The city of spas: why you should visit the healing thermal baths in Budapest

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As seen on the Evening Standard

It’s -2 degree Celsius outside, winter is still going strong. The icy Danube River is flowing on the left, while the snow-covered Gellért Hill is looking back at you from the right. And, in the meantime, you are on top of a building soaking in a steaming 36-degree Celsius thermal bath.

Walk a couple blocks down the road and the same thermal water experience is waiting for you in a much more historical setting where the walls around were built during the First World War.

Bathing in thermal waters has been part of the culture in Budapest for centuries for two main reasons: One, millions of liters of thermal water is available from underneath the Hungarian capital through hot springs, and two, the medicinal features these waters provide.

Staff at the Gellért Thermal Baths said that they have several guests visiting regularly with a doctor’s note to treat a medical condition. Some of the health problems a thermal bath can provide relief for are degenerative diseases of the joints, circulatory problems, post-traumatic treatments and respiratory issues.

The waters are sourced from wells about a 1,000 meters deep under the city. Each spa’s thermal water is filled with minerals such as calcium, magnesium-hydrogen-carbonates, sulphates, fluoride and natrium. However, the amount of minerals each bath contains varies by location. Because the skin is the human body’s largest organ, these minerals are easily absorbed and get directly into the bloodstream and into the body’s myriad of cells.

Findings have shown that the healing powers of the hot springs were first discovered in 100 AD, when Romans settled at Aquincum, which is now part of the city. Then it was the Turks, who occupied Hungary during the 16th century, who built the baths and developed the spa culture.

Over centuries, the hot springs remained which meant the spas were not going anywhere either. In 1934, Budapest officially received the title, “The city of spas.” There are more than a 100 hot springs running underneath the city pumping thermal water to Budapest’s 11 main thermal baths and several private ones built in hotels.

Four of the most commonly known baths are the Széchenyi Baths, St. Gellért Thermal Baths, St. Lukács Thermal Baths and the Rudas Thermal Baths.

Each spa has its unique features from Art Nouveau style architecture decorated with the famous Zsolnai porzelan from the WWI era at the Gellért Bath, to the neo-Baroque features of the one of the largest European Széchenyi Spa.

The Rudas is where history meets modern design and innovation. While its main thermal pool and octagonal room dates back to 1550, on the roof is a modern bath overlooking the Danube River.

To complement its historical background, the Rudas Baths holds onto the traditions of separate male and female days at the main thermal pool on the weekdays, and only allows coed bathing on the weekends. From 1936 to 2005, only men were to use the bath, and women have only been allowed in since 2005 when the reconstruction work was completed.

All the other baths are coed every day.

The Lukács Baths has its piece of history too. You can still find the structure of a mill inside that was used for grinding wheat in the late 19th century.

Bathing in thermal water isn’t the only option for visitors at these spas. A variety of water exercises, saunas and steam rooms are also on site along with massage therapy rooms for a day of pampering.