Budapest is blessed with luxurious lodgings, each with a tale to tell. Some date back to when Budapest flourished as a gilded destination on the Grand Tour. Some are modern-day makeovers of fin-de-siècle landmarks that served a different function when in their original pomp. Many were affected by the same turmoil and transformations of the 20th century that changed the face of Hungary’s capital, now reborn as a cosmopolitan destination of style and standing.
The most striking example, as magnificent as its location overlooking the Chain Bridge, is the Gresham Palace. Fashioned in the Art-Nouveau style of the day by Zsigmond Quittner and József Vagó for the London-based Gresham Life Assurance Company in 1908, this ornate masterpiece also contained equally luxurious apartments.
A patchwork history – it even housed a louche pre-war cabaret – came to an end in the 1990s. The Canadian Four Seasons group then stepped in and, using original plans, reconfigured the whole building as a luxury hotel. Two million mosaic tiles, intricate stained glass and a Preciosa chandelier greet the visitor in the lobby, adjoining a stunning café, a high-end restaurant and a top-quality cocktail bar. Above beckons a panoramic spa.
An equally impressive, more recent conversion, also near the Danube, the Párisi Udvar reopened within the Hyatt’s Unbound Collection in 2019. Built as a bank headquarters 200 years earlier by Mihály Pollack of National Museum fame, the Párisi Udvar was almost completely demolished in the rapid urban development of the 1890s. From 1909, architect Henrik Schmahl built the Downtown Savings Bank, sourcing decorative tiling from Villeroy & Boch in Saarland.
The Moorish-Gothic interior later served as an office for State travel company IBUSZ, and as an ice-cream parlour. The arcade then closed, before being taken over by the Mellow Mood Group in charge of the Buddha-Bar Hotel in the adjoining Klotild Palace. Architects from the Archikon studio then set to work, replacing the original Villeroy & Boch tiling and fashioning another Budapest masterpiece from stained glass, cast iron and mahogany – not to mention an illustrious atrium in the lobby area.
In the heart of District VII, the Continental Hotel Budapest is another outstanding conversion, this time of the spa baths that operated here until the 1920s. Its history dates back a century earlier, when silk trader András Gamperl found mineral-rich waters on this site. Opening a spa in 1827, Gamperl lost everything in the flood of 1838. Local residents then created the Hungária Baths, which gained guestrooms, a colonnaded swimming hall and a glass dome before it made way for Art-Deco apartments.
Art-Nouveau elements also embellishe a cinema here, later a theatre. Today, this high-design four-star features a state-of-the-art spa, the renowned ARAZ restaurant – and the original façade, masterfully revamped.
Divided into four wings – Classical, Jazz, Opera and Contemporary – the award-winning Aria Hotel by the Basilica takes its musical theme to the nth degree, lining the floor of its lavish piano lounge with an extravagant keyboard. At the top, at eye level with the Basilica dome, the HighNote SkyBar serves seasonal cocktails. Star designer Zoltán Varró makes wonderful use of Murano glass and the brickwork from the original 19th-century palace that once stood here.
Varró also transformed a former Masonic Hall into the Mystery Hotel, its history dating back to 1886. Here, members of the 11,000-strong Hungarian Symbolic Lodge, including the most influential personalities of the Belle Époque, convened. During World War I, it was a military hospital, before the Lodge was closed down. For Varró, the Great Shrine on the fourth floor with a church, workshop and partitions the greatest challenge in terms of design and decoration. Here guests now gather beneath a grand chandelier for afternoon snacks. Elsewhere, Doric columns lend a classical touch to the optical illusions and trompes l’oeil that Varró has strewn with abandon throughout this five-star luxury landmark.