Is a winter trip to Budapest a good idea? It can be pretty cold, and due to its easterly location it gets dark early. But flights to Budapest and hotels cost a lot less than in the summer. Restaurants and attractions are open all year, and this is the perfect time to wallow in the Budapest thermal baths!
Our rationale of going to Budapest
Cheap, warm and sweet. Winter hadn’t even started properly, I was unemployed and going back and forth to my home town visiting my grandmother, sitting on local trains for about six hours a day. I was already sick of the dark, the desolation, and being where I was in general. Mostly I read a rather wordy weekly newspaper when on the train to keep me occupied. But I admit to looking on flight comparison sites every now and then, and one place that kept popping up with extremely cheap flights was Budapest.
The Saintly Healer Twins could only approve, and alas, we found them on one of our strolls, not far from Szent Isztvan Basilica. So, off we were, three days before Christmas, a tiny suitcase with our swimming things in tow.
We stayed in Buda
Since most of the better-known Budapest thermal baths are in Buda (except for the Szechenyi), I had booked accommodation in a strategically great position between the Kiraly and the Lukaczs Baths. Both were a ten-minute walk from our apartment. This part of Buda is pretty low-key. However, it is close to public transport, and there are some nice cafes and restaurants in the area, but most close early at night.
If you miss interior pictures form the baths here it’s not that my lens got fogged or my camera splashed. I was simply too chicken to take pictures! It was not permitted at the Kiraly and Veli Bej Baths. And I got so annoyed at the selfie sticks at the Gellert. Plus the nicest part of the baths seemed closed, I did not bother. I took a couple of the Lukacs but without any close-ups of bathers. I just had to accept that there are places where taking the camera was, maybe, a little inappropriate!
Here is our home for three days: a nice studio apartment in a rather utilitarian modernist building.
Very Bauhaus. The lifts are plexiglass tubes running all the way up six floors, and the whole building is light and airy and kept well.
The modernist theme did not continue inside the apartment. But it was light and well-heated (important in about minus 10 Celsius), and had a small kitchen which we never used. Budapest is not that great on great produce everywhere like Greece or Italy, and especially not in winter!
Day One – more an evening, really
So, fresh out of the underground/tram, we didn’t waste time and made our way to the first bath of the trip. It was about 19:00 by now, we were a bit hungry. But hey, we were fresh off the plane and we wanted hot water! Which brings us to the Kiraly Baths.
You can see from the exterior pictures (taken the next day), they need a bit of a renovation. They are an original Ottoman Turkish Baths (1565) with a 18th Century extension. They do not have their own thermal spring – their water is supplied from the Lukacs Baths spring.
We visited about two hours before closing, and it was moderately busy – plenty of lockers available, plenty of wallowing space in the large pool the sauna and the steam room. We were lucky that the cashier spoke a bit of English.
The changing areas are very 1950’s with peeling paint everywhere. Strangely, this only adds to its charm. While I found the baths themselves as well as the changing areas very clean, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea -this could not be further removed from a modern spa! So we put our suits on, walked through some freezing corridor, and then, into the old domed building where there is just one large octagonal pool. You could barely see for the steam.
On the sides, there were hotter and colder pools, really tiny ones, three people, and it was crowded. The steam room was properly steamy, the sauna properly hot. I managed to leave my towel and swimsuit in the changing room, only to claw my way into the changing rooms the next day until I found someone who spoke English or German, to be lead into the managers office, where they were drying tidily on the radiator! If you like history, shabby chic and a bohemian touch and also want to see some 1950’s Eastern Block interior design, the Kiraly Baths are for you. They are also one of the cheapest thermal baths, so thumbs up on this one.
On our first full day, we did a few touristy things (more on that later) after a hearty breakfast at Kicsizso Breakfast Cafe.
Such as climbing the Castle Hill. I highly recommend doing that before 9am, before buses of tourists roll in. If you don’t fancy walking (there are several paths leading up from Fö utca), a regular bus will take you up from Deak Ferenc Ter in less than ten minutes. Once up there, make a beeline for the wonderful and cute Cafe Ruszwurm – it’ll be rammed in summer, but in winter you are almost guaranteed a table.
Come 16:00, it was getting dark, our feet grew tired and we took a tram from Pest to the Gellert Baths. I was very excited about them.
The Gellert Baths were built in 1918 in late Art Nouveau Style, and are one of the larger baths – oh yes, and also the most expensive. Despite travelling in low season, this also seems to be one of the more popular ones with tourists. It is a pain to navigate, floors are dirty, there were very few showers, and the whole female changing area was messy, dirty, and at least a quarter of the lockers weren’t working.
The more annoyed was I when I found out that the main swimming pool makes wearing a swimming cap mandatory! Of course they didn’t tell you until you stood right in front of the pool and then, after you walked what felt like half a kilometre barefoot through dingy, freezing and dark corridors, you couldn’t be bothered to walk back to rootle in your bag for a cap, or, worse, walk through the exit to purchase one – which might invalidate your ticket.
As it was December, the outdoor pools were closed, but also the prettier of the subterranean thermal pools on each side of the swimming pool was closed. This left us with a couple pools crowded with people. One was lukewarm, the other okay. The steam room was barely steaming, but to compensate, the sauna was a super-hot cooker. It was painful to walk on the floor. One pair of burned soles later, we went back to the only pool that was really useful the hot thermal pool.
So, are the Gellert baths worth the hype and the steep entry fee (around 20 EURO)? Not in my eyes. They are poorly maintainted, parts are closed (but they won’t tell you that), and are a bit of a tourist trap.
So far, we had managed one bath for every day we had visited – would we be able to continue? First, we has a very simple breakfast at Bambi Presszo.
It is a very different from the famous Budapest coffee houses like Ruszwurm, Gerbeaud and New York. It is more what you’s call a “greasy spoon” but with great coffee. And incredibly cheap. Like in Socialist times, they had only a few items on the menu. I wouldn’t go here for food, necessarily, but the coffee is great, it is open all day and transforms into a bar in the evening. But Budapest has no shortage of cafes, from simple like Bambi, to grand K+K Style ones, to hip third-wave places. Here’s a handy to guide some of them.
Veli Bej Baths
Fast forward to about 16:00, it was getting dark, and we made our way to the Veli Bej Baths . This one is very little known (doesn’t even show up on Wikipedia), and not operated by Budapest Spas but owned and operated, just like the rheumatology hospital next to it, by a Catholic Order.
I read about this on the map in our AirBnB, then searched for it online.
Hidden? Underrated? Oh, take me there! It was a little tricky to find. Best is to take a tram to the Lukacs Baths (they have their own tram stop) first. Then carry along the road until the end of the Lukacs Bath complex, then turn right into a small alleyway (Zsigmond köz) towards the river. If you have walked as far as the Czasar Hotel entrance, you’ve gone to far! Once through the alley, turn left, and you see a glass vestibule and the entrance, facing the river.
The Veli Bej is actually Budapests oldest bath, dating back to the Ottoman Empire and predating the Kiraly Baths. The Veli Bej is run like a military operation – numbered lockers, almost Prussian order, and wherever you look, it is very clean. The main pool is Ottoman, and although they’ve done a tasteful restauration, I somehow missed the cool shabbiness of the Kiraly. Everything else (a couple of saunas, a steam room, small jacuzzi, Kneipp basin) is new and modern. It was the cheapest of all the baths! The Veli Bej Baths are perfect if you like medicinal baths with a bit of tradition yet prefer them sparkling clean with modern amenities, and don’t like selfie sticks.
Low key nights out in Budapest
After the baths, we felt like taking a warm beer and crashing out in our apartment but our itinerary was getting tighter, and we would fly out the next afternoon. So, we walked up and down Szent Isztvan Krt. looking for something to eat and only found pan-European tourist cuisine. Finally, we managed to find this pub (I think it’s called Patko Bandi, its tiny and completely panelled with wood) for some vaguely local cuisine. I had garlic soup (only vegetarian dish) which was actually really tasty. And it made me look forward to our full flight the next day – at least there wouldn’t be anybody hanging in my seat. Cosy and dirt-cheap, too.
The Flipper Muzeum
We’re not big on nightlife, but the Flipper Muzeum only opens its doors at 16:00, but bathing and dinner had to be squeezed in, too. Around 21:00 we left the cosy pub and, fortified with some Hungarian Beer, walked into a basement filled with pinball machines. Its called a museum, but really , its just a great excuse to gamble the night away. Of course, this being pinball machines, there’s no monetary gain, and this is geek fest rather than Casino Royale. You pay a flat fee, and then you are encouraged to play all the machines. Good luck to you, you better come early because there were over a 100 machines. Some were rather ancient, and better to look at, some were only a few years old, hopelessly out of fashion the minute they were released.
My favourite was this 1976 one featuring Elton John. Just the graphics alone! It was also nice to play, too. Two years later the first video arcade game (Space Invaders) made its debut and the decline of the pin-ball began.
After coming home in the middle of the night, and a rather short sleep, our final morning was not to be wasted: here was our final bath – and one of the largest in Budapest: The Lukacs Baths. Now, this is a proper “medicinal” bath, and with barely a whiff of “spa” in sight. As you get off the tram, you can enter through its 1930’s drinking hall.
Walk through the large courtyard and admire the baroque yellow of its paint works. This is one of the “younger” baths in its current incarnation;, it was built in the 1880’s when spas were all the rage in Europe, but medicinal baths were known to exist in this site as early as the 12th Century. It is a huge complex, with the main 1880’s spa housing changing rooms, the medicinal pools, leisure pools and medical facilities. The spa is supplied by its own sulphuric springs, which also supply the nearby Kiraly Baths. The atmosphere is very Magic Mountain to the outside…
Down to the numerous 19th Century plaques in its courtyard. This wall is mainly Hungarian plaques, but people from all over Europe took the waters here. The baths are named after St Luke, who was a physician of Greek origin and lived in Antioch, but unlike many other apostles, he was not martyred but died from natural causes at the age of 84.
The Lukacs Baths
Inside, it’s a lot less genteel Olde-Worlde flair, more like 1950’s Soviet sanatorium. It also smells faintly sulphuric if this is your thing. After buying a ticket (or, get in free with the Budapest card), you pass a turnstile and get lost in the warren of changing rooms and private cabins. Its best to pay attention to the cashier and their directions!
At least, the spa pools are easy to find! There are some pretty tiny crowded thermal pools of higher temperature. They continue in the 1950’s Soviet sanatorium theme with their gloomy tiled rooms, quiet and minders patrolling the place. You may also pass through some physiotherapy pool with scary-looking contraptions, but these are off-limits to the casual visitor, and those who are strapped in coolly ignore the stream of day-trippers. Also, they have a larger outdoor pool for swimming, which was open in December – so for the really sporty minded, the opportunity is there!
Altogether, the Lukacs Baths offered the best all-in-one package – a bit of grand 19th Century Style, healing waters, cleanliness and a good mix of local and tourist. They are easily accessible by tram, but because they are a bit away from the tourist spots, they appear to get fewer visitors. They remain my personal favourite.
After our morning bath, it was time to pick up our bags, hair still half wet and hidden under a big woolly hat, and rush for the airport. We had bought tickets for the Komische Oper ages ago, so after landing around 18.00, we rushed on to the Komische Oper for a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof”. Stinking waters in Budapest the morning, opera in Berlin at night – that’s as far jet set as we will ever get!
So, what about the other Budapest thermal baths?
Two well-known baths, the Szechenyi Baths and the Rudas Baths are omitted. We omitted the Szechenyi, as we read that it’s the most crowded and most touristy of the baths. It can also be expensive. After our experience at the Gellert, we didn’t want to experience another over-visited baths. And the Rudas? After its renovation, this bath looks very attractive, a beautiful blend of the old domed Turkish Baths with the glass swimming pool. However. this is one of the very few that still is gender-segregated for its steam baths. It has different bathing times for men and women, so if you travel with your significant other, it can be difficult to be bathing together. On weekends, most facilities are co-ed, and it also offers late-night bathing until 4am! The infamous weekend bath parties have been moved to the Szechenyi, and you will find posters all over Budapest advertising them.
Best time to travel
For us, definitely out of season, October to April, perhaps May. Summer months make the city hot and crowded, plus hotel rates shoot up. Due to its Eastern Location in the Middle European Time Zone, it gets light early in the morning but can be dark by 16.00 – the perfect time to disappear tin the thermal waters. Winters can be cold, with harsh Easterly winds, but nothing that you shouldn’t be prepared for in most of Europe, and we were also lucky to have sun for most of the time we visited in December.
Both national carriers and budget airlines all fly to Liszt International Airport. There are some trains from Germany, the UK and France, all involve changing, and are likely to be more expensive as flights are so plentiful.
I recommend getting a Budapest Card, as it gives you a 20% discount on most thermal baths, free public transport and entry to many state museums.
It is also very simple to use and saves you from buying paper tickets all the time. We bought ours at a very obvious stall right after customs in the arrival area of the Airport – its valid for transport from the airport as well. If you just want unlimited public transport, there is a Budapest Travel Card. Controls are frequent, so don’t even think travelling without a ticket. Budapest has a great tram network, with frequent trams plying all the Pest rings as well as the banks of the Danube on both the Buda and the Pest side. It also has a retro 1980’s Metro which is fast and efficient, but also quite far underground. So for travelling within the city centre, trams are more convenient. There are city buses, but given the abundance of trams, we only used the bus once on the Castle Hill.
Most traveller accommodation, budget as well as top-range, is on the Pest side. Most baths are in Buda, though. We chose an apartment in walking distance from the Danube. A tram stop was just 200m away, between Fö utca and Roszadomb. You can find the actual listing here, but there are plenty of holiday rentals in this area. We found the area safe with great transport links, and quite a few nice restaurants, though most close at 21:00.
Most baths open mornings to late in the evening. The most famous ones are shown on the Budapest Spas website. The Budapest Card gives you discounts on most of them, and free entry to the Lukacs Baths (which is, in my opinion, the best one, all-round).
In most places, you pay once then you can stay all day, others charge a bit less and limit your stay to three hours. This makes more sense, as most of them are thermal baths, not day spas. Swimwear is now obligatory in all of them except for the segregated bathing times at the Rudas.
Beware that some, such as the Gellert, may demand you wear swim caps in some of their pools. Some also want long hair to be tied, but this is less strictly enforced. Some of the facilities can be basic to downright dirty. Don’t expect loungers or hair driers or even an area where you can dry off properly in some of the more popular places. The Veli Bej has a nice-looking cafe and a waiting area out front, as well as hairdryers. There are some seating facilities where you can wait til your hair is dry at the Lukacs and the Kiraly. I think, both have cafes or bars, but they seemed rather low-key. If you look for massage, the massage facilities at the Veli Bej looked the most professional ones.