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Italy’s Lake Como: Spectacular Villas, Gardens and Active Sports

Lake Como, about 25 miles north of Milan, is a hugely popular spot, and it’s easy to see why. This gorgeous blue lake, 30 miles long, surrounded by mountains, is Europe’s deepest and has a 106-mile shoreline. There is no limit to the activities available, including bicycling, mountain biking, hiking, sailing, kayaking, and climbing. You can swim, paraglide, windsurf, ride horses and, in the winter, ski nearby mountain slopes.

lake-comoFerries traverse the lake, an easy way to see the sights, and buses go around the shore. Hydrofoils scoot over the water. Boat cruises are offered, mainly on summer weekends. Several funiculars climb the hills to overlooks and hiking paths.

comoGetting to Lake Como from Milan is easy by car, bus or train. The only difficulty is choosing which delightful spot on the lake in which to stay. Como, on the southwestern tip, is both resort and busy industrial town, dating back to Roman days when Julius Caesar designed the walled city. It’s been a silk-producing center since the 14th century and has a museum showing the process as well as shops selling fine silk goods. There are lively cafes on historic squares and several interesting churches. The main one is the old cathedral, with marvelous carvings, tapestries and Renaissance paintings.

bellagioBellagio is a lovely town, full of colorful flowers and staircase streets.  Lots of people know this about Bellagio, so you’ll also see gift shops by the dozens and big buses loaded with tourist groups. Among the town’s good restaurants are La Punta, serving fresh lake fish in a garden overlooking the harbor, and Trattoria San Giacomo, small and busy (no reservations) but worth the wait. Don’t miss the gardens at Villa Melzi and at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, where you might choose to stay if you are fortunate. The hotel is a haven of luxury, with a guest list of the renowned.

Cernobbio, on the west shore, has one big claim to fame: Villa d’Este, the place to stay when you can afford classic elegance at its most magnificent. The rich and famous sleep in this 17th century lakefront hotel of sweeping marble staircases and fine antiques. There are tennis courts, swimming pools, and gardens with tree-lined lanes, fountains, pavilions and fanciful stonework. Villa d’Este deserves its accolades.

tremezzoTremezzo also is known for a fabulous place, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. You can tour the villa, which has its original 18th century furniture and art, including the famous Canova statue of Eros and Psyche, and stroll 14 acres of terraced gardens. They are spectacular. Yet another stunning villa (I never tire of these) is on the far southeastern arm of the lake. Villa Balbianello has an other-world quality, a fantasy of carved stonework, terraces, manicured gardens, and temples. It may look familiar, as well – Star Wars Episode II and Casino Royale were partially filmed here. And don’t forget about the little isle of Comacina , a quiet island off the west coast of Lake Como with a memorable restaurant.

varennaOf all Lake Como’s charming towns, my favorite is Varenna. It’s built on a rocky hill, with olive and cypress trees and ochre and yellow buildings extending from the lake-edge walkway up to a simple square. Tourists come here, but not in throngs; you need to be able to walk steep streets and stairs. We visited the lovely gardens of Villa Monastero, admiring the profusion of cypress and palm trees and grand views of the lake, and returned to eat good pizza at Pizzeria del Sole. We liked Nilus for pizza, too, and the little albergo-milanoterrace at lakeside Vecchia Varenna for more upscale meals. Our hotel was Albergo Milano, on the hillside overlooking the water. It has been renovated in recent years and is in several guidebooks, so it’s best to reserve early – especially if you want a lakefront room, the most preferable.

hotel-du-lacAnother good choice is the Hotel Du Lac, a peaceful inn built in the early 19th century. Rooms are pleasant and stylish, the service is good. It’s not one of the palatial villas, but the cost is considerably less and there are few pleasures more satisfying than relaxing on a vine-covered terrace with a gelato on a hot day, watching the boats go by on Lake Como.

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