When you think ‘winter escape’ you probably envisage a sun-soaked, long haul destination, right? Well, Budapest may not have the ‘sun’ during the winter months, but with the world’s finest array of thermal baths, it certainly has the ‘soaked’ part well and truly covered! If you can’t afford to head south of the equator during winter, this eastern-European jewel is definitely the next best thing
Ordinarily when you hear snow and ice crunching underfoot, you’re wearing shoes. Not today. Sporting nothing but swimming trunks, I’m trying my best to look dignified as I run across a frozen courtyard. As the cold air bites, I hold my breath and resist the urge to shriek. Seconds later I plunge into Széchenyi’s warm waters with all the grace of a sack of potatoes and let out a long, satisfied “aaaaahhhhhhhh…”
Nestled within Budapest’s main leafy park, Széchenyi Baths (left) are pure heaven, boasting 12 thermal pools, some inside, others outside, with temperatures ranging from 26 to 38°C. While I’m not sure of the accuracy of the claims that the waters have healing properties, I can vouch for their relaxation powers. The air is below zero, but the micro-climate created by the steam means you could comfortably float here all day long. Some sip beer, some play chess on floating boards, others just lay back and watch the vapour vanish into the night sky.
While there are plenty of things to do in Budapest, it’s worth the trip for the thermal baths alone. Budapest has more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital city in the world. There are 118 springs in Budapest, providing over 70 million litres of thermal water a day, and each bath house is a really different experience. Gellért Baths, on the bank of the Danube river, are part of a sumptuous hotel complex and are akin to swimming inside a cathedral. They claim to have built the world’s first wave pool in 1927, which you can enjoy outside in the summer months.
Rudas Baths (right), just down the road, date back to the 16th century and feature an octagonal pool beneath a 10 metre wide dome supported by eight pillars. Occasional beams of sunlight pierce the dark, humid space through coloured glass above. On men-only days, the place is electric. Bathers go naked, apart from a small white apron worn to protect ones modesty. Prepare for smouldering eye contact.
When your rumbling stomach finally lures you from the baths, you must try Menza. In Hungarian, the restaurant’s name means “dreary school canteen”, but one look at the well-heeled patrons, the modern, varied menu and the inviting interior design and you’ll realise it’s anything but. It feels like fine dining, but without the price tag – a main costs around £7 and a bottle of Hungarian champagne is less than £11 (menzaetterem.hu).
A walk to the citadel atop of Gellért Hill is the perfect way to get your bearings and to take in the breathtaking views across Budapest. Here you’ll see how the two halves of one of Europe’s oldest cities come together – Buda on the west bank of the Danube, and Pest on the east. Marvel at the beauty of the colossal Parliament building – third largest in the world.
Where to stay?
If you’re looking for the most opulent address in Budapest, you must spend a night at Gresham Palace. This Four Seasons Hotel is located on the Pest side of the Chain Bridge and was once a palace. The art nouveau building dates back to 1827 and was unveiled in its current form in 2004, after a five-year $110-million restoration.
The foyer makes a spectacular first impression, with its two million-piece mosaic tile floor, grand, sweeping staircase, dazzling glass chandelier and stained-glass floors. Expect pure luxury: interior lights in the closets, TV controls in the bathroom, premium toiletries and inviting beds that are difficult to say goodbye to.
Gresham Restaurant is located in the lobby and offers both Italian and Hungarian specialities. The service is sleek and seamless, the ambience sophisticated. There is also our Bar and Lobby Lounge located in the Peacock Passage, where you can sip martinis beneath the magnificent glass cupola while a pianist plays into the evening.
The on-site spa features seven treatment rooms, including a sauna, steam rooms and a whirlpool. Try their signature treatment – the Classic Hungarian Body Wrap, which uses a mineral-rich Hungarian Moor mud.
Best of gay Budapest
GT travelled with British Airways from London Gatwick to Budapest Ferihegy. British Airways fly to Budapest Ferihegy from £79 one way (ba.com) including airport taxes and charges per person. GT stayed at Four Seasons Gresham Palace fourseasons.com/budapest. Rooms start at €290 per night. Be sure to only use licensed, pre-booked taxis in Budapest.