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If you’re a spa lover, you can’t go wrong with Budapest. This city is home to one of the most impressive (and eclectic) collections of public baths, a paradise for water aficionados. Here the spa history is rich and goes back to the Romans who discovered an abundance of thermal springs around the Danubian hills and took advantage of it by building baths. Afterward, the Ottomans who conquered Hungary in the 16th century followed the Roman example and constructed dome-shaped bathing houses. What’s impressive about Budapest is that you can still find those ancient spas and have it dip too.
Today, thermal baths exist in different shapes and sizes around the Hungarian capital. You can relax in the grandiose palace-like buildings, under the colorful Art Nouveau ceilings, in the dimly lit old oriental octagonal pools or ultra-modern resort centers. Add to this a spectacular allure of one of the most impressive European capitals and you’re getting a perfect idea for a spa break. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the most affordable destinations in Europe.
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Belle Époque can be felt at its most brilliant at Széchenyi Spa that is among the most awe-inspiring and unique Budapest bathhouses. With a whopping number of 15 indoor and three outdoor pools, this place is a must-visit if you’re exploring the city as well as the largest medicinal bath in Europe. Opened in 1913, Széchenyi is a testament to the imperial opulence and splendid architecture that characterized Budapest at the time. Inside you find intricate halls filled with frescoes and gold that give you an impression that you’re actually taking a dip inside of some palatial chambers. But the real gem is an extensive picture-perfect outdoor area that sees hundreds of patrons enjoying hot thermal springs in a stunning setting.
Irresistible eye-candy, Gellért Baths may well be one of the most stunning spa complexes not only in Europe but in the world. Constructed in a distinct Hungarian Art Nouveau architectural style at the beginning of the 20th century, it is essentially a kingdom of colored tiles, elegant halls, smoky pools and, of course, bubbling thermal water. It is there in the azure-colored half-lit Gellért bath that you can completely lose yourself to the power of warm springs in a truly dreamlike setting. Apart from being an extra-Instagrammable spot, the complex is actually a serious balneological institution that boasts plunge pools, saunas, massage services and an amazing outdoor swimming pool with artificial waves.
To feel the historic medieval atmosphere head straight to the Rudas Baths, one of the few remaining spas in Budapest that date back to the Ottoman rule. The experience is truly one-of-a-kind, you’ll have a chance to take a dip in a beautiful renovated arched pool from the 16th century taking advantage of the dimly lit ambiance which emits total relaxation. Also, this spa is famous for its open-air swimming pool with a terrace boasting exceptional vistas of the Danube and the city. And you’re not mistaken if the old Turkish part looks familiar, it was featured in the opening scene of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1988 flick Red Heat “playing” a Moscow steam bath.
Quieter than Széchenyi and less opulent than Gellért, Lukács Baths is a Budapest spa that locals actually go to. Come here for Old Europe charms and stay for a variety of pools, saunas and relaxing procedures. Founded back in the 12th century by Knights Hospitallers, enlarged during the Ottoman rule, it was opened in its present incarnation in 1884 as a premium medical spa institution with a hotel. It is also famous for curing “Kristály” drinking mineral water. Lukács Baths would be a perfect pick if you’d like to have a high-quality historic thermal spa time without the crowds and with a truly local flare.
An exciting water world of swimming pools awaits you at Palatinus, a sprawling spa complex on locals-favorite Margaret Island. This is a kind of a place that holds dear nostalgic memories for generations of Hungarians who have been flocking to enjoy the waters of its many swimming pools for almost a century. Palatinus had its records too, before World War 2, the main outdoor swimming pool held the title of Europe’s largest. Today the spacious modernist buildings of the baths and gargantuan outdoor areas offer a wide range of swimming opportunities so be sure to try out a little bit of everything. And don’t forget to explore the fantastic Margaret Island, a sight-packed green oasis just a short walk away from the celebrated Parliament building.
A more low-key and down-to-earth spa experience than its famous Budapest counterparts, Dandár Baths offers an affordable alternative with a great thermal proposition and a more tranquil setting. It is located right next to Zwack Museum, one of the most frequented city museums, which showcases the history of a famous liqueur, Unicum. As for the Dandár spa, it is quite boutique and mostly attracts a local crowd. There is an old section with indoor pools from the 30s as well as a recently renovated outdoor thermal relaxation area so choose the one for your liking or even better, explore everything.
Head straight to Csillaghegyi if you’re looking for an all-in-one bathing experience in Budapest. Founded in 1919, it is still enjoying the title of one of the best swimming facilities in the Hungarian capital. The complex is divided into various zones. There is a sports zone with swimming pools and gyms, a wellness zone with a variety of thermal pools, a kids zone with a fun area filled with thematic adventures and smaller pools, a sauna zone with a great choice of different steam rooms as well as a remarkable rooftop spa with incredible views. The complex is located on the outskirt of the city so plan your visit accordingly.
For a modern take on a centuries-old thermal spa tradition in Budapest, pay a visit to Pesterzsébet Baths. Apart from boasting slick minimalist designs and a photogenic faux Turkish dome, it is also the only spa in Budapest that has iodized salt thermal water. Reopened in 2019 after a thorough renovation, it offers an exemplary Hungarian spa experience with many different outdoor and indoor pools, saunas and water treatment services to choose from in the calmness of the Budapest suburb of Pesterzsébet.
Not many cities around the world can trace their history to Roman times. Not only does Budapest have this connection to this ancient civilization, but it also used to be their favorite relaxation spot due to the abundance of thermal springs. While the Római Baths of today may have little similarities to the ancient pools of the past they are offering the same promise of total unwinding aided by the hot waters, swimming pools and fun water slides. The complex is located in one of the coolest recreational areas of Budapest and has direct access to the Danube shore boasting many great waterside cafes, bars and restaurants where you can taste the wonders of Hungarian cuisine. Be sure to try the obligatory gulyásleves (traditional paprika-heavy beef soup), lángos (a popular fried bread dough street food) and palacsinta (a stuffed Hungarian answer to a crêpe in different variations).
If you have a free day or two in Budapest and would like to explore further, Cave Bath in Miskolc, about a two hour drive from the capital, is a great idea for thermal tourism. No, it’s not a fancy name, it’s actually a cave with the hot waters inside that is all yours to enjoy. Known as a healing site from ancient times, it was during the 17th century that the place has started to gradually turn into a recreational spot. Today it’s a stunning complex featuring illuminated thermal pools inside the cave as well as outdoor pools, water bars, saunas, restaurants and slides for kids. While there you have a chance to discover the historic city center of Miskolc with an imposing medieval castle and the fairytale-like Lillafüred area where the Wes Andersonian Palace Hotel is located. Also, the city is an entry point to the picturesque Bükk Mountains where the highest peaks of Hungary are found.
Budapest is not the only city in Hungary that has grandiose bathing houses, recently renovated Árpád Bath in a provincial town Székesfehérvár can give Gellért and Széchenyi run for their money. Located just an hour train ride away from the Hungarian capital’s center, Árpád Bath is one of these hidden gems only small cities can possess. Quiet and unhurried, this spa institution nevertheless boasts one of the most impressive Art Nouveau designs in the country. While there, get acquainted with a charming old core of Székesfehérvár that used to be the medieval capital of the Kingdom of Hungary.