I had the pleasure of visiting Budapest, Hungary at the end of December. Many people don’t know that it’s actually one city, made up of Buda and Pest, which are divided by the Danube River. It’s a beautiful place, with lots of history and charm. December is a particularly lovely time of year to visit Budapest because of the Christmas markets.
I don’t want to spend too much time delving into all the sights that I saw and all the mulled wine that I drank however. I’d like to focus on the geothermal baths in this post instead.
I must admit that I had received mixed reviews on the baths when asking people for Budapest suggestions, so I did not go into it with high expectations. Regardless, I felt it was an experience that I needed to encounter.
There are several bathhouses in Budapest, but my friend and I decided on the Szechenyi Thermal Baths based purely on TripAdvisor rankings. I had done a bit of research in advance, but there were several price options and it was all a bit daunting, as you can see here (note the prices listed here are actually Hungarian Forint, even though it’s indicated that they are in US Dollars and are using the Great British Pound sign).
We arrived at the ticket window, and there were only a few people ahead of us in line. A young girl was working behind the counter. When it was my turn to buy my ticket, I asked her if she could walk me through the options/prices. She looked up at me, pressed a button on the cash register, pointed to the price and then promptly went back to looking at her mobile. I asked a few more questions, to which she did not even acknowledge me. After I realized that was all the help I was going to get, I waved my credit card around until she looked up from her phone and took it from me. The young girl went ahead and charged me for two, without asking. She handed us our bracelets and then went straight back to Facebooking. We had no idea what to do next or where to go. When we asked, the girl just pointed to a sign (that was in Hungarian). I said, ‘Thank you! You’ve been incredibly helpful!” and walked away.
We eventually navigated our way downstairs. The hallways were cold and sterile. I haven’t actually even been to mental institute to draw a comparison, but they reminded me of Girl Interrupted.
The next order of business was hiring towels. We walked down the echoing corridor until we stumbled upon the towel rental counter. It was 1,400 Hungarian Fortin for two towels, with an 8,900 deposit. It had to be paid in cash. The deposit would be refunded after we stood in line for 30 minutes and returned the towels though, so that was good news.
After the entrance fees and the towel rentals were sorted, we changed into our swimsuits and walked outside to the pool. We really wished we had flip-flops. Imagine showering in your dormitory bathroom at university, without shower shoes. Urgh.
It was absolutely freezing outside. We could not get in the steamy pool fast enough. However, the first pool we selected wasn’t actually that warm. We then dipped into the second pool, which was a bit higher of a temperature. As long as you kept your whole body underwater, to avoid the wind, it was warm enough. A far cry from hot though.
After what seemed like an hour, but was probably only five minutes, I was bored and beginning to prune. I noticed a group of old men playing chess and drinking beer. Had I known we could drink in there, it might have been a game changer. Instead, I decided to people watch, to pass the time. It was mostly old, fat people floating around. Apparently the geothermal springs have healing properties. I can neither confirm nor deny this.
After my boredom got the best of me, I convinced my friend to make a dash for the building across the way, to see if anything more interesting was going on in there. Inside, we found many more pools that were accompanied by a gag-worthy, sulfuricy piss smell. In Goldilocks fashion, we dipped our toes into each pool. “This one’s too cold. This one is too stinky." Etc, etc.
After failing to find any pools that were actually hot, we ended up speaking with a local and asking where the sizzling hot pools were. He grabbed us each, quite harshly, by the elbows and led us to a room with a sign that read “Gőzkamra” above the door (which literally translates into steam chamber). He then opened the door and shoved us in. It was at least one million degrees in there and I couldn’t breathe. I immediately turned around and came back out. He said, “What too hot? I thought you wanted hot?”
That was about as much as we could take. We hustled back to the locker room, returned our towels, got our deposit back, tried not to touch anything as we got changed and got the heck out of dodge.
I wouldn't recommend not visiting the baths if you visit Budapest, but consider yourself warned.