Thermal Spas and Ruin Bars: Inside Hungary’s Vibrant Capital

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The Gellert Baths. Photo by Joe Mabel

Hungary’s vibrant capital, Budapest, has everything you could want in a European travel destination – great food, beautiful architecture, and exciting nightlife. Even though Budapest has every hallmark of a popular travel destination, it has stayed under the radar until recently.

Budapest is located in Central Hungary, bisected by the Danube River. The city is actually broken into two parts- Buda and Pest, which occupy opposite sides of the river. Buda and Pest actually existed as two separate cities until the late 1800’s, when bridges across the Danube connected the two to form one large city. Today, these two areas have very distinct vibes. Hilly Buda is quiet and historic, and it’s home to some of the city’s most impressive attractions like Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle. Pest, on the other hand, is lively and exciting, and it’s home to some of Budapest’s best shopping and nightlife.

Two things that make Budapest an incredibly unique travel destination are its thermal baths and ruin bars. Sure, you can find thermal baths in other cities, but the large number of spas and the bath culture in Budapest make it unlike anywhere else. According to Lonely Planet, there are around 125 thermal springs underneath the city, and people have enjoyed this natural resource since the days of Roman occupation. Hungarians refer to bathing as “taking the waters”, and it’s still a major part of the culture today.

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Szimpla Kert, the first and best known ruin bar. Photo by Jorge Franganillo

There are a number of baths you can visit. Some of the most popular baths include Szechenyi, Gellert, and Rudas. The over 100-year-old Szechenyi Bath is the most popular with tourists visiting Budapest, and it features 18 pools spread out across the beautiful, ornate building complex. This bath also hosts bath parties (also called “spa-rties”), where visitors come in their swimwear to party all night long in the water. For a more relaxing, healing experience, you might want to check out Rudas Bath, a Turkish bath dating back to 1550. These two baths represent two of the drastically different spa experiences you can find in Budapest — and there’s several baths that offer an experience somewhere in the middle.

After spending a day “taking the waters,” there’s nothing better than spending the night hopping from one ruin bar to the next in the Jewish Quarter. Ruin bars are a must-see when visiting Budapest because they’re unlike any regular dive bar or pub you can find. A “ruin bar” is a bar built in a ruined space — like a former apartment building or parking lot. The bars are usually furnished with a random assortment of tables and chairs and eclectic décor. Ruin bars aren’t fancy places by any means — they’re scattered and grungy — but the friendly and unique experience is not one to miss.

There are countless ruin bars throughout Budapest, but the most popular bars are concentrated in District 7, home of the old Jewish quarter. Szimpla Kert is recognized as the first ruin bar — it opened the doors of its current location in 2004. Since then, ruin bars have become synonymous with Budapest’s nightlife. Szimpla Kert is a great bar to start with if you’re visiting Budapest for the first time because it has all the classic “ruin bar touches” (which makes sense because it started the trend).

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Széchenyi Chain Bridge (over the Danube river) from Buda Castle, via Wikimedia. The domed building at far left is the Hungarian Parliament

If you’re looking for more of a club experience with DJs and dancing, check out a bar like Instant. This ruin bar is spread across over twenty rooms in an old apartment building, which creates a labyrinth layout. You could spend hours walking through the structure, finding dance floors, secret bars, and maybe even a late night ska band.Like the different thermal baths, the variety of ruin bars in Budapest presents a number of options for your night out. Ellato Kert and Taqueria is a ruin bar with Mexican décor and eats, and it’s great starting point for a night out in the city. Corvin Club & Roof Terrace is a rooftop ruin bar with great views of the city and parties that don’t stop until 6 AM.

Between the thermal baths and the ruin bars, there’s no doubt that Budapest is a very unique travel destination. The city is architecturally stunning, with its iconic Hungarian Parliament building at the center. With all the culture and history of larger European cities, Budapest is a perfect destination for people looking for an awesome European vacation without the hoards of tourists you’d find in Paris or Rome.

Article by Elizabeth Rhodes. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, and her website. Also, check out her guide to Charleston, South Carolina.