Bathing in Budapest

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Széchenyi Thermal Baths- the largest medicinal bath in Europe, built in 1913

Bathing in Budapest seemed to be one of the primary reasons to visit the city according to tour books and blogs.  The multitude of thermal baths available in Budapest is unique to the city, and it was definitely number one on my list of things to experience during our 4-day visit there.  We decided on the Széchenyi thermal baths because of the outdoor areas and it seemed the easiest to navigate.  Thanks to Rick Steve’s instruction in his guide book on Eastern Europe we were able to get to the baths on the Metro, find the best entrance to the baths (as they are a few) and how to go through the somewhat complicated procedure to get to the water.  Honestly, without the guide book I’m not sure we would have ventured there as easily.

View of the Széchenyi baths from City Park.

We took the yellow Metro line to the City Park where the Széchenyi baths are located. The Metro system was vast and deep, covering the City and the outskirts in an organized, easy to navigate way.  We would find all of the Metro systems throughout our trip to be more convenient and cleaner than our BART system in the Bay.

We had purchased our tickets to the baths in advance because our hotel offered them when we booked our room advertising that we could skip the lines.  In early May we didn’t encounter any lines so booking in advance wasn’t necessary.  It turned out to be more of a hassle as our hotel didn’t give us our tickets when we checked in and they later had to hunt them down when we decided to go, ironically delaying our departure to go to the baths.  Because of our experience I’d recommend purchasing the tickets at the baths.

Once we arrived to the front entrance of the bath house we turned our tickets in for a wrist band and then headed downstairs to buy towels and a locker as we were instructed.  I also bought swim caps because I misunderstood what the attendant was saying.  The swim caps are only needed if you intend to swim laps in the specific lap pool.  Nice souvenir though.  My husband went to the men’s locker room and I to the women’s, we would change and then meet out on the pool deck.

Later we would figure out that a couple could rent a ‘cabin’, which was a tiny room where you can change together and lock your valuables instead of changing in separate places.  Rick Steves mentioned this in his book but for some reason I didn’t understand it until I had been through the process.  I think that I expected the ‘cabin’ to be some kind of private cabana and cost $100 extra like it would in the states but it was only a few dollars more and worth the convenience.

But our first experience was in the locker rooms. There were about a dozen small numbered locker rooms in the women’s section so it was important to remember which locker room I had changed in, and my locker #, or it would be like trying to find my car in an airport parking garage.  The process was further complicated by not having a key to my locker and every time I needed to get into my locker I had to hunt down the attendant with the “universal” key.  I seemed to have a difficult time knowing what to bring to the pool.  I was feeling an underlying stress because although the attendants spoke some English everything seemed mysterious and unclear for some reason.  It felt somewhat daring and comical.  Finally I made it outside and found Richard on the far end of the pool complex, his white hair easy to spot amongst the sea of other bathers.  It was crowded but there seemed to be room for us.

Széchenyi outdoor baths

There were two large outdoor pools for bathing in the mineral-rich, turquoise water; one was warmer for soaking and the cooler one had a whirl pool, jets, and a circular current pool. A third outdoor pool was for swimming laps. We hunted down two lounge chairs for our towels and flip flops then plunged in.  There were many young couples, young people in general, a few kids and plenty of mature couples.  It seemed a blend of locals and tourists.  The place was majestic and old, unlike anything we have in the States, and I was fully aware of the entire experience, enjoying each moment as I realized we were really here, soaking in the Hungarian thermal baths.

In addition to the outdoor pools at Széchenyi there were about a dozen smaller indoor baths, each containing varying degrees of hot, warm, hotter and colder water.  The baths are supplied by two thermal springs with minerals that help with joint pain and other ailments. The naturally heated baths have healing qualities in the water and the country’s healthcare system includes visits to the baths, prescribed by their physicians.  I think the minerals may have varied in the different pools as some waters were murkier and smellier than others.  We submerged for a few minutes in each one to experience both the calming effect of the warm mineral water and to appreciate the architecture.  There were also saunas and a cold bath which we did not try.  The baths were both relaxing and fun; soothing our tired muscles over worked by 10 miles of site seeing.  We slept better than ever that night.

We returned the next evening to soak under the stars.  Since we were familiar with how to get there on the Metro a night-time dip seemed feasible and welcoming, and because we knew the routine I felt more at ease.  We also rented a ‘cabin’ which was more convenient because we didn’t need to separate and we could lock up our things ourselves.  There were only a fraction of the people there at night creating an even more romantic evening bathing beneath the Hungarian stars.



First Impressions of Budapest- Castle Hill

View of Pest from Fisherman's Bastion

View of Pest from Fisherman’s Bastion

I have traveled to Europe several times with my daughter during the past few years but never with my husband.  It was time for him to get on board.  The decision to visit Central Europe evolved from neither of us having been there.  Budapest, Vienna and Prague seemed to be a popular itinerary, cities easily connected by trains.  It would be our first trip abroad together and my first trip as the solo travel guide, on past trips I had done much of the planning but I also relied on Lauren to help research accommodations and transportation options.  On this trip all the choices were left up to me.  Richard is pretty easy going except that he’s an inflexible vegetarian which was the only area that had me somewhat concerned.  I had read that the cities we would be visiting enjoyed meat focused meals but we agreed ahead of time that bread, cheese, pasta and pastries could always be passable options.

We arrived in Budapest at 9pm, bought a 5-day transit pass at the airport, then took a cab to our hotel which we found to be charming and perfectly situated near the river, public transport and walkable to most sites.

Our room at the Gerloczy Hotel, recommended by Rick Steves and a friend, had 12′ high ceilings and was beautifully decorated.

Gerloczy Hotel

The French cafe on the ground floor was quaint and the perfect place to begin our days with croissants and cappuccinos.

Our first morning in Budapest we walked along the very touristy Vaci Street on our way to the Danube.  We would learn to avoid this street of over-priced, mediocre traditional Hungarian cuisine restaurants and souvenirs, but on our first morning every step was a new adventure.


View of Buda Palace from Pest

In less than 10 minutes we arrived at the water for our first view of the Buda Palace on the Buda side; magnificent and huge perched on the top of Castle Hill.  My first impression was that we don’t have structures like this in California; a place for rulers and royalty, 100 times larger than where most of us reside.

We continued along the waterfront to Chain Bridge, the pedestrian connection between Buda and Pest, and joining the other tourists we walked across the bridge toward Castle Hill.  I had anticipated taking the funicular but there already existed an extensive line of other travelers waiting for a ride to the top of the hill.  Fortunately a tour guide offering walking tours suggested we take the #16 bus, waiting just across the street, to the top instead.  We ran over, jumped on with our 5-day transit pass, and squeezed in just as the doors rattled shut. The bus filled with enthusiastic tourists climbed the steep, windy road toward the Castle District.

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Trinity Square in Buda’s Castle District

It was a short walk to Trinity Square, what seemed to be the center of the Castle District.

Matthius Church was a dominant structure on the hill.  We decided to tour the church in spite of the throngs of tourist groups piling in ahead of us.  It had been recommended in the tour books as the most beautiful church in Budapest, both inside and out.

Matthius Church was beautiful on the inside just as advertised.

The self-guided tour was enjoyable although the tour groups were distracting at times and I’d recommend going to Castle Hill in the afternoon if that’s an option.

View from Beer Garden across from Matthius Church

Just across the square from Matthius Church we discovered a beer garden and gazebo where a band was performing.just as we were ready for lunch.  It was a great spot on a gorgeous day with plenty of out door tables.

The food looked appetizing and fresh, and was delicious with the local draft beer.

Fisherman’s Bastion

Another popular attraction on Castle Hill is Fisherman’s Bastion.

Aside from being interesting architecturally the many towers and terraces of Fisherman’s Bastion offer panoramic views of the Pest side.

This tower at Fisherman’s Bastion looks straight out of a fairy tale.

Although there was much more to see on Castle Hill we were ready for a break from the crowds and walked down the hill to cross back over the Chain Bridge to our sweet hotel on the Pest side.

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