Budapest – Been There

Budapest’s baths hold some moves you might not expect

The Széchenyi Medicinal Bath is the largest in Budapest and one of the largest in Europe. It dates to 1913 and the outdoor pool is famous for its chess players, the best of whom are international level. Budapest-born Judit Polgar, the highest rated woman chess player of all-time, developed a "Skill-building Chess” program that has been introduced into the elementary school curriculum.

Photo by Frank Chmura / Alamy

Budapest – Been There

Budapest’s baths hold some moves you might not expect

Less showy than the city's more famous bathhouses, the neo-Classical Szechenyi and art nouveau Gellert, the Kiraly Baths are less frequented by tourists, and hold far more fascination for me.

Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton Travel Writer

Beneath the 16th-century Turkish dome – one of the numerous reminders of the Ottoman occupation that dot this side of the river – the thermal pool plays host to a fascinating cross-section of Budapest life. There are a few young couples, engaged in a struggle to outdo one another in public displays of affection, but the majority of bathers are in their 50s or older.

The glass panels of the sauna, I discover, are a perfect vantage point for people watching. A skinny middle-aged woman in a floridly floral bathing cap stares shyly out of the corner of her eye at men as they arrive. A professorial old man with glasses and a pointed gray beard tells a story with increasing animation to two teenage girls (his daughters, I first assume), sending water cascading over the side of the pool as he gestures with gusto.

The stories play out in unison. A silver-haired gentleman with a puppyish grin paddles over to the woman in the bathing cap – bringing an apple-colored blush to her cheek as he flirts with equal parts charm and desperation. Middle-aged couples greet one another from across the room, unperturbed by their profusions of flesh: they kiss and whisper and their gossip echoes off the dome.

The professor repairs to another pool, and the two girls – evidently unrelated – begin to kiss one another with increasing ferocity – only to welcome the professor back into their embrace. Nobody seems to mind the ménage – or even to notice.

The Széchenyi Medicinal Bath is the largest in Budapest and one of the largest in Europe. It dates...

The Széchenyi Medicinal Bath is the largest in Budapest and one of the largest in Europe. It dates to 1913 and the outdoor pool is famous for its chess players, the best of whom are international level. Photo by Peter Adams

Peter Adams

Peter Adams

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

Aperture
ƒ/9
Exposure
1/60
ISO
100
Focal
28 mm

The Széchenyi Medicinal Bath is the largest in Budapest and one of the largest in Europe. It dates to 1913 and the outdoor pool is famous for its chess players, the best of whom are international level.