Italy has always led the way in design, from cars to couture. But its hotels have consistently lagged behind. "Since the early 1900s, Italy has been perceived as a resort," says Adam Tihany, designer of the new Aleph hotel in Rome. "But that's changing. Hotels are finally modernizing, and it's fantastically exciting."
Take Milan. In the last year, four new modern hotels have opened: The Enterprise Hotel, The Gray, Townhouse 31, and 3 Rooms (at the 10 Corso Como shopping complex). In the fall, the city will even have a new Hyatt by Ed Tuttle, the designer behind the Amanresorts. In Rome, new contenders include ES, Hotel Art, and Aleph. And in Florence (where the marvelous Savoy foreshadowed the trend when it opened nearly four years ago) the Ferragamos have added the hip Continentale to their collection of properties.
We've evaluated the newcomers and found our favorites—which wasn't a simple task. Milan's Enterprise is brilliantly designed, but it is in the wrong part of town. Townhouse 31 is better suited to fashion assistants than their editors. We love ES for its rooftop pool (arguably the best in Rome), but the service is terrible. And Hotel Art's rooms are simply too small. That leaves four that no modernism-loving traveler should miss.
THE GRAY, MILAN
THE LAYOUT 21 rooms, including two suites with private gyms. There's also a small restaurant and bar.
THE LOOK Masculine and sleek, but with a cocoonlike feel. Colors are chocolate and cream with orange details. There's black macassar paneling, veined marble, steel, ostrich leather headboards, and silk cushions. "I wanted to create 21 different rooms for 21 different experiences," says designer Guido Ciompi. "And I wanted to make it tactile. This is vital, to make a minimalist design comfortable." The hotel has the air of a members-only club without the attitude.
THE LOCATION Unbeatable. Ten strides from the Duomo; a short walk to La Scala; five minutes from some of Italy's best shopping, on Via Monte Napoleone.
CAVEAT EMPTOR Windows aren't soundproofed, and Milanese workmen start early.
ROOMS TO GET 101, 201, 301, all with views of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
Rooms, $335-$1,235. At 6 Via San Raffaele; 800-337-4685, 39-02-72-08-95-1; www.designhotels.com.
3 ROOMS, MILAN
THE LAYOUT A B&B in the 10 Corso Como complex, with three suites—bedroom, lounge, dressing room, bathroom—above a central courtyard garden.
THE LOOK Retro Scandinavian. Arne Jacobson Swan and Egg chairs, Eames bedspreads, and '60s light fixtures and rugs. "Most of the furniture comes from my private collection and that of Carla Sozzani, who owns 10 Corso Como," says designer Kris Ruhs. "The intention is to make it feel intimate, not like a hotel."
THE LOCATION A ten-minute cab ride from Stazione Centrale. The 10 Corso Como complex features an excellent restaurant, bar, café, boutique, and art gallery.
CAVEAT EMPTOR Snotty receptionists.
ROOM TO GET Number 3, which has the airiest feel and a stunning vintage floor-to-ceiling light crafted from a steel chain.
Rooms, $585. At 10 Corso Como; 39-02-62-61-63.
THE LAYOUT 43 rooms in a 12th-century Florentine tower on the Arno. There's a bar, modest breakfast room, and quiet first-floor lounge.
THE LOOK Serene, light, and brilliant white, from the headboards to the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall curtains. Rooms have Florentine-leather desks; the breakfast room has pale Pucci-pink banquettes. ''The design evokes the '50s and '60s," says architect Michele Bonan, "the time of La Dolce Vita, with black-and-white films in the lobby, custom-designed furniture, and vintage pieces."
THE LOCATION Without peer. The first-floor lounge looks directly over the Ponte Vecchio. The Uffizi is a two-minute walk.
CAVEAT EMPTOR Bathrooms are overdesigned. But everything else, especially the service, is top-rate.
ROOM TO GET 502, which has a balcony and a view over the Ponte Vecchio.
Rooms, $370-$1,020. At 6R Vicolo dell' Oro; 44-207-235-3245; 39-055-27262; www.lungarnohotels.com.
THE LAYOUT 96 rooms, which are considerably larger than what's usually passed off as "suites" in Italy. There's a restaurant, roof terrace, two bars, gym, and spa.
THE LOOK Sexy and decadent (velvet, marble, silk, dark oak paneling). Deep reds in the lobby; blue and creams in the bedrooms with photo murals of Roman street scenes by Bram Tihany (son of the hotel's designer, Adam Tihany). There are Murano chandeliers and window blinds made of strings of metal beads. "I wanted to make the traveler's day easier by humanizing the rooms with indulgent details," says the designer. "A hotel must always be comfortable."
THE LOCATION One minute's walk from the Via Venato; ten minutes from the Spanish Steps.
CAVEAT EMPTOR Lobby staff could be more attentive, though service is otherwise efficient.
ROOM TO GET The Presidential Suite, done up in zebrawood and ocher onyx marble, with a terrace and outdoor Jacuzzi.
Rooms, $430-$1,615. At 15 Via San Basilio; 800-337-4685, 39-06-42-29-01; www.boscolohotels.com.
Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.