Budapest is a strong contender for the title of Europe’s best city break. Its beautiful neighbourhoods, either side of the Danube, have a solid range of often rather weird attractions, plus lots of thermal baths to splash around in. It’s also great fun — the ‘ruin bar’ scene is hugely enjoyable, while craft beer pubs and street food truck or stall clusters are popping up constantly. Budapest is still pretty cheap, too, and works for families, for couples and for stag and hen dos. A significant proportion of hotels are housed in grand old buildings from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, meaning relatively few bland, cookie-cutter options. There’s also a strong apartment scene, with numerous mid-range places that fall somewhere between aparthotels and Airbnb. Location plays a part — there’s a vast gulf in personality between pretty-but-quiet Buda and energetic, unashamedly urban Pest — but on the whole, the city is supremely walkable, so this division is by no means pivotal.
Best for art: Bohem Art Hotel (£)
The name isn’t an oversell. Walk into this converted stationary factory, and you get a full blast of big wall murals, bold paintings and weird, alien-like sculptures. There are giant artworks behind the beds, while opposite the lifts, pictures of the factory employees who once worked here give a nod to the past. It somehow manages to be that rare thing — a design hotel that doesn’t reek of pretentiousness. Rooms are modest, but highly likeable, and free snacks, tea and coffee are doled out in the bar between 2pm and 5pm. Rooms: Doubles from €80 (£71), B&B.
Best for rooftop relaxation: Continental Hotel Budapest (£)
Very few Budapest hotels do the rooftop thing, but the Continental is a marvellous exception. Weird, leaf-shaped sun loungers look out over the Buda Hills, the Citadel and St Stephen’s Cathedral, while an eight-metre pool is just long enough for laps. If it’s a little chilly, there’s an identically sized pool under a roof inside. Come down from the roof, and you find that everything else is equally fascinating. Half of the lobby is under what looks like a barrel-vaulted glass tunnel, the entrance door is made of copper, the wallpaper looks like it’s basket-woven, there are mosaics in the bathroom, and there’s a giant mural of a Budapest street scene several stories up in one of the courtyards.Rooms: Doubles from €116 (£103), room only.
Best for nightlife: Casati Budapest Hotel (£)
Close to the marvellous ‘ruin’ bars and several equally excellent non-ruin bars around Kacinzky Street, the Casati is in a great spot to enjoy a rowdy weekend. Inside, there are plenty of rather likeable design quirks, such as the TV mounted on a pole so it can be turned either towards the bed or the sofa. Or the entrance hall almost entirely filled with an art installation that appears to be a forest of giant tulips. Or the pop art-style faces painted on the bedroom doors. It’s fun, and friendly too, with free tea, coffee, cakes and fruit until 4pm, while the climbing plants absolutely everywhere give it a back-to-nature vibe. Rooms: Doubles from €113 (£100), B&B.
Best for romance: Buddha-Bar Hotel (£)
From the outside, it’s a handsome 19th-century building with wrought-iron railings. Inside, it’s something wildly different. Giant Buddha heads, oriental stone statues and backlit, red-panelled walls with peacock motifs downstairs give way to number plates outside guest room doors decorated with Chinese dragons. The look is unashamedly seductive, ladling on the red-and-black colour scheme, mood lighting and shimmery furnishings that wouldn’t look out of place in a Shanghai-set Bond film boudoir. Big, sink-in bathtubs and ludicrously high-tech heated toilet seats are among the other touches in rooms that you just want to, ahem, canoodle in. Rooms: From €180 (£160), room only.
Best for food: Prestige Hotel Budapest (£££)
A recurring theme in Budapest is lobbies set in former courtyards under audacious glass roofs, and the Prestige arguably pulls this off more spectacularly than anywhere else. A polished, black marble floor, gorgeous iron railings, grandstanding shimmery lights and a monster chandelier bring the wow factor. In the guest rooms are more than a few Arabic hints, including rather spectacular blue-and-gold velvet sofas. But the real highlight is downstairs. Costes Downtown, the scion of Costes — Hungary’s first Michelin-starred restaurant. Focused heavily on traditional Central European dishes with a twist, it was awarded its own star in 2016. Rooms: Doubles from €116 (£103), room only.
Best for a splurge: Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest (£££)
Opposite the landmark Chain Bridge, the word that springs to mind with the Gresham Palace is ‘sumptuous’. It’s a pitch-perfect piece of reined-in art nouveau — never going overboard with the flourishes, but managing to pull off something truly dreamy. There are peacock-emblazoned iron gates, beautifully curving archways leading to stained glass roofs and endlessly pleasing specks of Mackintosh- or Lloyd Wright-esque detailing, while rooms come with rich red marble bathrooms, super king beds and soaringly high ceilings. There’s a grace and splendour about the place that never feels OTT. There’s a thoughtfulness about it, too — as typified by the provision of carry-on-friendly plastic toiletries bags in the bathrooms. Rooms: Doubles from €375 (£333), room only.
Best for Grand Budapest Hotel Fantasies: Corinthia Hotel Budapest (££)
Don’t expect the quirky, morally dubious staff of Wes Anderson’s Central European caper, but the Corinthia was formerly known as the Grand Hotel Royal, and comes with the sort of eye-popping lobby, wide corridors and enormous ballroom you might expect. The hotel’s three buildings are unified by two lavish glass ceilings, turning former passageways into atriums. The rooms have calming, neutral colours and big, comfy beds, but the spa’s the star. It has its own lift, so you can head there in your bathrobe without doing the walk of shame through the lobby. A huge pool awaits, plus a steam bath, whirlpool bath and a gorgeous stained glass roof. Rooms: Doubles from €206 (£183), room only.
Best for Buda: Art’Otel Budapest (£)
The Art’Otel serves as a showcase for American artist Donald Sultan, with over 500 of his splodgy paintings dotted around the hotel. There are also some enjoyable quirks, such as bedside tables made of bowling balls. Right next to the Danube, the best rooms offering views across the river to the Hungarian Parliament building, or the other way, to the castle. Rooms: Doubles (that can fit an extra bed) from €71 (£63), room only.
Best for families: Danubius Health Spa Resort Margitszigit (£)
This spa resort complex is built on thermal water springs, with several pools operating at different temperatures. But even if you don’t dip a toe in the baths, Margaret Island — which the resort is set on — is great for kids, with swathes of green space, hypnotic dancing fountains, a mini zoo, and six-seater, self-pedalling contraptions for hire. Rooms: Doubles (that can fit an extra bed) from €81 (£72), room only.
Best for backpackers: Maverick City Lodge (£)
Perky hostel-hotel hybrids are all the rage in Central Europe these days, and the Maverick pulls it off by keeping the dorms on one floor, and private rooms on another. The latter have rails and open shelving and bathrooms with heated towel rails and free-standing basins. The communal kitchen is poky but, making up for this, are free social events four times a week, ranging from a good feed to a wine-tasting session. Rooms: Dorm beds from €10.50 (£9.30), private en suite doubles from €42 (£37.30).
Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)