Budapest is a city with many secrets. Split down the river by the famous Danube River, lies right on a geological fault line. You only need to look at the physical layout of the city to see it. Buda side rises up from the Danube with rolling and rocky hills, and Pest continues into the horizon along a built up flat plane. This unique geology has also left Budapest with another unique feature.
An Underground World
Thanks to this fault line, subterranean Budapest interconnects caves, naturally carved tunnels, caverns, springs and submerged caves. Just like Paris has a hidden network of catacombs interwoven with underground lakes, cemeteries, and hidden spaces, Budapest has around 200 natural caves, which include the world’s largest known active thermal water cave.
The Molnár János Cave measures 7km, filled up with thermal, mineral heavy water at a temperature ranging 20-27C. These subterranean water sources bubbled up from below and carved out the city’s numerous caves, and while most of these caves are now dry, their waterlogged legacy can still be seen on the mineral deposits on the wall.
Nearby Szemlőhegy Cave comes with walls are lined with stalactites and stalagmites, but rather mineral deposits from the water that came up from below. Even the honeycomb-like structure presents many parallels between the caves, something even experienced cave divers will say is unique to the region.
With this abundance of water throughout the city, Budapest earned its nickname “The City of Spas”.
Famed for their curative properties as far back as the ancient Celts, Budapest’s thermal baths play an underlying (and underground) part of the city’s history. The Romans and Ottomans built baths and frolicked in the steaming water, and today crowds of locals and tourists head to the city’s famous spas for a few hours of soaking in the hot water. But it’s not just our bones and muscles that can benefit, drinking the therapeutic waters is said to offer a range of other health benefits too.
All in the Water
As tourists queue up at the more popular spots, like the Széchényi and Gellért Spas, or the Rudas on its co-ed weekends, close by you’ll find the empty “ivócsarnok”, “drinking halls” where you can get your thermal water hot on tap for a few forints.
The one by the Széchényi Baths lies only metres away from the grand entrance to Europe’s largest thermal bath complex, in a 1960s style pavilion which jars with the aesthetic of the nearby neo-classical bathing monument, you can drink the thermal water straight from the ground. Next to the Rudas baths, just under Elizabeth Bridge, three fountains spill out into separate taps, coming directly from the springs under Gellért Hill, and further down the Danube Banks, at the Lukács, you can get a taste for the spring water that comes from the Molnár János cave itself.
The mineral compositions in each spring cater to various health ailments, where at the Rudas, a bilingual menu lists the various chronic conditions each fountain aids. You can drink a glass, a half-litre jug or take home some water for your own medical needs.
Each spa has its own characters, and no trip to Budapest is not complete without a visit. But whether you enjoy a Sparty or soak in the Ottoman relics at the Rudas, Kiraly or Veli Bej, or swim under the art nouveau beauty of the Gellért, take a moment to think about the origin of all this water comes.
Cover photo by Sergey Melkonov.