Why Lake Como Should Be On Your Italy Itinerary
LAKE COMO, ITALY // SEPTEMBER 2017
WHERE TO GO & WHAT TO DO: LAKE COMO
Rome. Florence. Venice. These cities are on every tourist's must-see list while in Italy. But wander past these famed locales and you'll find pleasure in the country's less-frequented spots, some of the best being in the unsung north where rugged peaks, grand villas and glittering lakes take center stage. In the foothills of the Alps on the border of Switzerland lies Lake Como, a picture-perfect paradise known as a home-away-from-home for the rich and famous. But don't let that steer you away, as Lake Como embodies low-key glamour, history and culture, making it a great getaway for anyone regardless of your budget. Whether you can only visit for a few days, a week, or are lucky enough to call it home for a month, here's why Lake Como should be on your Italy itinerary.
Just an hour north of Milan, Lake Como is easy to get to by train or car and is an excellent stop if you're also visiting Italy's northern neighbors as we did. To say we were sad to leave the idyllic Amalfi Coast (here, here and here) would be an understatement; we had the most amazing time in Positano and it seemed like there was no way the rest of our two-week trip could compare. Still, our expectations for Lake Como were high, and little did we know that we would be captivated as soon as the first mountain gates welcomed us in.
One of my favorite parts about Lake Como is the timeless elegance and beauty it exudes. I love visiting places that make you feel as though you've been transported back to a more glamorous time, and Como does just that. The place is full of upscale hotels, wooden boats cruising along the water, and dinners requiring you dress up. We checked-in to the Grand Hotel Tremezzo (full review here) and couldn't have been more pleased. It was exactly what you'd want out of an opulent Italian villa turned five-star hotel, and is conveniently located near the lake's most popular attractions!
This 30 mile long lake is home to countless sleepy towns and hillside villages, each one more charming than the last. You could spend years discovering the nooks and crannies of every one, but if you're short on time the one that's not to be missed is Bellagio, "The Pearl of Lake Como". Located at the fork of the “Y” shape of the lake, Bellagio can be accessed by bus or ferry, with the latter being the best way to fully take in your surroundings.
From the moment we stepped off the ferry, I was in love with Bellagio! The town truly looks like a movie set! Pastel painted buildings and cafes line the waterfront, where ferries and water taxis drop curious visitors off, and steeped alleyways full of local shops lead up the hill. The best part about Bellagio is there aren't many "attractions" to see, so you won't feel guilty simply enjoying the day strolling, eating and shopping. And if you're going to buy anything, buy silk, as Como supplies 75 percent of Europe's silk!
Other popular towns to visit are Menaggio, Tremezzo and Varenna. I can't recommend enough taking a stroll down Menaggio's lakeside promenade, where large flower boxes and stunted palm trees line the cobblestone path and the views of Bellagio are priceless. We happened to be there at sunset and words can't describe how peaceful and breathtaking it was. There's something magical about the way the bright, lush landscape along the lakeside contrasts with the Alps dramatically rising above!
One thing to note is that I'd recommend skipping the actual town of Como. As a larger, industrial city, it lacks the charm that you will find in most other towns along the lake. I stopped there for lunch a few years back with my family as we were driving from Switzerland to Venice and the experience was so disappointing I almost wrote off Lake Como for good! However, I am so glad I didn't as the town is not reflective of the beauty of the region.
Aside from the scenery, the lake is full of history and culture which can be enjoyed by touring many of the gorgeous villas that are open to the public. We chose to explore Villa del Balbianello, arguably among the most beautiful estates in Italy, where terraced gardens are filled with classical statues, and manicured lawns slope to the lake. Even Hollywood loves this enchanting setting, using the grounds in multiple films, including Casino Royale and Star Wars: Episode II. The highlight is the incredible ivy-covered terrace that offers one of the best views anywhere on the lake. The unique location is accessible by foot (a 25-minute panoramic walk from the quaint town of Lenno) or by water (taxi rides are available for 5 Euros), but however you get there, you will love spending an afternoon at this spectacular villa! Note that it is closed on Mondays and Wednesdays.
While this should go without saying, when visiting Lake Como the one experience you cannot miss is to actually spend time on Lake Como. Our hotel arranged a private water taxi (a beautiful custom-made wooden boat) to escort us around the lake, and it was truly fabulous! There's no better way to get a front row seat to the real allure of the lake - the private estates! And if your captain is anything like ours was, he will gladly share intimate knowledge of the towns dotting the hillside and the villas resting along the shore. Ask him to take you by Richard Branson's old place - unreal! This experience will cost around 200 Euro/hour but is well worth it! We were a little pressed for time since we had to check out of the hotel that afternoon, so only went out for an hour, and while longer would have been fun, this was plenty of time to explore. If you're not staying at a hotel with their own boats, Bellagio Water Limousines and Menaggio Water Taxis are two companies worth hiring.
Lake Como is a good place to take a break from the intensity that's generally part of the Italian experience. Nothing and no one is in a rush. The peaceful atmosphere mixed with old world elegance is a winning combination, and I can't wait to return one day! Oh, and when I do, my first stop will again be at La Piazzette - a restaurant we stumbled upon and later learned was the best pizza on the lake (we concur)!