As our taxi pulled up to the entrance of the Széchenyi Thermal Bath I held my breath. It was still a few minutes before the godforsaken hour of 6 a.m., and I was worried a staff member may have overslept and we’d be standing outside in the dark and cold waiting for the iconic Budapest spa to open. I’d already been up for hours thanks to every traveller’s nemesis—jet lag—and made the sudden decision to try and squeeze in a visit to the famous Szechenyi baths before our cruise ship was set to depart Budapest later that morning.
We hopped out of the cab, and were welcomed by the soft glow of lights from inside. Hooray, it was open! And not only was it open—there was already lineup of early risers.
The Széchenyi Thermal Bath
Hungarians (or Magyars as they call themselves) take bathing seriously, so in retrospect we shouldn’t have been surprised by the queue. Budapest has earned the moniker ‘City of Baths’ thanks to the many Turkish spas scattered around the city, filled with steaming thermal water promising healing properties.
The Széchenyi spa (pronounced she-che-knee) is one of the country’s most famous spots to soak, as it dates back over a century and is one of Europe’s largest public baths. Located in the Pest side of the city, it’s now home to 18 pools including three huge ones outside and 15 smaller interior baths. The hot spring water is said to be therapeutic, and helps soothe ailments like joint diseases and chronic arthritis.
We made our way up to the counter and paid around $20 each for our two hour stay, then slipped on one of the plastic watches which allows access inside and would also open our changing cabin. We soon found ourselves stepping back outside into the darkness, with the brisk air coaxing us towards the steaming pools that lay ahead.
We plunged in, immediately relaxed by the 38 degree bath that warded off the winter chill, and a light breeze made the steam swirl up, creating a mystical fog all around us. The only sound was the low chatter of other bathers, greeting each other and the morning as we let the thermal waters envelop us.
Though it was hard to pull ourselves away, it was apparent the massive Széchenyi thermal baths complex had much more for us to discover. We dragged ourselves out of the pool, grabbed our towels to ward off the chill of the cold December air around us, and hurried inside towards the famous saunas.
Széchenyi baths and pool
Széchenyi hosts piping hot steam chambers and saunas, which warm you up so quickly from the inside out that you’ll be sweating in just a few minutes. As we sat in complete silence in one of the sweltering dry saunas (men and women aren’t separated here), my brain screamed at me to leave while my jet lagged limbs embraced the experience.
When my heart began pounding and I simply couldn’t take the heat any longer, I slipped my sandals back on and headed straight to a fountain full of ice chunks, which I held against my blazing forehead. Just a few feet away, a couple of older men had plunged into a frigid pool, a technique designed to increase circulation.
We then set about exploring the rest of the Széchenyi thermal spa, making our way past showers, indoor plunge pools, massage tables and even an Aquafitness area. It was clear this was the type of place you could easily while away an entire day, and emerge refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
With the time ticking quickly down signalling it was almost time to head back to the ship, I slipped back into the warm outdoor pool. By now the sun was rising, casting a pink and baby blue haze across the sky like cotton candy.
I finally understood the secret all those early risers have been keeping from the rest of us, about the sacred silence of the morning. And it was clear that starting the day at the Széchenyi Thermal Bath was the perfect way to greet it.
Tips for visiting the Széchenyi Thermal Bath
Bring two towels: You’ll want one to cover up with while moving between pools, and one to dry off with before you leave. If you don’t have any, towels and robe rentals are also available.
Szechenyi Baths opening times: The indoor and outdoor pools, steam cabins and saunas open at 6 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. every day of the week, though hours can change on national holidays. Try to get there right when it opens, to enjoy the sunrise from the comfort of the steaming thermal pool. Another benefit is there are way less people there first thing in the morning: the Széchenyi Thermal Bath has been known to look more like a Las Vegas pool party during busy afternoons!
Szechenyi baths price: Széchenyi Thermal Bath tickets cost around $19 at the front entrance (click here to see current prices). A better option is to buy this skip the line ticket which costs about the same, gives you full day access and means you won’t have to wait in line. Click to book
There are also packages that include a massage, or cocktail cruise down the Danube River:
Spring for the cabin: There are both lockers and cabins available to rent at Széchenyi, offering a secure place to leave your belongings as you soak. The cabins give you space to change privately, and only cost a bit more than renting a locker. If you go to the bath with one or two other people, there’s still plenty of room to hold everyone’s stuff.
This article was originally published in January 2016 and updated in May 2020
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