As our taxi pulled up to the entrance of the Széchenyi Thermal Bath I held my breath. It was still a few minutes before the godforsaken hour of 6 a.m., and I was worried a staff member may have overslept and we’d be standing outside in the dark and cold waiting for the iconic bath house to open. I’d already been up for hours thanks to every traveller’s nemesis—jet lag—and made the sudden decision to try and squeeze in a visit to the popular spa before we were set to depart Budapest later that morning.
My husband and I hopped out of the cab, and were welcomed by the soft glow of lights from inside. Hooray, it was open! And not only was it open—there was already lineup of early risers.
Hungarians (or Magyars as they call themselves) take bathing seriously, so in retrospect we shouldn’t have been surprised by the queue. Budapest has earned the moniker ‘City of Baths’ thanks to the many Turkish spas scattered around the city, filled with steaming thermal water promising healing properties.
Széchenyi (pronounced she-che-knee) is one of the country’s most famous spots to soak, as it dates back over a century and is one of Europe’s largest public baths. Located in the Pest side of the city, it’s now home to 18 pools including three huge ones outside and 15 smaller interior baths.
We made our way up to the counter and paid around $20 each for our two hour stay, then slipped on one of the plastic watches which allows access inside and would also open our changing cabin. We soon found ourselves stepping back outside into the darkness, with the brisk air coaxing us towards the steaming pools that lay ahead.
We plunged in, immediately relaxed by the 38 degree bath that warded off the winter chill, and a light breeze made the steam swirl up, creating a mystical fog all around us. The only sound was the low chatter of other bathers, greeting each other and the morning as we let the thermal waters envelop us.
Though it was hard to pull ourselves away, it was apparent the massive Széchenyi complex had much more for us to discover. We dragged ourselves out of the pool, grabbed our towels to ward off the chill of the cold air around us, and hurried inside towards the famous saunas.
Széchenyi hosts piping hot steam chambers and saunas, which warm you up so quickly from the inside out that you’ll be sweating in just a few minutes. As we sat in complete silence in one of the sweltering dry saunas (men and women aren’t separated here), my brain screamed at me to leave while my jet lagged limbs embraced the experience. When my heart began pounding and I simply could not take the heat any longer, I slipped my sandals back on and headed straight to a fountain full of ice chunks, which I held against my blazing forehead. Just a few feet away, a couple of older men had plunged into a frigid pool, a technique designed to increase circulation.
My husband and I then set about exploring the rest of the Széchenyi Thermal Bath, making our way past showers, indoor plunge pools, massage tables and even an Aquafitness area. It was clear this was the type of place you could easily while away an entire day, and emerge refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to do it all over again the next day.
With the time ticking down until we had to leave, I slipped back into the warm outdoor pool. By now the sun was rising, casting a pink and baby blue haze across the sky like cotton candy. I finally understood the secret all those early risers have been keeping from the rest of us, about the sacred silence of the morning. And it was clear that beginning the day at the Széchenyi Thermal Bath was the perfect way to greet it.
Bring two towels
- You’ll want one to cover up with while moving between pools, and one to dry off with before you leave. If you don’t have any, towels and robe rentals are also available.
Get there early
- It’s incredible to watch the sun rise from the comfort of the steaming thermal pool, plus there are less crowds.
Spring for the cabin
- There are both lockers and cabins available to rent at Széchenyi, offering a secure place to leave your belongings as you soak. The cabins give you space to change privately, and only cost a bit more than renting a locker. If you go to the bath with one or two other people, there’s still plenty of room to hold everyone’s stuff.
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