Hotel Gritti Palace (Venice): The grandest hotel on the Grand Canal has hosted the crème de la crème of whoever visits Venice since Doge Andrea Gritti built the palace in the 16th century. Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Truman Capote, John Ruskin, Henry Ford, Mick Jagger, Giorgio Armani, Robert De Niro, Charlie Chaplin . . . the list goes on. This place is luxury everything: hand-painted and inlaid antiques, 18th-century stuccoed ceilings, cutting-edge designer entertainment centers, and, of course, balconies overlooking the Grand Canal (well, from the top-notch rooms, at least -- everyone else gets to enjoy the water from the restaurant or piano bar, or can overlook a side canal).
Hotel Danieli (Venice): Venice's bacino (the bay into which the Grand Canal spills) is lined with luxury hotels, but none beats the Danieli, a 14th-century doge's palace of pink plaster and elaborate marble windowsills that's been a hotel since 1822. The centerpiece is a four-story, sky-lit, enclosed courtyard of Byzantine-Gothic arches, open stairwells, balustrades, and verdant potted plants, off of which sit luxurious salons. It's worth popping your head in just to see it, even if you don't stay here. The rooms vary, but no matter what, insist upon a lagoon view -- and try to stay in the original wing or, failing that, the larger rooms of the 19th-century palazzo next door (by all means, avoid the bland, albeit cushy, 1940s wing).
Hotel Cipriani (Venice): This is the last independent, locally owned luxury hotel in Venice, and quite possibly the best. It sits in splendid isolation at the tip of Giudecca, the only large island of central Venice not connected by a bridge (rather, it's a 10-min. boat ride to Piazza San Marco). Giuseppe Cipriani, the Venetian impresario behind Harry's Bar and the Locanda Cipriani on Torcello, where Ernest Hemingway loved to hang out (Cipriani even made it into a Papa story), crafted this retreat out of several Renaissance palazzi in 1959, offering stylish accommodations, discreet service, and modern comfort.
Hotel Excelsior (Venice): The Lido might never have been developed as a bathing resort if not for the prescience of Nicolò Spada, who created the Excelsior's Moorish-style central structure in 1907. As one of Venice's only custom-built luxury hotels, it didn't have to abide by all the historical considerations converted palazzi now have to take into account, so its architectural plans allowed for more spacious accommodations than those found in most Venetian hotels. Rooms overlook either the Adriatic (there's a private beach across the road) or the small, lush, Moorish garden. It also sports all the resort-type amenities: pool, fitness center, golf and tennis, and sauna.
Villa Margherita (Mira Porte, Brenta): This villa's role as a guesthouse hasn't changed much since it was built in the 17th century by Venice's Contarini family. It still looks much like a country-villa home (if your family happened to be Venetian and fabulously wealthy), with rooms overlooking the gardens, a restaurant across the street along the canal, and a similar sister property nearby with a swimming pool.
Hotel Villa Cipriani (Asolo): In 1962, Giuseppe Cipriani branched out from his premium-grade Venice mini-empire to turn this 16th-century villa into a well-appointed hotel. Once the home of poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it enjoys a dreamlike setting: the medieval hill town of Asolo, famed for its vistas over the Veneto.
Hotel Greif (Bolzano): Boutique hotels have officially arrived in Italy -- though so far only the Greif seems to have heard. The Staffler family has owned this 500-year-old hotel on the main square of Bolzano -- the Dolomiti's liveliest town -- since 1796. But in 1999 and 2000, they decided to overhaul it completely in a minimalist, modern vein of burnished steel and original contemporary art mixed with 19th-century antiques and an Internet-equipped laptop in every room.
Four Seasons Hotel Milano (Milan): In 1993, the Four Seasons opened and rewrote the rules on deluxe hotels in Milan. Seven years were spent restructuring and transforming a 1476 convent, a process that brought many of its Renaissance elements back to light, including a lovely cloister. The rooms are huge by Italian city standards and flush with amenities and small luxuries such as CD stereos and king-size beds. The bi-level suites with frescoed vaulting are particularly nice.
Grand Hotel et De Milan (Milan): How do you define superior service? While resident guest Giuseppe Verdi, who lived for 30 years in the suite now named for him, lay dying in his bed, the hotel spread straw over the streets under his window every day to muffle the sounds of carriage wheels so as not to disturb the maestro's rest. They're constantly upping the luxury quotient here to keep the 1863 hotel looking and feeling its best. This means marble surfaces and lush upholstery, thick curtains, and antique furnishings. Okay, so the opera music trickling lightly from hidden speakers may be overdoing it, but what did you expect from a hotel 3 blocks from La Scala that has played host to divas and tenors for decades?
Villa d'Este (Cernobbio, Lake Como): On short lists of the world's greatest hotels, the Villa d'Este always ranks near the top. There's nothing reproduction or faux about this place. The villa is true Renaissance, the marble precious, the guest book A-list, and the Empire furnishings so genuine they actually date back to Napoleon's tenure when his aide-de-camp owned it. Add to all that several pools (one floating on the lake), a vast park that hides tennis courts, a fitness center that includes squash courts and a virtual driving range, and a trio of restaurants.
Grand Hôtel et des Iles Borromées (Stresa, Lake Maggiore): Ernest Hemingway loved this retreat by the lake so much he set part of A Farewell to Arms at the hotel. Shell out 3,200€, and you can stay in the suite named after him (two bedrooms with king-size beds and huge marble bathrooms in each, frescoed ceilings, lake-view terrace). An old lily of the Italian hotel scene, this hotel ranks among Europe's most exclusive hotels. Rooms are sumptuously appointed in a variety of styles, from 19th-century inlaid wood to lavish Empire style to opulent Italianate rooms of lacquered furnishings and Murano chandeliers.
Hotel Splendido/Splendido Mare (Portofino): Portofino is the fishing village chosen by the world's jet-set elite as their own little bit of Italy, its tiny harbor overshadowed by yachts, and the hillside Splendido hotel booked by the top names from Hollywood, European nobility registers, and CEO boardrooms. The villa itself is 19th century, though its foundation is a 16th-century monastery, set amid olive groves a 10-minute walk above the town. Suites come with antique furnishings and cutting-edge entertainment centers. The sister hotel, Splendido Mare, sits right at the harborfront, stays open year-round, and offers dining with a view of the boats.
Royal Hotel (San Remo): With such a small town and such a major pop festival, once a year you'll find a concentration of rock stars here rarely seen outside of a major benefit concert. The rest of the year, almost all of us can enjoy its private beach across the road, its cushy accommodations, its stuccoed bar, and the wonderful pool styled as if it were carved out of rock.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
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