Casa Howard, Florence: B&B and beyond

This Tuscan guesthouse is like a home from home only with leopard print headboards, says Lucy Gillmore

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The Independent Travel

Three down, 10 to go. So far I've bounced on the beds of the Library, the Oriental Room, and the Terrace. I'm already tossing and turning over whether to try the Fireplace Room next, with its free-standing tub, parquet floor and white marble fireplace, or the split-level Studio with spiral staircase and patio garden next to the Turkish hammam ….

It's hard not to get that "child in a sweet shop" feeling when you're scrolling through the room choices at Casa Howard in Florence. Hotels and B&Bs often claim their rooms are individually designed, but more often than not you need a magnifying glass to spot the difference.

At this eclectic guesthouse, however, the rooms range from the jewel-like and bijou Hidden Room, with its sunken bath, erotic Japanese prints and blood-red paint, to the sprawling grandeur of the Drawing Room: think dramatic black walls, cascading silk drapes, Venetian mosaic marble floor, Chinese furniture and leopard print headboards. This isn't Disneyesque theming, though. The rooms might be quirky with a palpable sense of fun (in the Terrace the bathroom is decorated with photographs of "laughing" animals), but they have been painstakingly put together.

The Florence guesthouse, which opened in 2005, was the third property in the Casa Howard portfolio. The first two in Rome date back to 2000. The owners' idea was to create the feeling of a home from home. The buildings have character (historic palazzos and apartments), you're given a key, there's no reception or dining room and there's an honesty fridge on each floor.

Pulling up outside the huge wooden door on the Via della Scala, within suitcase-dragging distance of the central Santa Maria Novella train station, and ringing the bell, did feel just like coming home.

A guest room terrace

The Bed

The Via della Scala is on the grungy side of chaotic, so if you crave tranquillity, book one of the rooms at the back overlooking the courtyard and the basilica of Santa Maria Novella.

Topping and tailing a week in Tuscany, we had one night in the Oriental Room and two in the Terrace. The Oriental has vivid, burnt orange walls, black painted floorboards, acid green silk lampshades and purple drapes trimmed in scarlet. And an emperor size bed. The Terrace, on the second floor, is perfect for pet owners. French doors open on to a vine-strung terrace with a cosy seating area overlooking the back of the basilica. There are pictures of dogs on the walls and a dog bed on top of the wardrobe.

Families are equally welcome. The Play Room has a climbing wall and a library of Disney films, while if you're travelling with a group of friends some of the rooms can be booked together.

The intensely fragrant toiletries come from the feted Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella next door.

The Breakfast

Breakfast in bed isn't an indulgence here – it's the norm. As there's no dining room, a breakfast tray is delivered to your room with freshly squeezed orange juice, fruit, steaming coffee, yoghurt and croissants – for an €8 surcharge. Some of the rooms have private terraces where you can eat outside.

The hosts

Owners Massimiliano Leonardi and his English interior-designer wife, Jennifer Howard Forneris, have lavished lush fabrics on the rooms, along with a peppering of antiques and items collected on their travels (the black lacquer furniture and framed silk textiles in our Oriental Room were brought back from Asia). The result is a guesthouse with originality, intoxicating eccentricity and flair, which makes you feel as though you're staying in the rather grand apartment of an out-of-town friends – who have left you their Wi-Fi code and stocked the fridge with wine.

The Weekend

First-timers, of course, want to tick off the Duomo, the Uffizi and Michelangelo's David in the Accademia (pre-book tickets to save on queuing time) and browse the jewellery stores on the Ponte Vecchio. We revisited a few favourites such as the Basilica of Santa Croce and puffed to the top of the Campanile (there are more than 400 steps to the top of the bell tower).

The Pitstop

This time, we just grazed at the little outdoor eateries lined around Piazza Santo Spirito and the funky new food court on the first floor of the Mercato Centrale ( The stylishly revamped space, has soaring ceilings and stalls selling everything from wood-fired pizzas to fresh fish. You choose your food then tuck into a gourmet picnic at tables in the middle.

The essentials

Casa Howard, Via della Scala 18, 50123 Florence, Italy (00 39 06 6992 4555; Doubles from €160 (£124) a night, excluding breakfast.