The Hungarian Thermal baths are a must-do in Budapest. I checked the Széchenyi Thermal Baths out and sampled the private beer baths where you drink unlimited, well, beer. This was all in the name of research and you’re welcome. If you’re thinking of going- and you really should- there’s a checklist of everything you need to bring to a thermal bath at the bottom.
At 7AM my feet hit the floor of our apartment in the heart of Budapest’s Jewish District. Shit was going down today. We were going to the Thermal Baths.
HUNGARY’S THERMAL BATHS.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know Hungary had thermal baths until a week before I moved there from Prague. But I now have an eternal respect for the Hungarian people.
Sure they showed strength and dignity in surviving Nazi and Communist regimes. But mostly it’s because they managed to make what is essentially drinking in a giant jacuzzi all day a cornerstone of their culture. I’ll drink to that. Actually, put that in past tense.
We arrived at the baths at 9AM. I dunked myself into the steamy cyan-blue water, and showed off to my wife with extremely basic handstands. She wasn’t impressed for some reason; probably because she’s made of stone.
^^Don’t act like you’re not impressed ^^
After I quit the tomfoolery, we waded to the edge. The low morning sun was glaring down, and the whole bath was lucky enough to experience my world-famous squinty face.
Turning away from the sun, I cursed the fact that I’d left my shades at home.
“If only I had sunglasses,” I thought.
I then rejected the ones Rachael offered me because I am too cool. She insisted, I presume because she wanted to enjoy her day without my squinty face. I stood firm because men are awesome. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
THERMAL WATER AND NARCISSISM.
Three guys in overalls marched from the main building. They all shared the weight of what I presume was a pre-Communism era wooden ladder before stopping at the edge of the bath I was in. Jerking the ladder open, they placed it precariously under a pool-side lamppost.
It was odd seeing these men in overalls while the rest of us basked in next to nothing. When I’m on holiday I kind of presume the rest of the universe is too. While they screwed in new bulbs, I thought back to when I bartended a block off Times Square in 2011.
During my first week, I sauntered down 44th street in all it’s gaudy fluorescence thinking: “I’ve made it.” I may have been walking to a job that only ‘paid’ me in the tips I earned, and sometimes no one came in, but it felt like I’d reached some watershed moment in my life.
Fast-forward one week, though, and I was rushing, tutting, and evil-eyeing all the happy tourists blocking 44th Street. Walking through the iconic Times Square had now become mundane and annoying to me. It was my commute.
Every paradise is probably someone else’s 9-5. Just let that sink in for 8 minutes.
WHY I’M READY TO RETIRE (AGAIN).
I looked forward to retirement a long time before ever getting my first job. Even at 15, packing bags in a toy store and washing dishes in a restaurant, I dreamed of the day when I wouldn’t need to work for ‘the man’ anymore. The man was called Richard, actually.
Anyways, I changed my tune in my mid-twenties for 2 reasons:
- My dad, who’s by no means a workaholic, doesn’t love retirement nearly as much as he expected to.
- I’m annoying to be around when I don’t have something to keep me busy. Wait a minute… THAT’S why people asked me to start writing a blog!
But there was a group of older Hungarian gents at the Thermal Baths that made me change my mind. Again.
I spied them playing chess and drinking beers in the corner when I was able to open my eyes wide enough to look around.
Although, there was a strict No Alcohol in the Bath policy (3 guesses how I found that one out), the lifeguards weren’t pestering them. They were regulars here, just like the men you see playing chess in Stuyvesant Town or Washington Square Park. This was their day-to-day.
An American college student waded over and waited for them to acknowledge him and ask him if he wanted to play. They didn’t.
There was an almost familial ease about the group, both in conversation and in silence. These guys must have known each other forever. They’d probably lived through Communism together.
I could see them all in their 30s and 40s, after another brutal work week, talking about when they would be able to play games of chess waist-deep in thermal water. And here they were.
So, yeah. I’m ready to retire. In Hungary. That American kid will probably still be there, waiting for a game.
UNSPOKEN AGREEMENTS IN THE HUNGARIAN THERMAL BATHS.
I’m a big fan of unspoken agreements. But when you move to a new place, these invisible understandings can take a while to get used to.
For instance, in New York it’s a given that one of you will be 20 minutes late for brunch. In Paris, if you ask for ‘un café’, it’s understood you want an espresso. In Ireland, “I’ll come for one pint. And, I mean one,” means anywhere between 8-15.
I came across another interesting unspoken agreement at the Thermal Baths.
Many bathers rent towels and put down a deposit before spending their days marinating. Every towel is identical. If someone realizes their towel is missing, they steal the next one they see rather than lose their deposit. It’s the circle of life.
When my wife realized her towel was nicked during her first trip to the Hungarian Thermal Baths, she told the life guard.
“Okay,” he said, “just steal someone else’s.”
Thankfully, our Airbnb host left us towels adorned with gigantic tigers. Try stealing that.
I’LL GO TO THE BEER BATH FOR ONE. AND I MEAN ONE.
Beer baths are exactly what they sound like but better. They add dashes of wheat, and barley, and a bunch of other crap that exists in beer to the bath. So, in that sense, it’s a literal beer bath.
But, going back to unspoken agreements, 2 things are understood by you and the person tossing barley into the bath:
- Hot bubbling water, yeast, and wheat probably won’t make you healthier.
- You’re here for the unlimited beer that you self-serve from the tap beside your bath.
The beer baths cost about $20 each for 45 minutes. As I paid, the stingy Irish man in me calculated how many beers I would need to drink to get my money’s worth.
“Challenge accepted,” I thought, and did a loud evil laugh as the nice guy working there handed me my receipt.
In the baths, my wife and I practiced balance and efficiency. As the sweltering bath water, dehydrated us, we rehydrated ourselves with beer. That’s balance. A couple of times we cut out the middle man (the glass) and poured the beer straight into our mouths. Efficiency.
It’s also safe to say I got my $20 worth.
UNTIL NEXT TIME…
There are some experiences in life where afterwards you feel like “Shit. That was unique.” The Széchenyi Thermal Baths are undoubtedly one.
Relaxing, refreshing, and affordable. I can’t recommend them enough.
We waddled towards home with our tiger towels in our pruney hands and began to discuss retirement.
YOUR SZECHENYI THERMAL BATHS CHECK-LIST.
- Book online ahead of time here and screenshot the confirmation email.
- Leave all expensive jewelry, golden knuckle-dusters, and tiaras at home.
- Hungary’s Old School. Some days are men only, others women only. Check ahead.
- Bring a bag along with you for towels, wallet, flip-flops, sunglasses.
- Bring your own towel. The weirder, more distinctive it is, the better.
- For couples, one locker will suffice. Wait, you haven’t seen each other naked yet?
- They take credit card everywhere inside so bringing cash along isn’t necessary.
- If you’re going in the morning, when the sun is low, sunglasses are a good idea.
- There’s food there, but no a huge selection. I’d eat a solid breakfast beforehand.
- Your entrance allows you to stay at the baths from 6AM to 10PM.
- It costs 5400 Hungarian Forints on weekdays, which is $19 or €18.
- Weekends cost 5600, which is a negligible difference.
Take it all in!