With an average winter temperature that spends plenty of time shivering in the minuses, Budapestians and visitors need somewhere to warm up, and Hungary's capital boasts half a dozen popular thermal baths, of which the Széchenyi baths (three years off their hundredth birthday) are perhaps the most appealing. Housed in an elegant baroque building within Budapest's World-Heritage City Park, and situated at the northern end of the city's likewise-accoladed yellow Metro line*, the baths are both visually impressive and more convenient, in some aspects, than other options, allowing male and female visitors to use the same facilities at the same time (the Kiraly baths, for example, have separate days for each sex), and staying open from 6am-10pm.
Leave Line One of the Metro at Széchenyi furdo (320 Forint/around £1 per journey), which drops you right outside the Baths. Inside, three booths sell tickets, and two entrances lead to the changing rooms (oddly, contrary to signage, they're not gender-specific, leading to a communal area of cubicles - the first of many confusions before getting near any water). Price lists are mounted on the walls, presenting what seems an excessive amount of options (how many ways are there to take a bath?) in Hungarian, German and (partially) English. Don't expect the outstandingly arsey assistants to be any help either, but it's not too problematic to get a ticket; the main decision is whether you want a cabin to get changed and store your things in (3600 Forint), or a locker (3000 Forint) - in which case there are male and female changing rooms available. If you stay for less than two hours, ask at the counters as you leave - you're supposed to get a partial refund, although this may depend on the mood of the employee.
If you've chosen the cabin option, you'll get a little electronic-watch gadget which unlocks your individual cubicle, and is used if you want to hire a towel (around 1500 Forint, of which 1200 is a deposit). Take ten minutes to try and find the towel-hire place, then ask someone and get directed to a cupboard on the right-hand side of the antechamber. A final curiosity; there are two towel-hire options - one is a pretty expensive fluffy towel, the other, cheaper option is a large bedsheet. Which is strange, and about as absorbent as, well - a bedsheet.
After you've made it through all that and negotiated the maze of cabins and lockers, you'll come out into the indoor baths, a series of pools of varying shapes and sizes with temperatures marked on the walls. There's plenty of choice here - chances are you won't try half the pools, and a nice range of saunas too, which themselves range from agreeable, pleasant aromatherapy rooms (50 C) to scorching, surface-of-the-sun furnaces which I found physically impossible to enter (85 C). More often than not, a seriously chilly plunge pool is located just round the corner from the saunas for some extremes of temperature which leave you, once the shock's subsided, supremely relaxed.
Arguably the main attraction of the Baths is outside (there's a door hidden away at each end of the indoor rooms); a complex of external pools and lounging areas where the famous chess players do their thing whilst slowly cooking themselves. In the centre, a more serious swimming pool breaks up two hot pools, the second of which is filled with fountains - above and below water - a jacuzzi and a whirlpool which flings you around with some force. In all honestly, these weren't the most pleasant parts of the baths in summer, where the air and sun are already hot enough that the contrast with the warm waters are lost. I'm told these pools are blissful in winter, however, and I'm planning a more seasonally-appropriate return.
The Széchenyi baths, then, should be considered an essential part of a Budapest city-break. Located in an interesting, attractive part of the city with the imposing Heroes' Square nearby, the myriad options and conventions of the baths may take a bit of hacking through, but it's all part of the fun, and you're rewarded with a perfect way to let the exertions and bustle of the city float away. Plus a snazzy rapids-type-thing for when you've had enough of that.
*Watch Kontroll (2003) for a David Lynch-esque take on the Budapest Metro. Weird and wonderful.
Állatkerti körút 11.
Tel: +36 (1) 363-3210
Budapest has a number of thermal steam baths (gyogyfurdo) and this has been a tradition since Roman times. It is an idea to give some thought as to which you bath you may wish to visit and consult your guide book or hotel reception for the latest suggestions. Some baths are all same sex or have separate men's and women's days which may not suit mixed groups; some same sex baths don't allow bathing costumes and some have a predominantly homosexual clientele. For example one bath (the Kiraly), was recently closed down due to secret filming revealing that the bathers were actually um not bathing (I want to know where he hid his camera). This bath has now re-opened and swimming trunks are apparently compulsory. It is important to find one that you are comfortable with.
As part of a mixed sex group we chose the Szechenyi baths which are located opposite Budapest Zoo in Varosliget (City Park), and is a traditional 19th Century style building. It is apparently the largest of the thermal baths and has the deepest and warmest wells. There is a small café there and various entrances. If going in winter I would advise going in the back (away from the Zoo side) as there the steam rooms and thermal pools are next to the changing rooms on this side, otherwise you would have to cross the outside pool to get from one to the other, and whilst this is one thing when you are dry, it is not so pleasant when you are wet and its cold.
There are various prices and various treatments at this spa and it all seems a bit confusing at first. Signs are in English but the tellers at the cash windows where you buy your tickets don't speak English, if you have any queries. We initially just wanted regular tickets in regular single sex changing rooms, which were about HUF2,000 (£5.50), but were charged HUF2,600 (£7) which meant we got private 'cabins' or cubicles each, and it was too confusing to query. We then had to queue for about twenty minutes to go through to the changing rooms, which was annoying as our friends who had arrived ten minutes ahead of us went straight through. However, it was Saturday afternoon and no doubt a peak time. People kept coming up and going through. It appears that you are called regarding the colour of your ticket (a credit card type) and an eagle eyed local spotted ours and sent us to the front when our colour was called (although it could have been called several times already from what Hungarian we understood). Of the three of us who went in, the guy was sent one way and myself and another girl into different changing rooms. We thought we were split by gender but there were men in towels and trunks wandering around, so we couldn't initially work out why we were split. You can hire towels for HUF700 (£2) which are really large cotton sheets, and the desk is hidden away. The changing rooms were like a rabbit warren and we then had to find an attendant who wanted us to share a cabin. We had to show him our receipts to prove we had paid for individual cubicles (even though we weren't that bothered), it seemed we had been given the wrong colour cards. As it turned out my friend's husband ended up in the communal changing rooms after all. Other people we know who went also found it confusing, so I think that is something you just have to accept and get on with.
Each cabin is a numbered wooden cubicle with a lockable door. Inside is a small bench and some coat hooks, once you are changed you summon the attendant and he writes a number in chalk on a small blackboard just inside your cabin. He gives you a wrist band that relates to this number, so you can prove that the cabin is yours. He locks and unlocks the door for you and you just have to remember your cabin number (which is different number than your wrist band). All signs are in Hungarian so although we found the indoor pools, next to our changing rooms, we couldn't locate the toilets or outdoor pool where we had arranged to meet the rest of our friends. A bit of comedy miming ensued (the Hungarians' call toilets W.Cs and pronounce it 'Vait-Say' which although we thought we did it correct, we weren't understood. I never did discover the Hungarian for 'outside pool' however).
When we entered the indoor pool areas there were a few shelves to leave your stuff such as towels and soaps. We actually located some of our friends almost immediately and we followed them through a maze of different pools to the outside one. I have to say I never thought I'd be persuaded to go outside in sub zero December temperatures in nothing but a bathing suit but I was. We first entered the pool right by the doors so there was a quick dash across the stones and down the wide steps into the water. The outdoor pools vary in temperature but were reportedly about 36C that day. The amount of steam rising was amazing, at times, people six feet away from me disappeared into the mist which was quite eerie. I was happy to relax on the steps (under the water!) here, but some people went for a bit of a swim but the pool was packed at this time so it would be quite hard to swim properly. There were also quite a few people playing chess or with waterproof playing cards. This pool was quite deep, and at 150cm tall, I could barely stand up on tip toes. There is another outside pool that looked like it would be better suited for swimming (I believe it is compulsory to wear a hat in this one) and a 'fun' pool with Jacuzzi and whirlpool. The Jacuzzi is situated within a horseshoe shape and when it stops the whirlpool starts. The current carries you round the horseshoe (the outside rim of the Jacuzzi) and as momentum builds up carries you on for another round, unless you swim out. The current builds up slowly and gets stronger and stronger, and at its peak I struggled to swim out against the current, and it took a few attempts (a stronger person would have managed it easier) but the water is not deep nor particularly rough and at no time did I feel unsafe. There were a few big lads dive bombing people at one time but they soon got bored. The outside rim of the horseshoe also has a stronger current than the inside rim, but it was a lot of fun and I didn't have as many bruises as I expected. I am guessing it lasts for about 10-15 minutes but I am not sure how often it happens.
Back inside we tried out numerous baths ranging from 38C down to a (relatively freezing) 20C. There are also steam rooms and dry saunas. You can get various hydro therapy treatments, mud wraps and massages. They also provide other medicinal treatments. Bearing in mind how confusing it was to get into the pools themselves, I am glad I didn't attempt to have any of these. A few pools I noticed had equipment to lower disabled visitors into the water. There are also tubs of ice if you feel so inclined; some people were rubbing it over themselves. There are plenty of clocks around but hard to read outside through the steam.
The toilets aren't great, but like most public swimming bath toilets always have a lot of water on the floor. I had flip flops, and in the loos and outside area they were welcome but became a nuisance as we dipped in and out of different indoor pools and I had to keep going back for them.
The showers are in the indoor baths area and although they are individual cubicles they are in a communal mixed sex area. When you get back to the changing rooms you find your cabin attendant and point out your cabin. Hand him your wrist band and he'll check it against the number he wrote just inside the door to check it is yours. It is perfectly safe to leave your money and things here. Once you get changed, return you towel if you hired one (they take your plastic card as a deposit). In our large changing area there were two free hairdryers, this is a nice touch but were about as effective at drying your hair as an egg whisk. I wouldn't have bothered but it was freezing outside. I didn't see any sockets you could use with your own dryer, I assume this wasn't the done thing as most people were locals and were happy to wait ages why you got arm ache trying to dry a strand of hair.
When you leave you put your cards through a machine and it gives you a small refund depending on how long you have been in the baths. If you are there more than three or four hours you don't get anything returned. Make sure you put your cards trough as an attendant took mine and it was only because a friend asked if I'd got any money back that I realised. Fortunately the attendant still had my money such as it was.
If you are visiting Budapest I think a visit to one of the thermal baths is a must. Szechenyi is in a lovely building and I think it is popular for a reason. Although it is initially confusing, once you are in it is fine. I went on a Saturday afternoon and it was very busy. It may be better to try a mid week visit if you are able. Although I would suggest going at anytime of year, I think the outside experience in winter with all the steam (which obviously doesn't work in the heat of summer) is worth braving the cold dash to the water for. I found that the baths area is clean even though there were many people about (although the Ladies toilets weren't that nice). If I went back to Budapest I would certainly visit again.