Budapest’s thermal baths have served in many capacities over the centuries. For the Romans, a daily soak in the communal thermae was as much about socialising as it was about bathing. The Ottomans inherited the tradition, although for them, a trip to the hammam was less about catching up on gossip and more about preparing for prayer. During the 1950s, beneath the weight of communism, bathhouses in Budapest served as covert meeting places, with murmured political discussions masked by the trickle of water, protagonists concealed within great billows of steam.
And now? All of the above. Whether it’s a soak and a friendly chat, a meditative bathe, or a quiet, philosophical discussion over a game of chess, the relaxed atmosphere of Budapest’s baths oblige. However, while locals are very forgiving and inclusive of visitors, there’s a loose code of conduct to bear in mind when joining them in the steamy waters. Bathing etiquette in Budapest is nine-tenths common sense, but here are a few solid guidelines for first timers.
There are no rules about chatting while enjoying the soothing, steamy waters – many locals do – but it’s worth bearing in mind that most visit the baths to relax, recharge and soak up the water’s medicinal properties. It’s generally frowned upon if bathers raise their voices, laugh raucously, or, dare we say, dive-bomb the pools. The first code of Budapest’s bathing etiquette is to keep it down.
All nine of Budapest’s thermal baths are mixed, except for Rudas Bath, which welcomes women on Tuesdays and men on the remaining weekdays, and opens to everyone at the weekends. The baths are very safe for single women, with many locals visiting for a solo soak. Thermal baths are not recommended for children under 14 years old, although some have facilities for younger visitors. Having said that, refer to Budapest’s overriding code of bath etiquette mentioned above.
Take along a bathing suit, flip-flops and a towel. There are lockers and cabins available in the changing rooms to store your belongings while you’re enjoying a soak, but unless you’re wheeling a suitcase, a locker is more than sufficient. The locker key is attached to a rubber bracelet that straps around your wrist. Bathing caps are worn in the swimming pools, but these can be rented for those who wish to take a dip. Saunas are generally mixed and swimsuits are kept on, although there are some exceptions to the rule. Whatever the case, take in your towel to sit on for hygiene reasons.
…but not too long. When Budapest’s thermal baths get busier, especially over the weekends, that perfect spot by the bubble jets is prime real estate. Linger as long as is polite before switching with those waiting their turn. Alternatively, time your visit for a weekday when the crowds have thinned and you have all the time in the world to unwind as the warm jets pummel the tension from your back.