“On a clear day, the lake is breathtaking, and you can see Milan from here,” one of the locals says as we ride the historic funicular linking northern Italy’s Como and Brunate. I smile at the thought. You can’t even see Milan from Milan – the city’s dense smog and fog make for a dreary light I’ve grown to love after living in the city. As soon as I stepped off my train earlier that morning, the air felt crisp and light. I’ve travelled only an hour from Milan, yet Lake Como is a mood all of its own.
“I’ll have to come back,” I tell him and watch him nod, thrilled to have convinced me. The lake is cloaked in fog. The towering peaks are smudged, the pastel villas bleached by diffused light. It’s low season and the lake’s heartbeat is slow. The boats are moored and the beaches belong to the swans. It’s a far cry from the peak-summer scene – the blindingly blue waterfronts flooded with vacationers sipping spritzes under canopies of wisteria.
But I need no convincing to return; I’m enchanted by this place.
Italy’s deepest lake is shaped like a wishbone, its two southern arms beginning at Como and Lecco. Lake Como belongs to the province of Lombardy and sits at the foot of the Alps on the Swiss border. Pretty villages hem its shores, their lakefront promenades bursting with blooms and their slopes lined with cypress and oleander trees. For centuries, Lake Como has been celebrated for its sumptuous villas, pristine lakeside gardens, and lido lifestyle. It has been home to noble families and a rejuvenating retreat for composers, artists and writers. Its timeless sophistication continues to attract the modern aristocracy, with prominent figures acquiring villas in the area. Yet all the glamour seamlessly exists alongside the quaint piazzas and familiar local life, where elbows of all ages rest on the table to share a hearty polenta and regional variations on risotto.
If you’re planning a spring getaway to northern Italy before tourism kicks into high gear, these three lakeside gems deserve your attention.
The colourful storybook town on the eastern shore has strong Roman roots. Arrive by ferry or by train – both stations are within walking distance from the town’s attractions. Whether you stay a few hours or choose Varenna as your base, you cannot miss the Passeggiata degli Innamorati (Lovers’ Stroll) promenade or Riva Grande, the picture-perfect lakefront.
A trip to Varenna isn’t complete without a stop at Villa Monastero, a former monastery transformed into a residence and botanical garden. More than 900 species of exotic flowers and rare trees bring the ornate architecture to life against the idyllic backdrop. The villa is open from late-March to late-October (garden ticket: €10 ($15); museum and garden: €13.) Nearby, the Villa Cipressi Hotel boasts a terraced garden tucked between ancient cypress trees (garden ticket: €10; combined ticket with Villa Monastero: €19).
Surrender to the uphill pull of the narrow lanes that take you into the heart of the village: the square facing the 14th-century Chiesa di San Giorgio, a church renowned for its frescoes and black marble flooring. Make time for meandering and treat yourself to a gelato at La Passerella or to coffee and pastries at Al Barilott.
If you’re up for a climb, the Castello di Vezio offers a beautiful vantage point. From Villa Monastero, reach the castle in 40 minutes with the Sentiero del Viandante (the Path of the Wanderer), a trail built in Roman times to connect the towns on the eastern shore. There is a shorter, but steeper, path back to town.
Or take a dip at one of Varenna’s small pebbly beaches at Lido di Varenna-Perledo (north of the harbour) or near San Giovanni Battista (south of town). For some extra pampering, lounge at Olivedo Lido, a full-service beach and bar with a private dock.
Book a table at Osteria Quatro Pass for lunch or dinner in an intimate stone cellar tucked away from the action. The osteria specializes in fresh seafood and wine pairings.
Bellagio is envied for its prime position on the promontory where the lake forks. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, the Pearl of the Lake can be reached by ferry from Varenna (15 minutes) or Como (45 minutes). Its 11th-century steeple is visible from the water, a focal point between the alpine peaks and elegant façades. The streets here are appropriately named salite (slopes), and many are packed with boutiques and food shops. Admire the view from the top of Salita Serbollini while you catch your breath and congratulate yourself on having worn sensible shoes.
Stroll through the botanical gardens of Villa Melzi, open late-March to late-October (day ticket for garden, museum and chapel: €8). For a garden tour with a unique view from the promontory, book a visit of Parco di Villa Serbolloni (€10 for two-hour tour) or stand at Punta Spartivento (literally, windbreaking point) where the lake’s three branches intersect. Or dodge the crowds and walk to San Giovanni, a hamlet with a rocky beach.
If you have access to a car and no qualms about winding mountain roads, reserve lunch at Polentoteca Chalet Gabriele for unpretentious local delicacies and a magnificent vista. Try the sciatt, buckwheat fritters stuffed with casera cheese typical of the Valtellina valley, and pizzoccheri, a hearty buckwheat cabbage pasta. The cabin-style restaurant specializes in polenta and books up weeks in advance.
Though grander and more urban than its neighbours, Como’s walled medieval centre is poised and relaxed, inviting you to linger in its handsome squares and cobbled streets. With its prosperous silk industry established in medieval times, Como is the world’s silk capital. Stop by the Silk Museum or the Fondazione Antonio Ratti for a trip into textiles. Feel tiny next to the imposing Duomo, Italy’s last Gothic cathedral, and let its booming bells course through you. Step back in time in the city’s medieval heart, Piazza San Fedele, and enjoy its Saturday-morning market. A few steps away, Piazza Volta has a whole different personality with its Art Nouveau façades.
Grab a gelato at Gelateria Lariana and leave yourself ample time to walk the lakefront in both directions. To the west, the promenade winds around to the neoclassical Villa Olmo and its gardens (free) and to the Tempio Voltano, a museum dedicated to the Como-born electricity pioneer. Don’t skip the dam bridge, which offers an interesting view of the town and marina. Heading east, follow the promenade to the foot of the funicular to Brunate, which runs every 15 minutes. Though the queue can be long, the sweeping views make it worthwhile. Once at the top, leave the crowds behind at the funicular station and continue on foot to the lighthouse or gawk at the villas perched above paradise on your way to Trattoria del Cacciatore for a traditional lunch. Order the tagliolini with sautéed porcini and mushrooms or the stracotto (beef stew) in mushroom sauce served with polenta.
If you prefer to eat in downtown Como, you’ll find local fare at reasonable prices at Voglia di Pasta, MASS Wine Bar, and Osteria del Gallo, or grab a piadina to go from Bar San Fedele.
If you go:
A scenic one-hour train ride from Milan brings visitors to Varenna, Como San Giovanni (centre) or Como-Lago (lakefront). From Malpensa airport, switch in Saronno without having to go into central Milan. trenitalia.it
Ferries and hydrofoils connect the towns on the lake. For schedules and tickets, visit navigazionelaghi.it