The little wonder hotels of Florence & Venice

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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 ($62-$67) without bath, ]80 ($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, www.abaco-hotel.it. Doubles ]63 ($63) without bath, ]95 ($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 ($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, thserena@dada.it. Doubles ]85 ($85). Breakfast ]5 ($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 ($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, hotelorchidea@yahoo.it. Doubles ]57 ($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 ($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 azzi@hotmail.com. Doubles ]46-]56 ($46-$56) without bath, ]51-]62 ($51-$62) with sink and shower, ]62-]67.30 ($62-$67.30) with bath. Dorm bed ]17-]25 ($17-$25). Breakfast ]2-]3 ($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.

Albergo Mia Cara Via Faenza 58, 055-216-053, fax 055-230-2601. Doubles ]50 ($50) without bath, ]60 ($60) with bath. No credit cards. No breakfast. The rooms are almost depressingly basic, but the Noto family keeps them clean, the beds are comfy, and the prices absolutely fantastic. Most furnishings are simple and modular, though the nicer rooms have wrought-iron bedsteads. Only two or three rooms share each hall bath. Though the windows are double-paned, for utmost quiet book a room on the back overlooking the trees of a little courtyard. Travelers on even tighter budgets can check into the daughter's fun-loving Ostello Archi Rossi hostel downstairs for ]17-]20 ($17-$20; the 1 a.m. curfew, though, has almost caught me on occasion in this city of four-hour dinners). There are plans to renovate the place, expanding both the hostel and the hotel-and perhaps upgrading the latter to three-star status-but the family is unsure when the work will start.

Albergo Merlini Via Faenza 56, 055-212-848, fax 055-283-939, www.hotelmerlini.it. Doubles ]45-]65 ($45-$65) without bath, ]50-]79 ($50-$79) with bath. Breakfast ]5.16 ($5.16). A kind Sicilian family runs this gem in a building stuffed with cheap hotels. It's on the top floor, so rooms 1, 4, 6, 7, and 8 peek over the rooftops to the domes of the cathedral and San Lorenzo beyond. The rooms are simply but comfortably furnished. Thanks to renovations in 2002, all the bathrooms are new. Satellite TV, telephone, and air-conditioning should be installed in 2003. There are plenty of quirky touches: ornately carved wooden beds and dressers in some rooms, wall safes hidden behind hinged paintings, and a minor miracle: mosquito screens (something I've found in only two other hotels among hundreds throughout Italy). Two walls of the pretty breakfast room were frescoed by art students in the 1960s, the other two are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking greenery.

Hotel Sole Via del Sole 8, tel/fax 055-239-6094. Doubles ]77 ($77). No credit cards. No breakfast. Hardworking Anna Giuralarocca keeps the prices way down at her cozy, eight-room pensione by doing everything herself-cleaning the rooms each morning before rushing home to prepare lunch for her kids-so don't begrudge her the 1 a.m. curfew. The orthopedic beds come with country-style frames that go well with the simple but sturdy furnishings. The baths are brand new, and double-paned windows keep out the noise. The Sole's a block from the church of Santa Maria Novella in a neighborhood chockablock with inexpensive restaurants and chic boutiques. Signora Giuralarocca plans to install televisions by mid-2003 and may start accepting credit cards soon. Instituto Gould Via dei Serragli 49, 055-212-576, fax 055-280-274, gould.reception@dada.it. Doubles ]44 ($44) without bath, ]47-]52 ($47-$52) with bath. No breakfast. No credit cards. This Valdese guesthouse, in a quiet corner of the Oltrarno surrounded by antiques shops, is quite a bit starker than its lovely cousin in Venice, but here you have the comfort of knowing that all the proceeds go directly to running an institute that helps disadvantaged and abused children. (The Valdese is an order of missionaries and do-gooders; no proselytizing, just a few discreet pamphlets.) The functional rooms can be, well, a bit institutional but are well-sized and quiet. Those on the first floor have high wood ceilings courtesy of the palazzo's seventeenth-century origins. Some units are perfect for families, with two beds in a large main room and another two lofted above it, and several of these overlook the institute's courtyard gardens. Rooms on the courtyard go for the higher rate listed above; those on the street, the lower one.

Venice Hotel Bernardi-Semenzato Calle della Coa 4366 (parallel to Strada Nova near Campo SS. Apostoli), Cannaregio, 041-522-7257, fax 041-522-2424, hotelbernardi@vergilio.it. Doubles ]45-]55 ($45-$55) without bath, ]85-]90 ($85-$90) with bath. This is the Little Wonder Hotel of Venice: It has friendly family management, lies just off the main drag between the train station and San Marco, and is flush with incredible four-star amenities and class at one-star prices so astoundingly low they have to post much higher official ones otherwise the other hotels complain. Not only do you get Murano chandeliers, hand-painted eighteenth-century Venetian-style furnishings, and rough-beamed ceilings, but also satellite TV, air-conditioning, and a minibar. The homey annex is even better, as several of the large rooms overlook the L-bend of a canal, and a few even sport 200-year-old iron chandeliers, massive fireplaces, and eighteenth-century ceiling frescoes. Plans to upgrade the annex's functional furnishings to canopied beds and repro-antiques are in the works.

Pensione Al Guerrato Calle Drio La Scimia 240A (off Ruga Speziali), San Polo, 041-522-7131, fax 041-528-5927, www.web.tiscali.it/pensioneguerrato. Doubles ]80-]93 ($80-$93) without bath, ]100-]115 ($100-$115) with bath. Roberto is so friendly that departing guests often hug and cheek-kiss him good-bye (though this may also have to do with the fact that he resembles a long-lost Baldwin brother). This 14-room pensione in a thirteenth-century palazzo near the Rialto Bridge is one of Venice's best for its welcoming atmosphere and sheer value. The good-size rooms with their patched-up chipped-stone flooring and historic Venice photos are spruced up with Murano lamps, scraps of frescoes in a few (best in number 3), and a stupendous melange of antique-yet-homey furnishings. "I stole everything I could from the houses of my grandmother and my aunties," Roberto says. Rooms overlooking the Rialto market to a sliver of Grand Canal and the Ca' d'Oro tend to be smaller and quite noisy during the early-morning market. The rates sometimes peak over our price ceiling-the lower ones are applied October to March and if you pay cash-but rarely will you find such an excellent marriage of price, class, and warmth at any Venice hotel.

Albergo Doni Calle del Vin 4656, Castello, tel/fax 041-522-4267. Doubles ]80 ($80) without bath, ]105 ($105) with bath. The Doni family has been welcoming guests to its 12-room hotel mere steps off the high-rent Riva degli Schiavoni since 1946, and though Niccol- and Tessa now run the place, Grandma Gina hangs around to keep an eye on everything. Creaky floorboards lead to the modestly sized rooms filled with a hodge-podge of furnishings and aging bedsprings. However, all is forgiven when you check into room 8 and see the Murano chandelier dangling from a ceiling gorgeously frescoed in 1850, or throw open your bottle-bottom windows in room 3 to see a canal cruising with gondolas (rooms 12, 20, and 21 share the view). Only three of the rooms have private bath; the others split three large, clean ones. The prices listed above apply to the high season (generally, Easter to mid-October, and the weeks of Carnevale and Christmas); at other times they may be lower.

Foresteria Valdese Calle Luga S. Maria Formosa 5170 (just over the bridge at the end of the street), Castello, 041-528-6797, fax 041-241-6238, www.chiesavaldese.org/venezia. Doubles ]54 ($54) without bath, ]70 ($70) with bath. The 40-foot hallways and frescoed rooms of the 1711 Palazzo Cavagnis host some of Venice's best cheap lodgings thanks to the Valdese order. I can't give you many specifics on the accommodations because as we go to press the guesthouse is undergoing a prolonged renovation that will open up more rooms as well as turn most of the small dorms into private rooms with bath. Just ask for a camera affrescata to get one of the coveted rooms with eighteenth- or nineteenth-century ceiling frescoes. Given its location at a confluence of waterways, almost all rooms overlook a small canal.

Hotel San Samuele Salizzada San Samuele 3358, San Marco, tel/fax 041-522-8045. Doubles ]62-]70 ($62-$70) without bath, ]88-]100 ($88-$100) with bath. No credit cards. The amicable, energetic owners Bruno, Piero, and Mimmo hold cleanliness in the highest regard, and their simple, ten-room pensione positively sparkles. The sloping, old pebble-stone floors support modern furnishings, efficient baths, and a profusion of flowers in the window boxes (many of the bright rooms have two windows-a luxury in Venice). Every year they renovate something; last year it was rooms 9 and 10 on the staircase, which are carpeted, nonsmoking, and overlook a small, ivy-clad courtyard.

Hotel Caneva Ramo dietro La Fava 5515, Castello, 041-522-8118, fax 041-520-8676, www.hotelcaneva.com. Doubles ]77 ($77) without bath, ]98 ($98) with bath (subtract ]10/$10 if you pay cash). Gino has run this basic one-star hotel since 1955, now helped by his son Massimo. Its location is fantastic-a three-minute stroll from Piazza San Marco-and 17 of 23 rooms overlook a canal to the palazzo where Casanova once lived. Many rooms are blessed with a strip of Gothic decor along the interior wall courtesy of the palazzo's fourteenth-century origins, and eight enjoy small balconies. Once you tear your gaze away from the gondolas cruising below, you'll notice the rooms themselves are fine, if nothing special: linoleum floors, unremarkable built-in units, and simple Venetian-glass light fixtures. The baths range from tiny modular shower jobs to aging tiled rooms with tubs. The breakfast room overlooks the choicest stretch of canal, opposite a Gothic palazzo.

Hotel Silva Ariel Calle della Masena 1391a (the street's marked merely "Parrocchia S. Marcuola"; it's off Rio Terra S. Leonardo), Cannaregio, tel/fax 041-720-326. Doubles ]50-]82 ($50-$82) without bath, ]60-]105 ($60-$105) with bath. This little family-run hotel is up a narrow side street just two blocks from the historic Jewish Ghetto and ten minutes from the station. The rooms are small but the effect is cozy, fitted with velvet headboards and modular '80s baths. Some have dark beams on plank ceilings, others let the sunlight pour in through walls of frosted glass. Marble tables fill the flower-bedecked covered patio where you can enjoy breakfast year-round.

Albergo Dalla Mora Salizzada San Pantalon 42 (just off the street), Santa Croce, 041-710-703, fax 041-723-006. Doubles ]67 ($67) without bath, ]72 ($72) with shower and sink, ]88 ($88) with bath. This unassuming hotel is tucked away in the little-touristed Santa Croce neighborhood, which is across the Grand Canal from the rail station, so it manages to be close by without feeling like a station neighborhood. Only six of the 16 rooms have a private bathroom-though four more have a shower and sink in the room (just no toilet). Half of the rooms overlook the wide, quiet Malcanton canal: four from the main blood-red house with its flower-fringed canal terrace, four from the annex across the alley. The rooms are basic but comfortably large for Venice. A few with foldout bunk beds are perfect for families.

Casa Gerotto Calderan Campo S. Geremia 283, Cannaregio, 041-715-562, fax 041-715-361, www.casagerottocalderan.com. Doubles ]52-]72 ($52-$72) without bath, ]71-]98 ($71-$98) with bath. The Gerotto is your basic budget backpacker haven but not a dive or party house (they frown on drunkenness and don't let nonguests hang around). It's a ten-minute stroll from the station on a heavily trafficked square, so even the double-paned windows can't quite block out the pedestrian noise. However, those rooms on the front are the nicest in a varying lot, boasting eighteenth-century-style furnishings and, soon, air-conditioning (turning it on jacks up the price a bit, as does having a TV in your room). Others suffer from bland modular units, though those on the back courtyard do have the advantage of overlooking a leafy park one block away. They also offer shared-room "dorms" of only five beds each for ]21 ($21) per person.

Hotel Galleria Campo della Carita 878a (next to the Accademia Gallery), Dorsoduro, 041-523-2489, fax 041-520-4172, www.hotelgalleria.it. Doubles ]88-]93 ($88-$93) without bath, ]104-]135 ($104-$135) with bath. Yes, you can have a room right on the Grand Canal for under $90. But call early: There's only one. This place would be near the top of the list if only it had more rooms in our price bracket. Stefano and Luciano make you feel you're living as a doge while spending like a pauper. Everything is decorated in a rich, antique-Venetian style (patterned-silk walls, curvaceous eighteenth-century-style wood furnishings, ceiling stuccos in rooms 2 to 4), it's set right at the foot of the Accademia Bridge, and breakfast is served regally in your room. Actually, bathless little number 5 on the corner with its ]93 ($93) Grand Canal view is not nearly as requested by name as the larger, ]135 ($135) Grand Canal rooms with private bath: intimate number 8 with a raised sitting nook set into the arch of a canal-vista window, and number 10 with its frescoed ceiling.

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