Hotels of Florence, A Primer

Hotels of Florence, A Primer

Edina van der Wyck
Edina van der Wyck
In Florence, where you choose to stay speaks volumes about who you are. Here, Christopher Petkanas offers a primer on great hotels that make a statement.

Florence is such an engaging and romantic city, it hardly matters where you lay your head, right?Anyone who thinks that has obviously never spent the night in one of these long-lived, long-loved hotels. Their styles, from reassuringly traditional to briskly contemporary, couldn't be more dissimilar.

Neither could their constituencies, who swing all the way from scholars of E. M. Forster to subscribers to Next. You can spend your whole life looking for the perfect Florence hotel. Or you can read on.

Grand Hotel Villa Medici THE RETRO REDOUBT

Though I should have been drafting a lawsuit—my bags had been left out on the tarmac in Milan for two hours in the rain—all I could think about was my reservation at the Grand Hotel Villa Medici. The place has my idea of a great reputation: it's known for being princely, stylish, and slightly démodé. But delays caused by a violent storm had made it almost certain that I would not be spending the night in Florence.

Then an angel appeared, in the form of the rare pilot who hadn't taken advantage of the bad weather and gone home to a spaghetti dinner and mamma's bosom. When the skies cleared, he flew me and a couple of other stragglers to Florence. It was midnight before I finally pulled up to the Medici, an early-18th-century palazzo that became a luxury hotel in 1961, but the night manager was there to greet me with an easy smile. "Welcome!" he exclaimed, knowing who I was without asking. "No need to register right away. You have two friends waiting for you in the bar. Why don't you relax and join them for a drink?"

You have to hand it to a hotel that can make you forget that your three favorite Borelli linen suits have just been reduced to used paper towels. The barman matched the kindliness and efficiency of the manager with a model Negroni (the trick is the vermouth—it must be sweet). Urns of gladioli and little wedding reception-style bouquets had been set out on the tables, and piped-in, terrifically schlocky old-school Italian pop music filled the bar. As more of the Medici's decorative details began to kick in—effete blackamoors, life-sized ceramic greyhounds balancing potted ferns, ceilings painted with cloudscapes—it hit me that the hotel had not been oversold.

Size and location also recommend the Medici, a haven for travelers of a certain age with a layered knowledge of Florence and no need of a scene. With 103 guest rooms, the hotel is neither so big that the concierge looks at you blankly no matter how many dinner reservations he's made for you, nor so small that you always have the same nattering neighbors at breakfast. The hotel is a block from the Arno and a 10-minute, million-dollar walk from the Duomo. In other words, it's perfectly central, minus the notorious foot traffic that ensnarls many of the city's best-situated hotels.

A charmingly biomorphic swimming pool is snuggled in a walled garden furnished with teak lounges. Seduced by the garden as a setting for lunch, but not expecting much of the food, I was knocked out by white-bean bruschetta draped with satiny, nearly liquid ribbons of lardo, creamy fatback that had been infused with herbs in a marble box. Room-service breakfast had arrived with a lid (porcelain, not paper) thoughtfully placed atop my caffè doppio. When I called for the morning papers, and forgot to remove the Do Not Disturb sign, the bellhop shyly apologized for bothering me. Only in Italy. 42 Via Il Prato; 39-055/277- 171;; doubles from $550.


Is there any more glamorous introduction to Florence than the Hotel Savoy?Not likely. Arrive by cab and you are greeted by a young man who does not look the least bit ridiculous in a top hat and long, dove gray coat. Either he's the greatest actor since Mastroianni or he really is thrilled to see you. Folded discreetly in his hand is a paper with the names of expected arrivals. Would the gentleman by any chance be Signor Petkanas?You bet he would.

The Savoy, which Rocco Forte Hotels refurbished for $17 million, does not disappoint. Its location, on the Piazza della Repubblica, Florence's main square, is unimpeachable. The Duomo and Prada, the Uffizi Gallery and Etro, the Arno and Cellerini—all are in luxurious roll-out-of-bed proximity, making the Savoy a natural base of operations for heat-seeking career shoppers. (Those beds, by the way, are made up with wonderfully starchy linen sheets, coverlets that are a cross between a moving quilt and a Provençal boutis, and both foam and down or feather pillows.) If your dream of Italy involves staying in the thick of a nonstop, A-list passeggiata, no other hotel will do.

Forte's sister Olga Polizzi is in charge of the Savoy's visuals, and that contagious International Boutique Hotel Sensibility comes through, with explicit references to French design idol Christian Liaigre. Razor-tailored decoration has its day, and then some, in 107 guest rooms housed in a proudly unfrivolous 1893 building owned by the Ferragamo shoe family. Bathrooms come in two varieties of marble, white or rich brown, and have ravishing mosaics and high-tech glass Soehnle scales. Shame about the Savoy's art, though. It could have been bought by the yard. Aren't we in Florence?

As for the service, it's probably the best in town, provided by a crisp, fresh-faced team whose idea of a good time is to turn on a dime. The nimble guest relations manager, who fairly bristles with finesse, missed his calling. He should have been a diplomat. "We won!" exclaimed the concierge after heroically securing an eleventh-hour Sunday lunch reservation at La Fontana, the proto-Tuscan hill restaurant in nearby Prato.

The Savoy's own food is better than it has a right to be and certainly better than you'd expect. (Hotels this design-centric often think decent food is beneath them.) Surely there is no more heavenly Florentine experience than dining on the pretty parasol-shaded platform, set out on the hotel's piazza, and engulfed by flower boxes and topiaries. A casual question about the Parmesan risotto unleashed an eloquent explanation from the waiter about how the dish is prepared (the secret: the cheese is cut into chunks, not grated, and melts as the rice cooks). Obliquely ridged penne, tossed with a sauce of crumbled shrimp, tomato, and dill, was 10 times more than the sum of its parts. Better than dessert, the Marchesa Pucci walked by in vintage Pucci. 7 Piazza della Repubblica; 800/223-6800 or 39-055/27351;; doubles from $400.

Hotel Helvetia & Bristol THE MERCHANT-IVORY MOMENT

A century ago, Florence was a must stop for members of the British cultured classes on the Grand Tour, and the Helvetia & Bristol was one of their favorite hotels. What could be nicer, after an exhausting day decoding the Maestà altarpiece at the Uffizi, than to return to the Helvetia for tea in the giardino d'inverno, with its delightful arched glass ceiling and profusion of plants?Those art-hungry ladies in Edwardian plumage and men in starched collars had no way of knowing it then, but they were living a Merchant-Ivory moment.

Built in the 19th century as a private palazzo, and set on a side street just west of the Piazza della Repubblica, the Helvetia is still the best place in Florence for starring in your own mini-production of A Room with a View. Afternoon tea remains a civilized ritual in the palm-decked winter garden, a terrific spot for reviewing today's shopping spoils and for planning tomorrow's museum assault. The lobby is a residential mix of the creamy terra-cotta tiles with ruddy highlights from Vietri on the Amalfi Coast, pietra serena pillars with the girth of hundred-year-old plane trees, Persian carpets, lovely antiques, and burnished-oak bookcases with glazed fronts. The most enveloping wing chairs offer the perfect perch for polishing off Mary McCarthy's classic primer, The Stones of Florence. Amazingly, in a city that is always drawing you outside, the Helvetia's public spaces are places where you want to idle.

The hotel's complete lack of interest in anything chichi or gratuitously up-to-date extends to the 67 guest rooms, which are freighted, typically, with wildly shaped baroque beds, overstuffed sofas trimmed in furry moss-green fringe, and the framed fans of some forgotten principessa. The rich damasks and brocades for which Florence has been known for centuries have been fashioned into wall coverings, bedspreads as heavy as the pope's chasuble, and elaborately shaped pelmets. It's all very moody, very fin de siècle. The guests, an uncommonly civilized group who live by politesse, are a responsive audience.

Service at the Helvetia attains heights of formality that would seem absurd anywhere else. In the restaurant, disarmingly dressy preparations—so different from the straight-shooting dishes one eats almost everywhere else in Tuscany—arrive under silver cloches lifted by waiters in white jersey gloves. The night I was there, the flourish that revealed turbot-and-salmon rolls made a couple of young, wide-eyed newlyweds from Pennsylvania nearly swoon. Perhaps to assure themselves that it wasn't all a dream, the honeymooners gave each other a good squeeze. 2 Via dei Pescioni; 39-055/26651;; doubles from $508.

Grand Hotel and Westin Excelsior THE DOYENNES

These old-world institutions not only face each other in a kind of stand off across a wide-open Renaissance piazza, but they share a parent company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts—at least for the moment. Starwood has put both properties on the block, though it hopes to continue to manage them under the next owner, whoever that might be. On paper, the Excelsior and the Grand can be a little difficult to tell apart, but staying at themproves the opposite point: they're as different as perciatelli and pappardelle. This is true even though the hotels share many top personnel; shuttling between them, the general manager and executive housekeeper wear out an awful lot of shoe leather. According to Starwood, this synergy isn't just cost-efficient: it gives the company an advantage over the competition.

At right angles to the Arno, the 184-room Excelsior (where Napoleon's sister lived) and 177-room Grand (designed by Brunelleschi as a palazzo in the 16th century) are a maddeningly complicated lesson in modern hotel-branding. The Grand is part of the Luxury Collection; of Starwood's six groups, only the St. Regis is higher. The Excelsior is a Westin but, just to confuse things, also a member of Luxury, its dual designation placing the hotel a notch below a purely Luxury property. One thing you're paying extra for at the Grand is the service: it's more attentive and nuanced.

But it's not just the hotels that have differing profiles—so do their clienteles. Guests at the Grand seem to have a few more calendar years, fatter portfolios, less of a mission to do business, and more of a desire to unwind. Relaxing in the hotel's public spaces will become a lovelier proposition in September, when the transformation of the lobby—from a turbulent, workaday corridor to a proper, elegant sitting area that invites sustained lingering—will be completed. As general manager Michele Frignani says, "It was always felt that the lobby wasn't up to our winter garden, with its stained-glass ceiling and breakfast mezzanine. Now one space flatters the other."

The restaurant represents another big change. It was moved from under the loggia in the winter garden (diners didn't love the nearness of the bar crowd, apparently) to the former luggage hold, a handsomely scaled room off the lobby. And a swatch of parking space on the Piazza Ognissanti was reclaimed for an intimate little drinks-and-dining terrace. It's a low-key spot for observing mailmen zipping across the square on their scooters in the morning, and for watching the streetlamps come on along the Arno in the evening.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the Grand is having an identity crisis. If the hotel stands for one thing, it's tradition. But the straining-to-be-hip restaurant, InCanto, is a complete disconnect. To remind myself why I have been coming back to the Grand for 25 years, I settled in for tea among the palms, statuary, and cut-velvet sofas with gilded pinecone finials in the winter garden.

The new butler floor, like the rest of the hotel, offers rooms in two styles: Empire, and what the Grand calls Florentine. The latter is a hokey cocktail of flame-stitched curtains and bedcovers, fleur-de-lis-patterned carpets, freshly minted frescoes of maidens on horseback, and loopy wrought-iron chandeliers. With their nod to the early 19th century and their heady whiff of Napoleonic splendor, the Empire rooms are a lighter, livelier bet.

One difference between the Grand and the Excelsior is the difference between grand and grandiose. That's not a dig at the Excelsior. Indeed, with its monumental quadruple-width staircase, columns in multicolored marble, and painted ceilings divided into hundreds of coffered squares, the hotel gives flamboyance a good name. Leather walls spiked with gold stars lend the Donatello Bar a kind of forties swagger. Il Cestello is one of those adorably stiff-necked, old-fashioned restaurants with a lectern propping up a massive reservation book, beautifully composed fruit displays in chased silver bowls, and classic dishes such as bistecca alla fiorentina.

Unlike the Grand, the Excelsior confines most of its antiques (including quintessentially Florentine X-form Savonarola chairs detailed with lions' heads) to the public areas and suites. But the guest rooms still look plenty pedigreed. Swooping headboards are carved with scrolls and shells. Walls are lavishly upholstered above the dado and edged with passementerie rope. Sofas are extra deep. Bathrooms are equipped with a crucial accessory that, despite its obviousness, most hotels overlook: a shoehorn.

I have a fantasy. I am the owner of a Tuscan villa. The Excelsior is my Florence pied-à-terre. Grand Hotel, 1 Piazza Ognissanti; 800/325-3589 or 39-055/288-781;; doubles from $770. Westin Excelsior, 3 Piazza Ognissanti; 800/325-3589 or 39-055/264-201;; doubles from $763.


Florence's First Family of Fashion is as big a force on the local hotel scene as they are in shoes and ready-to-wear. The owners of Lungarno Hotels (39-055/2726-4000;, the Ferragamos run four well-bred properties. All of the city's riverside hotels have streets separating them from the Arno—except the genteel, 73-room Hotel Lungarno (14 Borgo San Jacopo; doubles from $415), which is poised directly on the embankment. With 74 rooms and a contemporary boutique sensibility, the Gallery Hotel Art (5 Vicolo dell'Oro; doubles from $373) is the family's bid for a younger, more design-aware customer. Unfortunately, you could be anywhere. The discreet Lungarno Suites (4 Lungarno Acciaiuoli; doubles from $440), whose 44 rooms all have kitchens, is tailored to independent travelers seeking an apartment rather than a hotel experience. If your idea of hell is having to greet an army of personnel before setting out every morning, this place is for you. The small reception area is the only public space (though guests have privileges at all the group's hotels), and room service is supplied by the Fusion Bar Shozan Gallery, at the Gallery Hotel Art. The sleek, fifties-flavored 43-room Continentale (6R Vicolo dell'Oro; doubles from $390), at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio, may not be for seekers of calm, but fashion hounds are pronouncing it heaven.

Housed in a well-located 18th-century building, the Cellai is one of the last family-run hotels in Florence. Staff members do many of the things staffers at the big guns do (for example, they'll arrange in advance for museum tickets, so you don't have to waste time in line) and a lot of things they can't (such as make you feel that their day hinges on your happiness). The roof garden looks out on the hills of Florence, and the Cellai's 44 guest rooms have a plain, unfussy dignity.
Hotel Cellai, 14 Via 27 Aprile; 39-055/489-291;; doubles from $160.

CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is a special correspondent for T+L.

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