Bath vs Budapest

ABOVE Locals playing chess in a bath in Budapest, Hungary
ABOVE Locals playing chess in a bath in Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, with its healing waters, has just met its match in the rejuvenated spa city of Bath


LOCATION Bath is about 100 miles (160 km) west of London

POPULATION Around 80,000

VISITORS PER YEAR Nearly 4 million day visitors to the city

DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 48°F (9°C); Apr: 57°F (14°C); Jul: 72°F (22°C); Oct: 61°F (16°C)

Budapest is commonly seen as a kind of nirvana for spa-lovers. Since the invading Ottoman Turks introduced communal bathing to Central Europe in the 16th century, Hungarians have embraced the culture as their own. Such a mythology has built up around this city that it’s easy to forget there are many equally great spa towns found around Europe.

One example is the city of Bath in the heart of England’s West Country, whose long history of bathing dates back almost 2,000 years to when the Romans built the first baths here. The city underwent a revival in the 18th century when people flocked to its reputedly healing waters, but gradually interest waned and in 1978 the baths were closed due to lack of funding and a health scare.

Today, the UNESCO World Heritage City of Bath is seeing another revival following the opening of a new spa that throws down the gauntlet to Budapest.

Thermae Bath Spa, which opened in 2006, draws water from the same natural source used by the Romans, though it is cleansed of harmful bacteria –

and of the sulfurous smell that pervades Hungary’s baths. It is a monument to luxury, with five floors of pools, steam “pods,” and treatment rooms. Take its rooftop facility: on a cool evening, thick clouds of steam rise and part to reveal a clear pool dotted with swimmers immersed in its warm, mineral-rich waters. There’s no better way to unwind than lingering in the gentle Jacuzzis here while surveying the rooftops of creamy Georgian buildings glowing in the sunset, as pigeons fly past at eye level.

It’s not just thermal waters that make Bath one of Europe’s great cities. This is a thriving place with fine theaters, cinemas, live music, and great restaurants, shops, museums, and art galleries. While the Danube is undeniably beautiful, this British university town has its own pretty river, the Avon, crossed by the charming Pulteney Bridge. Bath is also renowned for its splendid Georgian architecture, and has a thriving pub and club scene to which its Central European counterpart can only aspire.


Roman Baths and Pump Room The original Bath spa is fascinating to visit. Built as a temple and sanctuary in around AD 70, the ruins are in very good condition, with Roman plumbing that still works. The adjoining 18th-century Pump Room, once a rest center for the sick, is now a daytime restaurant that offers spa water on the drinks menu.

Royal Crescent This sweeping semi-circle of elegant Georgian buildings is the architectural pride of Bath. Of the 30 houses designated most historic, the two central buildings are now occupied by the luxurious Royal Crescent Hotel.

Bath Abbey The 15th-century Abbey Church of Saint Peter, with its 52 stained-glass windows and magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling, is the West Country’s finest example of Gothic Perpendicular architecture.

Climb the tower’s 212 steps for fantastic city views.

Pulteney Bridge Built for businessman Sir William Pulteney by Robert Adam in 1773 to develop the Avon’s east bank, this is one of only four bridges in the world that is lined with shop buildings. Below it, the river drops down an attractive weir.


The capital of Hungary, which boasts grand Baroque architecture and pretty tree-lined boulevards, is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. The majestic Danube River, which separates historic Buda from modern Pest, is spectacular at night when each bank is illuminated by a string of lights. There are many historic spas around the city.
Budapest has the air of having seen better days. The most popular spas are often packed with tourists, despite their crumbling appearance and sulfurous smell.
The city seems to lack nightlife, with the center all but deserted on a weekend evening. Food here is generally hearty but unsophisticated.


Visit a spa for a unique cultural experience. It is where locals gather to discuss the issues of the day and men play chess on the side of the pool. Head for Buda for its historic streets and a fantastic view of the city from the Fishermen’s Bastion. In winter, don’t miss the Christmas market on Vörösmarty Tér.


Getting There and Around

The nearest airport is just outside Bristol, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Bath, but most international visitors will come via London Heathrow Airport.

Bath is well served by national trains and regional buses and is 10 miles (16 km) from Junction 18 of the M4 motorway.

Where to Eat

The food scene is well established in Bath, where there are several award-winning restaurants and a multitude of independent and chain restaurants serving all kinds of cuisine. The Hole in the Wall is a great choice offering modern British cuisine. Some of the country’s top chefs trained here, yet it’s remarkably good value, with meals for US$45 per head.

Where to Stay

If you’re in Bath for a pampering weekend, then choose a luxury hotel to match. The 4-star, boutique Queensbury Hotel is in the city center, a short walk from the Thermae Bath Spa.

When to Go

Any time of year, but avoid the height of summer, when Bath gets busy. Britain’s weather is changeable, but in the Thermae rooftop spa, it doesn’t matter too much what the weather is doing.

Budget per Day for Two

Around US$500 for your hotel, a 2-hour spa session and meals.

There are no travel costs as all sights can be reached on foot.

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