Officially gaining the title of the ‘city of spas’ in 1934, Budapest contains a multitude of thermal-temperature baths that boast of both relaxation and medical benefits. With a history going back to the Roman era, we investigate these oases of health and pleasure, and highlight three of the best baths in Hungary’s capital.
In the 1st century AD, during the era in which the Roman Empire was expanding exponentially, the Romans were attracted to the area now known as Budapest because of its natural thermal springs. Naming the area Aquincum, the city grew, soon becoming fortified, and quickly became the capital of the Pannonia Inferior region. With the decline of this mighty world power, new invaders took hold of this area, but it wasn’t until the Turkish occupation in the 16th century that these ancient springs were brought back to their former glory. During this time, the Pashas of the Ottoman Empire built many baths in Buda for both medicinal and bathing purposes, and the great bathing culture of the area was once again revitalised. The two cities of Buda and Pest were still disrupted by Hungary’s fluctuating relationship with its neighbours and it was only after the fall of the Austro–Hungarian Empire in the 1920s that the commercial benefits of the spas were realised. In 1934 Budapest was granted the title it had always deserved: ‘City of Spas’.
While the Aquincum Museum hosts the historical ruins of the ancient Roman baths, many of the old Turkish bathhouses act as the foundation of the contemporary spas throughout the city. Utilising their historical architecture and atmosphere, modern renovations have been added and now many of the baths exude a fusion of history and modern luxury. New baths were also constructed at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries, adding more grand buildings to the city’s landscape.
Each bathhouse in Budapest taps into different springs, giving each thermal bath different properties depending on the natural chemicals found in the water, and the bath’s temperature is maintained through a mixture of both natural underground heat and technologies such as water filtering and circulation. While each of the baths in Budapest hold their own rich history and unique experiences, these three standout bathhouses highlight the diverse cultural qualities of the City of Spas:
A city icon, Széchenyi Baths is one of the largest Bathhouses in Europe. Originally only intended to be a temporary structure when it was constructed in 1881, Szechenyi was the first thermal bath built on the Pest side of the Danube River. It underwent major expansions over the next few decades as it grew in popularity, with 1913 seeing the addition of the medicinal baths and its distinct yellow exterior, while in 1927 it gained its grand Neo-Baroque interior. Today it holds 15 indoor baths and three large outdoor pools. The outdoor pools are famous social areas where guests can play chess, be whisked away by playful water streams and can even enjoy music as summer sees Szechenyi stay open late as a music venue. Széchenyi Baths is located in the stunning City Park.
In contrast to Szechenyi, Király Baths is one of the smallest bathhouses in the city, and is unique in its authentic old Turkish aesthetics. A traditional thermal bath dating back to the 16th century, cobblestone brickwork meets octagonal dome roofs in its interior as the outside exudes a worn and traditional appearance. Inside the pools follow the same octagonal shape of the exterior, while holes in the ceiling allow beams of light to trickle down upon the relaxing occupants. Not actually built over a spring, Király is the only thermal bath that sits within the walls of the old Turkish castle and it borrows its water from the northern Lukács baths. The bathhouse was originally built to ensure that baths could still be enjoyed even when under siege. Severely damaged during WWII, the spa was rebuilt in the 1950s, bringing it back to its former glory, while also allowing for new additions of modern luxury.
If Széchenyi is the largest and Király is the most authentic, Gellért Baths can be argued as the most beautiful bathhouse in Budapest. Opened in 1918, this spa sits within Gellért Hotel, and its architecture and aesthetics are stunning examples of the Art Nouveau style. Embellished columns, beautiful mosaics and a rich variety of sculptures can be viewed while guests experience some of the hottest natural water in the city. Thought to be exemplary in its restorative qualities, historical records show evidence that Gellért’s spring has been used for centuries. Placed at the bottom of Gellert Hill, Gellért Baths sits right next to Budapest’s Liberty Bridge.