Goulash, broody faces and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire are not the only facets of Hungary’s character that have given it international acclaim. Under the ground swirls a world of thermal goodness renowned for luxurious indulgence and countless health benefits spanning to Roman times. Budapest’s many baths see visitors from the world over flock to the bubbling waters to get a splash of the highly acclaimed goodness. On a weekend escape from Roman life, I too dipped my toes into several pools of indulgence at Szechenyi Baths.
Bubbling underneath the city’s foundations are one hundred and twenty-five thermal springs with substantial historical underpinnings. People have been making use of the springs for centuries and, although the baths - dotted around the city today - aren’t from ancient origins, their designs and respective purpose are derived from a variety of nearby old-worldly civilisations. One only needs visit a selection of establishments over a long weekend to see the Turkish and Roman influences.
Understanding the System
Knowing how to select the right bath to suit your needs and then navigating the system can be overwhelming. However, fear not: Lonely Planet author Steve Fallon has kindly done the groundwork and compiled a non-Hungarian-foreigner-friendly list of Budapest’s best baths. Despite design and size diversity, most establishments contain similarities. They all have locker rooms in which visitors can change and leave their belongings before taking a therapeutic dip. Many, if not all thermal baths, have both indoor and outdoor pools, some of which operate year-round. Visiting in winter, I tested my body’s thermoregulatory efficiency by contrasting the sub-zero night air with a sudden plunge into thirty-eight degree Celsius temperatures. Sitting in effervescing waters under the dark starry night sky induced a coma-like state of relaxation.
If visiting with loved ones of the opposite sex, be aware that many baths mandate separate visiting hours for women and men. Several, however, have modernised matters and now permit mixed bathing; appropriate attire needs to be donned. I personally recommend taking a pair of rubber flip flips, as – at some sites - locker room floors can be grimy. Entry prices vary marginally, and usually permit a two-hour visit.
Experiencing the Thermal Goodness
If running short on time, visiting Szechenyi Baths is recommended. Dating to nineteen thirteen, the complex is comprised of eighteen pools. Aside from taking part in a highly indulgent and purportedly medicinal activity, one can undergo a thorough pampering by selecting one of the assorted treatments on offer. My Italian friend and I decided to forego pampering and spent our time moving between baths and pools, from the deluxe interior surrounded by ornate trimmings to the pools outside, areas at the mercy of mother nature’s ever-changing temperament.
Arriving late in the afternoon, we were fortunate to experience a soaking under the stars, surrounded by the envelopment of cold night air by the steamy puffs. The atmosphere created a kind of magic, amplified by the feeling of skin purification in thermal goodness, its waters derived from an earthly source one kilometre below the surface. Try it: there’s nothing to lose. If anything, you’ll at least feel invigorated and relaxed following an hour or two of thermal immersion.
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The author stayed at Astoria City Hostel in Budapest.
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