As with most legendary events, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction when taking measure of Budapest’s Sziget Festival. The annual music-and-arts extravaganza is said to be the biggest, longest and most diverse music festival in Europe. Set on Old Buda Island in the middle of the Danube, Sziget (which means “island”) draws up to 500,000 people. The line-up for this year’s performances was stellar: including Ed Sheeran, Foo Fighters, Martin Garrix, Macklemore, Twenty One Pilots, Foo Fighters and The National.
Still, it’s not hard to find respite from the revelry. Five miles south along the Danube you’ll find the heart of old-world sophistication at the foot of Chain Bridge (Szechenyi lanchid), the first permanent Buda-Pest crossing. On the Pest side, Four Seasons Gresham Palace is the most glamorous lodging in town. A spectacularly restored Art Nouveau showpiece, the building was Budapest’s most prestigious residential address when built by the Gresham Life Assurance Co. in 1906 as their foreign headquarters plus apartments.
World War II kindled the decline of Gresham Palace — its famous iron peacock gates were literally blown off their hinges as the Germans blasted the Chain Bridge. Now new peacock gates honor the originals: after two years of reconstruction, the Four Seasons re-opened the Gresham in 2004. The splendor of the restoration is in the details — the lobby’s soaring glass-domed ceiling that dangles a chandelier of Bohemian crystal leaves; stained glass windows through three grand stairwells; and tile mosaic floors in the hotel atrium.
Of the 179 rooms, those facing the Danube command the best views in Budapest, including the balconied Presidential Suite that features an imposing marble fireplace, gilded ceilings and dining room plus kitchen with separate staff entrance. What was once the unused portion of the vaulted roof now houses the hotel’s spa, centered around a raised infinity pool whose water spills into a moat of ebony rocks. Or you could also retire to the bar with a shot of Palinka, a 40-proof Hungarian brandy made from fruit. The hotel also has a fine Italian restaurant, Pava (meaning peacock), and a traditional coffeehouse that was a staple of the original Gresham Palace.
The arrival of Four Seasons was just the beginning of a building boom that now has Budapest buzzing with cranes and construction crews. Poised to convert to the euro within the next few years, international investors are racing to pour money into the city, and already, a fashion district has started to take shape with Gucci, Cavalli and Armani slated to move in this fall.
If you still want to find a slice of old Budapest though, meander through the historic downtown to a treed square along Gerloczy street. On the ground floor of an 1892 building is Gerloczy Cafe and Brasserie, whose tables spill onto the sidewalk. Just recently, the three floors above the eatery — connected by a romantic spiral staircase — were converted into a hotel with 15 stylishly furnished guestrooms, three of which have French doors leading to iron-railed balconies. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve walked into a Parisian scene — Spielberg used Gerloczy as the location of a Paris café in the movie Munich.