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In Florence, a city with many unique hotels, the Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo stands out.
Start with the unbeatable location, literally a due passi (a stone’s throw) from the Duomo. The views of Florence’s famous cathedral are so vivid from certain suites you expect if you open the windows you’d be able to touch the landmark’s graphic marble facade. Then there’s the relaxed sense of grandeur—with only 14 rooms. and suites over three floors, you feel as if you’re staying in a cozy part of an aristocratic palace—because you are.
The reception area is unique too, but not in a way you might expect. Yes, it’s furnished with antiques and a large coat of arms dominates one wall, but that’s not unusual in a grand historic house. The front desk team is welcoming and efficient—not atypical either; you count on that in a well-run hotel. What is delightfully surprising is how on most afternoons and early evenings you’ll find that the woman sitting behind the desk in reception responding to phone and email queries, directing new arrivals to their rooms, and fielding requests in various languages for this and that, is none other than the Marchesa Ginevra Niccolini, who with her husband Marchese Filippo Niccolini di Camugliano, owns the palazzo, the latest among many generations in the family to do so.
Ginevra Niccolini is a very modern marchesa. Hands-on, devoted to her work and guests, she is dedicated to creating a contemporary, welcoming atmosphere in a very special luxury setting, one that might allow you to think you were staying with friends, even though friends who own Renaissance-era structures. might be in short supply in many address books. “If someone says it’s like a home, that is the best compliment I can receive,” says Niccolini. “It means that I did what I wanted to do.”
It’s easy to feel at home here, despite the palazzo’s storied history, from the time you enter through the enormous wooden doors on the Via dei Servi and saunter across the small, basic courtyard to reach the elevator or stairway, like in a private dwelling. Upstairs, the stylish high-ceilinged sitting room with frescoed walls, antiques, classic furniture upholstered in red velvet or white brocade, and side tables topped with framed family portraits and leather scrapbooks, is open to guests throughout the day, starting with breakfast, which includes an extensive buffet with plenty of savory and sweet offerings served until the most welcome and civil hour of 11 AM. You can stop by the lounge for tea in the afternoon and drinks in the evening, or settle into a chair and catch up on reading or trip planning whenever you want to. The all-day availability makes it seem as though you have access to a private club in the heart of Florence, a wonderful bonus, particularly if you’re in need of a respite from sightseeing or appointments; the central location makes the palazzo easy to return to from most parts of the city.
The palazzo’s history reaches back centuries, although only two families have owned it since 1532, when a Florentine banker, Giovanni Naldini, purchased buildings on the Via dei Servi, where the studio of the great Renaissance sculptor Donatello was located (a plaque on the facade commemorates this), and began to convert them. Over time the palazzo was modified and in the 1700s took on its present-day form; it was also the period when frescoes painted by top artists of the day were added to various rooms on the first two floors. A Naldini heiress married Marchese Eugenio Niccolini di Camugliano in 1879 and their descendants have owned the palazzo ever since. Cristina Nardini married well—the Niccolinis have been a prominent Florentine family since the 1400s, playing key roles in the city during the time of the Medici. Throughout Florence there are reminders of their history and stature, for example, a Niccolini chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce; a Via Giovan Battista Niccolini, named for the poet and Risorgimento playwright; and a Teatro Niccolini, the oldest theater in Florence.
In 2000 Ginevra Niccolini decided to restore parts of the property to make it suitable for guest stays, starting a three-year conversion of what was once an English school on the palazzo’s second floor. In 2015 there were further renovations to add two suites, which brought the total to seven, four of which contain the 18th-century frescoes. One suite, (Cortile), has a kitchenette, and can be rented for long-term visits; another (Altana), contains a soothing contemporary counterpoint to all the period splendor—a Jacuzzi.
I stayed in a double room that had a gracious Anglo-Italian style with framed prints, chintz-like fabrics, a terra cotta tile floor and large bathroom with marble finishes. There were nice touches, too, like a bookcase filled with titles in various languages, as if a thoughtful hostess had stocked her guest-room with a variety of reads—Tom Clancy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Marcos Chicot, design and travel books and the city magazine, Firenze—for international friends who were heading in for a visit. Each night you get a print-out of a literary quote—something from writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Emily Dickinson—to ponder along with the next-day’s weather forecast. There are, of course, plenty of modern amenities, like flat-screen satellite TVs, Wi-Fi, air conditioning and Nespresso coffee machines, but as evening settled in I was happy to unplug from the world and rediscover the pleasures of reading a hardcover. book.
The palazzo can arrange a variety of experiences—among them tours of private palazzi or the Uffizi Galleries’ Vasari Corridor; cooking classes with a trip to Florence’s renowned food market; culinary and wine tours in Florence and in the countryside; and private trips to nearby spots like San Gimignano or Cinque Terre.