The History Behind the Bath

How Budapest Became Famous for Thermal Baths And What You Need To Know

Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is considered one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, and was ranked the world’s second best city by Condé Nast Traveler. This doesn’t come as a surprise to those who have been to this Central European metropolis. Filled with Gothic architecture, hearty cuisine, and a rich history, and in the city that contains 33 percent of the country’s population, there’s so much to discover. In particular, what sets the city apart from other european cities, are the famous thermal baths.

The baths, which have given Budapest its reputation as the “city of spas” attracts visitors from all over the world. The cause of these baths source of waters is a network of a natural springs that flow throughout Hungary. Budapest sits on the Carpathian Basin where the earth’s crust is at its thinnest, so water gathers more minerals as it travels to the surface. This gives the water it’s “healing” properties.

The Romans were the first to use the natural spas, dating as far back as 33 BCE. The baths were an integral part of Roman social life, a place where people would gather to converse and relax after their day. During the Roman Empire, Emperor Marcus Aurelius discovered that his soldier’s wounds healed faster when they bathed in these hot springs. As a result, he built the first thermal bath in what is now Budapest.

As people gained more knowledge about the waters’ healing abilities, the concept of Balneotherapy was born. This is the practice of treating medical complaints with water from a medicinal spring, particularly water with high concentrations of minerals and sediment. After the Romans, other people and cultures took up the practices and built increasingly elaborate spas.

Thermal baths continued during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The turkish baths, that were built during their rule, was done in what’s known as a Hammam style and employs and Arabic design style. To this day you can still find many thermal baths from this era and in this style within Budapest.

The next major expansion was from 1867 to 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was ruling the land. During these two periods, the baths that were created, were grandiose and theatrical in style. The Széchenyi thermal bath was one of the bath built during this time in 1913. It is one of the largest with 15 indoor baths and three outdoor pools. Széchenyi lives up to the Austro-Hungarian style with it’s large sculptures by every bath and golden details on the building.

Currently there are 15 thermal baths and over 100 thermal springs within the city. At any bath you visit, it’ll be filled with locals. This comes to no surprise, since the baths are an integral part of their lifestyle.

While it’s easy enough to use and enjoy the baths, first time foreign visitors may find them intimidating. In western countries, it’s normal to have more privacy and to swim fully clothed. Some baths, the ones that are gender specific, have the option for people to bathe nude. It’s advised for those who don’t want to swim nude, to check the rules about clothing and gender. For example, the Rudas baths, are for only women on Tuesday’s. This would mean that on Tuesday’s, women have the option to bathe nude. Other weekdays it’s men only, and then on the weekend is open to everyone. Swimsuits are required on the mixed days.

One of the most famous baths, is the Gellert Spa Baths. Located in Buda near the Buda Castle, the medicinal spring here has been famous since the 13th century. At the front desk, you can order a day pass, for about 20 US dollars. This also includes a locker for you to store your belongings. Keep in mind you can rent towels, however you only get 80 percent of your deposit back, so it’s recommended to bring your own towel. After your purchase, it’s time to explore the baths.

It’s no surprise people spend all day here, without even having spa treatments; which are also an option here. Gellert contains 10 baths, including one outdoor thermal bath and an outdoor wave pool. Some of the most popular choices include the indoor thermal baths that get as hot as 40 degrees celsius or 104 degrees fahrenheit. Along with the indoor thermal baths, there’s a large indoor swimming pool. It’s important to know that the pool requires a swimming cap.

At first, Gellert can seem like a maze. To simply get to the lockers you have to travel down a large, ominous hallway. The sound of water fills your ears and the bustle of people changing, showering, and simply just chatting, bounces off the tiled walls. After making your way through the maze, you reach the hustle and bustle of the lockers. Rows and rows of lockers are packed into a small space, and the area is a little frantic with people showering, changing, and drying their hair. Finding an open locker can be challenging since this is one of the most popular baths, but people move in and out of the baths all day so it won’t take long to find a free one. Once you’re ready, in your swimsuit (not your birthday suit since Gellert baths are always mixed) it’s time to enjoy the hot water with locals and tourists alike.

The spa is decorated with a wealth of original Art Nouveau furnishings, artistic mosaics, stained glass windows and sculptures. Each bath is a work of art, holding intricate tiles and sculptures unique to the spa. The large indoor pool makes your nose filled with the smell of chlorine, a modern touch necessary for cleanliness. It might take westerners back to swimming lessons as a child. In these spas, you’ll be surrounded with people ranging in age, ethnicity, and swimsuit coverage. Some people, usually the europeans, will be in speedos and thong bikinis. No matter what the coverage of your swimsuit is, no one cares because they’re there just to relax. You’ll even see people starting to fall asleep in the baths, it’s that calming.

The medicinal benefits of this water are no joke. After a day at the spas, whichever one you choose, your muscles will immediately feel relaxed. One or two trips to the baths can ward off a doctor visit because of how good the water is. It’s also somewhere you can warm up in because the winter in Budapest can be pretty harsh with the whipping wind and frosty air. As people discovered centuries ago, these spas not only relax you but the minerals found in them can be a better solution than a doctor’s visit.

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