The famous mineral-rich medicinal baths of Budapest mostly lie on the Buda side of the city along the Danube River in the shadow of the Buda Hills. The waters come from two major systems of thermal springs.
Finding two of the historic Turkish baths was an interesting challenge. It was the distinctive Turkish dome rising slightly above the rooftop of a picturesque old building that helped me find the Kiraly Baths. The discovery of several domes of various sizes buried among old trees behind a building revealed the location of the Ruhas Baths to me.
I found the 500 year old Turkish hamams with their distinctive octagonal pools intriguing. While soaking under the steamy domes with their tiny skylights, it felt like the Turks had just left.
The first baths in Budapest date from the Roman era. The Turkish baths were constructed during the Ottoman Turkish occupation in the 16th century. Public baths became the mainstream of Buda life in the 18th century. At the turn of the 20th century there was another wave of bathhouse construction. Grand, classical revival buildings were built around baths and swimming pools during this time. This is when the monumental, ornate baths of Gellert and Szechenyi were constructed. Bathhouses in Budapest have always served as a place for communal gathering and information exchange. This was especially true during the repressive years of communism in the 1950’s.
The two largest spas in Budapest, Gellert and Szechenyi, had outdoor pools which were open this time of the year. Watching the sheer number of people walking around outside in their bathing suits between dips in the pool made me shiver, given the outside temperature was around 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
While soaking in the thermal waters, the sound of rushing water which surrounded me was hypnotic. It came from the pipes which fed the pools, the small waterfalls that cascaded into the pools, and the taps and basins along the walls.
Maneuvering throughout the various thermal baths was not without its challenges. One challenge was getting a space under the waterfalls or fountains in each pool in order to enjoy the refreshing waters plunging over my body at different temperatures. Understandably, these were favorite place for bathers to congregate. I learned to perch myself nearby and make a quick move when someone left the spot I wanted.
Getting lost in the labyrinth of the pools, saunas, steam chambers, showers, toilets, changing rooms, lockers, and restaurants or cafes, was part of the experience, especially in the larger spas. Fortunately an English-speaking, friendly attendant always seemed to appear at the opportune moment, just when I was feeling lost and frustrated.
In the un-restored Kiraly Baths, everything was written in Russian, German, and Hungarian (no English). The other baths I visited had everything written in Hungarian and English. It appears the Russian legacy hasn’t been completely eliminated from Budapest yet!
My experience with the thermal baths of Budapest brought to mind a very different experience I had in the hammams of Morocco several years ago. Since the Ottoman-Turks never reached there, the public baths of Morocco are of Arab origin and design, not Turkish. The main difference is that the Turkish baths focus on water to achieve various temperatures, whereas the Arab baths focus on steam.
You can read my blog about my adventure in the world of Morocco’s hammams on the following link: It’s a Man’s World, Except in a Hammam in Morocco