Built in the 1870s by Baron Oppenheim for his wife, Villa Cora is a love letter in art and architecture. Opulent in the extreme, but by no means over-blinged, the interiors reflect the eclectic passions of the aristo and his belle – namely roses, the Orient, ornate parquet, and spectacular frescoes and statuary. The massive heated outdoor pool – the only one in Florence – comes courtesy of the 21st-century renovation, as does the flawless service.
Noon, but flexible and free, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £316.46 (€369), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €5.00 per person per night on check-out.
Rates exclude breakfast (€35 each for a massive buffet breakfast, a 'wellness' breakfast or Continental breakfast) and city tax (€5 a day each).
Villa Cora goes underground in winter – a network of cunning subterranean tunnels link the main villa with the Villa Eugénie (which houses the spa and some bedrooms) and the poolside restaurant. Diners are herded indoors to exquisite Moroccan-themed restaurant Pasha, but the roof terrace stays open for hardy view seekers.
At the hotel
Subterranean spa with sauna, steam room, gym and Jacuzzi, cigar room, gardens, roof terrace and free WiFi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV, iPod dock, minibar, temperature control, free bottled water and rose-scented Annick Goutal bath products.
Our favourite rooms
The Forties-themed suite on the fourth floor is the ideal honeymoon hideaway, and the private elevator-key access adds a VIP frisson. Rooms on the piano nobile (first floor) are protected by the Italian government as historically important – and no wonder: in addition to the towering ceilings, ornate frescoes and antiques à gogo, they include the Imperial Suite (105–6), which once housed emperor Akihito. Parental Smiths should hit Family Suite 311 on the Moorish third floor: there’s an extra twin room.
The huge, heated outdoor pool (the only one in Florence) is a rectangular flash of turquoise amid the white-stone patio and green grounds, with loungers and parasols aplenty, as well as a stash of inflatables for the kids. In summer, thanks to the poolside bar and restaurant, food and drink are just steps away – or summon a waiter to your lounger.
This is Hermès-scarves-and-giant-sunnies territory, so channel Hepburn. Poolside iPad-tapping is essential for anyone wanting to work that share-checking businessman/track-mixing music-producer look. If you arrive sans swimwear, never fear – mention this to the staff and you'll find a stylish costume on your bed very soon after.
There’s no smoking anywhere – except the cigar room, where guests can light up a Cuban with impunity. Small dogs are welcome; they’re essential Florentine fashion accessories – just keep them out of the restaurant.
Pets are welcome, although there's an €80 cleaning fee. The hotel will add a dog bed and selection of toys to your room, and staff can order a professional dog walker on request. See more pet-friendly hotels in Florence.
Little Smiths are welcome: extra beds are €70 a night, and babysitting can be arranged (€30 an hour, book two days in advance). The restaurant has highchairs and a tot-tailored menu, and the hotel has a 'VIB' (very important baby) activity programme.
Babies, or older, confident-swimmer types who can make the most of the pool.
Family Suite 312 has two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a (securely railed) terrace, meaning plenty of space and privacy. If you’ve a cot-bound miniSmith, book a Junior Suite so you can stash them in the living area and have the bedroom to yourselves.
The hotel runs a 'VIB' (very important baby) activity programme – for guests staying in the Deluxe room category and above, which includes games in the pool, treasure hunts, painting and cookery classes; the concierge is also well versed in children's activities nearby. Gallery-heavy Florence itself isn’t amazingly well endowed with activities for little ones (although they’re made welcome everywhere), but the surrounding parkland is great for working off excess energy.
Although there’s a shallow end and armbands and inflatables are available, the pool gets deep quickly and there are no lifeguards, so watchful eyes are required.
Smith juniors can eat with you in the restaurant at any time, and have their own menu. High chairs are available, and hotel staff will happily heat up baby food and milk, or organise packed lunches. If you're staying in a Deluxe Room or above, you can use the after-hours chef service.
Book two days in advance, and expect to pay €30 an hour.
No need to pack
The hotel has bath products suitable for little ones’ sensitive skin, as well as a stash of free cots and toys to borrow. Need something specific? Just ask.
Walls are thick and ceilings are high so baby monitors may be unpredictable. Children staying in a Deluxe Room or above are given a welcome kit on arrival with crayons, books, sweets and a small toy.
Take the far table next to the bar at Le Bistrot and admire the water babies/eavesdrop on the bar chat. The terrace leading off from the ballroom overlooks the roses in summer; in winter grab a velvet armchair by the piano in the games room.
Fabulous in Fendi/Ferragamo (or Massimo Dutti’s closest imitation).
Between May and October, all meals are served at Le Bistrot – a white and glassy, tented eatery set beside the water. The menu is authentically Tuscan (with the odd creative flourish), so expect rich, velvety pasta sauces and masterfully prepared seafood. The tasting menu – fish or meat – takes you on a tour of the region’s signature dishes. In winter, indoor restaurant Il Pasha – in the hotel's lavishly decorated Moorish room – takes over kitchen duties. Decadent pasta dishes (spaghetti in a goat's cheese sauce with chilli and prawn carpaccio), and French-influenced fare (pheasant and foie gras ravioli) and served with briouats (Moroccan pastries filled with cheese) and delicately flavoured breads. The breakfast buffet, laid out in the Long Bar (although guests can dine where they please), is an 'eyes on stilts' affair. To your left stretches a selection of charcuterie, smoked salmon, fresh fruit, salad, cakes, breads and cereal; to your right jars of home-made yoghurt and fresh juices; and straight ahead, mueslis and all manner of spreads. If this stirs your appetite, the hotel's Sunday brunch (€78 an adult, free for kids aged 11 and under, served in the winter months) has a different theme each Sunday; goodies include pancakes, waffles, truffle-laced dishes and wines, with a live musical accompaniment.
There’s a chic little outdoor bar beside the restaurant (and, handily, right by the pool), which is well stocked with Tuscan wines and mixes a mean martini. Or try a zingy Cora Spritz (nicknamed ‘Hugo’ for reasons unbeknownst to us), a muddle of mint, prosecco and elderflower. In winter, retreat to Le Long Bar indoors, which has a huge colour-changing glass table, or grab a brandy for a spell in the cigar room. In summer (or if the winter is clement), Tuscan greenery and Florentine landmarks unfurl before you from the roof terrace – champagne parties are frequently held up there – and you can take drinks on the terrace leading off from the lounge, overlooking the manicured gardens.
Breakfast between 7am and 11am; have lunch from 12.30pm to 2.30pm and dine from 7.30pm to 10.30pm. Brunch runs from 12.30pm–3pm on Sundays. Lighter bites can be rustled up if you're peckish in between. The last tipples are mixed at midnight in the bar.
An array of full-on meals (fillet steak and Tyrrhenian fish), pasta, pizzas, salads and drinks can be brought to your room at any time.
On the Oltrarno, south of the river, Villa Cora sits on a strip of opulent villas on Viale Machievelli, which cuts through the beautiful manicured parkland of Giardini di Boboli.
The closest option is Florence’s small Peretola airport (www.aeroporto.firenze.it), 8km away – a 20-minute drive from the hotel. Pisa International Airport (www.pisa-airport.com), covers more destinations worldwide; it’s about an hour away by car or train from Santa Maria Novella train station The hotel can organise transfers from Peretola Airport (£80 for a one-way trip).
Florence’s main rail hub, Santa Maria Novella station (www.fsitaliane.it) is 3km from the hotel and links the city with the rest of Italy and Europe; high-speed lines connect to both Rome and Bologna. A taxi will cost around €15, or the hotel can arrange a one-way transfer for £50.
Florence is about an hour by car from Siena, Pisa and most of the stops on the Chianti wine trail. The city centre can be tricky for cars – its mediaeval streets get notoriously jammed, but Villa Cora is on the more navigable southern side, and has plenty of free parking. Florence, Peretola and Pisa International Airports all have car-hire kiosks, but the hotel is close enough to the city centre to travel by foot (and perhaps the odd taxi).
Worth getting out of bed for
The body-conscious can ask staff to arrange a personal trainer, or take part in a Pilates session. Outside the hotel walls, the enchanting Boboli gardens and imposing Pitti Palace beckon. Of course, there are some things you can’t miss when in Florence; tourist tick-boxes include the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, il Duomo, San Miniato al Monte and Piazzale Michelangelo – all easily accessible from Villa Cora.
Have a romantic meal in the cosy wine cellar at Ristorante Boccanegra (www.boccanegra.com; +39 055 200 1098), named after the city’s first Doge, Simon Boccanegra. Ingredients are top-notch, recipes traditional – try the succulent and sizeable T-bone steak. On the topic of steak, we have to mention Pandenonio (www.trattoriapandemonio.it; +39 055 224 002) on Via del Leone, which serves exemplary bistecca alla fiorentina, adorned only with a slick of olive oil and a scattering of sea salt. If you fancy a change from rustic trattorie, enjoy experimental modern dishes (egg yolk with foie gras, pear and balsamic vinegar; suckling pig with garlic, lavender and black mustard) courtesy of Ora d'Aria (www.oradariaristorante.com; +39 055 200 1699) on Via Dei Georgofili. The decor is as chic as the cuisine. Fellini (www.ristorantefellini.it; +39 055 247 8898) will please seafood lovers. Sophisticated but hearty dishes include pumpkin soup with prawns and carpet shells, amberjack served with Muscat grapes, and gobbets of octopus with potato cream. Fuor d'acqua (www.fuordacqua.it; +39 055 222 299) is set in what was once a chariot warehouse, and the building has retained its historic grace. Fresh fish is picked every day at the market in Viareggio.
Mrs Smith has never seen Florence. I tell her it’ll be amazing: we’ll meander the corridors of the Uffizi, I’ll explain the architectural genius of Brunelleschi’s Duomo using only an egg, we’ll watch the sun set from the Ponte Vecchio, and titter romantically over caricatures by overpriced street artists. We’ll return home fluent in the language of Dante and experts in mediaeval banking systems; we’ll be the Renaissance on legs.
That’s the plan. As soon as we start to make our way to Villa Cora, it’s clear that things are not going to go according to it. We’ve walked from the station, because I had a ridiculous notion that lugging baggage and buggy through central Florence in the parching heat would be poetic. There’s a protest on in the piazza (this is Italy), the streets are thronged, traffic’s solid and I’ve led us half a mile in the wrong direction. By the time we’ve made it over the Arno to the grassy serenity of the Boboli Gardens and the illustrious, villa-lined Viale Machiavelli, we’re sweating, exhausted and Mrs Smith is silently calculating the divorce settlement.
Luckily, nothing saves a marriage quite like stepping into the most special place you’ve ever seen. Villa Cora is magnificent. Palatial. Opulent. All the words that ring hollow because they’ve been used so many times before to mean ‘quite nice, with marble bits’. It’s stuffed to the ceilings with gilded stucco, sweeping frescoes and ornate statuary – you can barely cross a corridor without bumping into a dryad. Or, for that matter, head-turningly glamorous Italian women. As my eyes follow a Vogue-worthy vision out the dramatic double doors, I wonder if we’re going to be turned away for crimes against looking fabulous.
I needn’t have worried; given the enthusiasm of the welcome we’re given, we may as well be Rothschilds (or Medici). Check-in is relaxed and conducted over a round mahogany table supported by a helpful golden cherub. It would have been over in seconds, but the lady at reception is so taken with young Master Smith, we have to take a few coo-breaks. And I need a few gawp-in-slack-jawed-amazement pauses: the ground floor is a baroque fantasy of over-the-top magnificence.
The foyer gives way to a domed and stuccoed antechamber, presided over by a sculpted marble dancing girl. Above each arched door is a painted neoclassical scene illustrating what awaits beyond (boozing for the bar, cards for the games room…), and each of those rooms is another straight-to-the-brain shot of extravagance. A 12-foot glass table glows in different colours; a chandeliered ballroom is multiplied into infinity by mirror-clad walls; improbably intricate patterns of parquet (dating back centuries, yet unscuffed and immaculate) – there’s so much going on that working out what to look at next makes your eyes dizzy.
It could so, so easily go wrong, this madcap collision of periods and styles: a few cherubs more and it could start to look like a bad dream in a rapper’s mansion, but through some mysterious alchemy or the heady Florence air, it works: it’s beautiful.
Ours is a junior suite on the second floor, where the decor pays tribute to the one-time lady of the house (19th-century banking-heiress aristo Eugenia Fenzi, wife of Baron Oppenheim, in case you’re into specialist pub quizzes), who was, it’s fair to say, a fan of roses. Our suite could teach Cath Kidston a thing or two about floral prints. Mrs Smith sniffs at the Annick Goutal bath bits; I manhandle the heavyweight crimson curtains out of the way to gaze down at the pool (where catwalk queen is now sunning herself), and Master Smith crawls straight into the ensuite to smash up a soap dish.
Oops. Given the provenance of everything else at Villa Cora, I panic that said dish is an Oppenheim heirloom, hand-crafted Murano glassware presented to Napoleon III on his wedding day by the King of Sweden, and retrieved from the wreck of the Titanic. This may have been the case, but when I ’fess up to the staff, they barely bat an eyelid and go back to fussing over the boy like adoring aunts.
That’s the genius of this place – aristocratic luxury plus passionate, personal service. It sounds an easy formula, but few hotels remember to make their staff act human – you just feel you’re being conveyer-belted around the building. Not at Villa Cora – these are real people.
You don’t even need to go out – literally, because there’s a network of underground tunnels linking the basement of the main building with the poolside restaurant and the subterranean spa in the Villa Eugenia. We head off to Le Pool to eat (Pasha in the basement takes over dinner duties in winter), entering the tunnel, emerging at the… spa.
It’s a labyrinth down there. Compasses reset, we try again, this time successfully finding the restaurant, where we plump (this is the operative word) for a four-course Tuscan tasting menu, delivered with a gastronomic flourish by a chef who clearly knows his way around a cow. We may not be exploring Tuscany, but at least we can give our tastebuds a tour of the region.
Mrs Smith has a facial booked the next morning, so – after getting well acquainted with the cornucopian breakfast buffet and introducing Master Smith to Florence’s only heated outdoor pool – she redescends into the maze in search of the spa. Leaving us to snoop around.
Our expedition takes us to the lift, up to the undiscovered heights of floor five (floor four requires an elevator key – it’s the Forties-themed honeymoon suite). The doors open – and we’re on the roof. A spectacular panorama is spread out before us: the Boboli treetops recede into a sea of alabaster and terracotta, dotted with domes and backdropped by hills. If there’s a better view of Firenze out there, I don’t need to see it; this one’ll do me.
I drag a freshly facialed Mrs S up to share the vista. She too is slack-jawed. We may not have ‘seen’ all of Florence, but we’ve certainly had an eyeful of it. Next time we’ll just have to stay in a worse hotel – that way we might actually go out.