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Hotels of Florence, A Primer

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.

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