The first Hilton to open behind the Iron Curtain and one of the first Western hotels to set up in Hungary, this Buda landmark was quite controversial when it was unveiled nearly half a century ago. But what’s it like to stay there today? We basked in the historic surroundings and panoramic views to find out.

Staying at the Hilton means you have Budapest’s most historic sights right on your doorstep. For the length of your stay, you walk out into the Castle District, look around, take photos and see everything as a tourist would, this being the prime destination for all first-time visitors.

Pest floats in a flood of light streaming through the Fishermen’s Bastion, the Danube and Parliament even more magical after dark. Yet if you’re lucky enough to bag a guest room with a river view, you can take in the panorama from the comfort of your own bed. And there are other benefits, too...

Guest experience

We Love Budapest’s Guest Experience series profiles Budapest hotels that invite our staff to visit at no charge, but with the understanding that we may include negative impressions in our coverage. Hotel management is not allowed to review these articles before they are posted.

Hilton history

Most locals have seen the Hilton building many times from different parts of the city or up close, but never crossed its threshold. Opinions are divided about the building, which contrasts with the historic environment and can be easily seen from the Pest embankment, but this is much more about the misunderstanding about late modern architecture than about the hotel itself.

In fact, when you arrive, you are greeted by the beautifully restored monumental façade of the former Jesuit dormitory and the remaining wall of the Nicholas Tower.

The opening of the first Hilton in Eastern Europe was as much of a sensation as it was a scandal: on the one hand, it was amazingly cool for a top Western hotel chain to break through the Iron Curtain and set foot in a Socialist country – although life was already quite lax in this relatively soft dictatorship.

And why the scandal? For the same reason that some people aren’t happy with the building today, the fact that it was built on the ruins of a 13th-century Dominican church and convent, right in the middle such a historic setting, was too much for many to accept.

We will deal with the issue of architectural integration later, but it’s also important to know that at the time, this site was a huge pit, overgrown with weeds. This is how it had looked from the Siege of Budapest in early 1945 until the late 1960s. During the war, bombing destroyed the Jesuit college, while the fate of the Dominican monastery had been sealed much earlier, during the recapture of Buda from the Ottomans in 1686.

The construction of the hotel was preceded by serious archaeological investigation. As with everything built in the area, operations could only go ahead in strict compliance with the rules of monument protection.  

The plans for the Hilton Budapest, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1976, were drawn up by Béla Pintér. It was his suggestion that the entire hotel be built on the destroyed complex, so the building itself could remain relatively low. Beyond the surroundings and the panorama, this is what makes Hilton really special: few hotel guests can say that they have slept amid the ruins of a Gothic church, behind the facade of a 16th-century Jesuit college.

The architect also integrated the columns, as well as the remains of the former Miklós Tower, in the new building – the latter functions as a connection between the north and south wings. As you cross the bridge, it feels like walking around a medieval church tower, as if in Harry Potter.

You’re struck by how the light filters through the coloured glass and brickwork, falling onto the furnishings of imitation codices and ancient books, and the leather armchairs below.  

As you cross the threshold of the Hilton, you’re immediately impressed by the interior, as the design, rich in friendly colours, geometric shapes and unique decor, is not about exaggeration but pure elegance.

After a kind welcome at check-in, sitting over coffee in the Lobby Café & Bar allows you to bask in this luxury, the comfortable armchairs offering a great view of the former Dominican church. And it’s one not only reserved for hotel guests – the coffee and cake combo can be enjoyed by anyone, so if you want to make your rendezvous particularly special, the Hilton can be recommended, and at a price that’s surprisingly affordable.

A room with a view

Of the 332 guest rooms, you can choose a panoramic view of the Danube and Pest, or one that overlooks the listed houses of the Castle District – but you can also sleep in a room above the colourful sweep of Zsolnay tiling covering Matthias Church.

We spent the night in a panoramic room overlooking the Danube, from which we could pick out not only Parliament and St Stephen's Basilica but also the outlines of the Buda hills and Megyeri Bridge way in the distance – with the Fishermen’s Bastion right under our noses.

If you’re looking for the perfect Insta photo, this room would be perfect, because sitting at the window, wrapped in the duvet, you can almost imagine the bed being pulled right up close. To get the full panoramic effect, even though you’ll be tired from walking all day, set the alarm for 4.30am and experience the whole thing at sunrise, it's pure magic.

And, assuming you’re now awake, you can refresh yourself with a little workout, as the gym can be accessed 24/7 with your room key – although the sauna is currently out of service.

This being a five-star hotel, you don’t have to pack toiletries, but if you’ve left anything at home – toothpaste, say – room service is 24/7. In-room dining is also available round the clock, breakfast from 6am-11am, all-day 11am-11pm and late-night 11pm-6am. And, if you want to dress for dinner, every room has an iron and ironing board.

Panoramic dining

After a little more exploration of the medieval ruins and bell tower in the north wing, the LÁNG Bistro & Grill provides ample reward for weary sightseers. When you book, try and get a table with a panoramic view, especially after dark – it’s gorgeous.

The current menu is understandably concise but covers the classics, with no little variety too. Among the salads, there’s one with smoked rainbow trout and salt-roasted beetroot, soups are the traditional Hungarian goulash and farm chicken, while pork schnitzel and veal stew feature in the mains.

Sadly, there are no domestic choices among the desserts, although the summer fruit in the rice pudding give a little seasonal zest. The drinks list is extensive, Pátzay Chardonnay and rosé from Badacsony an affordable and acceptable wine choice, the range of pálinkas featuring top brands such as Árpád and BestilloService, as elsewhere, is impeccable.

For a little stroll afterwards, a wander around the Dominican courtyard allows you to admire the chandelier of yellow and orange glass, artwork crafted by Hungarian hand.

Your stay will almost certainly be bookended by a decent breakfast (6.45am-10.30am) back at the LÁNG Bistro & Grill, and one last look at that jaw-dropping view of the Fishermen’s Bastion – at least, while you're still a hotel guest.

Hilton Budapest
District I. Hess András tér 1-3
Guest rooms from €125 – book here. Parking from €40.