BUDAPEST - Over 70 million liters of mineral-rich healing waters bubble out of Budapest’s 118 thermal springs every day. That’s a claim no other big city on the planet can make.
The baths are as old as the city itself. The Romans were well aware of the beneficial effects of the warm springs, and the Turkish invaders valued them too. Today the baths have become a place where hip youths come to party.
It all began with musician Laszlo Laki, who is a fan of black and white movies. "I was looking around for a movie theater to rent so I could show black and white films to some new music,” he recalls. "But finding the right place was really difficult, and at one point the idea came to me to show the movies in a Budapest bathhouse.”
The bathhouse’s management was skeptical at first, but finally agreed. One hundred and thirty people attended the premiere – and all of them gave the thumbs up to more bathhouse events.
Today – 16 years later – what have become the legendary “Cinetrip parties” draw young people from all over Europe to Budapest’s baths. In bikinis and bathing trunks, they dance to wild music emanating from loudspeakers, drawn in by the unique mixture of contemporary music, cinematic effects, and historic ambience. Tickets are much sought after and have to be booked well ahead.
Another popular formula is bath tours, which make it possible to attend several parties in one night, with a free shuttle bus providing transportation from one to the next.
The parties at Szechenyi Bath and Spa can contain up to 2,000 revelers. One of Europe’s largest bath complexes, Szechenyi Bath is located in City Park on the Pest side of the city. Opened in 1913, “in 1927, beach sites, as well as public bathing departments for gentlemen and ladies were added,” says its website.
Here you really do see guests playing chess surrounded by swirls of steaming mist. Bathhouse chess "is one of the most popular sights to take pictures of in Budapest," says the lady at the ticket booth. "After all, the baths aren’t only for partying."
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Chess in Budapest - Photo: Alex Proimos
"Just walk through the place, you’ll be amazed," she adds as she slides the 10-euro entry ticket over. She’s right – in the high ceilinged Neo-Baroque buildings, there are carry-overs from ancient Greek and Roman bath cultures, while the saunas, steam rooms and plunge pools are reminiscent of Finland.
Because the temperatures in the thermal baths vary between 27° and 38° Celsius, bathers also come in winter and either just soak in the water as the snow flurries down or play chess on floating chessboards.
Art Nouveau and chocolate body wraps
At Gellert Spa and Bath, bathers take the waters in an historical landmark with Art Nouveau architecture that makes this establishment the jewel of Budapest’s bathhouses. A must-see is the two-story bath hall with a loggia and glass cupola elaborately decorated with bright mosaics, columns, statues, and vases – all original and dating back to 1918 when this was a men’s bath.
Ceramics in various shades of turquoise, made by the famous Zsolnay Manufacture, ornament floors, walls and pools.
It’s also fun to bathe outside in the pool with a wave machine installed in 1927. Here, as in many of the other Budapest baths, a wide variety of wellness treatments are on offer – ranging from pumice stone massages and chocolate body wraps to mudpack therapy and carbonated baths.
The highlight at the Rudas Baths is bathing like a Turkish pasha. This establishment is down by the Danube River, not far from the famous Chain Bridge. Pasha Mustapha Sokoli had it built on the ruins of an older bathhouse and in many ways it is remarkably unchanged since it was built in 1566. A massive cupola supported by eight red marble columns covers the main bathing pool. In the space’s four corners are four pools with warm water of varying temperatures that smells vaguely of rotten eggs because of the minerals. This venue too is on the Cinetrip party round, invaded periodically by young people in swimwear and flip-flops.
"Here it’s a mixture of taking the waters and partying," says event organizer Laki. "Music and a laser show guarantee a great atmosphere, and people hang out in the water, splashing around, or making out, until four in the morning.”
That such a thing is possible is pretty sensational if one considers that, following Turkish tradition, women weren’t even admitted to the Rudas Baths until 2005.
The Palatinus Bath, situated in a well-manicured park on Margaret Island, was open to all members of the public from the start. The island’s natural springs feed a huge watery landscape – 12 pools, one of them with a wave machine, two pools for children, pools “with other fun elements” – as well as the spa of a wellness hotel located on the northern side of the island.