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Baths & Beaches & Saunas   previous
 
The Changing Scene of the Budapest Thermals
[Note: Parts of the info in this article are no longer uptodate. Please check the listings for the bath houses and comments written by visitors at our page Baths & Beaches & Saunas].

Ryan James (February 2005)

Originally, Rick Rodgers wrote the first article on the Budapest thermals in March of 2001, which appeared on this website. Since cities are ever-changing, the article needed updating by 2003, which I did; however, now there are some major changes that now need to be addressed. The focus is mainly on the two baths, which will be of particular interest to the gay tourist.

"Historically, Budapest sits over one of the world's largest hot mineral springs supplies. The Turkish ruler, Arslan, built the first bath in 1565. The hygiene of the conquered was a concern, so these were originally built for hygienic bathing. These evolved into mini health centers where Hungarians go for physical therapy, medical treatments, massage, and other medical services. Some of these services such as massage are available to the tourist also. If you have ever been to the Turkish baths in Turkey, you will be surprised at the differences. Hungarian baths are much more accommodating to socialization, while relaxing in pools of water and not slabs of marble." (Rick Rodgers)

Hungary has a wide variety of thermal baths. The country has applied for EU funds to remodel many of the still State-owned thermals to make Hungary, the "Thermal Capitol of the World". The most famous thermals are in Budapest where they range from luxurious to old and orginal. To read more about all of the thermals in Budapest, this web site is sponsored by the "Fővárosi Fürdőigazgatóság" (Metropolitan Bath Directorate). spasbudapest.com Here you will find updated information on hours and fees for thermals that are not focused on in this article.

You have not had a Budapest experience unless you have visited one of the thermals. Three thermals do segregate the men from the women: the Rudas, the Gellert, and the Kiraly. However, only two thermals date back to the original Turkish times: the Kiraly (1565) and the Rudas (16 century also). The Rudas has been remodeled and has just reopened in January of this year. Note that the Rudas has a reputation for being the thermal favored by the senior segment of the Budapest population. This is a non-gay friendly thermal. It has traditionally been men only, although this thermal, like many in Budapest, offer medical services as well as the thermals. You may observe women going in and out due to this. The Rudas, located at Dobrentei tér 9 is the first stop on the Buda side on the number 7 bus.

Before you venture to any of the baths or thermals, remember that there are significant differences from a gay bathhouse in the States or some other countries. There are no designated areas for sex as this is not the main focus of the thermal experience. This is not to say that it does not occur at times. There are some customs to be followed, but as time goes by, these seem to be changing rapidly also, the effects of tourism, perhaps. The other significant difference is the time limits imposed. This will discussed further below.

The Racs still appears in some guidebooks, but it closed a couple of years ago, was sold, and is going under major reconstruction. From the new design, it does not look like it will continue to be gay friendly in the future, when it reopens.

The Gellert thermal is housed in the famous Gellert Hotel at Kelenhegyi út 4/6. If you take the 47 or 49 tram from the Pest side, the Gellert is the first stop on the Buda side. Facing the hotel, go around the corner to the right and the entrance to the thermal are the large fancy doors you see. In 2003, the Gellert raised their prices considerably. The cost is 2900 Huf for a cabin. This allows you to use the swimming pool as well as the thermal. The pool is males and females together, but the thermal areas are segregated.

You stop at the cashier and pay your admission. When I went, I asked for the thermal only, but still had to pay 2900 Huf, which entitled me to the pool outside, a service that I did not want. You insert your plastic card into a reader and go to the men's locker room. This is at the end of the large hall on the right hand side. You give your plastic card to the attendant there and he will in turn give you an "apron" to change into. You will be directed into a changing cubby upstairs. When you are covered with your little frontal apron, you call the other attendant who will lock your locker and give you an identification tag on a rubber band.

Back downstairs and through the room that you entered, you will find two large thermal pools on either side of a huge room. Each is a different temperature, but both are warm. Beyond this room is a shower area and to the left is a small cold pool. Between the showers and the cold pool is a doorway to go to the sauna. The sauna is kept very HOT! When you first enter the large pool area, you may have noticed a door to your right. Going through there, you will find more showers, and then the rooms in the back will be the dry sauna to the left and the bathroom in front of you.

The advantage of this thermal used to be the unlimited time one could spend here. With the new pricing, you can get a refund that is graduated. If you leave before two hours, you get 800 Huf back, before three hours are over, 500 Huf refund, and before four hours, 200 Huf refunded. When you exit, you need to give your plastic card to the cashier in the booth, before you put it into another reader, since you do not get it back. No one at this thermal seems to speak English, though it should be expected since it is a major tourist hotel and spa. You may get by with some German. The Gellert thermal is open Monday till Friday from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm. On Saturday and Sunday they are open until 5:00 pm.

Now, with the new prices, it just seems overpriced and less frequented than it did in the past. The clientele is majority tourists and less Hungarian, since many Hungarians cannot afford it. You will not find hustlers here. Some men strip off their apron once they are in the pools. In my opinion, the Gellert is overrated in tour books that have not updated their information in too many years. The glory of what was, is fading, chipping, and falling apart.

The Kiraly thermal used to be the first choice for the gay male tourist. Notice the 'used to be'. This establishment has elements of Turkish architecture, with some truly spectacular touches – the octagon dome over the pool of the Kiraly is much-photographed as one of Budapest's finest examples of Ottoman design. It is not pretty inside, but fascinating if you like historical structures.

The Kiraly is on the Buda side. There have been some major changes, so it is best you read through. To get there take the Red Line subway to Batthyany ter. Come up the escalator and turn right. You will see a second escalator. At the top of this, turn right again away from the river. Now facing the square, walk across the square and then cross the street there. Turn right once again and start walking. This street will turn into Fo utca. You should be on the even numbered side of the street. When you get close to the thermal, you will come across stairs going down from the sidewalk. The entrance to the thermals is at the bottom of these stairs.

Men's days are Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Women's days are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This has changed in the past, so it is best to check ahead if you are in the city for a limited time, so that you are not disappointed. On the men's days, you are allowed one and one half hours only, for your 1100 Huf admission fee, but on Saturday, you are only allowed one hour. The admission does include a secured locker to store your clothes as well as a large sheet, which is used as a towel. It is a good idea is to bring a plastic shopping bag with you to put your sheet in as well as your soap and shampoo. There are places to hang it downstairs and the showers are only downstairs. They do not supply any cleansers.

Being a government owned facility; it still holds some of the old vestiges of years past. Some signs are still in Hungarian, Russian, and German, but no English. When you enter, you pay your fee to a cashier. She will give you a receipt. Within ten steps there will be a woman that will collect your receipt and give you a numbered piece of paper (Government in action). To the right are stairs to the thermal locker rooms. In years past, it was not uncommon to find a long line of men waiting for their turn to get into the locker room. However, in the three years that I have lived here, I have never had to wait to get into the locker room. Sometimes, waiting inside for a locker to become available, is necessary. This is one reason why it is time limited. It is a smaller than the other thermals and they depend on people leaving to accommodate others.

When you enter the locker room, you will see a table at the end of the hall. There will be an attendant there to take your numbered ticket and give you a sheet. You are then on your own to find a locker. During busy times, they have opened a room at the back of the walk-in lockers where there are a number of footlockers. If you need to have a walk-in locker, you are welcomed to wait for someone to leave. If you are anxious to get wet, throw your things in the footlocker. Once you are ready, you will lock the walk-in locker with the key in the lock, but then call the attendant. He will also lock the second lock and mark your time on the door. This is when your time starts. If you are using a footlocker, the attendant will have the only key to lock it. He will mark your time on the inside of the door and give you an identification token on a rubber band. Remember your locker number, since it is not on the key or the token!

You will see a staircase at the opposite end of the hall that you entered to go down to the thermals. As you enter, you are walking into one of the shower areas. To the left, in the first room is the cooler pool with the dry sauna room to the left. As you walk through the foot pool, you will see the large warmer pool. To the right of that is a small hot water pool. Behind the large pool is a cold pool with a steam room to the left and another shower room to the right. Be aware of your body's reaction to the heat in the dry or wet sauna as well as the hot pool.

You can dehydrate rapidly and feel faint if you stay too long without a break. You should make use of the water fountains in the room with the large pool. To work the water fountains, use both hands to push down on the round metal ring, and a geyser of water will shoot up into your face, and if you're lucky, your mouth.

Sad to say the glory days of seeing fine young men naked strutting their goods are over. For the last two years, as the price of admission has gone up, there have been less and less young men other than tourists. The really major change happened just this year. A television reporter from the Hungarian channel news snuck in a video camera into the thermal area. The reports are that he video taped a number of men enjoying the flesh of other men. This was then broadcast on the local news. As one would expect, this created a tremendous public outcry. Strangely, the Budapest Tourist Office had "This thermal is frequented by gay men" on the list of thermals given out to the public. However, having it shoved in people's faces has created problems. Now, everyone has to wear swimming suits or they will not let you in. You must wear your swimming suit in all of the pools and there are monitors who walk around to make sure you are not enjoying anything other than the water. The fun days are over, though some gay Hungarians say this too will pass; it is just a matter of time. Knowing how long it takes to create change here, I think it will take a long time. So, if you want to enjoy the pleasures of other men, you will have to do it in a dryer environment and go to one of the two gay bathhouses, but not a thermal. Remember, you only have limited time, so make the most of it. Overstaying your time limit will incur the anger of the attendant and cost you money.

As your time ends, have a shower to get the mineral water smell off you before getting dressed. Head up to the locker the same way you came down, through the showers. If the attendant is not around to unlock your locker, wait a minute or two. If he still does not appear, there is a doorbell on the wall between the windows. Press it briefly and he will be alerted. Show him your locker and the metal tab if you had a footlocker. He will unlock your locker. When you leave, it is polite to tip the locker attendant 100 to 200 Huf. If you intend to return again during this trip your tip should be toward the higher end. If you went over your time limit, you will do well to have some larger bills ready to hand over.

Every tour book that features Budapest will surely have pictures of men playing chess on floating chessboards in the pool. This is the Széchenyi Fúrdo, one metro stop past Hosok tere on the Yellow Metro. The stop is the same name as the thermal Széchenyi. This fúrdo (bath) is mixed male and female with a variety of pools, saunas, and steam, but bathing suits are required. Men and women use all of the facilities together. You are most likely to find families with their children at this thermal. Due to the integration of men, women, and children, it is not a hot spot for the gay tourist. During the warm weather, the roof top sundeck is open; these are separated men from the women. You are able to sunbath nude there and the word is that there is some action also. Be aware of helicopters and low flying planes.

There is a gradient fee schedule here too.

Locker Cabin
Entrance to facility w/ 1900 Huf 2200 Huf
Leave within 2 hours 900 refunded 900 refunded
Leave within 3 hours 500 refunded 500 refunded
Leave within 4 hours 200 refunded 200 refunded

The fees and refunds are lower for entry after 3:00, 4:00, or 5:00 pm. The opening hours for the pools and thermals are 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, seven days a week. Other services have other hours.

Regardless of where you go, the most important thing to remember is that you are in someone else's culture. You will find that the Hungarians use these facilities as a social gathering place. There is a lot of conversation amongst them and sometimes they will try drawing you into their conversation in Hungarian.

Remember that everyone has a first time, so don't be inhibited about trying the thermals out, if you do not speak Hungarian. Also, if you have the time, I recommend that you try different thermals. You will most likely notice a difference in the clientele and in the playfulness of the experience, not to mention the surroundings. It may not be the sexual fantasy you expected, but you are experiencing a piece of culture you will not likely find in many other countries.

Here are some useful terms to guide you. I would advise against a manicure or pedicure. Their disinfection methods for their equipment may be questionable at times.

General admission: Belépödij
Massage: Masszázs
Manicure: Manikür
Pedicure: Pedikür
Haircut: Hajvágás
Foot massage: Lábmasszázs
Sun lamp treatment:   Solarium

Ryan James is a university instructor in Budapest.

Rick Rodgers is an American food writer. His latest project is a cookbook on the desserts of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague..

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