Baths, spas, and fitness

 
 
 

[we are relatively inexpert about the range of baths in Budapest, but that doesn’t stop me from being opinionated; see below, Eliane Pickermann’s picks on baths among other things]


The plus side of visiting Budapest’s thermal baths are many: they are relaxing, unique to the city, fun, varied, and possibly good for you.  The down sides are pretty daunting for the timid: they are often difficult to figure out unless you speak Hungarian, and the range of different and conflicting practices and rules from one set of baths to another seem to be devised to thwart even those newcomers who speak the language fluently.  We’ve been to two – Gellert and Rudas, both extremely easy to reach from the apartment – and a description of how they differ may both make it easier for you and also provide an example of what to look out for.  Don’t rely on my description, though: things like the hours they are open, whether they are single sex or coed and when, all change without notice and quixotically.  Some useful information is available at:


http://www.spasbudapest.com/tartalom.php


No guidebook is recent enough to be a reliable source of detailed information.  In fact, when we went to the Rudas baths the prominent sign on the front door that had their hours of operation etched in brass stated quite clearly that the thermal baths were closed on weekends.  It was a Sunday afternoon and they were wide open.


The easiest way to get to both the Rudas and the Gellert is by bus from Ferenciek tere via the #7 or #73 bus, both of which head over the Danube via the Elizabeth Bridge (that’s the new one) and stop directly in front of the Rudas (first stop over the bridge) and the Gellert (second stop).  The fastest rout to the very large baths (the Szechenyi Baths) in the public park (the Varosliget) is via the Yellow Metro to the Szechenyi Baths stop (one stop after Hosok tere).


At Rudas, the entry to the baths is on the Danube side of the dilapidated old building.  At the Gellert, the entry is on the right side of the large hotel building (as you face the hotel and away from the river) at street level (the hotel entry is upstairs)…you walk around the hotel as though you were going to head up the hill and follow the people with bags and backpacks heading into what looks like the staff entrance to the hotel.  There are actually relatively well-marked signs in several languages.


Returning from Rudas it’s important to know that the buses stop on the opposite side of the building heading uphill to the approach to the bridge (as you walk out, take a left and then another left around the building and through the wooded area up to a bus stop on the street).


The Gellert is the ritzy bourgeois bath of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  It is luxurious in an only-slightly-faded kind of way, and still is the most expensive (3000 HUF for a full day with changing room [Kabin]; 2500 with a locker [one changing room can easily accommodate 2 people]; there is a 600 HUF rebate if you leave after less than an hour and a 300 HUF rebate after less than 2 hours).  There are extras you can buy, primarily massages and various treatments, but because we’ve never done them I have no idea how one goes about it.


You need a swimsuit and a towel; flipflops and caps are a good idea but not essential.  Everything can be purchased or rented there.  If you bring your towel or flipflops or whatever to the pools you just leave them lying around.  At the very front of both the Gellert and the Rudas, before you head in to the baths, you can rent a safety deposit locker for an additional charge to put your valuables in.  Everyone says that this is unnecessary, the changing rooms and lockers are secure.  But if it makes you feel less queasy, you can rent one of these…just remember to do it before you go in.


At the Gellert they give you a plastic card and a paper receipt; hang on to both.  At the Rudas, it’s just a plastic card.  You hand the guard to an attendant at the turnstile, who inserts it (which sets a timestamp on it) letting you through, and then hands it back to you.  At the Rudas you then turn right for the thermal baths and left for the swimming pool (there is a separate fee for the pool, and you need to make it clear at entry which you want to do…they will assume you’re there for the thermal baths unless you say something.  The way it is set up makes it not especially easy to go from one to the other at Rudas, so perhaps you are best off just doing one. 


You then head down to the coed changing rooms (they have private individual changing rooms with locks; at the Rudas they seem to be included in the 2000 HUF daily price for the baths; at the Gellert they are 500 HUF extra, payable at the teller at the door or to the attendant near the rooms).  Change, lock the door (to do this at the Rudas you have to stick your plastic entry ticket into the lock mechanism in the changing room and leave it there), and take the key (Rudas) or the tag with the room number (Gellert) along with you (don’t lose it).  The rest is just a matter of following people and signs, some of which are even in languages other than Hungarian.


Shower before and after you use the baths.  Bring or buy soap and shampoo if you want it.


So, that’s the mechanics of the two places, but what are they like and why go to one rather than the other?


The Gellert is, as suggested above, fading, plush, relic of the bourgeoisie.  High ceilings, wide variety of water-related activities, tons of tourists and high rollers.  Very beautiful, sort of stately.  The thermal baths there are almost always (always?) single-sex, with a variety of largeish pools at different temperatures and a rather large central pool with assertively bubbling water coming up from underwater spouts.  There is some cruising among gay men at the men’s baths, but it’s neither the primary activity nor terribly obvious.  The single-sex thermal baths are swimsuit optional settings.  There are saunas and steam rooms and massage rooms, and all sorts of options.  There is also a huge outdoor pool and a large terraced sunning area (including a swimsuits optional one for women and children).  The pool has a wave machine that is the closest thing Hungary gets to an ocean, and it operates for ten minutes every hour, building up from very subtle little lapping waves to crushing, powerful impressive ones.  Get to the wave pool around 10-15 minutes before the hour…they peak just after the hour.


The Rudas is old, and still has the look and dark and slightly seamy feel to the Turkish caliph of Budapest who built it 700 or so years ago.  The lighting is dim to accentuate the effect of the sunlight (or moonlight) streaming through the series of small holes in the dome.  The water is more suphurous, there are fewer, smaller peripheral pools (with temperatures marked), and the place is more explicitly a cruising ground on the days that it is men-only.  But it has long hours when it is coed (all weekend, some evenings, I think) and some time that is women-only.  Coed requires swimsuits, single sex does not.  The architecture is worthwhile, though less flashy than the more modern Gellert; the coed thermal pools are definitely a plus if your group is coed and wants to hang out together.


Bathing Beyond Budapest: [coming soon - Debrecen, Miskolctapolca]



 

Those who live in Budapest take their thermal baths pretty seriously, and almost unanimously favor the Szechenyi Baths in the Varosliget (City Park).  But each of the baths has played a role in the city's culture, from the Rudas baths built by the Turks, to the Gellert's embodiment of upper middle-class life at the end of the 19th Century. Don't visit the city without saving time for at least one of these.