I opened the door and a hot white cloud of air struck me in the face. By reflex, I opened my mouth and gasped for air, but found no refuge in the hot fumes around me. The oxygen was slowly leaving the small room; at least that’s what it felt like. I could hear muffled voices around me as I sat down, but I all I could see was white smoke and a few bare feet as I stared only at the floor in my proximity for fear that my eyes would dry up like raisins if I looked around. How are these people able to withstand this stifling heat? After a few minutes that felt like an eternity, I opened the door and walked out, feeling the rush of room temperature air envelop my body and offer sweet relief. I walked between long pillars supporting high, bright ceilings. I stepped down and allowed my body to disappear into the warm abyss that was a Hungarian bathhouse in Budapest.
Budapest has climbed the ranks and is now one of Europe’s most popular places to visit. Why? It’s cheaper than other parts of Europe, it has an eclectic style, it’s a party haven, and its bathhouses are not to be missed.
The latter was one of the main things pulling me toward Budapest. I wanted to experience something different from my previous travel adventures. The essence of time crept up on me in Turkey and Morocco and I missed out on the traditional hammams. I certainly couldn’t miss out on the local Hungarian thermal bath experience in Budapest.
Hungarian spas were a normal part of everyday life in the old days. Doctors wrote prescriptions for thermal bathhouse visits instead of medicines, believing that the medicinal waters of the baths would cure all ailments.
Thinking back on that statement, I’m not sure how it’s possible that being ill and sitting in a pool of water with other people who are ill could actually result in a clean bill of health. Do two negatives make a positive here?
Nonetheless, the thermal baths of Hungary’s history are one of the reasons why throngs of tourists flock to Budapest, me included.
With only a few days in Budapest, I read Urban Travel Blog’s guide to Budapest’s baths to make sure I was headed to the right place. I didn’t need to look further than the Szechenyi thermal bath, the largest medicinal bath in Europe that is supplied by two natural thermal springs.
If you search for “Budapest thermal bath” in Google, the first photos you’ll find are of the Szechenyi thermal baths. In person, both the building and the baths blew my expectations out of the water (pun intended).
When I stepped into the outdoor pool area, I was surprised at the sheer number of people bathing and basking in the hot, Budapest sun that Sunday. The bright yellow building was starkly contrasted with the aqua-blue pool water. Old men played chess on boards in the water. Groups of ladies chatted and laughed under fountains. It felt kind of like I was in a time warp; I loved how everyone was preserving the Hungarian tradition.
Unfortunately, iPhones and water don’t really mix, so I snapped a few photos of the outdoor baths of Szechenyi before I ventured into the waters and really explored the inner workings of the bathhouse.
There were two outdoor pools, but my friend motioned for me to check out the pool on the far side of the entrance we walked through because it was not the pool used in Saturday’s crazy spa party. For those who aren’t familiar, Budapest is known for its spa parties. What’s better than hanging out in a spa during the day? How about a nighttime pool party akin to the day parties in Las Vegas? Not for me. I heard that: a) the parties can get a bit out of hand (I don’t think I need to elaborate here) and b) girls should hold tightly onto their swimsuits. That was enough for me to decide that the experience wasn’t going to be enjoyable for me.
In any case, we gathered that the pool used for the spa party couldn’t possibly be squeaky clean just hours after the party ended, and decided the pool that wasn’t used for the spa party would be a better choice. Although the pool looked like a regular outdoor swimming pool, the water was much warmer.
After doggy-paddling around and people watching outside, I decided to see what the inside of the bathhouse had to offer. I’d read that some baths can contain extremely hot water; and I wanted to find the hottest pool they had.
The inside of the bathhouse was more extravagant looking than I expected, brightly lit by opaque skylights it the high ceilings and adorned with intricately designed pillars. I dipped in and out of almost every pool I discovered. The hottest pool I found was about 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), which is where I remained until I was relaxed enough to take on the city of Budapest once again.
My hygienic conscience couldn’t help but feel a hint of the heebie-jeebies in that warm water. The temperature of some pools was kind of grossly warm; like that warmth you feel when a person who swam by you just peed in the swimming pool. The water also smelled kind of strange; not exactly medicinal. I’m not sure if it was the smell of the water or just because of the steam and number of people in the bathhouse, but I just tried to shake off my reservations. I remember feeling a similar shiver run down my spine when I saw a bandage floating in the thermal pools in Pamukkale, Turkey. But hey, you can’t argue with a beautiful, natural thermal spring!
More than the actual bathing experience, the Szechenyi baths were a beautiful sight and a Hungarian icon that I just had to see for myself. After all, being able to step into a historical bathhouse and partake in the local bathing customs is not something you do every day!