Budapest, Hungary: A Review of the Most Popular Thermal Baths

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Although the Budapest nightlife with its dance parties pulsing until sunrise are tempting, I did not want to set myself up to feel exhausted and sick during my visit to Central Europe and the Balkans. On my second evening in the city, I definitely sampled the traditional fruit brandy called Palinka, but otherwise I avoided the bars and pubs packed to the ceiling with shouting, smoking, drunken herds of Aussies, Brits, and Yanks.

I spent my days floating in the healing thermal waters of three different baths, and meditating in the steam rooms and saunas. Each bath has a unique atmosphere, and all offer the same access to the naturally heated, mineral rich water. Although evidence does not exist to support the healing properties of regularly soaking in the water, the Hungarian national health insurance plan subsidizes visits to the baths. Evidence does not exist to undermine its healing qualities either. I personally always feel healthier after a visit to a natural hot spring, whether in the Nor Cal mountains, or urban Budapest.

To optimize the health benefits of the thermal baths, I maintained high levels of hydration and body support using Young Living Essential Oils. Each morning as I awoke, I added two drops of the Thieves blend into 12 oz of water. Thieves is named after a group of robbers in France who stole resources from victims of the Black Death, while protecting their health using a blend of clove and rosemary. Thieves Essential Oil is a food-grade blend that includes cloves, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus, and rosemary. It supports a strong immune system, essential for anyone like myself who has traveled thousands of miles in a public transportation petri dish, to wander the unfamiliar streets of a new city, exposed to millions of exotic germs and pathogens. I finished each day with more water, and two drops of another Young Living oil called DiGize. Digize is a blend of tarragon, ginger, peppermint, juniper, fennel, anise, and patchouli. It aids in digestive support, and helps the liver and kidneys move any lingering toxins through the system. During my days at the baths, I brought my handy Lemon Vitality Essential Oil and added it to my constant supply of water that I drank while in the steam room, sauna, and baths. Lemon Vitality Essential Oil is cold pressed and distilled from the rind of the lemon fruit, and aids in the production of digestive juices in the body. During my four days at the baths, these three oils supported my mental and physical focus toward holistic health.

Szcecheny Baths

Szecheny Baths are the largest and most popular thermal baths in Budapest. I visited this one first. I arrived near noon and stayed until 4pm on a Wednesday. The building is a fairly dizzying maze of corridors, lockers, cabins, and foreigners running around confused, frantically searching for their way through the labyrinth to find the pools. The narrow interior hallways betray the ornate and massive exterior of the building, and the entire process is even more convoluted for the first timer as we were herded through turnstiles using electronic watches purchased at the door.

Szechenyi Spa
The outdoor public pool at Szcheny Baths.

After eventually locating my changing cabin and resting in the silence of my own space for a quick breath, I emerged into the sunshine ready to bask in the healing water. Unable to find an open chair, I settled into a somewhat private corner on the sundeck with my water bottle and sarong. Upon dipping my feet into the water, I was first surprised at how cool it was. After spending so many years visiting the hot springs in Nor Cal where the water is about 114 degrees, I had been expecting similar heat. However, the water in Szechenyi is only about 94 degrees. I should have guessed it would be cooler, because so many people were splashing and playing. It is difficult to do anything other than breathe and relax in 114 degree water.

After my psychological adjustment to the cooler water, I began to feel its properties. Its high mineral content absorbed into my skin, and I definitely felt some type of pull from my body. Healing properties aside, the water felt cooling as the day was very warm and sunny. Szechenyi also has a sauna, but it was not working on the day that I attended. Drinking fountains surrounded the pools, and I filled my water bottle many times. In general, I had a very good experience. My one complaint is that many people were smoking, and the pool did not offer a smoking section separate from the general population. No matter where I moved, I was breathing someone’s second hand smoke.

Gellert Baths and Spa

Gellert Spa and Hotel opened in the early 20th century, and its water is from the same spring as what feeds the pools and mud bath at the Cave of St. Ivan. This spring water has been used since at least the 12th century. I visited this bath on my final full day in Budapest, and was familiar with the payment and turnstile process using the electronic wrist band. This building interior is another maze of lockers, narrow hallways, confused tourists, and piles of towels.

The unheated outdoor pool at Gellert Baths and Spa.

Although the bath interior was by far the most beautiful, featuring stained glass artwork, deep green and blue mosaic tile work, and ornate Art Nouveau fountains, my experience was the least pleasant of all the baths. The spaces were crowded beyond capacity, and it was difficult to enjoy the pools. The spa has five pools each ranging in temperature between 89 and 104 degrees, but entering and leaving each pool was a practice in patience. Also, the sauna and the steam room were not at an adequate temperature. Every ten seconds, someone would enter or leave, and the open door sucked heat out of the room. Finally, nearly everyone was an English speaking tourist, and even though signs were posted that asked people to respect silence while in the healing spaces, nobody seemed to notice or care about the request. For me, it was very difficult to focus on my own internal processes while confronted with deep feelings of annoyance and resentment at not only the noise, but also the content of the conversation, which far too often included men discussing various women in their bathing suits. It was one of those experiences when I pretended not to understand or speak English.

It was evident that many of the people at Gellert were novice beginners at a thermal bath or hot springs. Much common etiquette was violated. For example: leaving the sauna door open after entering or exiting; neglecting to hose off the steam room seat; lingering on the steps of the pools or the cold plunge instead of committing to a decision; inappropriate physical contact in the pools; speaking too loudly; taking photos of the pools; and not bringing a towel to sit on in the sauna. I was a bit disappointed in the experience, although I managed to stay for about four hours. In general, it was far too crowded with people who need to take a Thermal Bath 101 course before being allowed to take up space in such a beautiful environment.

Rudas Thermal Bath

This bath was by far my favorite. I went two days in a row, and did not encounter any of the issues of over-crowding that I felt at Gellert or Szicheny. Also, it seemed that people at Rudas Thermal Bath are serious about using the water and the sauna for their intended purposes.

Rudas Bath
The exterior of Rudas. Pools are on the ground floor, a healthy restaurant serving small bites and smoothies is on the second floor, and an outdoor bath and patio is on the roof.

For a very affordable price, guests can select the “Wellness” option, which includes a locker rental, access to the sauna cave, the rooftop pool, and the four thermal baths. The sauna cave consists of an aromatherapy sauna, a Finnish sauna, and a steam room. Crushed ice falls from the ceiling into a large cauldron in a silent and dark common area where relaxing instrumental music played. The thermal bath circuit includes an 89 degree pool, a 96 degree pool, a 109 degree pool, and then finally a 36 degree pool for a cold plunge. To complete a circuit bath circuit, a guest is supposed to meditate in one of the 89 or 96 degree pools, then heat up the body in the hottest pool, and complete the cycle in the cold plunge. I completed three circuits in the thermal pools, rotating between the 96 degree pool, and then alternating between the hottest pool and the cold plunge. It reminded me of my experiences at Harbin Hot Springs, with the hottest pool fed directly from the lava-heated water under the earth, and the cold pool fed from the mountain spring. (As a side note, I am pleased to share the news that as of August, 2018, Harbin has been awarded a $469,000 Cal Fire grant to help its reforestation and rebuilding efforts after the grounds were destroyed in the 2015 Valley Fire).

Rudas was a very positive experience. The other guests were respectful, quiet, and understood the purpose and the process of using the thermal pools and the saunas. I don’t recall hearing any loud, English-speaking people during either of my days there. The interior was not anywhere as beautiful as Gellert, but I am okay with that opportunity cost. Rudas also offers a hotel, and I am considering staying there on my way through Budapest to catch my flight back to Chicago.

Public Mineral Water Fountain
The public thermal water fountain outside of Gellert.

I believe that regular visits to thermal baths, hot springs, saunas, and steam rooms help our bodies process the inundation of toxins that accumulate in our liver and kidneys. I also firmly believe in Hippocrates message of, “let food be the medicine, and medicine be the food.” What we put into our bodies can heal us, or it can make us very ill. Preventative wellness is more than a visit to the doctor to get our blood checked. It is also about maintaining a lifestyle supportive of wellness. One place to start is by learning about plant extracts and essential oils, and slowly transitioning them in a daily habit.

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