The Secret Hotels of Florence & Venice

One thing I will never change is our one-star status," declares Roberto Zammattio, owner of Venice's Al Guerrato Hotel. "I prefer to take in a few euros less but still give a bit more to guests; that way everyone is happy." Such is the attitude that makes a Little Wonder Hotel-a personal touch, comfortable beds, and a price tag of less than $90 per room. What follows are my selections of the top ten budget hotels in Florence and Venice. Breakfast is included in the price unless otherwise indicated. The rates quoted here are based on 1=$1. To call Italy from the United States, dial 011-39 before the numbers listed below.

Florence Pensione Maria Luisa de' Medici Via del Corso 1, 055-280-048 (reservations by telephone only). Doubles ($62-$67) without bath, ($80) with bath. No credit cards. Picture the narrow hall of an antiques shop: a neoclassical sculpture of a child propped on a chair, tattered baroque canvases by Sustermans and Van Dyck cluttering the walls, a chipped della Robbian terra-cotta resting on a table in sunlight. Now imagine cavernous bedrooms opening off this hall, each filled with a quirky mix of antique armoires and 1950s and '60s designer tables and lamps of the sort usually seen in museums of modern art. The eclectic collector, Dr. Angelo Sordi, now convalesces in a back room, but each morning his partner, Evelyn Morris-born in Wales but a Florentine for decades-serves you a home-cooked breakfast in your room. Throw open your shutters and watch the pedestrian parade along the ancient, narrow street below. That's the picture of the best pensione in Florence, a place where I've taken everyone from my parents to my Boy Scout troop. Not all the rooms are that huge, or enjoy as rich a mix of designer furnishings, and only two have private bathrooms, but it's bang in the geographic center of town, and you just can't beat the atmosphere.

Hotel Abaco Via dei Banchi 1, 055-238-1919, fax 055-282-289, Doubles ($63) without bath, ($95) with bath. Bruno, a gregarious transplanted Calabrian, has in a few short years made this one of Florence's best little budget hotels. Each room is named after a local painter and is decorated with ornately framed reproductions of his works, as well as richly colored walls, draperies, and bed-hangings, high wood ceilings, ornate mirrors, and buckets of antique charm. This tiny hotel is conveniently located at an acute intersection with the main road from the train station to the Duomo (double-paned windows keep out most of the noise). Bruno's putting in air-conditioning, which will cost an additional ($8) if you want to use it. Though he accepts credit cards, he far prefers cash (it helps keep those rates so low).

Albergo Serena Via Fiume 20, 055-213-643, fax 055-280-447, Doubles ($85). Breakfast ($5). The Bigazzi family's pensione around the corner from the train station is ever-so-slightly shabby, but it does retain some of the opulence from when this was a private apartment-leaded glass doors in the hall, stuccoed decorations on the ceiling, patterned stone-tile floors. The furnishings, however, are your average, well-worn modular jobs with baths squeezed into the corners. Still, the rooms are large enough, clean enough, and you get a lot of amenities for your money: TV, private bathrooms, even air-conditioning in some (the four rooms without A/C enjoy a small discount).

Albergo Firenze Piazza Donati 4, 055-214-203, fax 055-212-370. Doubles ($83). No credit cards. This budget standby has none of the charm of its neighbor Maria Luisa de' Medici (mentioned earlier) but shares the enviable location in the very heart of Florence, on a tiny and quiet piazza just off Via del Corso. It still suffers from the institutional style and feel of its days as a student crash pad-a few study-abroad programs still use it for housing-but the beds are firm, and it's kept tolerably clean. The clientele is a comfortable mix of students and frugal families, guests who tend to congregate at the little breakfast-room tables, grabbing Cokes out of the fridge as they plan the day's sightseeing.

Locanda Orchidea Borgo degli Albizi 11, tel/fax 055-248-0346, Doubles ($57) without bath. No credit cards. No breakfast. The thirteenth-century palazzo in which Dante's wife Gemma Donati was born now hosts Maria Rosa Cook's little pensione of high ceilings, new tile floors, beaten-up functional furnishings, and extra-firm beds. It is ultraclean and has a cheerful staff. Number 4, one of the family rooms that can sleep four for($110), opens onto a narrow, 30-foot-long balcony over a pretty little garden.

Albergo Azzi Via Faenza 56, tel/fax 055-213-806, hotel Doubles ($46-$56) without bath, ($51-$62) with sink and shower, ($62-$67.30) with bath. Dorm bed ($17-$25). Breakfast ($2-$3). The Azzi is a self-styled locanda dei artisti, an "artists' place," where owners Sandro and Valentino are fond of breaking out guitars and serenading the guests on the little courtyard terrace. They also keep a collection of art books and gallery guides to lend to clients. The place has a laid-back atmosphere that's more beatnik than bohemian, and the rooms are an eclectic mix, the best (numbers 3 and 4) have ceiling frescoes and impressive French-style antiques. The owners have bought two of the other modest hotels in this building, so there are usually plenty of rooms available.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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