BUDAPEST — All capitals of former Eastern Bloc countries have an allure that has drawn me in since my one trip behind the Iron Curtain in 1978. Yes, I can get in touch with my inner Marxist. But they all also have this enticing mix of East and West where you can find in Budapest spa culture. The modernization of late-20th century capitalism combines with the backdrop of a brutal communist regime that lasted more than 50 years. You walk out of a modern restaurant with all the trappings you’d find in Santa Monica, Calif., and down the street is the cement block of an apartment building that looks like a high-rise prison for the KGB. You talk to a young businessman about his trip to Thailand one minute and talk to an old woman about standing in line for a tomato as a child the next.
Budapest is no different. The Danube River now sparkles in light. It’s like communism left and they turned on the lights. But Budapest has an added dimension no other former Eastern European capital has.
Spas. Everywhere. You’re stressed out? Cold? Muscles ache? Go to a Budapest spa. I did. Yet I didn’t suffer from any of the above. What I didn’t know from two previous trips to the “Pearl of the Danube” is it sits on a geological fault. As a result, every day 30,000 cubic meters of warm to flesh-melting (21-76 °C) water pour from 123 thermal and 400 mineral springs.
Today, Budapest is covered with public spas. You can’t walk three blocks without falling into one. My girlfriend, Marina, and I had one in the lobby of our hotel. We first walked in at about 5 p.m. and it looked like 5 a.m. Men and women sat at modern cocktail tables wearing terrycloth bathrobes as white as new-fallen snow. Sexy glasses filled with burgundy red wine sat in front of them. We boarded an elevator with a couple wearing bathrobes and towels around their necks, their hair still dripping wet.
What to Expect
When we checked into our fourth-floor room, the first things we saw when we opened the closet door were two matching bathrobes, the regal Danubias Spa Hotel Helia crest on the chests. We didn’t bother unpacking. We pulled out our swimsuits, donned the bathrobes and joined the procession in the lobby.
We passed through the lobby bar and a glass door into a long white hallway. Walking by rooms with signs reading “THAI MASSAGE,” “WELLNESS CENTRE” and “DIAGNOSTICS,” we entered a hall that looked like an updated version of the Ancient Roman baths. Three large pools, all of increasingly heated water, sat side-by-side amongst sweeping ferns and lounge chairs. We could see the mighty Danube River outside the big picture windows.
How did it Start
The Danubias Spa Hotel was built in 1990, one year before the fall of communism. I figured this was part of Budapest’s tourism-driven injection into the economy. Not really. Actually, thermal spas have been around Budapest as long as the land. The Ancient Romans took thermal baths here when Hungary, then called Pannonia, was part of the Roman Empire more than 2,000 years ago. The Turks made public bathing part of their daily life during the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 1930’s, Budapest had become a Budapest spa resort, although the languid atmosphere was somewhat stained by the presence of Nazi henchmen and Russian tanks.
With Budapest at peace, we slipped out of our robes and joined a group of Russian and Italian tourists sitting along the rim of the hottest pool, a giant round Jacuzzi with artsy wave decorations on the wall. Every 10 minutes or so the 36 °C water would explode under our bottoms, shooting bubbles everywhere and onto our smiling faces.
List of Budapest Spa
The Budapest spa was free to guests, but so many others are open to the public. Here’s a random list of others:
- Veli Bej Baths, Il Arpad fejedelem utja 7, 34 (country code)-06-30-996-7255, $8-$10 (all prices U.S. dollars). The most famous and arguably the most beautiful, it was built during the Ottoman Empire in 1575 and renovated in 2011. Four domed buildings surround a central building, all of which contain five pools. The 38-degree water is pumped through clay pipes that have not changed since they were built 442 years ago. Cost is $8-$10.
- Lukacs Baths, Il Frankel Leo ut 25-29, 1-326-1695, www.spasbudapest.com, $8-$14. Spa buffs favor this place inside a 19th-century building. Maybe it’s the water temperature that reaches 40 degrees and the baths are always mixed.
- Rudas Baths, I Dobrentei ter 9, 1-356-1322, www.spasbudapest.com, $9-$20. If you’re interested in Ottoman history, come here. It’s the most Turkish of the baths. It features an octagonal pool, domed cupola, stained glass and huge, strong columns. It also has a lap pool.
- Gellert Baths, XI Kelenhegyi ut 4 (Danubias Hotel Gellert), 1-466-6166), www.gellertbath.hu, $18-$20. Speaking of swimming, Gellert has the prettiest pool in Budapest. It’s an Art Noveau decor and has been compared to swimming in a cathedral. Opened in 1918 and expanded in 1927, it now has eight pools ranging from 26-38 degrees.
- Szechenyi Baths, XIV Allatkerti korut 9-11, 1-363-3210, www.szechenyibath.hu, $16-$18. Like opulence with your hot water? Szechenyi has the city’s hottest water at 76 degrees. Don’t worry. In the pools it’s ratcheted down to a still frothy 38. And Szechenyi is huge. Opened at the start of World War I, it has 15 indoor pools and three outdoor.
John Henderson is a freelance writer living in Rome. Follow his travel blog, Dog-Eared Passport, at www.johnhendersontravel.com.