapest bathing and hot springs locations.
My Budapest bathhouse experience begins
“Are you looking for something?” A male attendant in white shorts and T-shirt rushes after me as I descend into a steamy tiled room, a rented sheet wrapped around my bikini and a bathing cap plastered over my top knot like a mushroom cap. The perfect outfit for a day at the Lukacs Thermal Baths in Budapest.
“I’m looking for the indoor pools,” I tell the attendant.
“They’re the other way. You are in the men’s shower room,” he says.
“Oh. Sorry.” Backtracking hastily, I cross a courtyard, pass an outdoor pool with whirlpool jets and enter the building from a different angle.
Budapest baths take some getting used to
You wouldn’t think a Budapest bathhouse could be so confusing, but the Lukacs Baths is a dizzying collection of outdoor cool pools, courtyards, hot pools, medical spa services and a few centuries of architecture.
It’s not just the Lukacs Baths. All Budapest baths can take some time to figure out. Let it be said, however, that the mineral-rich thermal water of Budapest is curative, relaxing and warm, and going to at least one Budapest bath is definitely time well spent.
Soak with the locals
My goal in coming to the Lukacs Baths was to have an authentic Budapest bathing experience and – from the woman doling out mugs of hot spring water (good for stomach disorders), to the middle-aged couple kissing in the pool – the Lukacs Baths are certainly that. Like so many of the other public Budapest baths, in a city sitting on 123 hot springs, Lukacs is a bathhouse with roots.
Budapest baths have a past
The history of the Lukacs Baths go back some 800 years. Think about it! How old is your bathtub? In the 12th century the Knights of St. John settled near the site of the present Lukacs Baths, using the thermal water to heal the sick. Later, during Ottoman rule, the Turks built a bathhouse here and amazingly, the inner dome still stands. Today, the main architectural style of Lukacs is Neoclassical, dating from the 19th-century when the baths became part of a spa hospital.
Lukacs Baths today
Even now, the ochre-colored buildings and leafy grounds of the outer courtyard have a hushed sanatorium feel, with marble plaques on the walls from grateful patients attesting to the spring’s curative properties. Read a few of these and you’ll be convinced that Budapest baths aren’t just fun, they’re the healthiest tourist attraction around.
Bathing with the Budapest elite
Inside the Lukacs bath complex itself, the atmosphere changes from hushed to lively. The Lukacs Baths is a hopping place that attracts a local clientele. Located at the bottom of swanky Rose Hill, on the Buda side of the city near the Danube, this Budapest thermal bath is said to be the favourite of the wealthy creative types who live in the hillside mansions behind.
And while it’s not easy identifying famous literary figures or aging film stars when they’re stripped to their bathing suits and hidden behind steam, it’s nice to know I’m bathing in exalted company. I should also be bathing with my friend Marin, who is also visiting Budapest, but as soon as I entered the labyrinthine complex I doubted I’d find her.
Hot pool heaven
I do, however, find the hot pools, locating them down a corridor to the left of the steam room. Bypassing a couple of rectangular pools with temperatures in the 30’s, I head straight for the nucleus of the baths. Steaming hot at 40C, this centuries-old round pool, the oldest part of the Lukacs baths, sits under a darkened dome like the holy grail of hot springs.
Soaking it in
Sinking down on a bench I let the faintly sulfurous water engulf me and the curative minerals like calcium and magnesium seep into my skin. This isn’t just good for joint and locomotive disorders, this is a religious experience.
While I’m soaking, a young man beside me half stands on the bench and takes a mouthful of water from the spout in the wall that feeds the pool.
An older man reprimands him sharply. There are rules to follow at traditional Hungarian thermal baths (shower first, wear a bathing cap when required and bring your own flip flops), and sticking your mouth on the spout is not one of them.
Another rule of Budapest baths, I soon discover, is not to stay in too long, no matter how tempting. Limp as a steamed asparagus, I stagger out and over to the cold pool, a refrigerator-shaped dunking pool intended to lower the body temperature. I put my foot in but the shock of cold water makes me retreat.
Moving from hot to cold is a Budapest bathing must
The same man who reprimanded the spout drinker motions that I should submerge quickly into the cold pool. He seems to know the ropes and – for all I know – could be a famous literary person, so I hold my breath and plunge in.
He’s right. I’m completely recharged. Recharged enough to try and find my way out of here. I’m pretty sure my locker is on a lower level, but for some reason I keep ending up on a second floor balcony overlooking the outdoor lap pool.
I look down and see Marin in a bathing cap waving up from the water.
“Aren’t there any other pools besides these cold ones?” she shouts.
“The hot pools are inside.” I smile, ridiculously pleased that I know more about Budapest bathing than she does. “Wait a second and I’ll come down and get you.” I pause then lean over the balcony. “Just as soon as I figure out how.”
How to experience the Budapest baths
Bathing in Budapest can seem mystifying, yet for a truly local experience it can’t be beat. Whether you’re after luxury and comfort or neighbourhood grit, there is a Budapest thermal bathhouse for you.
Tip: though some items can be rented, it’s a good idea to bring bathing suit and cap, towel and flip flops.
Where are the best Budapest bathhouses to visit?
Located at Kelenhegyi ut 2-4 on the Buda side of the city (Tel (36-1) 466 6166), the atmospheric Gellert Baths are probably the most popular of all the bathing spots in Budapest with tourists. Known for its spectacular Art Nouveau atmosphere, the baths are connected to the historic Gellert Hotel built in 1918. Gellert has a classical interior, spacious separate gender hot pools and an outdoor pool with an original wave machine from the 20’s.
The Szechenyi Baths
On the Pest side of Budapest at Allatkerti korut 11 (Tel (36-1) 363 3210), the Szechenyi Baths sit in the heart of City Park, but aren’t all that central. Nonetheless they’re a big hit with visitors to Budapest and the romantic-looking Szechenyi Baths are surely the most photographed of all the Budapest baths in the city.
A stunning bath complex built in 19th century, the Szechenyi Baths are built in Secessionist style with romantic pale-yellow buildings, ornate pillars, a large outdoor thermal pool and a lively social atmosphere.
Located at Frankel Leo ut 25-29 (Tel (36-1) 326 1695), the Lukacs Baths have a somewhat clinical atmosphere and these mineral-rich waters are as much about healing as they are about bathing. Don’t miss drinking a mug of thermal water at the desk before you enter the grounds. It might taste bad but it’s all part of the baths of Budapest experience.
Rudas Baths and Kiraly Baths
Situated at Dobrentei ter 9 (Tel (36-1) 375 8373), the Rudas Baths and also the Kiraly Baths at Fo utca 84 (Tel (36-1) 202 3688) are traditional Turkish baths from the 16th century that have retained their exotic atmosphere. The Rudas, long open to men only, has recently added certain times for women. Check the schedule before you go.
Danubius Health Spa Resort Margitsziget
Sitting pretty on scenic Margaret Island between Buda and Pest (Tel (36-1) 889 4700), the Danubius Health Spa Resort Margitsziget is ideal if your adventure quotient is low and you want to experience thermal water in an upscale setting. There are two attached hotels where spa visitors stay for longer cures (I stayed a week), while you can also get buy a daypass for the spa facilities.
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For more information on Hungary visit the Hungarian Tourist Board site at www.gotohungary.com
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