European high society comes to wine and dine at The Hotel Nemzeti in Budapest

Fancy a midnight snack? When you see a gargantuan room service menu that features items like cream of apricot soup, pork roulade, goulash and tortilla with Hungarian sausage, there's no confusing which country you're in.

For Hungarians like to eat and drink as if there's no tomorrow – as frequently there almost wasn't in their history – and the best hotels in their capital city Budapest reflect this all-consuming appetite for good food, fine wine and bonza beer.

The Hotel Nemzeti Budapest is the perfect example. Although it has only 80 rooms, it has its own restaurant as well as a cafe, buzzing bar and huge in-room menu, and an enviable history of wining and dining high European society through the years.

Dating back to 1896, it's these days an MGallery by Sofitel, run by the world's biggest hotel operator Accor, and just last year became a member of Historic Hotels Worldwide. A stay there, a short walk away from all Budapest's many attractions, gives a wonderful taste of the city's colourful past.

When it opened in the late-19th century, the five-storey building housed the most sophisticated hotel in town, with every room having electricity, both hot and cold running water, and en suite bathrooms, in addition to Budapest's first elevator to get you there.

But its greatest moment came when the national theatre, set up in 1837, moved in 1908 to a site just a few blocks away. With the theatre the bourgeoisie's only entertainment option, suddenly the hotel became the place to stay for all the patrons and artistes, and the top venue for eating, drinking and socialising.

And with Budapest becoming known as one of the most exciting cities in Europe, it was a clientele as glittering as their surrounds.

Today, the hotel retains much of that magical atmosphere. The theatre, sadly, is long gone, but the hotel is still a heritage neoclassical architectural wonder, with a magnificent red-carpeted baroque marble staircase winding its way up, and pausing before full-length mirrors at every turn.

The restaurant sits beneath a ceiling decorated with leadlights and Venetian mirrors, there are stucco flourishes on walls and ceilings throughout, and black and white photos in the bar show the hotel at various stages of its life.


The rooms themselves, however, have undergone a complete renovation and are contemporary and comfortable, each with a feature wallpapered wall and a stencilled design on glass doors into the bathrooms.

There's free Wi-Fi, a coffee machine and kettle, a flat screen TV in each room and, happily, a speaker in the bathroom, so you can listen to the news while showering. The building also features an infra-red sauna for guests' free use, complete with a timer to make sure you don't stay in too long.

As a boutique hotel, there's a level of personalised service, with staff – men in jaunty green and black bow ties and women in waistcoats – amenable to both early check-ins and late checkouts if possible, and a degree of quirky individualism that gives it real character.

Never before have I been given – and quite possibly never again – a jar of blood-red nail varnish among the free toiletries, along with a gift of a pretty, locally made enamel bracelet.

The location is special too. It's just a few doors down from the renowned New York Cafe, the stunning 1894 Italian Renaissance-style palace frequently acclaimed as the most beautiful cafe in the world; a walk to the vibrant Jewish quarter; and close to the city centre and shopping.

The Hotel Nemzeti Budapest also takes its cues for its operation today from its past, launching a series of exhibitions, cultural events and an art club, all aimed at making the hotel a centre of artistic and social life once again for the 21st century. As hotel manager Edit Vaszily says, "We are delighted to give our guests a taste of the cultural values of Budapest, so they can spread the word all around the world."

But its cultural culinary heritage isn't neglected at all either. Duck liver marinated in red wine, butterfish blaha-style or a signature burger, anyone?

And then you can't go past my personal favourite, the poetically named gyumolvsdsalata. Fruit salad has never tasted as exotic.



Qantas, Qatar Airways and Emirates all fly to Budapest with only one stop, in either Dubai or Doha.


Hotel Nemzeti, Jozsef Krt 4, 1088 Budapest, Hungary. Rooms for two from $250, including breakfast. Phone +36 1 477 4500. See


Sue Williams was a guest of APT touring and Accor Hotels.