Lake Como 101: A Travel Guide

Lake Como has easily become a favorite getaway destination for the Swiss Family Domecks over the past couple of years. Folded into the mountains of the Lombardy region of Italy, this wishbone-shaped lake is what travel dreams are made of. With romantic villas dotting the shoreline and dramatic mountains rising from the sparkling blue waters, Lake Como is a beloved and memorable vacation destination. Since I know this Italian beauty makes it on many a Travel Bucket List, I’ve put together my thoughts on how to plan your trip to Lake Como. Andiamo!

WHERE TO STAY AND WHEN TO GO

If you only have a few days to enjoy Lake Como, I recommend staying in the town of Como, located at bottom of the western branch of the lake. Como has a charming medieval city center and is chock full of shops and restaurants to enjoy. I like staying in Como because it has a local feel; it’s a place where the town’s residents still greet each other in the streets and warmly wave hello to a café bartender. Plus, Como is linked directly to Milan in the south and Switzerland in the north, making it a convenient location for short stays.

In Como, I suggest finding accommodations inside or within walking distance of the old city walls. Much of the ancient fortifications remain, and they form a horseshoe around the city — starting from the lakeside Como Nord Station on the northeastern edge, moving south along Viale Lecco, before turning west at the Torre di San Vitale towards the Porta Torre, and then curving back north at the Torre Gattoni along the Viale Varese. Staying in a central location will afford you more time to wander the pedestrian only streets at your leisure and enjoy the city’s pleasant ambience at all times of day. While Como is not in a central location on the lake, you can still explore other beautiful towns thanks to an extensive ferry system.

If you have more time in Lake Como, you might consider splitting your nights between Como and another village or resort further up the lake. When making lodging arrangements, be sure to consider the time and manner of reaching those particular accommodations. Visit the Lago di Como ferry website to help you determine travel times by boat.

Lake Como is most alive in the summertime with June, July and August being the busiest (and hottest!) months of the year. In fact, many restaurants and businesses close during the winter months – from November to March. If swimming isn’t on your To Do List, then I recommend the shoulder seasons of early spring and early autumn, when the natural beauty is still visible but the crowds are significantly fewer.

THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE OF LAKE COMO
Posted along each coastline at the crux of the wishbone (or inverted Y) of Lake Como are three gorgeous towns: Bellagio, Menaggio, and Varenna. They form the “Golden Triangle” of Lake Como, and they are certainly the most popular destinations with visitors – and for good reason.

Bellagio
Perhaps the most famous town on the entire lake, Bellagio is seated in the very heart of Lake Como where all three branches of the lake converge on this gem. Small in size but loaded with charm, Bellagio is home to many art galleries and boutique stores. The narrow streets wind their way up the hill and before you know it, you’ve reached the end of the village. I imagine that Bellagio’s true charm appears once all the day-trippers have cleared out, leaving peace and quiet in their wake.

Menaggio
Menaggio is a larger resort town on the western shore. A hub for boat rental companies and home to a nearby golf club, swimming venues, and historical treasures, Menaggio makes an appealing holiday location for many.

Varenna
Serenely sitting under a backdrop of enormous mountains, Varenna is another lovely jewel on the eastern arm of Lake Como. The Vezio Castle rises above the village, ready to enchant younger audiences with its ancient drawbridge and falconry shows. From the Varenna Café, you can enjoy the views of the lake with a coffee, meal, or apero at the waters edge to complete your tour of the Golden Triangle.

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK – IN COMO

Here are a few of my top picks for dining establishments in the town of Como. Feel free to take them or leave them. Reservations are highly recommended, especially for dinner.

The Market Place: With an affordable tasting menu and wine pairing and a delightful take on Nuovo Italian cuisine, The Market Place delivers a high quality gastronomical experience that you’re sure to remember. Our dinner here made my list of Top Eats in 2015!

La Cucina di Elsa: This tiny mom & pop restaurant specializes in seafood, and all our meals here have been fantastic. The outdoor patio has a nice ambience that allows you to observe passersby as you soak in the fresh flavors.

Pane & Tulipane: An adorable café that doubles as a floral shop, P&T is a great spot for any meal of the day.

L’Antica Trattoria: If you’re craving red meat, then this local restaurant will satisfy your steakiest dinnertime desires!

Il Sorso Enoteca: Before dinner, adopt the Milanese way of making time for an apero in the Plaza Volta. Il Sorso brings out a delicious platter of yummy nibbles when you order a drink from their wine bar. They’ll even whip up a nonalcoholic cocktail for you on the spot!

Fresco Cocktail Shop​:​ What has to be the hippest place for after dinner drinks, Fresco is popular with the younger crowd seeking out specialty cocktails in the land of table wine.

Of course, when in Italy, it’s always best to enjoy some pizza and plenty of gelatto during your travels. I make it a point to sample from several different venues every time.

THINGS TO DO IN LAKE COMO

GO UP TO BRUNATE
Perched high above Como, the Community of Brunate holds commanding views of the lake and beyond. On clear days, you can see the Swiss Alps. An exhilaratingly steep ride up the funicular cable car is a great activity for Como dwellers. From the Brunate station, you can follow signs to the Voltiano Lighthouse (Faro Voltiano) and – after a 30 minute hike – enjoy even more spectacular views of the lake and surrounding mountains.

TOUR A VILLA
For centuries, Lake Como has been the choice destination for the wealthy and the elite. Dozens of historic villas border the pristine mountain waters. Today, some are open to the public as museums, many are functioning as luxury hotels, and others remain in private hands.

When it comes to the villas exclusively opened for tours, two compete for the top spot:

Villa del Balbianello
With its whimsical gardens and romantic architecture, the Villa del Balbianello is a popular attraction not just for tourists, but for moviemakers as well. (Several big name movies, including Star Wars: Episode II and Casino Royale, used the grounds for filming.) The Italian Environment Foundation (FAI) owns this dreamy property and runs the museum, but the gardens are free to the public. To reach the villa, take the ferry to Lenno and walk through the hilly woods towards the peninsula or hire a water taxi to deliver you to the villa’s docks.

Villa Carlotta
A short walk from the Tremezzo ferry landing, the Villa Carlotta was the belle of the late 17th century. The historic mansion has long since been used as an arts and cultural center, featuring both temporary and permanent exhibitions and including works by the great sculptor Canova. The expansive botanical gardens are a highlight of the visit, a place where visitors can leisurely stroll through a maze of azaleas, rhododendrons, and various imported flora.

BE ON (OR IN) THE LAKE
Take the ferry: Catch a ride anywhere and enjoy the scenery along the way!

Hire a private water taxi: Tap a driver to deliver you to your choice destinations.

Rent your own boat: Take charge of your lake exploration with your own motorboat. You can find boat rental companies in Menaggio, Bellagio and Varenna, as well as a few other towns along the lake.

Paddle around: Get some exercise and discover the lake sans motor by renting kayaks or paddleboats… or just go for a swim :)

TAKE A HIKE
For outdoor adventurers, consider trekking high up into the hills of Lake Como for a day of rigorous activity and stunning overlooks. From gushing waterfalls to sacred chapels, the mountains hold a number of treasures to discover on foot. 

We’ve hiked the mountain trails from Tormo up to Monte Piatto and back over to Brunate.

TRAVEL TO SWITZERLAND
Lake Como almost touches Switzerland. In fact, it’s neighbor Lago Maggiore does cross the border into der Schweiz. So, if you want more mountains and more lakes, consider traveling north and continue your European adventures. Direct trains from the Como San Giovanni station will have you in Zurich in three hours or less, thanks to the newly opened Gotthard Base Tunnel. [TIP: Just make sure to have a seat reservation, especially when traveling on a weekend or holiday.]

Lake Como is our most frequented travel destination since moving to Zurich; we have been four times in two years!

WHY GO TO LAKE COMO

Whether you have been scooting around Italy on holiday or you reside in Zurich, Lake Como provides a breath of fresh air for the weary traveler and the overworked. With incredible landscapes and adorable lakeside villages dripping with Italian charm, the scenery is sure to captivate your heart.

Both Basil the Kooiker and Baby D love Lake Como, too!

Ciao! Have you been to Lake Como before? If so, what advice can you share with others? What was your favorite villa? Best meal? If Lake Como is still on your Travel Bucket List, what else do you want to know about this Italian destination? Leave your questions and comments in the section below!

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