hen it comes to romantic winter breaks, there are a few obvious destinations which spring to mind. Paris? Absolutely. Vienna? Of course. But Budapest? The capital of a former Soviet Union nation best known as a mecca for stag dos probably isn’t top of your list.
Well, allow me to dispel your preconceived notions of this unique city. First a little context: bordering Austria to the west and Romania to the east, there is perhaps no country that bridges the gap between the cultures of Eastern and Western Europe quite like Hungary.
Yes, the legacy of the country’s four decades as part of the Communist Soviet Union are evident in the uniformly unlovely smattering of tenement buildings that surround Budapest’s suburbs and an exchange rate that will rarely see a pint set you back more than £1.50 (see the aforementioned stag dos). But to focus on this period of modern history would be to deny Hungary, and Budapest in particular, a rich culture of monarchy, revolution and empire which, for a time, saw it exist as one of the most powerful political players on the continent.
The result of these disparate eras is a city where you can wander down streets in which intricately decorated buildings informed by the area’s time under Ottoman rule rub up next to austere, imposing concrete blocks before turning the corner to reveal roads that resemble Bond Street or Avenue Montaigne. For travellers visiting during the colder months, the country’s extensive Catholic history means you won’t be left wanting for festive Christmas markets. The effect is at once comfortingly familiar and pleasingly foreign.
It is on one of the city's grand thoroughfares that you’ll find Matild Palace, the newest addition to the city’s portfolio of luxury hotels, which also includes outposts of the Corinthia, Kempinski, Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton hospitality groups. The hotel occupies one of a pair of identical mansions built in 1902 at the behest of Her Imperial and Royal Highness Maria Klotild of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who enlisted renowned local architects Korb and Giergl to create twin baroque palaces that would act as a ‘grand gateway’ when entering the Pest side of the city across the Danube using the new Elisabeth Bridge.
Now enjoying UNESCO world heritage status, the buildings were originally designed for social use, with each offering apartments, offices and artist studios for Budapest’s wealthier denizens. For decades the neighbourhood thrived but, having sustained serious damage from both a fighter jet crash and Russian tank fire during WWII, both were eventually deemed uninhabitable and abandoned.
It was in this state that Marriott took on the challenge – alongside interior designer Maria Vafiadis of MKV Design – of transforming the southern building into a hotel fit to join its Luxury Collection. (Buoyed, perhaps, by its success, the northern building is currently undergoing similar restorations to become part of the St Regis group.)
After five painstaking years of renovation, the restoration of dozens of priceless original features – including Zsolnay ceramic work, Gyula Jungfer wrought iron gates and Miksa Róth stained glass windows – and a disheartening year-long delay due to the pandemic, Matild Palace finally opened its doors in June 2021 as a thoroughly-modern five-star hotel every bit as grand as its royal roots.
Dressed in its Christmas finery for our late November stay, stepping into Matild Palace is to receive a welcome akin to the warm festive greeting for which London’s grand dame hotels have become famous. Now accessed via an ornate passageway that once provided a shortcut for horse-drawn carriages (the building’s original entrance still exists but sports a staircase so grand it proved unworkable as a hotel reception), the lobby is filled with lounging guests admiring a towering Christmas tree and attentive staff waiting to whisk bags to one of the hotel’s 111 rooms and 19 suites.
Said rooms prove a study in blending modern convenience with the beauty of a listed building. Don’t want to bother yourself with tiresome jobs such as opening curtains, turning on lights, or lifting the toilet seat while you’re on holiday? Matild Palace’s automated rooms will take care of those taxing tasks for you. Elsewhere, double casement windows fill an abundance of ceiling height with natural light and allow for views over the Danube, Elisabeth Bridge and Buda Castle, while blocking out noise from the (admittedly busy) road below. In the bathroom and adjoining wet room, glittering blue mosaic tiles echo those found in Budapest’s famous spas – an aesthetic which carries down to the hotel's own Swan Spa found in its lower levels.
And while it is extremely difficult to eat badly in Budapest, should you tire of goulash and paprikash (a dish so abundant that I inadvertently ordered it twice on our first day), Matild Palace’s Spago restaurant offers a point of difference in the city’s culinary scene. Helmed by Wolfgang Puck (he of Oscars cooking fame), with day-to-day operations overseen by Hungarian-born head chef István Szántó, the seasonal menu roams across the globe putting American, Asian and Mediterranean twists on local ingredients. The vibe is relaxed but buzzy. Leather banquettes are full with families dining on pasta and pizza, alongside Friday night revellers raising toasts over sushi and steak, while first daters sip signature cocktails at the sit-up bar to a soundtrack of hushed clatter from the open kitchen.
For post-dinner libations, head to the roof where the hedonistic Duchess bar takes its cues from the glamour of the Belle Epoque period, offering an enticing menu of house cocktails against a backdrop of Budapest’s gorgeous skyline. Alternatively, future visitors will be able to avail themselves of Matild Cafe and Cabaret, a faithful recreation of the Belvarosi Café which was added to the building in the interwar period when the tradition of opulent coffee houses was at its height. Serving coffee and cake during the day, at night it will transform into a full bar and cabaret performance, the hotel hoping to kick things off with a bang on New Year’s Eve.
Boasting a heady mix of location – sites including Buda Castle, the Gellért Baths and St Stephen’s Basilica can be reached on foot – history, gastronomy and old-school European luxury, Matild Palace feels like a fitting reincarnation of a building envisioned as an ode to the sophistication, artistic heritage and international importance of Budapest.
The even better news? There wasn’t a 'Lads On Tour' T-shirt in sight.