There are a lot of things that I loved about my experience in Budapest, but one of my top highlights was visiting a few of the city’s famed thermal baths. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, then you know how much I love visiting spas and saunas around the world. The obsession started after a trip to Finland, and has only grown since. I was really looking forward to experiencing the Hungarian thermal bath culture!
If it is your first visit to Budapest, then a stop at one of 9 thermal baths in the city is an absolute must-do activity. They don’t call it the City of Spas for no reason! There are some cultural practices and customs that you should know before visiting to make the most of your time at Budapest’s thermal baths.
Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Budapest’s Thermal Baths
But Why Are There So Many Thermal Baths?
Hungarians have been using thermal baths for around 2,000 years to relax and cure ailments like sore muscles, poor circulation and inflammation. It is an important part of life in Hungary, and on average, local people visit a thermal bath at least once per month. About 80% of the country sits over a thin part of the earth’s crust, which brings hot, mineral-rich water to the surface more easily. They say that there are over 1,000 hot springs around the country. Budapest alone uses approximately 20 million gallons of thermal water per day!
What to Expect When Visiting Budapest’s Thermal Baths
When to Visit (Time of Day & Year)
There 9 thermal baths around Budapest, and a majority of them are open year round. The most famous (and Instagrammable) is Szechenyi Baths, but all of them are incredibly popular with locals and tourists alike. We visited Budapest in late April which was actually perfect. The outside air was cool enough but not frigid and the pool waters were a lovely warm!
Try to arrive to any thermal baths as early as possible to enjoy the water in relative peace and quiet. Szechenyi opens as early as 6am! As the day progresses, more and more visitors will trickle into the baths, with the crowds really starting around 10:30am. By the mid afternoon it can get so crowded that you are bumping into people! Not a relaxing atmosphere…
Indoor Pools, Outdoor Pools and Saunas
At most of Budapest’s baths, you’ll find a mixture of indoor and outdoor pools as well as other amenities such as saunas and steam rooms. Typically there is an “exercise” pool indoors, which you’ll see people swimming laps in. This is where you need to wear a swimming cap. The more “relaxing” pools will usually be indoors and outdoors, with the outdoor pool typically being the largest. The pools will be a variety of different temperatures, so keep an eye out for signs that indicate the temperature. The baths themselves aren’t terribly hot, usually maxing out around 40 C.
To get a serious sweat on, be sure to visit the saunas or steam rooms in between pool soaks. Saunas offer a dry and hot experience while the steam rooms are extremely humid and steamy. There is often limited visibility in the steam rooms due to the copious amounts of steam and the floors and benches can get pretty slick as well so watch your footing.
Similar to the pools, there are different saunas at different temperatures, and there will usually be a sign indicating the heat. Don’t stay in any sauna for too long or you’ll overheat. What I learned from my experience in Finland is the ideal way to sauna is to do a hot sauna then a cold plunge then a short rest either outside or in a body temperature pool. This is the best combination for your circulation and skin, which is where the Hungarians say the health benefits come from.
As such, it’s best to know where the cold plunge pool is before you venture into the sauna, so you can easily go from the hot sauna to the cold plunge. I would recommend cycling through this hot/cold/rest cycle a few times to really get a true thermal bath experience — I usually do about 3-5 cycles over the course of 2 hours or so.
What to Bring to Budapest’s Thermal Baths
You can rent most of the things listed below if you forget it, and then you just turn them in at the end. Each item will be priced individually, and it can add up. If you’re on a budget, I would recommend trying to bring your own. Don’t forget your swimsuit because they typically don’t rent those!
- Flip Flops
- Goggles + Swimcap (required if you want to swim in pools, especially at Gellért)
- Plastic bag or wet bag to put your swimsuit in at the end
- Backpack or Tote Bag
What to Wear at a Hungarian Thermal Bath
In the baths, you just need to wear a swimsuit. Some of the thermal baths have swimming areas that require you to wear a swim cap, but they are unnecessary for lounging in the baths. Bring your towel, flip flops, and robe with you from the locker room area and deposit them on a hook, bench or chair before you hit the water. You’ll want them close by, especially if you visit one of the outdoor pools in the winter!
Cabins vs Lockers
Most of the baths have cabins in the locker rooms that are essentially private changing booths that lock. They comfortably fit one person and a small bag, or a little uncomfortably two people. These cost a little bit extra (around $2-$4) but are very secure and offer some privacy for those who want it. We opted for a cabin at all the baths we went to. If you are ok with a little general nudity feel free to skip the extra cost and just use one of the many lockers in the locker room. These are separated by gender.
Massages and Extra Services
There will be extra services, such as massages, offered at the thermal baths. If you want to take part in any of these additional services you’ll need to purchase and reserve them when you get your entrance ticket. We did a couples massage at one of the baths, and it was ok. The service is very straightforward with basic products and no music or ambiance. While the massage was decent, it was nothing to write home about. I guess that is to be expected when the therapists see hundreds of people a week. I would say skip it and save the money.
Paying for Things in the Thermal Baths
When you buy your ticket and services at the entrance booth, you’ll be given a little plastic wristband that has an RFID tag in it. It’s really important not to lose this, as it grants you entrance into the thermal baths. It also functions as your “credit card” while you make purchases within the thermal baths. Most of the baths have bars or small cafes in them if you get thirsty or want a beer, and you’ll be required to scan your bracelet. These bracelets are very expensive if you need to replace it, so put it to your wrist securely. You’ll scan and turn in the bracelet when you leave the baths, and if you got any extra services during your visit, you’ll be charged at the end.
Will it Smell Like Sulfur the Whole Time?
Yes… but not that bad. Really! The smell of thermal baths in Budapest were nothing like some of the natural hot springs I experienced in Iceland or Bolivia, and it is much more toned down. Plus, the minerals are great for you! My husband has eczema, so he normally hates visiting pools because the chlorine kills his skin. What is so great about thermal waters is that the water contains all sorts of natural minerals like sulphite, sodium, calcium, and magnesium which make the skin feel fantastic! You’ll come out feeling energized and rejuvenated — hence why Hungarians have been visiting them regularly for two millenia!
Which Budapest Thermal Baths Should You Visit?
Széchenyi Thermal Baths
By far the most famous of the thermal baths in Budapest, Széchenyi is the place to go if you only plan on visiting one of the spas in Budapest. You’ll certainly have seen the stunning yellow facade on your Instagram feed at least once or twice. More than just a pretty package, Széchenyi is a sprawling facility with 18 different pools and an equal number of saunas. You could spend a day at this place if you wanted! I would recommend at least 1-2 hours for your first visit however. If you want some serious inspiration for the beauty of Szechenyi, Hello JetLag has some stunning photos!
Are you looking to soak in thermal waters while watching the sunset over Budapest? Then Rudas is your place! Their main outdoor pool offers a sweeping and stunning view over the Danube River and central Budapest. Just take a scroll through the geotag on Instagram for some inspiration! Plus, they offer a poolside bar if you want to drink and relax while at the spa.
Gellért Thermal Baths
Located on the Buda side of the Danube river, Gellert is an art deco dream with beautiful mosaics adorning the entire facility. It is much smaller than Széchenyi but it feels a lot less touristy. There is definitely a more local vibe at Gellert. A majority of the pools here are indoors, although their main outdoor pool is lovely.