Published in - Toronto Star - February 19, 2015
Budapest, Hungary: Taking the waters in a steamy historic city
‘Budapest is one of Europe's hottest destinations, and abundant natural springs and historic bathhouses make it even hotter. Here are the best places to soak.’
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY—I used to date a Hungarian. The relationship didn’t last, but my love for Budapest did. Or rather, my love for his dreamy descriptions of it did: the scent of paprika, the gilt and red velvet of the lavish New York Café, the romantic Danube River that slices the city in two. But what really fed my imagination was the baths and the image of water, steaming mineral-rich springs bursting through the Carpathian Basin to feed everything from sultry Turkish baths to Art Nouveau bathhouses.
There are 123 natural springs in Budapest, and when I finally visited the city for myself, I wondered how it stayed afloat at all.
I also learned that soaking is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in Hungarian culture. (Fortunately for Torontonians, it’s also even easier to get to Europe’s “Spa City” with Air Transat launching direct flights to Budapest from Toronto and Montreal in June.)
Fun as it is, dipping a toe into foreign bathing customs can be intimidating, so be prepared: Bring swimwear, flip flops, a towel, a bathing cap — a shower cap will do in a pinch — and most importantly, every ache and pain you own.
Why? Budapest’s hot springs are rich in minerals such as calcium and magnesium, and soaking is a long-standing treatment for muscle and joint problems. Here are three bathhouses of note:
Gellert Baths: The Art Nouveau Gellert Spa & Thermal Baths is probably the most popular with tourists. Opened in 1918 and connected to the gracious Gellert Hotel, its lofty ceilings, stained glass and ornate tiled walls seem to elevate bathing into a religious experience.
In fact, Gellert does have a religious component. Located at the foot of Gellert Hill on the Buda side of the Danube, the baths are named after Saint Gellert, a martyred bishop who, according to some accounts, was rolled down Gellert Hill in a barrel lined with nails about 1,000 years ago.
Szechenyi Baths: If the Gellert is stunning inside, the Szechenyi Thermal Baths Complex in City Park, on the Pest side of the river, shines on the outside. One of the largest medicinal mineral baths in Europe, Szechenyi is beloved for its warm outdoor pools, where you can float alongside a cross-section of spa-loving Hungarians, including, quite often, a batch of elderly men playing chess in nipple-deep water.
Don’t feel like people-watching? Simply lie back and gaze at the remarkable neo-baroque architecture, a yellow-hued vision of colonnades, terraces and domes.
Lukacs Baths: It might not be the most beautiful sister in this trio of turn-of-the-century bathhouses, but the neoclassical Lukacs Baths at the bottom of Rose Hill is close to my heart; the leafy grounds have a sanatorium-like tranquility and there is a neighbourhood vibe that makes me feel at home, even if I’m occasionally confused by the labyrinth of corridors, nooks and pools.
Lukacs also has a long history of healing; in the 12th century, the Hospitaller Knights of the Order of Saint John used the thermal springs to treat the sick. Later, during the Ottoman rule, a Turkish bath was built here, although bathers looking for a true Turkish experience should try the newly-refurbished Rudas Baths; its 16th-century core of stout columns, octagonal pool and yawning dome offer a medieval, crypt-like splendour.
While the baths of Budapest are undoubtedly historic, don’t call them old fashioned. Call them nightclubs! Magic Bath Parties turns Lukacs into a light-strewn party spot, Szechenyi has Szecska Sparties, and the newer, more modern Aquaworld Resort Budapest has Splash Parties.
Whether it’s history, healing, or clubbing you crave, the baths of Budapest offer a unique, if steamy, glimpse into popular Hungarian traditions.
Just the Facts
GETTING THERE: Transat offers flights, tours and packages to Central Europe, including Budapest. (Flight to Budapest from Toronto stops in Montreal.) Tip: A multi-destination flight lets you fly into one city and leave from another at no extra charge. Visit Transat Holidays for info. transatholidays.com
VISITING THE BATHS: For hours and info visit Spasbudapest.com.
LOCATION: Gellert Baths is located at Kelenhegyiut4; Szechenyi at Allatkertikorut 11; Lukacs at Frankel Leo utca 25-29, and Rudas at Dobrenteiter 9. Tip: Rudas has single-sex days. Check schedule beforehand.
MORE INFO: For more on Budapest, visit Gotohungary.com.