Budapest, Hungary is the home of great wine, the famous Parliament building, and glorious bridges suspended over the Danube River. If there is one absolute “must do” activity for travelers visiting the city, I would without-a-doubt recommend a visit to one of Budapest’s famous thermal bath houses.
After conducting a Google search you have more than likely seen information pertaining to Széchenyi and/or Gellért. Thankfully, because I ended up doubling my time spent in Budapest, I was able to visit not only one but both of the thermal baths and now I am here to help you break down which bath house you should visit if you are unable to visit both.
What exactly are the Budapest thermal baths?
Budapest is a city that is the home of a wealth of natural warm spring waters. In fact, Lonely Planet has estimated that there are at least 125 thermal springs. The waters were used for medicinal purposes and once bath houses were formed they became a staple in Hungarian society. In today’s society, in the bath houses are a major staple in Budapest’s tourism and locals and tourists alike visit the bath houses to “bathe” and soak up some thermal healing. Another way to describe the bath houses would be small to large-sized outdoor heated pools. There were also cooler pools available which served as quite a relief on the warm summer days in which I was in Budapest.
As previously mentioned, the most famous of the thermal baths include Széchenyi and Gellért. I was not quite sure what exactly to expect at first when I arrived (i.e. the amount of nudity I would see) but I knew that I always enjoyed heated pools and since I had ample time, I was ready to kick back and be absolutely lazy for a few hours. While I felt ill-prepared for my visit to Gellért, after a few learned lessons, I was ready to tackle Széchenyi the next day.
What to Know Before You Go to the Budapest Thermal Baths
- Ensure that you have the proper footwear. I had sandals but I wish that I had shower shoes / flip-flops available. You will be busy hopping in and out of the pools and strapping up shoes gets to be annoying. In addition, you want to make sure that your feet are protected and that you do not slip on the extremely slippery surfaces.
- You have the option of renting a towel with a deposit or you can bring your own. As I was not traveling with a proper beach towel, I ended up renting towels when I visited both of the thermal baths but you get some of the money back.
- Unless you buy a private changing cabinet, you WILL see some nudity! *wink wink* Look. You are in Europe, home of nude beaches and free-spirits. After awhile, it simply stopped bothering me and I accepted this as a daily part of life.
- Give yourself at least 3 hours to visit the bath houses. I was able to visit a vast amount of the indoor / outdoor pools at both Széchenyi and Gellért without feeling too rushed. Had I not had evening plans on both of the days I visited, I could have stayed all night. The purpose in going to the thermal baths is to relax and rushing equals STRESS.
- Bring some entertainment! I visited Gellért first and only had my phone and some headphones with me. I quickly looked around and saw many patrons reading books / magazines, eating light snacks, and indulging in some adult beverages. Thankfully, each of those two bath houses had cafes and bars but when I visited Széchenyi I was adequately prepared. If I had not known better, I would have thought I was on the beach but instead I was in landlocked Hungary enjoying the medicinal thermal springs. If you really want to feel like a boss, bring a robe.
- Splurge a little bit! You are more than likely on vacation and if there was any place to indulge while in Budapest, the thermal baths are your winner. Aside from the 15+ pools you can find at Széchenyi and Széchenyi and Gellért, you have the option of purchasing pampering services including a massage or a mani/pedi. You truly can tailor your experience at the thermal baths to your liking.
Gellért Spa and Bath
Located on the Buda side, this bath house is located inside of a hotel and it is certainly not lacking in the decor. Stepping inside the lobby and looking around you, you see the care and dedication that was put into the ornate designing of this bath. The slight climb up the hill in the heat was suddenly worth it.
What I Loved
I had been expecting a line when I arrived but I was able to walk right up to the cashier to pay for my admission. Perhaps because I was visiting on a Thursday, the crowds were minimal but I was not complaining at all. It was a quiet atmosphere and I was able to truly bask in the serenity. Because the crowds were minimal, there was ample seating with the lounge chairs on the outside terrace and benches inside for your belongings. When you walked inside past the many pools you could even SMELL the light fragrance from the medicinal pools. It reminded me of a light mint and while I am not certain what it was, it was extremely soothing.
I think my favorite memory from visiting Gellért though was the outdoor wave pool. You have to take the stairs or ladder down into the deep basin and the temperature is a bit shocking at first. You can wade in as far as you’d like to go and there is a warning before you enter the deep water. Then, if you are inside at just the right time, you will hear the lifeguard sound off an alarm that might startle you at first as you see people running to come inside the pool. What was this sound? This is the lifeguard letting you know that he/she is getting ready to put the wave in the wave pool. I felt like I was at a waterpark and had a great time laughing hysterically as the water pushed me and other swimmers around with great force, eventually ruining any chance I had at a decent hair day.
What I Didn’t Love
The changing rooms in the locker area seemed to be a bit cramped. The light was also slightly dim which made me feel some type of way. I also wish that the outdoor thermal pool was larger. There were some underwater seats for you to sit at on the perimeter but often you would find yourself in the middle of the pool wading around waiting for people to move so that you could find a seat. Lastly, I would have loved if they stayed open past 8pm but that is just me being a selfish traveler because I absolutely did NOT want to leave.
Széchenyi Thermal Bath
The famous of the famous. The largest thermal bath in all of Europe. The party bath. In fact, if you find yourself in Budapest on a Saturday night, they have bath parties that I am SURE are a wild time. When you google Budapest and consult the images, you will see this bath house. It brings a million visitors a year. It is THAT popular. And so yes, 24 hours after I visited Gellért I knew that I could not leave without seeing what Széchenyi had to offer me. I made sure to pack some rose, meat and cheese, and a magazine with me to keep me entertained.
What I Loved
Széchenyi was huge and that seems like an understatement. It was easy to get lost. I realized as I was leaving that I completely missed out on a section of the outdoor pools simply because I did not see it. You would have no idea from the outside walking in that so much was going on inside. It is located inside of a park that is a quick walk from Hero’s Square (another Budapest icon). The locker rooms and changing areas had bright light and there was minimal amount of water on the floor to minimize slipping.
The best part about Széchenyi to me was the outdoor thermal pool. In comparison to Gellért, even with the crowds in the water, there was plenty of room to move. And the water? It was SO warm. If you had any joint pain, I am sure you would be relieved. I could not get enough of it.
What I Didn’t Love
I decided that I wanted to indulge in a “pedicure” that was more like a polish change. It had not even registered in my head how much I had paid for it in actual USD prior to the service until I was out at the thermal pool. I was pretty irritated with myself but I charged it to the game, literally. In addition, the gift of Széchenyi was also the curse. It was pretty crowded and was quite difficult to find a chair. The indoor pools were crammed and I cringed at the thought of touching someone in the pool. When I did finally find space in an indoor thermal pool, the water seemed to be a bit murkier than I’d like and I only stayed in for about 5 minutes. While Gellért tried to keep noise at a minimal level indoors, it appeared as though Széchenyi did no enforcement and the noise visitors were making would echo off of the walls. I was not able to truly relax as much.
Choosing Between Visiting Széchenyi or Gellért
If your time is limited in Budapest and you are forced to make a decision between visiting one of the two, I would first ask you what vibe are you looking for? Are you looking to relax or party at the thermal baths? This would dictate my choice for you. Personally, I preferred Gellért because of the quieter atmosphere and the decor. However, cost wise, Széchenyi’s admission was actually cheaper. I expected the opposite.
I loved visiting the Budapest thermal baths. They were great mood boosters and we can all use some more self-care moments. If and whenever I get back to Budapest, I would definitely venture off to some smaller bath houses after doing my proper research. And maybe, if my time and budget allowed for it, I would go back to visit Gellért.
Have you heard of or experienced thermal baths? How was it for you and would you do it again? Would the nudity in the lockers bother you? Let’s chat!