In my last post, I wrote about my favorite Budapest thermal bath, Széchenyi. But that's just a drop in the bucket. Budapest has two dozen spas, and Hungary has over a hundred. And, while they all enjoy hundred-degree water, jets, massages, and fanciful architectural flourishes, each one is unique. Hungary's addictive thermal spas are a slippery slope: If you spend enough time here, you'll wind up a connoisseur. And after scouring plenty of options — both in the capital and in the countryside — here's a rundown of my personal favorites. (All of these, and ample tips for how to enjoy any Hungarian thermal bath, are covered in more detail in my Rick Steves Budapest guidebook.)
1. Széchenyi Baths (Budapest)
This elegant bathhouse in the center of Budapest's City Park is the undisputed champ. This spa has it all: Grand architecture; indoor and outdoor sections; pools with healthy (read: stinky) minerals, and pools that are all about fun. If you go to just one thermal bath in Hungary, start with Széchenyi. For my full rundown on the place, see my last post.
2. Hagymatikum Baths (Makó
Tucked in the southern fringe of the country, the town of Makó was the birthplace of Imre Makovecz — the inventor of Hungary's defining postcommunist architectural style. Before his death in 2011, Makovecz sprinkled his hometown with priceless examples of his distinctive "Organic" style, including the Hagymatikum Baths. This bulging mushroom-shaped hall hides a mind-bending wonderland of hot-water fun.
In the center of the grand hall, a towering tree trunk stretches up to a starburst skylight in the wood-beam roof.
A canopy provides cover for the interconnected lower pools — which flow into each other like a lazy river — and also creates a restful upper deck (with napping loungers) where giant Easter Island heads survey the scene.
Combining unique architecture with modern thermal-bath amenities, Hagymatikum is practically a pilgrimage for both architecture fans and spa lovers.
3. Rudas Baths (Budapest)
Thanks to a recent rejuvenation, Rudas offers an ideal combination of old and new. At its heart is a mysterious-feeling, 400-year-old Turkish bath — an evocative relic of the bygone Ottoman occupation. Float on your back under the stony dome — light faintly twinkling through the glass-mosaic skylight — and be one with the past. A half-dozen pools let you gingerly step your body temperature up and down — or, if you get overheated, just pull the rope to be doused by a bucketful of frigid water.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the same building, Rudas' new "wellness" section is all modern efficiency, with sleekly tiled hot and cold pools, a Danube-view restaurant, and — best of all — an easy-to-miss sundeck where you can soak in a 97-degree hot tub with a panoramic downtown Budapest view. Feeling the bubbles tickle your feet, look out over Budapest's bridges, where footsore commuters trudge along smoggy highways...and be happy you're on vacation.
4. Gellért Baths (Budapest)
Budapest's swankiest, most famous, and most touristy thermal spa fills one wing of a once-grand hotel. Gellért is a classic. And the baths— decorated with an Art Nouveau flourish — are sparkling after a recent renovation. Once carefully segregated between men and women, Gellért recently opened up its parallel facilities to all. (Enjoying this unprecedented access, bathers quickly discovered that the men's section is far more beautifully decorated — and hotter — than the women's section. Hmmm...)
Gellért feels fancy. Its lobby has the genteel aura of an old museum. Its lap pool fills a colonnaded hall with a skylight. And its two large thermal spa zones are encrusted with colorful mosaics.
At the spouts where a century's worth of mineral-rich hot water has trickled into the pools, bulbous lobes hang like prehistoric stalactites.
While most of the complex feels staid and a little sleepy, Gellért hides its fun outside: A wave pool that thrashes bathers around like driftwood. On a hot day, Gellért's wave pool is refreshing entertainment.
5. Hévíz Thermal Lake (Hévíz)
Filling a volcanic crater near the town of Keszthely (two hours southwest of Budapest) is the world's second-largest thermal lake. Hévíz is continually fed by thermal waters that bubble up from springs a hundred feet below. All of this constant, natural flushing ensures that the lake's waters refresh completely every two days, and the temperature never drops below about 70°F (and stays closer to 95°F in summer).
Extremely popular with aging Russians and Germans, the lake's unique mineral composition is supposedly excellent for easing arthritis, joint pain, and other ailments. When I told a local friend I'd visited Hévíz, he said, "You know the water's radioactive, right? You're not supposed to stay in for more than 30 minutes at a time." Apparently, there can be too much of a good thing.
From the locker rooms, you'll tiptoe along wooden walkways to the pavilion in the middle of the lake. There you'll ease into the waters, then swim out into the lake itself. Rent a pool noodle and slowly paddle your way around the lake.
Weave between the lily pad lotuses as you glide in slow motion across the tranquil surface. All around you, portly, aching, aging bodies bob in the steamy surf. For those who enjoy being close to nature, Hévíz is the best place in Hungary to simply float like a cork.
Honorable Mention: Salt Hill Thermal Spa (Egerszálok)
My favorite small town in Hungary, Eger, anchors an arid wine region in the north of the country. About a half-hour outside of Eger, on the outskirts of the winemaking village of Egerszálok, is a series of Pamukkale-like natural travertine pools — nicknamed "Salt Hill."
Back in my early days guiding the Rick Steves' Best of Eastern Europe tour, I enjoyed bringing my groups to an extremely humble little spa here, in the middle of nowhere. It was basically one small round pool, filled with hot water and jammed with locals, with a few wooden cabanas to change in. Far from the gentility of Gellért, it was a perfectly earthy — and memorable — Hungarian spa experience.
But these days, Salt Hill has gone big time. In 2007, developers took notice of the unique deposits and bucolic setting, and built a sprawling, state-of-the-art spa hotel — being careful not to disturb the natural fortifications that made this place special to begin with.
Today bathers can enjoy views of the Salt Hill as they frolic in a world of futuristic pools, cascades, and jets.
With so many ways to have hot-water fun, Hungary is a must for anyone who enjoys slowing down and relaxing while on vacation. Come on in...the water's perfect!