on February 12, 2010
Budapest has a number of thermal steam baths (gyogyfurdo) and this has been a tradition since Roman times. It is an idea to give some thought as to which you bath you may wish to visit and consult your guide book or hotel reception for the latest suggestions. Some baths are all same sex or have separate men's and women's days which may not suit mixed groups; some same sex baths don't allow bathing costumes and some have a predominantly homosexual clientele. It is important to find one that you are comfortable with. As part of a mixed sex group we chose the Szechenyi baths which are located opposite Budapest Zoo in Varosliget (City Park), and is a traditional 19th Century style building. It is apparently the largest of the thermal baths and has the deepest and warmest wells. There is a small café there and various entrances. If going in winter I would advise going in the back (away from the Zoo side) as there the steam rooms and thermal pools are next to the changing rooms on this side, otherwise you would have to cross the outside pool to get from one to the other, and whilst this is one thing when you are dry, it is not so pleasant when you are wet and its cold. There are various prices and various treatments at this spa and it all seems a bit confusing at first. Signs are in English but the tellers at the cash windows where you buy your tickets don't speak English, if you have any queries. We initially just wanted regular tickets in regular single sex changing rooms, which were about HUF2,000 (£5.50), but were charged HUF2,600 (£7) which meant we got private 'cabins' or cubicles each, and it was too confusing to query. We then had to queue for about twenty minutes to go through to the changing rooms, which was annoying as our friends who had arrived ten minutes ahead of us went straight through. However, it was Saturday afternoon and no doubt a peak time. You can hire towels for HUF700 (£2) which are really large cotton sheets, and the desk is hidden away. The changing rooms were like a rabbit warren and we then had to find an attendant who wanted us to share a cabin. We had to show him our receipts to prove we had paid for individual cubicles (even though we weren't that bothered), it seemed we had been given the wrong colour cards. As it turned out my friend's husband ended up in the communal changing rooms after all. Other people we know who went also found it confusing, so I think that is something you just have to accept and get on with. Each cabin is a numbered wooden cubicle with a lockable door. Inside is a small bench and some coat hooks, once you are changed you summon the attendant and he writes a number in chalk on a small blackboard just inside your cabin. He gives you a wrist band that relates to this number, so you can prove that the cabin is yours. He locks and unlocks the door for you and you just have to remember your cabin number (which is different number than your wrist band). All signs are in Hungarian so although we found the indoor pools, next to our changing rooms, we couldn't locate the toilets or outdoor pool where we had arranged to meet the rest of our friends. When we entered the indoor pool areas there were a few shelves to leave your stuff such as towels and soaps. We actually located some of our friends almost immediately and we followed them through a maze of different pools to the outside one. I have to say I never thought I'd be persuaded to go outside in sub zero December temperatures in nothing but a bathing suit but I was. We first entered the pool right by the doors so there was a quick dash across the stone floor and down the wide steps into the water. The outdoor pools vary in temperature but were reportedly about 36C that day. The amount of steam rising was amazing, at times, people six feet away from me disappeared into the mist which was quite eerie. I was happy to relax by the steps here, but some people went for a bit of a swim but the pool was packed at this time so it would be quite hard to swim properly. There were also quite a few people playing chess or with waterproof playing cards. This pool was quite deep, and at 150cm tall, I could barely stand up on tip toes. There is another outside pool that looked like it would be better suited for swimming (I believe it is compulsory to wear a hat in this one) and a 'fun' pool with Jacuzzi and whirlpool. The Jacuzzi is situated within a horseshoe shape and when it stops the whirlpool starts. The current carries you round the horseshoe (the outside rim of the Jacuzzi) and as momentum builds up carries you on for another round, unless you swim out. The current builds up slowly and gets stronger and stronger, and at its peak I struggled to swim out against the current, and it took a few attempts but the water is not deep nor particularly rough and at no time did I feel unsafe. The outside rim of the horseshoe also has a stronger current than the inside rim, but it was a lot of fun and I didn't have as many bruises as I expected. I am guessing it lasts for about 10 minutes but I am not sure how often it happens. Back inside we tried out numerous baths ranging from 38C down to a (relatively freezing) 20C. There are also steam rooms and dry saunas. You can get various hydro therapy treatments, mud wraps and massages. They also provide other medicinal treatments. Bearing in mind how confusing it was to get into the pools themselves, I am glad I didn't attempt to have any of these. A few pools I noticed had equipment to lower disabled visitors into the water. There are also tubs of ice if you feel so inclined; some people were rubbing it over themselves. There are plenty of clocks around but hard to read outside through the steam. The toilets aren't great, but like most public swimming bath toilets always have a lot of water on the floor. I had flip flops, and in the loos and outside area they were welcome but became a nuisance as we dipped in and out of different indoor pools and I had to keep going back for them. The showers are in the indoor baths area and although they are individual cubicles they are in a communal mixed sex area. When you get back to the changing rooms you find your cabin attendant and point out your cabin. Hand him your wrist band and he'll check it against the number he wrote just inside the door. It is perfectly safe to leave your money and things here. Once you get changed, return you towel if you hired one (they take your plastic card as a deposit). In our large changing area there were two free hairdryers, this is a nice touch but were about as effective at drying your hair as an egg whisk. I didn't see any sockets you could use with your own dryer, I assume this wasn't the done thing as most people were locals and were happy to wait ages why you got arm ache trying to dry a strand of hair. When you leave you put your cards through a machine and it gives you a small refund depending on how long you have been in the baths. If you are there more than three or four hours you don't get anything returned. Make sure you put your cards through as sometimes the attendants take them.If you are visiting Budapest I think a visit to one of the thermal baths is a must. Szechenyi is in a lovely building and it is popular for a reason. Although it is initially confusing, once you are in it is fine. I went on a Saturday afternoon and it was very busy. It may be better to try a mid week visit if you are able. Although I would suggest going at anytime of year, I think the outside experience in winter with all the steam (which obviously doesn't work in the heat of summer) is worth braving the cold dash to the water for. I found that the baths area is clean even though there were many people about. If I went back to Budapest I would certainly visit again.
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