With a choice of accommodation in two Renaissance buildings overlooking a historic garden, guests at Florence's latest luxury hotel the late-15th century Palazzo della Gherardesca might as well be living in a museum. Previous owners have included an order of nuns, a pope, several generations of Florentine nobility and from 1883 to 1885 a viceroy of Egypt who sold it when he was refused permission to house his harem there. Thanks to its rebirth as a Four Seasons hotel, you have a chance to see what the ladies were missing.
The new owners have expanded the original grounds through the acquisition of a neighboring 16th century former convent. The buildings are located on a tranquil street a 15-minute walk east of the city center, where the hotel's discreet façade, distinguished by the Della Gherardesca crest above the portal, betrays little of the aristocratic grandeur within. However, the lobby accessed via a courtyard bordered by a loggia and decorated with 15th century bas-reliefs of classical scenes is a reminder of the magnificence that seven arduous years of restoration can bestow. So are the suites, which incorporate original frescoes, antique wallpapers and stucco work. Standard rooms are decked out with antique-style furniture and tasseled curtains. (See pictures of Rome.)
Il Palagio, the hotel's main restaurant, marries imposing decor (grisaille walls, lilac-and-white curtains, Murano chandeliers and neoclassical art) with upscale representations of local specialities (chickpea soup with salad of lentils and green beans, and roast pork with black cabbage flan). Guests can walk off their sumptuous meals by taking a stroll through the lawns, paths and copses that grace the 11-acre (4.5 hectare) garden, which was partly designed as a botanical garden for rare species. Nature's healing powers are also emphasized in the spa, where treatments are based on luxuriously scented herbal products from the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy, a local firm with roots in the 13th century.
A concluding word of warning: don't plan on getting all your sightseeing done. Florence is full of fabulous museums, but it's hard to explore all of them when you're already ensconced in one.