Budapest has a bathing culture dating back thousands of years. Today the city remains home to dozens of thermal spas and public bathhouses. Slipping on the flip flops and bath robe to while away half a day in indoor and outdoor pools of varying sizes and temperatures, is one of the quintessential Budapest experiences. This region is blessed with thermal springs, and they have been put to good use ever since those bathhouse devotees, the Romans, arrived in the 1st century.
It’s no surprise that the Romans called this Aquincum, or that Budapest’s reputation for thermal baths would be further enhanced by the hammam-loving Ottomans, who captured the city in 1541. Some thermal spas can still trace their history back to the Ottoman period. For the modern visitor who may have enjoyed a few too many ruin bars, there’s a more important fact about Budapest’s baths: legend states they cure the “Cat’s Wail’ or macskajaj, Hungarian for a hangover.
Choosing which bath to visit is tricky, everyone has a favourite place. We decided on the Gellert Thermal Baths, part of the art nouveau hotel of the same name. Founded in 1918, it has pretty turquoise-tiled pools, and is a relaxed place for the novice bather. The outdoor thermal pool was particularly exciting on a chilly autumn day. Our visit to Gellert allowed us to walk along the river to the Central Market Hall and then explore Újbuda, Budapest’s Bohemian District 11.
We strolled along the waterfront close to the Hungarian Parliament. Built in 1896 to celebrate the 1,000th birthday of the founding of Hungary by the invading Magyars, it is the third largest parliament in the world, rumoured to have 20km of corridors and stairways. After strolling around it, we followed the river to the Liberty Bridge. On the far side of which are the Gellert Baths. First, we made a visit to the late-19th century Central Market Hall.
Made out of dried and ground red peppers, paprika is Hungary’s most popular spice. A visit to the stalls in the market might give the impression that it’s Hungary’s only spice. Paprika stalls proliferate amongst the fruit, vegetable and cured meat stalls, attracting a steady stream of locals and tourists. Each year, Hungarians consume half a kilo of paprika per person. That’s quite an undertaking, but it does find its way into a large number of traditional dishes.
Anyone who has never seen a lot of vegetables in one place before will no doubt love the market, but it’s not a patch on markets in other parts of the world. The real show-stopper is the market’s own metalwork architecture. Upstairs you can buy hot food and souvenirs. It was crammed with tourists. We decided it wasn’t worth the crush and set off across the Danube for the baths. Minutes later we were bathing in a thermal pool in chilly air under a blue sky. It was fabulous.
It was well after lunch when we emerged from the fantastic interior of the baths and headed into nearby District 11 in search of food. This is an up and coming area, that will likely have completely changed in a few years due to gentrification. For the time-being it’s a low-key, youthful neighbourhood that has a number good restaurants and cafes. We ate in Béla, with an interesting art collection on the walls, but this district is blessed with good eating options.
We walked off lunch with a meander through the area, passing traditional bakeries and trendy art galleries until reaching Budapest University of Technology and Economics, home to 20,000 students. This explained all the bars and pubs we’d been passing. Too tired to walk back, we caught the metro to central Pest and discovered the intriguing architecture of Budapest’s metro stations – some of which are truly remarkable.