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Challenge your stamina by soaking in the outdoor pools of Szechenyi Baths on a freezing winter day. Steaming, thermal water invites you to join local men playing chess or just enjoy the massaging whirlpools while snowflakes land on your bare skin. Check our tips for visiting Szechenyi Baths and Budapest’s other thermal baths in winter: what to expect and pack, how to skip lines, how many hours you’ll need, and other practical tips. Be ready for a real immersion in the Hungarian bathing culture!
In wintertime, the yellow Neo-Baroque buildings of Szechenyi Baths are wrapped in intense fumes. For us, it was hard to choose which was the best part of the outdoor bathing experience: the fairytale scenery, the simultaneous sensation of hot and cold, or the healthy feeling we got afterwards. After spending a couple of hectic days in Budapest and Salzburg, we just loved wading in the light blue water, letting the thermal water do its magic for our sore muscles.
What to Expect From a Szechenyi Baths Experience in Winter?
Budapest is the City of Baths with 118 natural thermal springs. You can’t reach its soul without visiting, at least, one of the world-famous spa baths. Szechenyi Baths is a good start, year-round. The palace-like building, dating back to 1913, hosts one of the most renown spa baths in Budapest, also scoring among the city’s main attractions. Even so, the bathing experience remains authentic, probably because Szechenyi is a local favorite, as well. Szechenyi Baths is one of the biggest spas in Europe and can accommodate more than 1500 people, so usually it won’t feel crowded.
Many people recommend Gellert Baths during the winter since they have even more attractive indoor pools and most foreigners are afraid of swimming outside in cold weather. For us, the enormous outdoor pools of Szechenyi were the highlight of our visit, so give it a try! If you ask me, winter is the best time to soak in the steaming thermal pools. You won’t feel the coldness – it’s bliss!
I’ve heard that Gellert Baths feels more touristic and usually gets filled up to the utmost. In Szechenyi Baths, you’ll have more elbow room, though you probably still need to squeeze in the smallest sitting pools. Budapest has more than a dozen bathhouses, each with a distinctive character, so if you linger more than a couple of days, I’d suggest visiting two different kinds of baths. Szechenyi and Gellert are both from the same era; then there are several bathhouses dating back to the Turkish period, some of them a bit ruinous and completely non-touristy. Szechenyi and Gellert are among the best thermal baths in Budapest – visit at least one of them!
The heavily decorated, stunning façade of Szechenyi Baths gives a promise of luxurious spa treatment. However, the real experience is pretty down-to-earth. After passing through grandiose entrance hall beneath the baroque dome, you’ll descent the hallway to the showers and changing rooms. The cheapest ticket (HUF5200 on weekdays, around 16€) provides a communal changing room with a locker for clothes and handbag or a small backpack. If you pay 1,5€ more, you’ll get a tiny, but private cabin for changing clothes and leaving your things behind. We tried both, but for your comfort, I’d recommend the latter. Nobody will tell you that it’s completely acceptable to share one cabin, though they are extremely tiny, and you won’t fit in together.
The showers, found in downstairs, have more or less public swimming pool feel. My mother, who was traveling with us, described the environment as prison-like, so don’t expect anything fancy. But I’ll promise that you won’t have any regrets after climbing the stairs up to the bathing area!
Soaking Through 18 Pools and 10 Saunas of Szechenyi
We were so excited to try the outdoor pools that we defied the crisp winter weather and hurried towards to steamy outdoor pools wrapped in towels. Dipping into the 38-degree water felt heavenly after shivering from the cold. It’s advised to stay in this hot pool only for 20 minutes, but I’m quite sure we stayed more than half an hour just floating around, watching locals playing chess and admiring the gorgeous buildings through the steam. I felt how my muscle pains just melted away.
After the hottest outdoor thermal pool, we plunged in the “Whirlpool Pool” at the other side of the inner yard. At the time, the water temperature was just a couple of degrees colder, still delightfully hot. “The Whirlpool Pool” has small massaging jets and a waterfall, and a funny “adventure pool” where a strong whirlpool transports you quickly around a circuit shaped pool, pocketed in the center of the “Whirlpool Pool”. We had a blast floating and swimming through the labyrinth-like whirlpool corridor, bumping accidentally to other bathers and laughing out loud. After having some fun, don’t skip the small jacuzzi in the middle of the circuit. “Whirlpool pool” was our favorite, where we kept coming back. I’d suggest starting your bathing experience from it and then moving to the even warmer outdoor pool.
After soaking for more than half an hour, the chilly winter day finally chased us forward. The third outdoor pool is designed for swimming laps, so the temperature is near normal swimming pools (27 degrees) – read chilly in winter. I was happy with a short swim, but Piritta just dipped in her toes, shivering from the cold.
Stone floor felt so freezing that we wanted to run inside, but it’s also so slippery that you have to be cautious when walking barefoot. We were more than looking forward popping in one of the saunas of Szechenyi. At this stage, I have to remind that we come from Finland, the country of sauna culture. We even have a small sauna in our apartment which we use every week, and we have been pampered with wood-fired saunas at the Finnish countryside. As to saunas, we are hard to please. And that’s why even the much praised Szechenyi Baths failed to prove itself to us.
Most of the saunas are more like steam rooms, or Turkish saunas if you wish. There is one huge Finnish sauna downstairs, but I need to emphasize that Finnish people won’t approve it. In Finland, saunas are way hotter and you are supposed to throw water on the stove regularly to get hot steam. The Finnish sauna of Szechenyi is way too cold and dry to be called a Finnish sauna. Still, it seemed to impress other tourists, as the temperature seemed to hover around 70 degrees. Nevertheless, we enjoyed warming in the saunas and steam rooms between cooler pools – and of course, we had to try them all! Some had aromatic medicinal steam; some were so steamy that you couldn’t see others beside you. Breathing in the steam felt exquisite.
Naturally, we inspected all the indoor pools of Szechenyi, as well. Water temperatures range from freezing to hot (16 to 38 degrees, or 60 to 110 Fahrenheit). Most plunge pools accommodate just a handful of people and are in modest surroundings, but there are bigger pools in attractive halls, as well. We could easily fit in all the pools though some smallest sitting pools were pretty full. For some reason, the coldest pools were empty all the time. I dipped in all of them, although the 16-degree water felt excruciatingly cold even for me. That’s the normal temperature of Finnish lake or sea water in June, which already entices people to swim. I’ve also done some winter swimming, meaning dipping in a hole in the ice. So I should be more seasoned for cold water than most people. I adore the euphoric feeling after a cold dip; it really gets your endorphins flowing. Challenge yourself and try the coldest pool, located downstairs by the Finnish sauna!
I loved the fact that the bathhouse is designed for adults. Kids under 14 are not allowed to plunge in the thermal baths for health reasons, and Szechenyi is all about thermal baths. While Szechenyi is not the best bathhouse for families, there are many other alternatives with pools specially designed for kids (with slides and other fun stuff). Kid-free (and splash-free) environment adds up to the serene bathing experience if you ask me.
The Healing Powers of Szechenyi Spa
The waters of Szechenyi Baths come from natural hot springs, just like in Iceland or Japan. Naturally hot water is cooled down to suit bathing. Rich in beneficial minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, sulfite, and sodium, these pools are said to have healing powers. You can also recognize the intense smell of sulfur by the inside pools. After a couple of hours in Szechenyi, you’ll feel rejuvenated for sure.
The medicinal waters are recommended to joint illnesses, arthritis, and orthopedic injuries. Every pool has a sign telling its temperature and mineral content – in Hungarian. If you are looking for something special, just ask somebody. We played it safe and soaked in each and every one of them!
Tips for Visiting Szechenyi Baths
I wish that we would have known couple things before visiting Szechenyi Baths, so I’ll share these tips to help you out.
Towelsare rented for 1000HUF (3,5€), on top which you need to pay a 2000HUF (7€) deposit. In the winter, I would take 2 towels since one is constantly wet (you walk around with a towel around you and dry yourself repetitively when switching pools). While you’re bathing, the towel is just lying around nearby, so it’s not particularly clean afterwards. By taking your own towel you’ll avoid the long queues at the cashier. They rent also bathing suits, but you’d probably like to have your own (the stock is also limited). If you feel chilly easily, rent a bathrobe (2500HUF, deposit 5000HUF) – recommended in the wintertime.
Bring (or buy) flip-flops – we regretted not having ones since floors in these kinds of bathing houses don’t feel especially clean and walking outside barefoot feels freezing in winter. There are no soap, shampoo, or facial wash; so bring your own chemicals. There are hairdryers, though. Swimming caps are required in the one and only pool: the outdoor swimming pool where you can swim laps.
Luckily we were wise enough to book our tickets via our hotel, so we could avoid the exhausting queues at the spot. If you reserve your Szechenyi Spa ticket online or through your hotel (without commission), you can proceed to a shorter VIP queue. We had just one couple before us, whereas the regular lines were more than 100 meters long! If you want to have a truly memorable experience, reserve one of their couple packages, which offer a private cabin for two with other benefits. You can even rent a small thermal bath just for the two of you!
At the cashier, you’ll get a plastic armband, which doubles as your ticket and key. You can open your personal cabin or locker by just pressing the armband against the lock. It’s easy, but most tourists seem to struggle with it. Don’t lose the wristband or any other rented gear, as you’d be punished with a hefty fee.
In Szechenyi Baths, women and men have separate communal changing rooms and showers, but all the bathing areas are mixed. Wearing a bathing suit is compulsory, as it’s also to shower before every pool and sauna. Just watch what locals do if you feel nervous about the bathing etiquette.
Don’t forget to take a water bottle with you! Hot pools and steam rooms leave you dehydrated. There’s also a small kiosk at the inner courtyard, beside the outdoor pools, selling refreshments. It’s allowed to drink alcohol in the baths, so if you’d fancy a cold drink, don’t forget to take some forints with you! There’s also indoor café if you’ll get hungry. It’s totally fine to come with your own drinks and snacks, as well. Smoking is prohibited both inside and outside. Leave behind that exquisite diamond ring and watch: thermal water can change the color.
One last tip: reserve at least 2 hours for the bathing experience and don’t plan a massive sightseeing tour afterwards. After all the hot pools and steam rooms of Szechenyi Baths, you’ll feel healthy but exhausted.
How to Get to Szechenyi Baths
Szechenyi Baths lie on the Pest side of the city, by the leafy City Park. Getting there is super easy: take a yellow metro line (M1) to the station Szechenyi Furdo, aptly named according to the bathhouse. When getting out, you’ll see the yellow baroque palace on your right side. That’s the Szechenyi Baths building you’re looking for! Just pass the building until you reach the street; follow it a few steps to the right until you’ll reach the main entrance. You want to use this entrance since the cashier, lockers, and cabins are here.
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