We wanted to visit one of the thermal spas with our children whilst in Budapest, but I couldn’t find the information I needed online about whether to take them and what to expect when we got there, so this post is primarily to help anyone else in the same boat.
The City of Spas
One of Budapest’s (and Hungary’s) exceptional features is that it is rich in thermal springs and aquifers. As a result, baths, day spas and lidos are an integral part of life in the city all year round. It has no less than eight therapeutic spas and several lidos filled with thermal waters with proven health benefits. There are currently 123 natural hot springs and drilled wells that supply around 70 million litres of thermal water at between 21 and 78 degrees Celsius to the city’s spas every day.
The scale of the bathing culture and the number of thermal baths really is unmatched anywhere in the world, which is why Budapest long been called the City of Spas. The locals here take their bathing quite seriously, as they have done since Roman times. And there is something for everyone too, with baths ranging from sedate, single sex bathing, through family water parks with slides, to nighttime pool parties with live music and disco lights.
So, all in all, we felt that a visit to Budapest really wouldn’t be complete without bathing in one of these world-famous thermal spas. But which one to choose? There is an official website for all of the thermal baths, spas and lidos in Budapest (www.spasbudapest.com), which provides information about the different options available.
However, when we started looking at it and trying to decide, we came up against another problem: much of the advice given out suggested that the thermal baths weren’t recommended for children under 14. Now it wasn’t so straightforward. Now we had another dilemma: should we take our children to one of the thermal spas at all?
Should We Take Our Children to a Thermal Spa?
Reading online there seemed to be conflicting advice as to why bathing wasn’t recommended for children – was it because bathing in the water wasn’t good for them or was it simply because the bathing houses wanted to avoid themselves becoming a playground for children with noisy pools full of inflatable toys and armbands? What was even more confusing is that some of the baths seemed to say that bathing wasn’t recommended for children under 14 and yet they had a child’s entrance fee listed as one of their tariffs.
To be honest, most of the objections seemed to be based around the fact that the spa was aimed at adult bathers and they seemed quite keen to keep families away and direct them towards one of the lidos instead. They pointed out that the area for relaxing around the pools was of stone rather than grass and that there are no slides or shallow toddler pools, all of which may be relevant if you are thinking of taking very small children with you. Also, babies who aren’t toilet trained are not allowed in the water at all, even with a swim nappy on. Most of this wasn’t really relevant to us as our children are older and can swim.
However, the other piece of advice about whether you could take your children to the thermal baths seemed more concerning. On the Széchenyi Baths website it stated that “As most of the outdoor and indoor pools and baths at Szechenyi Baths are more than 33 degrees Celsius, which means increased stress for the cardiovascular system of kids, whose body is not fully developed yet to be able to cope with the heat of the bath waters.” However, when I Googled it, most advice for newborn babies is that they should be bathed in water that is at about body temperature (37 degrees Celsius), so this argument didn’t seem to make sense.
Our children didn’t need armbands and we knew we could trust them to be behave in a sensible manner whilst at the baths, so we decided to take them in with us. And we are so glad that we did. BUT, we didn’t let them bathe in the hottest pools and we didn’t allow them to spend too long in the water. If you are planning on taking your children to the baths, you will have to make up your own mind as to what you consider safe for them based on their age and maturity.
Which Baths, Spa or Lido to Choose?
As I said, you can look at all the spas, pools and lidos on the website www.spasbudapest.com to help you decide which one is for you. In the end we chose Széchenyi Baths because they seemed to be one of the biggest and had many different pools, both inside and out, where the water was at different temperatures. We therefore thought that there would be at least one pool suitable for the children to go in. We could’ve gone to one of the lidos, like Palatinus Strand on Margaret Island, which is all set up for family fun and also has a thermal pool for bathing, but we wanted our children to experience not just the bathing but the atmosphere of the baths and the history of the bathing culture as well. So, what was it like?
Széchenyi Baths was built in 1913 and its buildings are lavishly decorated in a modern renaissance style. With a total of 21 pools, it is the biggest thermal spa complex not only in Budapest, but in the whole of Europe. It was also the first spa to be built on the Pest side of the Danube. When it was built it had private baths and separate bathing facilities for men and women. Today bathing is mixed at all times and its medicinal thermal waters are said to be particularly beneficial for joint problems. Its waters are sourced from a depth of 1,246 metres, where the water is at a toasty 76 degrees Celsius (168F)
Széchenyi also has its own website: http://szechenyispabaths.com
Arriving at Széchenyi Baths
The entrance to Széchenyi Baths is very grand and elegant, although not plush in the way of a 5-star hotel. Remember, this is basically a public swimming pool. The first person to greet you as you step through the door will probably be trying to sell you a spa or massage package where your entry fee is included and you get to use a separate area of the complex that is set aside for the customers of the company providing the package. These looked very appealing and the photographs showed areas that looked slightly more luxurious than the rest of the baths. There were massage packages available with food and drink included and the use of a separate area for relaxing, but most of these were still using the same pools for bathing. However, I’m guessing that if you have children with you, you probably won’t be taking this option.
At the sides of the entrance hall you will find the main ticket booths and the price you pay to get in depends on what options you choose, for example whether you want a cabin or a locker and whether you want to include any treatments. You can find the full list here: http://www.szechenyibath.hu/prices
You will be given a plastic ‘watch’ that you have to wear at all times whilst in the baths. If you have rented a cabin, one of your watches will also serve as the key to the cabin. You have to have either a cabin or a locker, but which to choose?
Should you hire a bathing cabin?
Hiring a cabin at Széchenyi Baths gives you somewhere private to change and to leave your clothes and bags whilst you are bathing. For us, hiring a cabin was a fun part of the experience. Using one felt like stepping back in time because they have a bit of a vintage look, with their wooden surrounds and black and white tiled floor. I almost expected to see someone emerge from them wearing a knee-length striped bathing suit with matching cap!
However, they are quite small and are by no means luxury, having just a tiny wooden bench and a few hooks on which to hang your clothes. You will only need one between a family, but you will have to take it in turns to get changed. One other advantage is that the cabins are on the ground level and so are closer to the pools and therefore more convenient if you need to go back to pick things up (such as a camera, drinks or snacks) from there during your visit.
If you don’t hire a bathing cabin, you can use the changing facilities in the basement of the complex, where you have the use of a locker in which to put your belongings. These were clean and bright, but had no private area in which to dry yourself and change.
As you reach the cabins, there is an attendant on duty who programmes your ‘watch’ and tells you which cabin is yours for the day.
What about renting/hiring towels?
You don’t have to bring your own towels with you to the baths as you can hire them there, but it does add to the price, especially if you’ve got children with you and you need to hire 4 or 5 towels, so you may want to bring your own if you have them. The downside to that is that if you are doing more sightseeing, going out for dinner or whatever afterwards, you may end up carrying wet, heavy towels around with you. Apparently the queues for collecting and returning towels can also get quite long, so this might be another consideration if you are visiting at the weekend or in peak season, although it wasn’t a problem for us on our visit.
If you hire towels at the baths, you have three options:
- A proper towel – think of the sort of towel you might get in a normal hotel bathroom. These aren’t huge and aren’t that fluffy, but are perfectly good. They cost 1000 Forint each per day to hire (that’s about £3 or US$3.80).
- A sheet – literally like a cotton sheet you would put on a bed. These cost 500 Forint each per day to hire (that’s about £1.50 or US$1.90)
- A bathrobe – these are simple towelling robes and cost 2,500 Forint per day to hire (that’s about £7.25 or US$9.35)
One other thing to note: you will need to provide a deposit of 2000 Forint for each towel you rent, 1000 Forint for each sheet or 2500 Forint for each bathrobe, refundable when you return the item. You also need cash to pay for the deposit and towel hire.
What will I need to take with me?
- Swimming costume or trunks – obviously! Unlike some European countries, there was no problem with men bathing in swimming shorts, so budgie smugglers weren’t required, but nude or topless bathing wasn’t allowed.
- Swimming cap – If you want to properly swim in the large central outdoor pool where there are lanes marked, you will need a swimming cap, although if you don’t have one of these you can buy one there.
- Flip flops or something similar – it was a hot day when we visited and we found that the paved areas around the pools got so hot they hurt our feet to walk on them, so some sort of waterproof slip-on footwear like crocs or flip flops is recommended.
- A book or something to do in between dips in the pool.
- Snacks and/or lunch if you are planning to stay for the whole day and especially if you are taking children – you can get things to eat and drink, but the café was really rather poor and grotty (see my note below).
- Some cash – whilst you can pay for your entrance with a credit card, if you want to rent towels you will need cash for a deposit and to to pay for the towels themselves.
- A plastic bag in which to take your wet swimming gear home.
Note: If you are on a city break and you didn’t think to bring your swimming things with you, you can buy (or rent) swimming costumes and trunks there. You can also buy flip flops, towels, swimming caps and goggles, all from the shop in the main reception area.
What is there to do once you are there?
The first thing to note is that going to Széchenyi Baths isn’t like taking your children to a water park. If you want this sort of experience with slides and fun in the water, you should try the pool complex on Margaret Island called Palatinus Strand.
Visiting Széchenyi Baths is very much a grown up experience, particularly in the indoor pools where everything is very sedate and quiet.
The Outdoor Pools
Outdoors you have a choice of 3 pools at different temperatures:
- A thermal pool (38 degrees Celsius/101F)
- A whirl pool or ‘fancy bath’ (32 – 34 degrees Celsius/91F)
- A swimming pool (26-28 degrees Celsius/81F) which is for lane swimming and for which you need to wear a swimming cap
One thing to note is that the outdoor thermal pool is quite deep – our youngest couldn’t stand up in it. It was also too hot for the children to stay in for more than a couple of minutes. Their (and our) favourite was the whirl pool. The water in here wasn’t too hot and it has what is called a ‘whirling corridor’ where the water is pumped around a narrow circular corridor in which you get pushed along by the flow. It is great fun to float around in it, although getting out of the flow isn’t that easy!
We didn’t go in the swimming pool: we hadn’t taken swimming caps with us and although we could’ve bought these there, no-one was bothered about serious lane swimming when there was relaxing in warm water on offer.
There are free loungers around the outdoor pools and we found two of these in the shade on which to put our towels and to use when we weren’t in the pools. We hadn’t brought books or anything to do whilst not bathing but this would be a great way to while away the day, in between dips in the pools.
The Indoor Pools
Inside the Széchenyi complex there are a further 11 pools, all at varying temperatures. The first thing you notice when you step inside is that the sulphurous smell of the water is much more apparent and the water itself has a more murky appearance. This is due to all of the wonderful healing minerals dissolved in it and the water is actually medically certified to help with all sorts of orthopaedic problems like arthritis and inflammatory or degenerative joint conditions.
We tried out one of the really warm pools, whilst the children watched and took photographs from the side. It was fun to relax in the warm water and then get out and step straight down into one of the cool plunge pools. These were at 20 degrees Celsius (68F) and felt absolutely freezing! My skin was tingling all over, in a weird but not unpleasant way, when I got out. We then found a slightly cooler pool that we could all enjoy together, although once again we only stayed in the water for a short time. It should be noted that even for adults, it is not recommended that you spend too long in the hot pools.
One end of the indoor part of the complex was given over more to medical treatments and these pools were not for general use. Széchenyi has lots of services and treatments that are only available with a medical prescription. One pool had a hoist available to lift people into and out of the pool and the water at this end of the complex was particularly murky and sulphury. The water at Széchenyi is certified medicinal and contains calcium, magnesium-hydrogen-carbonates, chloride, sulphites, alcalia and a significant amount of fluoride.
There were also saunas and steam chambers available and plenty of showers to rinse off before and after bathing..
Food and Drink at Széchenyi Baths
After all this soaking and relaxing, we needed something to eat and made our way over to the cafeteria. This was the one part of our experience that was disappointing and we wished we had taken our own food in with us, which you are allowed to do. Eating in the cafeteria is very casual and you are welcome to enter in your swimming costume, which is convenient because it means you don’t have to dry and change in order to get some food. But, it felt rather cheap, with plastic tables and chairs that could’ve done with a good clean and fairly dismal and unappealing food options. There were some wooden tables and benches outside, but the ones in the shade were all taken and it was too hot to eat in the direct sun.
As I said before, you are allowed to take your own food and drink into the baths and I would definitely recommend doing this if you are going to be there over lunch time. The only proviso is that you aren’t allowed any glass bottles, which is understandable.
As well as the cafeteria, there were several places to get drinks, including alcohol, and even a ‘beer spa’ where you get an individual thermal bath with a beer tap at the side and can soak for 45 minutes and drink as much as you like/can during that time. Obviously we weren’t doing this with the children!
We also discovered from a leaflet on our way out that every Saturday during the summer, Széchenyi Baths have spa parties (sparties for short) in the outdoor pools where they have music and the pools are lit up. Alcohol is also available and the whole thing looks pretty wild. It looked great fun, but again, not for children!
To sum up:
It was a great experience visiting Széchenyi Baths whilst we were in Budapest. The grand, classical style of the buildings and pools helped us imagine what it must’ve been like for people bathing through the centuries and even gave us a glimpse into what the old Roman and Turkish baths might have been like. It was fun to feel like we were doing something that generations of visitors and locals alike have enjoyed – a typical Hungarian bathing experience. However, you should be aware that it IS still a public baths and wasn’t as plush as I had imagined it would be. The main activity to do is simply to sit and relax in the warm water, which is a bit like soaking in a hot bath. There were enough ‘cooler’ pools that we felt were ok for the children to go in for a short time and they really enjoyed the outdoor whirlpool area. The children were welcomed at the baths and we never felt that there was any problem with them being there.
At the end of the day, everyone has to decide what they are happy with for their own children. We didn’t let the children go in the hotter pools and we only let them bathe for a short time – it should be remembered that even for adults it is not recommended to stay in the thermal water for too long. You could spend all day at the Baths and spend time reading and relaxing around the outdoor pools in between dips. All in all, our children loved the experience and seeing all the different pools. They got to smell the sulphury water and learnt about the minerals it contained and how it was heated. I think we spent a total of 3 ½ hours there and this was plenty for us. The girls said that they had enjoyed themselves but they didn’t want to stay any longer. They said, “It was fun dipping our toes into the pools and feeling how hot the water was.” They added, “But the indoor pools were really smelly! The best bit was floating around in the whirlpool – the one that wasn’t too hot – that was really fun!”
We had gone with Andy’s sister Anne and brother-in-law Martin, and they stayed after we left to enjoy the thermal waters and the atmosphere of the baths for a bit longer.
All in all, it was a great day out. The only thing I think Széchenyi could’ve done better would be to have more interesting food options available and to improve the cafeteria area. Oh, and it would’ve really helpful if they had provided small plastic bags to take your wet swimwear home at the end of the day.
What about you? Have you ever taken your children to a thermal spa? What was your experience?