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Hotels of Florence, A Primer

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; www.hotelhelvetiabristolfirenze.it; 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.

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