The Water of Winter: Thermal Baths in Budapest

By Abi King | Hungary

Jan 27

Thermal baths of Budapest via @insidetravellab

Thermal Baths in Budapest

The steam rising out of the drain cover caught my attention first. It was a cold, vengefully cold mid-winter morning in Hungary as I paced along the tarmac, limbs mechanical yet numb, face frozen, eyes rimmed with weather-induced tears.

Everyone was cold. I saw it in the hunched shoulders and stooped spines of the commuters who huddled past, bundled beneath thick duffel coats, pressed scarves and peaked hats.

Which was why the drain surprised me.

Whimsical fingers of mist curled through the gaps, growing thinner as they spiralled up towards the sky, the sky which experience told me still loomed overhead but which I avoided looking at in case I inadvertently exposed another sliver of my neck to Budapest’s biting air.

No, these wisps of steam alone could tell me that I was on the right track, that my heavy, hurried feet were carrying me towards the Szechenyi Baths.

Baths in Budapest Outside

Baths in Budapest

Thermal baths are to Budapest what baguettes and boulangeries are to Paris or yellow taxis are to New York. From the Szechenyi, to the Gellert, to the Lukacs, a range of extravagant, resplendent buildings reside on both the Buda and Pest sides of the city, plunging beneath the earth to draw up thermal waters for the benefit of cleansing and healing its citizens, not to mention providing the necessary environment for a game of chess.

That’s right, chess. I’d seen the iconic pictures, now I longed to see the real thing.

Thanks to the lovely people at the Budapest Tourist Office, I’d been granted the right to take photos within the Szechenyi Baths. No thanks to the hideous behaviour of one woman at the admission gate, most of that time was lost. A story for perhaps another day, despite its insight into life before and after the fall of the iron curtain and the interesting debate about clothing, steam and near freezing temperatures.

Eventually, I was in – and the clock was ticking.

Baths in Budapest near Entrance

Baths in Budapest changing rooms

Changing Rooms: Cropped to Protect Those Within

I raced through the subterranean changing rooms with their peeling paint and faint sense of psychiatric prisons from films of the 1950s. I strode through the exercise rooms with skull-capped water aerobics classes that reinforced that impression. I threw those ubiquitous swimming hats for shoes across my feet and burst into the fresh air of the central area of the Szechenyi Baths…

That reedy steam I’d seen clawing through the drainpipe outside now billowed and bellowed across the outdoor pools, cloaking and claiming swimmers who soaked in its scorching path, not to mention the stony Venus who twisted her spine around to watch.

Here in the heart of Hungary, I watched thermal water turn to vapour in the home of Budapest’s oldest thermal bath (on the Pest side of the city at least.)

And while cold air turned my rapid breath into clouds, I found a place for playing chess.

Playing chess in Budapest Baths

Medium shot playing chess in budapest baths

Baths in Budapest Statue

Swimming in Budapest baths

Baths in Budapest two men beneath steam

Baths in Budapest panoramic


It also forms part of the #IronRoute project – a journey from Istanbul to Berlin that criss-crosses back and forth across the former Iron Curtain. Read all about it here.


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on

Lisa January 27, 2012

The photos are all stunning and capture the atmosphere so well, however, I love the men playing chess in the baths – full of character!

    Abi King January 30, 2012

    They were concentrating so hard…It took so long for me to get their attention to ask if I could take photos!

Camels & Chocolate January 27, 2012

I went here at night in 2005 and LOVED it. It was snowing, too–we were there over Christmas–and the setting couldn’t have been more perfect (if not a bit chilly).

    Abi King January 30, 2012

    Wow. I think snow’s the only thing that could have topped that view.

dtravelsround January 29, 2012

When i was there it was cold and drizzling. Nasty weather. But, those baths … mmm. Gorgeous pictures!

    Abi King January 30, 2012

    Bad luck ;)

Katrina January 29, 2012

I love hot springs and thermal baths, but what I love best about this post is your photos. So beautiful! Great pictures of the steam, especially. Brava!

    Abi King February 1, 2012

    Thank you! Makes all the hassle worthwhile ;)

Abby January 29, 2012

That first photo is amazing — and where I’d do anything to be right now!

    Abi King February 1, 2012

    Me too! Such a lot of muscle tension between my shoulder blades right now…

Cam January 29, 2012

Your photos make me want to go there right now – mission accomplished! ;-)

Dalene January 29, 2012

Amazing, amazing, amazing. So love these photos Abi. :)

    Abi King February 1, 2012

    Thank you!

Jim @NeverStopTraveling February 1, 2012

I’ve been to Budapest a couple of times but never went to the baths. You’ve made my mind up to go next time I’m there. By the way, your photos of them are great.

    Abi King February 1, 2012

    There are some indoor ones as well – but if the sky is clear then these outdoor ones make quite an impression. I hope you enjoy them.

Nina F February 2, 2012

I could feel the warmth on my skin as I passed through the frigid air into the billowing steam of the Baths! I am ready to swim a few laps in the shimmering blue pool surrounded by all that ornate architecture.
Thanks for the vicarious visit!

    Abi King February 3, 2012

    You’re very welcome! Hope your muscles feel more relaxed as a result :)

Gerald February 26, 2012

Will be going there in may. Is this the best bath to recommend. Are they any indoors / gender separated baths ?

    Abi King March 10, 2012

    There are definitely indoor baths – but I’m not so sure about the gender separation. Check out – I think he went to Budapest recently. Enjoy!

Hai March 1, 2012

Marvelous Budapest.This is why i like traveling.So much to see out there.

Abi King March 10, 2012


Jill March 10, 2012

Incredible photos! They really captivate the scene! I love the picture of the old men playing chess. This is definitely a way to live!

    Abi King April 15, 2012

    Yep – that’s certainly the way to retire!

Ohhh, I’d love to go to a bath sometime and maybe even play chess :)

    Abi King April 17, 2012

    Me too! I only did half the job ;)

Daniel Meloy April 16, 2012

Fantastic post Abi! These photos are amazing! My sister was just in Budapest a couple weeks ago, but I had no idea that these amazing baths existed. I love playing chess, and I can only imagine how luxurious it would feel playing chess in those amazing baths. Do you have any other photos you could share of your trip around Budapest?

Anne Standing April 25, 2012

These pics are amazing! I went to these baths when in Budapest, and enjoyed having an outdoor game of chess. We stayed in the hostel at the top of castle hill- the views out of the window were incredible. Did you find somewhere interesting to stay in the city?

    Abi King December 6, 2012

    Alas no. I had a bit of bad luck with my accommodation in Budapest…

Jennifer June 4, 2012

Great photos! My favorite baths are the Szechenyi. It’s just so relaxing! And the atmosphere is amazing to be outside in the cold yet perfectly comfortable in the warm water.

    Abi King December 6, 2012

    And the sprint to and from the changing rooms just adds to the experience!

Natalie T. November 16, 2012

I really miss the Budapest baths. I’m sure it’s an entirely different scene in the winter. We never saw the chess players in the water so thanks for the stunning photos! That said, Gellert was my favourite. :)

    Abi King December 6, 2012

    I never got to Gellert…Maybe next time!

Nic Hilditch-Short February 26, 2014

This is amazing, brilliant photos. We are planning on going to Budapest in the next few months, I never expected that there would be such a place like this in the city. Looking forward to our trip!

Comments are closed