going somewhere: budapest

let our senior editor diane be your budapest tour guide.

by diane vadino

I'm no snob about where I sleep. For example, I have slept in a car--specifically, a 1990 Nissan Micra--in the parking lot of a Russian truck stop. I have slept in the Singapore airport (twice), in an ATM vestibule (once), on the floor of a bathroom at the nicest hotel in Laos (food poisoning), and, once, so thoroughly obscured in a pile of laundry that my college roommate didn't realize I was there until morning. That said, I love few things like a really beautiful hotel, and I love the one I'm in, right this moment, so much that I had to write to you about it.

I am about hotels the way some people are about shoes, or motorcycles, or handbags: I am hopelessly in love with hotels in general, and in particular, with the Four Seasons in Budapest, also known as Gresham Palace. It sits at the foot of the city's Chain Bridge, on the eastern bank of the Danube River. It was designed by Hungarian architect Zsignmond Quittner in 1904 as the site of the Gresham Life Assurance Company. (Fact: It made use of something called a "central vacuum system," which meant that cleaners could simply attach a tube to a nozzle embedded in the wall--instant vacuum.)

It was occupied by Soviet soldiers during World War II and fell into disrepair, housing, at various intervals, a Chinese restaurant, a casino, and a hair salon. Seven years ago, it reopened as a Four Seasons after an $84 million upgrade. Now, it may be the prettiest site in a beautiful city.

Budapest is famous for its Art Nouveau buildings, but this may be the loveliest among them--especially as two of its chief competitors, the Museum of Applied Art and the Royal Post Savings Bank, are under renovation. I am prone to exaggeration, but its lobby may, nonetheless, may be the most beautiful hotel lobby in the world, with a vaulted glass ceiling, a chandelier made of hand-crafted crystal leaves, and a mosaic floor comprised of--literally--over a million tiles. My favorite place in the hotel, though, is not the lobby but the peacock staircases. The hotel is built around a large central courtyard, so the stairwells are washed in bright sunlight that passes through stained glass to illuminate the incredible detail of the iron-worked birds.

Actually, my favorite place in the hotel is in bed. From here, I can see out the windows to the Royal Palace of Buda, illuminated at night and now home to the Hungarian National Gallery. If I walk to the window and look north, I can see Fisherman's Bastion, a Neo Gothic confection that looks like the home of a fairy-tale princess but is only a century old. In a room this nice, the view is enough, which is the only problem with staying in the perfect hotel: I'm not going to see nearly as much of Budapest as I should.