Thank goodness the Turks invaded Hungary in the 15th century! Without their legacy, Budapest would be void of some its most precious gems--the Turkish Baths. Thermal springs abound along the Danube, primarily along the Buda side, and the Turks made the most of these by building incredibly exotic baths to make the most of the springs. To venture into these dark, damp rooms of pools and steam reminds me of sixth-grade social-studies class and transports me back to pictures of the Romans sitting around their public baths socializing. This ritual is still alive in modern-day Budapest. Although open all day long, the baths tend to start filling in the late afternoon as workers stop by for a couple hours of relaxation and gossip with their neighbors. Pods of acquaintances sit around in the various pools and debate the same issues which have been talked about for years--politics, religion, and taxes. To visit Budapest and not experience a few hours of this centuries-old ritual would be a shame.
My favorite baths in Budapest are the Gellert, the Rudas, and the Kiraly. Of these, the Rudas and the Racs are the most authentic, but the Gellert (XI. Kellenhegyi u. 4) is definitely the most glamorous and has the most tourists and foreigners. It was built as part of the old-world Gellert Hotel on the banks of the Danube in a glorious Art Nouveau style. The blue-tiled pools have fountains of lions spurting water out of their mouths, and mosaics abound. There are separate men's and women's thermal baths that also include steam rooms and saunas--and then there is a communal indoor pool with Juliet balconies. If you're staying in the hotel, there is a private elevator from which you can enter the baths in a soft robe provided by the Gellert. In warmer months, the hotel has an amazing complex of outdoor pools--unusual for being in the middle of the city--which even has areas for nude bathing.
The Kiraly (King) Baths (II. Fo utca 84) is across the river from Parliament. It was built in the 16th century by the Turkish pasha of Buda and has a stone cupola that rises above the octagonal pool.
Whereas the Gellert is the most pretentious (and expensive) of the baths, my favorite for being authentic and original is the Rudas Baths (I. Donrentei ter 9). Unfortunately, these are only open to men. The inside of these baths is quite dramatic, with a high domed roof with tiny colored holes pinpoked in it. These pinholes allow splinters of colored light into the dark steamy octagon pool, which is surrounded by classically proportioned arches and columns of stone. The waters here have been used for over 1,000 years. A couple of hours here is the equivalent of only a couple dollars--to see the architecture is worth the price of admission alone.
With all baths, when you enter you will buy a ticket for the portazs (porter)--a woman behind a glass window wearing a white smock. There will be a menu of services available (pedicures, manicures, Swedish massage, water massage, etc.). Let her know if you just want general admission or if you would like to add any services. You pay her in advance and then she will give you tickets for services bought. If the baths are full (sometimes in the late afternoons or weekends), you will need to wait in the waiting area for the number on your ticket to appear (just like the license bureau!); otherwise, proceed into the appropriate locker room (ferfi = men; noi = women). Inside, you will meet another attendant who will take your ticket(s), hand you a postage stamp of a loincloth that leaves all discretion behind, and point you in the direction of a changing closet. Each changing room has a lock on it where you put your clothes-you will keep one key and then yet a third attendant will also lock the room. He will then chalk the time you came in, and from that point you have 2 hours to relish in the baths. When you return, this attendant will follow you back to your locker and you will both unlock it. At this point, you can dress or stay and relax for a while. When leaving, it is customary to leave a small tip ($1) to the locker-room attendants. The first one you meet by the door will take your wet towels (in Hungary, they are more like toga sheets). I write this all only because it can be very intimidating the first time if you don't know what to do!
I highly recommend experiencing the baths. The Gellert is more expensive than the others, but by western standards they are all very inexpensive. The Gellert is $5 to $10 depending on services chosen, whereas the Kiraly and the Rudas are only a couple dollars for admission. Can't beat that!