Budapest is rightly celebrated as one of the great European cities – and an ideal city break destination for Londoners. Flights are relatively cheap and quick; the architecture is beautiful, the nightlife is vibrant, and the dinner bill will have you punching the air in celebration. (Or dancing on the table, depending on how many bottles of delicious wine you’ve consumed at less than £15 a pop.)
Frankly a weekend is selling Budapest a little short. You’ll need time to check out Buda Castle and the sprawling Royal Palace that sit atop the aptly named Castle Hill. Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and among the largest in the world, is also worth a visit. (The largest, unsurprisingly, stands in Jerusalem.)
You know what else is good in Budapest? Baths. The city has a number of thermal baths, situated in gorgeous, historic buildings, some of which date back for centuries. Here you can swim, steam, sauna and socialise – there are as many tourists as locals but you can expect to encounter plenty of both as you do the rounds in your bathing suit. Indeed, the thermal baths are rather like nightclubs, only wetter and with fewer clothes (although I suppose this depends on your taste in nightclubs).
Nightlife is a huge part of the Budapest experience. Things start to get going at ten-ish and continue through the early hours and into the later ones. There are numerous ruin bars around the city: buildings abandoned by the Soviets which have been transformed into social hotspots. Szimpla Kert is one of the most famous, a venue spread over multiple rooms and floors, serving spirits both alcoholic and artistic. Avoid the queues by arriving early or late (basically, not between 10pm and midnight.)
Walk off the previous night’s sins at Margaret Island, a large park with numerous bars, restaurants and similar wholesome activities that happens to be situated in the middle of the Danube. (Worth noting that many of the aforementioned bars and restaurants close in the winter but hey, it’s still very atmospheric.) Crossing the bridge it’s impossible not to marvel at the inherent drama of the city: so many grand and beautiful buildings crowded around the river bend, all overlooked by the Liberty Statue, erected in 1947, brandishing her palm leaf atop Gellért Hill.
Speaking of grand and beautiful buildings, you’re going to need a place to stay. May we be as bold to suggest Matild Palace, a hotel which very much lives up to the palatial aspect of its moniker. Fit for royalty? There are plenty of royalty that wouldn’t be fit for it. Don’t take our word for its beauty: the hotel has UNESCO world heritage status, something you cannot say of the average Travelodge or Holiday Inn.
Matild Palace is a twin: a pair of identical buildings constructed in 1902 at the behest of Princesse Clotilde of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The princess had aspirations of creating a social hub besides the newly constructed Elisbeth Bridge, and like most princess her aspirations were both ambitious and realised in the form of two hulking neo-Baroque mansions on either side of the road.
Initially the buildings housed apartments and studios but then World War II happened, damage from fighter jets and tanks was sustained, and the buildings were abandoned – until Marriott decided to transform the southern mansion into a five-star hotel for the brand’s Luxury Collection. Renovation took five years and Matild Palace is the result – a simply gorgeous hotel kitted out with many of the original features from Princesse Clotilde’s era. (Why isn’t it called Clotilde Palace? You better ask them.)
The main issue with Matild Palace? Resisting the temptation to spend your entire weekend there. Why dine in town when your hotel has arguably the finest restaurant in Budapest: Spago by the legendary Wolfgang Puck. Here you will find local and international dishes created to the highest quality: the seafood pasta and the wiener schnitzel are both must-orders.
Fancy some old-school entertainment? From Thursday-Saturday, Matild Cafe & Cabaret hosts live performances with numerous dancers and singers strutting their stuff. There’s a three-course menu from that man Wolfgang Puck to accompany the showtunes – plus several bespoke cocktails to wash it all down. You’ll feel like a 1920s European socialite and that’s quite the feeling. Make sure you book in advance as lots of other people like to feel that way, too – the place was packed when we visited.
Factor in the rooftop cocktail bar, underground spa and bedrooms furnished to the highest quality, and you might never venture outside. Do so: it's a very special city. It deserves a very special hotel.
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For more info, see Matild Palace