Europe’s best hotel? For years, my answer has been the Four Seasons George V in Paris. But regardless of whether you agree with that pick, there’s a new contender that now tops my list. Opened last year after seven years of meticulous restoration and construction—closely monitored by unyielding preservationist agencies within the Italian government—the Four Seasons Florence (rates from $435; 800.819.5053) has debuted at, or very damn near, the top of Europe’s hotel pecking order.
Walled in amid 11 acres of lush, private gardens in the center of Florence, a mere 10-minute stroll from the famous Duomo, the 116-room hotel inhabits two neighboring Renaissance palazzos, one from the 15th century that was once the home of Pope Leo XI; the other a 16th-century villa and Gothic-style church (formerly used as a convent). No two rooms or suites look alike, and the hotel’s 11 specialty suites are posh beyond imagination—lest you commonly imagine yourself sleeping beneath Renaissance ceiling frescoes surrounded by hand-painted, floor-to-ceiling portraits; 19th-century Chinese silk wallpapers; vaulted reception galleries; opulent bathing lounges with fireplaces; and antiques fit for a Medici.
Guests enter not through a normal lobby but an interior courtyard surrounded by original bas-reliefs, frescoes and a life-size marble statue. (The front desk sits discretely off to one side.) I don’t know where to focus my stare. As I explore the hotel, it’s hard not to be awed by the five centuries of original art—Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, including works by Agostino Ciampelli (an artist in the Medici Cycle) and Domenico Ferretti (a Medici tapestry designer). I stroll, gawking, through the small church that was part of the convent but now serves as the hotel’s intimate, vaulted ballroom.
To bring the interiors up to date and create a level of comfort that doesn’t get lost amid the grandeur of the palazzos, the owners tapped Paris-based designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. He’s the same guru of abundance and opulence responsible for Paris’ George V and Monte Carlo’s drippingly luxe Hotel Hermitage. There are massive floral arrangements at every turn, along with iPod docks, Pedersoli linens, Wi-Fi and beautifully scented toiletries by local perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi in every room. A two-story, 12,000-square-foot spa overlooks the garden pool. The personal trainer on duty? Model perfect.
Four Seasons transferred chef Vito Mollica from its hotel in Prague (and Milan before that), and I swear he is easily one of the best chefs in all of Italy. At Il Palagio (located in what was formerly the palazzo’s stables), he serves thoroughly modern, locavore fare—herbs and produce picked daily, eggs from nearby farms, the famed Chianina beef and crate after crate ofSuper Tuscan wines—that illustrates a deeply rooted connection to the area.
Few hotels anywhere deliver the level of service that I receive here. One clear night as I’m rushing out to a dinner in the city—a last-minute reservation at the busiest steakhouse in town, secured by a concierge who didn’t blink at the challenge—I’ve made my way nearly a block from the hotel when I hear someone behind me, calling my name.
“Mr. Johnson! Mr. Johnson!”
I turn to find the bellman chasing after me with what appears to be a neatly folded umbrella. “Please, sir,” he says, catching up. “It’s going to rain later. You will need this.”
Sure enough, hours later as I’m walking back from the restaurant, clouds suddenly materialize and begin dumping buckets of rain over the city—and I’m the only person in Florence with an umbrella.
Four Seasons Florence (rates from $435; 800.819.5053)