As much a tourist destination as a way life for locals to spend their time resting and relaxing, the Széchenyi Baths have become an iconic spot in Budapest. The history of the baths – or fürdő in Hungarian – is over a century old, and has remained an important part of the city’s life ever since.
Plans for what would become the famed spa complex began as far back as the 1870s. They were a simple artesian well, which would initially be its name. It was created after Hungarian engineer Vilmos Zsigmondy drilled the initial geothermal well from nearly a kilometer deep.
It took Zsigmondy 10 years before he was finally able to find the waters. But he was well rewarded; the artesian aquifer was capable of producing 525 litres of water per minute. It is located under what is now the central statue in the middle of Heroes Square.
The first baths opened in 1881. They were far less glamorous than the modern day equivalent, as they just consisted of a stone-walled structure with small marble pools. Sitting beside the waters were piles of sand, to help bring a sense of the seaside to Budapest. Nevertheless, the artesian well was intensely popular, and by the end of the 1880s, the Budapest council decided to expand the baths.
Construction didn’t begin again until 1909. The expansion moved the original baths to a new location – where it still sits today – but comprised only of the central bathhouse and no external pools.
While it was initially due to take the existing name of ‘Artesian Baths’, during its construction it was decided they would be named after Count István Széchenyi, a Hungarian politician and writer still to this day known as the Greatest Hungarian.
On the year that it opened under its new name, Széchenyi Baths hosted 200,000 visitors. It was instantly popular, and this number continued to grow well above 800,000 bathers by the end of the 1910s. It was no surprise, then, that by the mid-20s the city decided to expand the complex once again.
The symmetrical design of the baths was to keep the pools segregated, with men on the right wing and women on the left. It wasn’t until 1981 that the baths became mixed.
With new pools added and over 800,000 people coming to bathe, it was clear there was not enough water coming from the original well. So they dug for a new well, and by 1938, Széchenyi Baths was supplied with over 3500 litres of water per minute. The new well brought seven times more water than the artesian well; there was such an abundance of water that a fountain and drinking well were built to advertise its wealth.
Naturally, over the years the fame of the Széchenyi Baths has meant that many a celebrity figure has spent their free time relaxing here. Budapest actually plays a large role in Hollywood, as it stands in as a location for many other more expensive European cities, meaning that stars are often passing through.
Most recently, the likes of Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher have relaxed in the thermal waters, while tele star Richard Ayoade even filmed a segment here for his 48 Hours In… series.
The baths have also seen everyone from Madonna and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to US President Richard Nixon.
Michael Palin spent a good deal of time in Budapest, as part of his New Europe travels. He visited Széchenyi Baths as part of this trip. “There can be few places in the world where water is as lavishly celebrated,” he said, in his book New Europe. “Even the word ‘Gyogyfürdo‘, meaning a spa or medical baths, suggests something surreal and fantastical.”
Since the baths of today have a more eclectic purpose, there are quite a number of aspects about them that bring in locals and tourists. The addition of chess tables built into the waters themselves are a popular talking point, as Hungarians meet to compete against one another.
The baths are open all year round, even in winter, when outside temperatures can reach as low as -20 degrees C. The heat of the waters from deep underground means that even in the cold winters the lowest temperature of the pools is 18 degrees C, although they are more commonly around 25 degrees C.
There’s even a Beer Spa, cozy wooden baths filled with the same thermal waters and mixed with beer to utilise the malt, and hops and yeast to benefit the skin. There is also the Palm House, a tropical oasis located in the rooftop of the baths with a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere for those wanting to get away from the crowds of the waters.
For something completely different there are the SPArties, weekly parties that are held – in the summer months – within the Széchenyi Baths’ complex, replete with smoke machines, laser shows and music to get people dancing. It might not be how the building’s designers originally planned it, but judging by the way it’s waters are packed each week, it’s clearly a popular use for the iconic spot.
Though it is located quite a walk from central Pest, and therefore downtown Budapest, accessing the Széchenyi Baths is not difficult.
The yellow metro line 1 stops directly outside, with the majority of the city’s other metro lines connecting with this central southeast/northwest route. Catching it from the banks of the Danube by Vörösmarty Square is a short ride to City Park – or Városliget – within which the baths are centrally located.
Alternatively you could simply walk to the City Park, and in the warmer months the stroll along Andrássy Avenue is quite pleasant. It takes about 30 minutes from Deák Ferenc Square, but it’s a direct path to the City Park and from there to Széchenyi Baths.
If you’re on the Buda side then there are a number of options: the red metro line 2 from Déli train station, then switch onto the yellow line from Deák Ferenc Square, or the 105 bus, which cuts across Buda and over Széchenyi Bridge to reach the City Park near Heroes Square.