Taking the plunge in Budapest

In Budapest, Hungary’s vibrant capital, you can sample spicy paprika at the Great Market Hall (designed by Gustave Eiffel), sip coffee in a genteel turn-of-the-20th-century café, and enjoy an affordable performance at the luxurious Opera House. Budapest has its fair share of museums and monuments, too: You can ogle the opulent interior of the Hungarian Parliament, get a taste of the gloomy Hungarian psyche at the National Gallery, and wander through a field of quirky old communist statues at Memento Park.

But for me, splashing and relaxing in Budapest’s thermal baths is the city’s top attraction. Though it might sound daunting, bathing in Budapest is far more accessible than you’d think. Tourists are welcome. The thermal baths are basically like your hometown swimming pool — except the water is 100 degrees, there are plenty of jets and bubbles to massage away your stress, and you’re surrounded by Hungarians having fun.

Locals brag that if you poke a hole in the ground anywhere in Hungary, you’ll find a hot-water spring. Judging from Budapest, they may be right: The city has 123 natural springs and some two-dozen thermal baths. The baths are actually a part of the health-care system. Doctors regularly prescribe treatments that include massage, soaking in baths of various heat and mineral compositions, and swimming laps. For these patients, a visit to the bath is subsidized.

In Hungary, a typical bath complex has multiple pools, used for different purposes. Big pools with cooler water are for serious swimming, while the smaller, hotter thermal baths are for relaxing, enjoying the jets and current pools, and playing chess. You’ll also usually find a dry sauna, a wet steam room, a cold plunge pool (for a pleasurable jolt when you’re feeling overheated), and sunbathing areas. Many baths have fun flourishes: bubbles, whirlpools, massage jets, wave pools, and so on. Expect to pay $15 to $20 for admission and a personal changing cabin (about $2 cheaper if you change in the locker room). Swimsuits are the norm; nudity is optional.

Two of Budapest’s baths — Szechenyi and Gellert — are the best known, most representative, and most convenient for first-timers.

To soak with the locals, head for the Szechenyi bath complex — a big, yellow, copper-domed building in the middle of Budapest’s City Park. Recent renovation has restored the complex to its late-19th-century glory days, making Szechenyi Budapest’s best bath.

The dizzyingly complicated entry procedure is like a time-warp back to communist bureaucracy...but that’s all part of the experience, and somehow, it works. Here’s how to do it:

I stepped into the Szechenyi Baths and scanned the long price list of bath entries and treatments (described in both English and Hungarian). I then tried to explain what I wanted to the grouchy monolingual cashier. Once inside, I was immediately lost in a labyrinth of hallways, until a white-smocked bath attendant pointed me toward the locker room. After I rented a towel (I should have borrowed one from the hotel) and slipped into my swimsuit, I was finally ready for some hot-water fun.

Sitting in hundred-degree water under glorious Baroque domes, I felt my stress ebb away as I enjoyed some of Europe’s most memorable people-watching. Hungarians of all shapes and sizes were stuffed into tiny swimsuits, strutting their stuff. People floated blissfully in warm water. Speedo-clad intellectuals stood in chest-high water around chessboards and pondered their next moves. It’s Budapest at its best.

Afterwards, completely relaxed, I changed back into my street clothes and sorted through my little stack of receipts: one to reclaim my towel deposit, another to get out through the turnstile, and so on. Since I was leaving a bit early, the turnstile spat out yet another receipt, which I presented to the ticket window to claim a tiny refund on my admission price.

Budapest’s more touristy option is Gellert Baths, located in a fancy hotel. Gellert is more sedate and luxurious than Szechenyi (even if the entry procedure is no less confusing). But in the summer, the Gellert Baths have something Szechenyi doesn’t: a huge, deliriously enjoyable wave pool that’ll toss you around like a surfer.

While Hungary has several mostly nude, segregated Turkish baths, Szechenyi and Gellert are less intimidating: Men and women are usually together, and you can keep your swimsuit on the entire time. But even at these baths, there are a few clothing-optional areas, where locals are likely to be nude — or wearing a “koteny,” a loose-fitting loincloth.

With or without your Speedo, take the plunge. My readers unanimously report that the thermal baths were their top Hungarian experience. If you go into it with an easygoing attitude and a sense of humor, you’ll never forget bath time in Budapest.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio.

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