03 APR 2018: Bath time is a centuries old ritual in Budapest.  In fact it can be traced back to the 1st century when Roman soldiers would soak their tired and injured bodies from battle in the therapeutic thermal springs.  Even back then there were more than 15 baths.  Today there are more than 100 natural springs that can be found in the area comprising 30 million litres of water.  No wonder Budapest has been called the City of Spas and the Spa Capital of the World.   They take their baths seriously here and I was happy to experience Budapest’s famous bath culture first-hand.    

The Romans weren’t the only ones to have an impact on Budapest’s bath history. Before Budapest became the capital in 1873 it was separated into three settlements – Buda, Óbuda and Pest. The baths in Buda on the west bank of the Danube River became a favourite spot for royalty including King Matthias in the 15th century. Bath culture experienced a renaissance during the 150 years of Turkish occupation from 1541 to 1699. Fast forward to the 19th century when the first artesian well was drilled. In 1913 Széchenyi Thermal Baths opened and was the first thermal bath of Pest on the east bank side of Budapest. It is the largest spa complex of Budapest and Europe.

IT’S BATH TIME, SERIOUSLY

Bath time is an integral part of the lifestyle here for the locals. Even the Budapest Mayor knows the importance of bathing both economically and for putting Budapest on the world tourism map. The Mayor finishes his message in a tourism brochure with, “I wish you great bathing.” First time I’ve ever heard a Mayor express that sentiment!

The locals venture to the baths in the early morning before the tourists start flooding the baths in late morning and afternoon. It’s a more tranquil time and they don’t have to remind tourists of proper etiquette. Some of the baths have men or women only hours or days so it’s always best to check first. There are also some pools and areas of the baths where bathing suits are worn and where no bathing suit is worn (not in co-ed areas though – bathing suits are always mandatory).

There are a variety of baths and pools. Swimming caps are mandatory for any lap pools – both for men and women no matter how short your hair may be.

The Budapest Cultural and Festival Centre distributes a Budapest Card a handy card you present which provides free local transportation (Metro, buses and trams) as well as free or discounted admission to many museums, galleries, attractions as well as select Budapest baths.

Bath time can be quiet time or it can be time for socializing. In some of the larger baths it was not unusual to see groups of men playing chess while in the water. Just like the baths they take their chess seriously. You could hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on when they are playing.

For those who may be shy or hesitant because they don’t have a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model body not to worry. All shapes and sizes are on display in the baths from six-pack abs to sumo wrestler-like derrieres and bellies. My walrus like body fit in just fine. I just blamed it on eating too much Hungarian goulash and was warmly welcomed by the locals.

CENTENNIAL BATHING

The famous St. Gellért Spa & Hotel opened on the Buda side in 1918 with one of the world’s first surf machine operating in 1927 which at that time was the only one in Europe. For not only bath lovers but architectural enthusiasts St. Gellért Thermal Baths & Swimming Pools combines bathing with art and design. While in the former male pools, admire the original pyro-granite ornamentation made by the well-known Zsolnay factory or the lobby windows represent the scenes from the epic “Death of Buda” by poet Janos Arany. Beautiful ornate mosaic walls surround the bathing pools.

Four thermal pools, two immersion pools, one wave pool and outdoor thermal pool all ranging in temperatures from 19°C to 40°C. Herbal and Cleopatra baths, ihalatorium, salt chamber, saunas, sun terrace, change rooms, massage treatments rooms are all available.

MY BATH IS BIGGER THAN YOURS

Budapest boasts the most baths of any city as well as one of the largest baths in Europe with the Széchenyi Thermal Baths & Swimming Pools. Located on the Pest side of the Danube this massive pool complex has 10 indoor water pools, two immersion pools (indoors), one cooling pool (indoors), one large swimming pool (outdoors), one activity pool (outdoors), thermal water (outdoors) and two immersion pools.

I highly recommend taking a tour of the facility first before you start your bathing. Saunas and steam rooms of every temperature you could ask your pores to open up to are here.

Now for those who like their baths with their beer you can do a 45-minute beer infused bath along with a large pint of beer next to you. Let the drinking, I mean soaking begin!

You could spend a whole day here just jumping from pool to sauna to steam room to massage room. Széchenyi is probably one of the most popular and visited bath complexes so expect crowds. Rest assured though there are so many little pools and areas of this vast complex you will always find a spot to chill out. It’s the one bath where you will see more international visitors than any other bath.

THE TURKISH INFLUENCE

For those looking for Turkish influences, the Rudas Thermal Baths & Swimming Pools is the place to go. The Turkish baths located in the spa’s central area were constructed in the 16th century. This remained a men only bath up until 2005. Today women are allowed only on Tuesdays and on the weekends it is co-ed. Rudas is also well known as one of the baths that has co-ed night bathing on Friday and Saturday nights from 10pm to 4am.

This bath has fewer bells and whistles and more the Turkish history of traditional baths. There are steam chambers and a Finnish sauna, five indoor thermal water pools, one immersion pool and wellness section with hot water pools and rooftop pool.

Each Budapest bath is unique in its design and architecture, atmosphere as well as the medicinal waters. Many of the waters contain a mix of calcium, magnesium, hydrogen-carbonate, sulphate-chloride and fluoride ions. The benefits? Positive and therapeutic effects on degenerative and inflammation of joints and muscles, improves digestive tract, respiratory system, body movement, skin diseases, bone structure and blood circulation. Soaking in the medicinal waters just feels good.

It's also a fun and healthy way to meet the locals. Jump in and get bathing. Your body will thank you for it.

For more info: http://budapestgyogyfurdoi.hu or http://www.budapestinfo.hu

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Chris Ryall

An industry insider with strong, outspoken opinions that readers enjoy, whether they agree, or take issue with his point of view.

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