Budapest Bath Culture
I stepped out into a sunny day with a small towel wrapped around my swimsuit. With the temperature hovering just above freezing, I felt a cold bite as my bare feet tapped the frosty pavement. Thirty quick steps later, a prickly sensation was followed by warm relief.
I soaked in the misty pool of Gellért's thermal baths, a famous spa and hotel perched on the east bank of the Danube, in the centre of Budapest. Hungary’s capital and was named after the three merged cities of Buda, Obuda, and Pest. It is believed that ‘Buda’ comes from the Slavic (and also Slovenian) word voda, meaning water. The city is home to over 100 natural geothermal springs, which feed more than 160 bathhouses across the country. Blissfully submerged, the reason Budapest was dubbed the City of Baths in 1934 seemed undeniably clear to me.
We visited two popular bath houses to get a taste of the local bathing culture, starting with Gellért. By the time we strolled across the Liberty bridge, paid admission, and navigated the maze of locker rooms and dressing cabins, it was 9 o’clock. The pool was still relatively empty as we arrived, but it wasn’t long before we were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder around the pool’s periphery.
BUDAPEST’S Bathing History
As popular with tourists as these bathhouses now are, bath culture is deeply rooted in the region’s history. During the 1st to 4th century, present-day Hungary was part of the Roman province of Pannonia and a city called Aquincum stood where Budapest now sprawls. Its name was likely derived from the presence of water, both in the form of the Danube and surrounding geothermal springs. Bathing was a central part of Roman culture, for cleansing the body and soul as much as social interaction. But the Romans did not manage to embed ritual bathing in Hungarian culture. By the Hungarian middle ages, thermal springs were primarily used for healing purposes. While records attest that Saint Elizabeth healed lepers in Hungarian spring waters, there is no evidence for the use of leisure bathhouses.
Fast forward to the Ottoman rule of Hungary (1541-1699), where physical emblems of Turkish culture followed a major power shift. Mosques, bridges, and baths were swiftly erected. The Turks also valued bathing as both a cleansing ritual and social gathering. Though most Turk-built structures were later destroyed in the Hapsburg reclamation, vestiges such as the Rudas bath house (built in 1550) still remain in use today, a testament to the Ottoman influence over Hungary. While the world’s first great bath was designed by the Indus civilization in the 3rd millennium BCE and the Romans kept the tradition alive, it is the Turks who should be credited for establishing bath culture in Hungary.
GELLÉRT & A GRAND MOSAIC
After a trip to the sauna and a dip in the cold pool, we explored the spa’s indoor amenities. Built in 1918, Gellért is one of Hungary’s most photographed baths and we quickly discovered why—its stunning facilities were constructed in an Art Nouveau fashion. Light filtered in through stained-glass windows and skylights while tall columns lined the rectangular lap pool. Mosaic tiles of sea blue, sage green, and earthy ochre accented the turquoise pool while a porcelain fountain remained the focal point of many selfies. We stayed here for a while, quietly listening to the splashes of revolving bathers and the echoes of overlapping tongues.
Delving further into the maze, we found two more pools with beautiful mosaic walls. Beyond was a tiled shower for the adjacent saunas and cold pools. Traces of calcified minerals covered the fountains that spewed luxuriously hot water into each pool, evidence that these mineral waters contain calcium, magnesium, sodium, hydrogen-carbon, and sulfate. The water also comes with a distinct smell. Though people have believed in the healing powers of these thermal springs for millennia, scientific studies were not conducted until the latter part of the 18th century. Such studies showed that soaking in warm, mineral-enriched waters causes the body’s hydrostatic pressure to rise, boosting circulation and oxygen flow, benefitting the heart, vital organs, skin, and tissues.
I drifted through an hour here with relative ease. Though my body was relaxed, my mind still meandered at its usual pace. I tried to wrap my head around the tradition of ritual bathing but quickly drifted to people-watching. I found myself trying to distinguish tourists from local bathers or determine where visitors were from. I also noticed the array of shapes and bodies around me; never before had I seen such a poignant visual representation of human diversity. It was lovely to see a rich mosaic of people brought together by a common curiosity. But then, a woman and her amour stopped just shy of dipping their toes in the pool, posed for a selfie, and left. I had pictured these bathhouses as a place of social significance—but everyone seemed to be making a point to avoid and ignore each other. The more I observed, the more an invisible force seemed to confine people to their small groups. Has the bathhouse morphed from a venue of communal gathering into just another bucket list place to see and be seen?
In my efforts not to ‘disturb’ people, hadn’t I also disengaged? Hadn’t I retreated into my own thoughts to watch and perceive silently? I took a course that merged critical thinking and art history with the social construct of ‘Cities’ while studying abroad in Paris (it sounds more pretentious than it was) and though I thought the course material dissolved after the final, something in the mineral waters recalled our study of the gaze. In Lacanian terms, the gaze is the state of self-awareness (and accompanying anxiety) that one experiences when they can be seen or looked at, and the loss of autonomy one experiences by becoming a visible object. It poses that outward observation cannot be done without introspection: “a conscious look that is directed outwards transforms into a self-consciousness that returns to its agent,” said Krips, and perhaps this explains my introspective mood that day. Focault further develops that the gaze inherently embodies a power dynamic and I wondered whether he would have considered bathhouses an exception. After all, I was just as vulnerable to being seen as anyone in my line of sight. We we not all equally bare? According to American scholars Sturken and Cartwright, “to practice the gaze is to enter a personal relationship with the person being looked at” — was this mosaic of strangers engaging in a silent and visual dialogue? Or was a I searching for meaning where there was none?
I emerged from the experience with mixed feelings. On the one hand, my body felt relaxed and temporarily relieved of the cold. On the other hand, I felt fragmented. I had genuinely entered states of relaxation and meditation, but I had also wasted much time coaxing myself away from distraction and overthought, and was left wondering whether those hours could have been better spent meandering Budapest’s streets. I wasn’t convinced that I needed to go through the whole ritual again but after a couple January days of urban exploring, we decided to give Budapest’s most famous bathhouse a try.
SzÉchenyi & THE ART OF ASYMMETRY
A familiar cold dash and warm plunge led us to something out of a Wes Anderson movie: several swim-capped bathers clustered in swirling turquoise waters with a melancholy yellow building for a backdrop. If Széchenyi Gyogyfürdo’s is not the grandest Budapest bathhouse, it has certainly become the most popular.
First built in 1881, the original Artesian baths were originally a marble structure on the small Nador Island inside the City Park lake. It had taken Hungarian geothermal engineer Vilmos Zsigmondy ten years to locate the thermal waters (the makings of a Wes Anderson plot itself) as none had yet been located on that side of the Danube. Once tapped, they spouted a tremendous 525 litres of water per minute. Today, the original location is buried under Heroes’ Square. The yellow Neo-Renaissance bathhouse of today first opened its doors in 1913. It endured great change and withstood turbulent times, from early expansions and the addition of an outdoor pool in 1927 to re-construction after the destructive Siege of Budapest during WWII.
This time, we arrived at the pool by 7:30 am. Aside from Mr. Swim Cap and a few tourists wading with their phones held precariously over their heads, the pool was virtually empty. The rising mist added an ethereal texture while the sunlight emphasized Széchenyi’s sunny hues. We slowly migrated from one pool to the other, then indoors through a series of hot tubs, saunas, and steam rooms. Each tiled chamber seemed to lead to another, the maze unending.
Aside from colour, Széchenyi’s composition also reminded me of Anderson’s body of work. The building was constructed in perfect symmetry for aesthetic and utilitarian purposes: so that male and female clientele could be served in equal but separate hemispheres. In fact, the bathhouse did not become a fully co-ed facility until 1981 (similarly, Gellért functioned in the traditional way until 2013 while Rudas still observes single-sex days). It makes sense, given that symmetry is a cornerstone of classical architecture; think of the shapes of columns, archways, and domes. It has also survived the test of time, proven by most famous buildings, bridges, and monuments. Balance is aesthetically pleasing and translates well in visual forms like film, a modern apparatus of the gaze as explored by film theory.
Stretching in the pool and engaged by my surroundings, I introspected on my own asymmetry. For one, my right shoulder is more flexible than my left thanks to a dislocation. One eye, one hand, and one foot is slightly larger than the other. Aside from physical asymmetry, I also find that different sides of my personality can dominate different places and situations. The ancient Greeks called the practice of bathing in hot springs "balneotherapy" or "taking the waters"; perhaps the word should also account for the new ideas that sink in during the process. Eventually, I arrived at the thought that if we can’t avoid gazing, then we must embrace asymmetry. Instead of striving for perfection, we should venture towards finding our own definition of balance.
While we shared Széchenyi with a myriad of other tourists, I was also happy to see local Hungarians clustered in daily routine. One group conversed charismatically while another huddled together over a floating chessboard. Rituals and a sense of community did surround Budapest’s bath culture, and we were fortunate to get a glimpse. I was not just an outsider looking in — I took part in that wordless dialogue with a subtle nod, an intercepted smile, and the simple act of holding the door open. I emerge from the bathhouse warm and optimistic that we are more deeply connected than we sometimes think.
BUDAPEST BATHHOUSE TIPS
If it’s tranquility you seek, go early in the morning (6-9am) and take advantage of discounted early bird rates where available. Weekdays are less busy and often cheaper. Other amenities such as massages and pedicures are also available at some bathhouses.
While websites provide endless options for ticket packages (including from fast track entry, massages, private cabins), paying for the basic day ticket and locker rental at the door worked for both of our January bathhouse visits. We paid 5800 HUF ($27.50 CAD) for Széchenyi and 6200 HUF ($29 CAD) at Géllert — check official websites for accurate rates & hours.
You will need a swimsuit, towel, slippers and, if you wish to enter lap pools, a swim cap. These items are available for rent alongside lockers in a shared change room with changing stalls (included with most base admission tickets) or cabins (a private dressing room upgrade). With the exception of Rudas’ male-only or ladies-only days, nudity is no longer permitted and a swimsuit is a must.
If you feel a little lost in the maze of lockers, most of which have minimal signage, consider it part of the experience. We found that staff were friendly and quick to help.
In the summer, Széchenyi throws a Saturday night pool party series fully equipped with floating bars and DJs (Lukacs is another option).
There are too many baths to see all of them in one trip (ie. we didn’t make it to Rudas’ outdoor rooftop hot tub) so choose wisely, according to your preferences. If you’ve got a thing for architecture or enjoy digging into history, take a few minutes to some online research. We took some advice from The Round The World Guys & HeadOut Blog.