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The baths of Budapest have a long history, stretching back to Roman times. The thermal baths were popularized by the Turks who started building them in 1565 giving them a place to bathe in case of a siege on the city. Budapest and other parts of Hungary are built over hot springs making this a natural way of acquiring the mineral rich waters for bathing. Hungarians and other Europeans are great believers in the medicinal powers of thermal bathing with all of the thermals being medical clinics as well for the treatment of skin, muscular, and bone ailments. Even if you are not in need of the health benefits, time spent in thermal baths will lift your spirits. The Király's construction was started by Arslan, Pasha of Buda in 1565, but was completed by his successor. The Rudas, also built in the 16th century by the Turks, still functions today. Both are among the architectural achievements of the Turkish period. The Rudas boasts a 10m (33 ft) diameter dome, sustained by eight pillars with an octagonal pool. From 1936 until 2007, it was only for men. Today, women alone are allowed on Tuesday. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- Budapest's "golden age" -- several fabulous bathhouses were built: the extravagant and eclectic Széchenyi Baths in City Park, the largest spa complex in Europe; the secessionist-style Gellért Baths; and the solid neoclassical Lukács Baths. All of these bathhouses are still in use and are worthy of visiting. Most baths in Budapest have instituted a complicated new pricing system (dubbed the "refund system") that charges a flat fee, and then according to the time you have spent in the baths, you get tiny refunds, barely an incentive to leave early if you are enjoying your time. You receive a chip card upon entry; keep careful track of the card because if you lose it you are assumed to have stayed for the maximum time and you will not receive a refund. All of these bathhouses can be found on the same website, www.spasbudapest.com.

Thermal Bathing 101

Thermal bathing is a social activity deep within the Hungarian culture and each bath has its own set of rules, which can change without notice. Bathhouse employees tend to be unfriendly holdovers of the old system, and still have a civil service position since most baths are owned by the city. Most do not speak English, and have little patience. Many foreigners find a trip to the baths stressful or intimidating in the beginning, but plunge forth, it is a cultural experience and they are not pinpointing you for their woes. Try to spot a resident and follow their example of what to do. Explore once inside and you'll find you will feel comfortable and confident within minutes. The best advice is to try to enjoy the foreignness of the experience, because after all, this is the reason you are here.

The most inhibiting part may well be when approaching the ticket window, with the long list of services and prices, often without English translations. Chances are you're coming to use one of the following facilities or services: uszoda (pool); termál (thermal pool); fürdo (bath); gozfürdo (steam bath); massage; and/or sauna. There is no particular order in which people move from one facility to the next -- do whatever feels most comfortable. Most of the thermals are also medical clinics, therefore, many services will not apply to you. Towel rental is törülközo or lepedo. Few places will provide a towel or sheet for drying off -- if you don't want to rent one, bring your own. An entry ticket generally entitles you to a free locker in the locker room (öltözo); or, at some bathhouses, you can opt to pay an additional fee for a private cabin (kabin). Either way, an attendant will lock the door for you and give you a token on a string to keep getting back in. Hence, going in and out of the locker or cabin is going to irritate the workers.

Remember to pack a bathing suit and a bathing cap if you wish to swim in the pools so you won't have to rent vintage 1970 models. Lukács requires a bathing cap for both sexes and for all thermals and pools. Long hair must be capped when bathing at the other facilities. In the single-sex baths -- Rudas, Lukács, Gellért, and Király -- men are provided with a loin cloth; bathing suits are frowned upon. Purity of the water is my guess, or they like the tush view. Who knows? You may want to bring your own towel with you into the bathing areas in a plastic grocery bag. Flip-flops are also a good idea. Shower before getting into a thermal or pool. Soap and shampoo are only allowed in the showers, but you should bring everything you will need from the locker or cabin to avoid multiple trips and having to hunt down the attendant to unlock the locker. Some of the waters are high in mineral content, so you will most likely want to shower well and shampoo your hair before leaving. Depending on the pool, you may find a strong sulfur smell, but remember it will do glorious things for your skin. If you can see without them, leave your glasses in your locker as they will get fogged up in the baths.

Generally, extra services (massage, pedicure) are received after a bath. Locker room attendants appreciate tips, especially if you plan on returning. A tip of 200 Ft is typical, unless you have repeatedly returned to the locker, then make it a bit more. Masseurs and manicurists expect a tip in the 500-700-Ft range. There are drinking fountains in the bath areas, and it's a good idea to drink plenty of water before, during, and after a bath. Bathing on an empty stomach can cause nausea and light-headedness for those unaccustomed to the baths. Some of the pools will show that you should not stay in the hot water for more than 10 minutes at a time. Most bathhouses have snack bars in the lobbies where you can pick up a cold juice or sandwich on your way in or out, but you must eat it there. Stay hydrated.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.