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Bathers splash in the pool outside Hotel Gellért, home to Budapest's most iconic public bath. (Photograph by Hans Hildenbrand, National Geographic Creative)

Throwback Travel: Budapest’s Bathing Beauty

Geothermal and glorious, Budapest’s Gellért Baths opened in 1918, the year that marked the end of World War I and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s collapse.

The Art Nouveau complex, slathered with sculpture and mosaics, tempted locals and visitors alike with its effervescent natatorium, mud baths, and treatment rooms for ailments of every kind. In the Roaring ’20s, when this gaggle was captured frolicking in the outdoor pool, the spa’s future looked as bright as its waters.

However, bombs from a second world war and a descending Iron Curtain took their toll on the therapeutic icon. Following decades of decline, a major makeover in 2008 restored the Gellért to an imperial gleam.

Here are a few memorable takeaways from the soak of a century:

  • The bath’s adjoining Hotel Gellért is a storied four-star hostelry known as the “First Lady of Hungarian Tourism.” Really.
  • There’s a reason they call Budapest the “City of Spas.” The city, which spans the Danube, is built over more than 100 natural springs that feed its many bath houses. On the whole, Hungary boasts some 1,500 thermal springs, 450 baths, and the biggest thermal lake in Europe, Lake Hévíz.
  • The first structure to inhabit the site where the Gellért complex now stands was built in the 13th century—a hospital erected by Hungarian King Andrew II’s doctor—to make use of the healing waters below the Earth’s surface. Invading Turks built baths in Budapest in the 16th century.
  • The Gellért’s trademark tiles were made by Zsolnay Porcelain Manufacturing. Still around, the company now sells ceramics to IKEA.
  • One of the outside pools boasts a Jazz Age wave-making machine—the first of its kind. Installed in 1927, it’s still making a splash.
  • The Gellért’s thermal pools were long segregated by sex. Bathers swam nude or wore a kötény, a modest apron. In 2013, management allowed men and women to bathe together. Swimsuits that “cover the most important gender essentials” are now required.
  • The bath treatments on offer at the complex include a unique salt chamber where patrons inhale salt-scented air for relief from asthma and other respiratory problems.
  • One Hungarian bathing beauty you wouldn’t want to meet: Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Perhaps the most prolific female serial killer of all time, Bathory is rumored to have soaked in the blood of young girls she had murdered. She was bricked up inside a castle in present-day Slovakia in 1611, where she died three years later at the age of 54.

Andrew Nelson is a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @andrewnelson.