Lake Como, with its timeless appeal and stunning landscapes, is one of Italy’s most prized destinations. It’s been a vacation destination since the time of the Romans and has been popularized in recent years as George Clooney’s hideaway. It’s famous for its medieval remnants and cobble stone streets in towns like Varenna and Bellagio, as well as its natural appeal as mountains tower all around it.
Traveling to Lake Como means exploring the dozens of quaint villages, eating your dream Italian meal, and exploring impossibly beautiful villas of the rich and famous.
Lake Como is large lake at 146 square kilometers and is the deepest lake in Europe at 450m in depth. It’s a rather large lake and it’s impossible to cover it properly without at least a few days of travel. The lake is surrounded by mountains with the highest peak being Mt.Legnone (approx. 2700m high) which dominates the town of Colico at the northern tip of the lake.
I spent a week in Lake Como and it was the first place I traveled to after the inter-Schengen travel ban ended in the era of Coronavirus. It was a bit surreal to come here, not so much the beauty of the lake (which it is of course amazing), but because I was able to travel again and so soon. Italy was incredibly hard hit in the beginning but with a very tough lockdown, they were able to get cases under control and deserve to open up its tourism to Europeans.
People wear masks indoor and outdoor and you could see the impact it had on the psyche of the people.
I explored as much of the lake as I could in my week here. I came in mid June and the weather was largely perfect. In normal times, you’d be greeted by huge tour buses, traffic jams, and crowded streets. Because I was one of the first foreign tourists to come, I was able to enjoy it with relatively no crowds to speak of, restaurants that didn’t require reservations, and a feeling like I had the place to myself. It was a bit surreal!
How to get to Lake Como
Since I live in Germany, it is quite easy for me to drive from my home in Frankfurt. Simply drive south through Freiburg, into Switzerland, and Lake Como is right near the border of Switzerland and Italy.
However, for most people, it’s likely you’ll be coming through on a trip in Italy. The closest major city to Lake Como is Milan which makes Lake Como a very easy to reach destination since Milan is a large airport.
From Milan, there are a few methods to getting to Lake Como
Take the train from Milan to Varenna
Probably the quickest way to get to Lake Como from Milan is the train ride to the town of Varenna. This train is only 90 minutes and runs every hour of the day. It’s also very cheap as a one way fare on this train starts around €6.50.
From the train stop, you can walk right into Varenna town and thereby continue to take the ferry to other towns like Bellagio and Menaggio. This is certainly the best way to see Lake Como if you want to do a day trip from Milan.
If you’re looking to come straight from the Milan Bergamo Airport, then simply take an Uber to the Milan Centrale train station and continue onwards
Bus from Milan to Lake Como
There are numerous bus lines that also make this trip but it much more time consuming and more expensive. Take the train and never look back!
Getting around Lake Como
I think most people that visit Como are on short day trips or guided tours. However, if you want the freedom to really explore Lake Como without much hassle, than a car is necessary. You can rent cars for very cheap from the Milan airport. I had a car the entire time and it made exploring towns much easier. In addition, we stayed in a house up on the hills with an absolutely spectacular view of the Lake but this meant we were far from really anything so a car is required.
Driving in Lake Como
Driving in Lake Como is quite straight forward. The main towns of Lake Como are well…right on the lake. There is a main road that encircles the entire lake and you can visit all the towns from this road.
The road itself is mostly one lane which means during high season you can expect to have some serious traffic jams. In some towns like Argegno, the road really narrows in Italian fashion and for the inexperienced, it may be a bit scary to drive fast.
There are parking lots in every town that you can pay for at the rate of €1 per hour. Again, during high season, it will be harder to find parking. As we visited during the Coronavirus era, we had no problems at all.
Driving around the entire lake Como in a day
If you have a car, you can feasibly drive around the entire lake in a day. It’s roughly 2.5 hours to encircle the lake without making any stops. If you make a detour to drive to Bellagio, add another 1.5 hours onto the trip. With stops, you can feasibly see 3-4 towns in a day without much issue.
Getting around by Ferries and buses
If you don’t plan on renting a car, there’s no need to worry. The towns are largely connected by buses and ferries. However, the ferries only really run between Bellagio, Varenna, and Menaggio. If you don’t plan on renting a car and want to explore the whole area, then I’d recommend staying in these three towns or in towns that are nearby.
The ferries run every hour or so between the three towns in a triangle. Each leg of the trip is only 10-15 minutes as it is very close. These ferries are also the main method to transport cars between different sides of the lake. If you look at Lake Como on a map, you’ll see that it is long and thin with no bridges anywhere. Therefore, if you are in Menaggio and want to get to Varenna on the other side of the river, your only options are to take the ferry or drive half of the lake which will take you 1 hour.
There is also a high speed ferry that runs between Domaso in the north to Como city in the very south and it makes numerous stops.
Lake Como by boat
Last but not least, and without a doubt the best way to get around the lake, is by speed boat. My friends happened to just have one lying around and we used this boat as our main method of transportation between towns.
Not only was it the fastest way to get around, but you get a very unique perspective of the lake from being on the water. There isn’t much traffic on the lake at all and there was always ample space to dock the boats when we arrived at a town we wanted to visit.
Plus you’re on a boat, enough said.
If you don’t have a boat handy, then you can always rent a boat. There are numerous companies that will rent a boat by the day assuming you have a boat license. You can also rent a boat for the day with a personal driver. Although this is not cheap, it would be quite reasonable if you’re a larger group.
Different parts of Lake Como
Lake Como is a huge lake. It takes roughly 3.5 hours to drive around it in its entirety. If you don’t have a car, where you stay will dictate which area you explore.
For the most part, the towns in the south are more expensive. They attract the weekenders from Milan and it’s a place for people to live posh. Think of it as the Milanese Hamptons. The towns in the middle like Bellagio, and Varenna are still quite posh and sees much larger numbers of tourists. It’s not hard to see why Bellagio attracts the amount of foreigners as it does.
Finally, the towns in the north are far less touristy with cheaper accommodations to boot. Towns in the north are also still quite picturesque even if it’s not as iconic as the towns in the south.
Bellagio, the Pearl of Lake Como, is famous worldwide for its beautiful villas overlooking the water (like Villa Serbelloni or Villa Melzi), but also for its small yet charming alleys, full of shops, boutiques and restaurants. Bellagio is probably the most well known and visited town in Lake Como. it’s certainly one of the most picturesque Its old town is in fantastic conditions and they alleyways are perfect to walk and get lost in.
Funny enough, I had always thought Bellagio was just the name of a hotel in Las Vegas. I’m ashamed to admit that I discovered Bellagio is a medieval town that predates the Vegas hotel by a thousand years.
The best part of Bellagio is walking through its beautiful streets. The old town center of Bellagio has one main road, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, which gets to Punta Spartivento (tip of the village) in less than 10 minutes.
It’s quite a small town and I could see how during normal non coronavirus times, it would be extremely packed. However, this wasn’t really the case during my visit. We had amazing gelato at Gelateria del Borgo before having some afternoon aperitivos at Bstyle Bellagio.
Unfortunately, the iconic villas that Bellagio is famous for were closed.
After walking on the romantic lakeside Lungo Lario Manzoni, you will reach the world famous Villa Serbelloni, a luxury hotel built in the 15th century and currently owned by the Rockefeller Foundation.
If you’re not a guest of the villa, you cannot visit the interior. However, you can book a visit and enjoy a walk into the 50 acres of park and gardens that surround the villa (contact Promo Bellagio for more information).
Varenna is an essential stop for anyone wishing to visit one of the most typical and quite towns of the lake. A must if you are in Milan (from where you arrive after an hour train ride) or in Bellagio, which is just 15 minutes away by ferry. The town is absolutely picturesque especially if you’re on the water looking at it with the mountains in the background. The town is incredibly well preserved and every corner you turn you’ll find something new and charming.
A visit to Villa Monastero is definitely one of the best things that you can do in Varenna. The villa was once an old monastery, that later became a patrician residence.
Besides being an international conference center, Villa Monastero attracts tourists from everywhere because of its beautiful botanical garden that collects many rare plant species.
Menaggio is a beautiful town on the western shore of Lake Como in Lombardy. Unlike many of the lake’s small towns that literally “climb” on the banks, Menaggio is in a larger area, which allowed it to expand more than the others. It is therefore not difficult to find something to visit or do in Menaggio.
The waterfront is a pleasant stroll with impressive indoor squares, fountains, bars, ice cream parlors and pizzerias. This tourist wealth can help make Menaggio less authentic than Bellagio and Varenna, which are linked to Menaggio by a picturesque harbor. The quay and the small modern harbor full of yachts give it a certain charm.
As soon as you enter the historic center of Menaggio, the beauty of this small but extremely fascinating village will delight visitors. The heart of the city is Piazza Garibaldi, where you can see the facade of the Santa Marta church, enriched by the presence of a Roman plaque. Another medieval testimony is the church of San Carlo, built in the 18th century.
You cannot stay in Menaggio without visiting the beautiful Villa Mylius Vigoni, a house museum from the first half of the 19th century, surrounded by a garden of rare beauty.
A few kilometers from Como resist Cernobbio, a city known for its historic houses. You see yourself in a convenient location, in the heights of the Bisbino mountain and on the shores of Lake Como. Despite the rights to Como, Cernobbio has very personal rights. The landscape can also be heard on foot as well as by boat and various vacation conditions north.
The promenade, which Como and Cernobbio removed, is a 5 km long bike path that is also accessible and is characterized by an enchanting panorama.
Among the many people’s villas from Cernobbio from the 19th century, the religious Villa d’Este is of public artistic interest. The villa now houses a luxury hotel and was built by Pellegrino Tibaldi in the 16th century. It is part of its beautiful gardens. Along the stream dominated by the villa you will get a promontory on which the Villa Pizzo stands, an interesting and interesting example of a historic house from the 19th century.
Do not miss Villa Erba, which was built in the 16th century as a women’s monastery and is now a congress center at an advanced level. Villa Bernasconi was built in Liberty style and now houses art exhibitions and major cultural events.
Located in the north of Lake Como, Cremia is where I stayed for the week. Cremia is much quieter than other towns with fewer bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, it was a great place to base ourselves to explore the lake. It’s much cheaper and doesn’t see the crowds that towns in the south do.
In addition, if you’re a water sport fan, this is where you’ll want to be if you are keen for kite surfing or windsurfing.
Argegno is a small town located in a large cove on the western shore of Lake Como; despite its small dimensions, there are many interesting things to see and visit here. The village is also the starting point of the famous cable car which takes only five minutes to take you to Pigra, which is located at 1000 meters above sea level; from this place you can admire breathtaking views of Lake Como and the Alpine foothills and also make excursions to Mount Galbiga, Tellero and Alpe di Colonno. Argegno is also the outer municipality of Val d’Intelvi, whose roads connect Lake Como to Lake Lugano.
The city is very picturesque and is characterized not only by the magnificent lakeside with fascinating houses overlooking the banks, but also by the ancient village divided in two parts by the Telo stream and connected by an old bridge with pointed arches, dating from to the Roman-medieval times. Many remains of fortifications still present in the historic center bear witness to the Roman origins of Argegno, which owes its name to the consul Publio Cesium Archigenes.
The most beautiful churches are the parish of the SS. Trinity, built at the beginning of the 20th century in the neo-Roman style, the Sanctuary of Saint Anne of the 17th century, which preserves precious works of art by Barberini and Isidoro Bianchi, and the Romanesque church of San Sisinnio, considered a real gem.
Located in the southeast part of Lake Como, Lecco feels like a real town. It has 50,000 inhabitants with schools, shops, and the like. Lecco is perhaps one of the most geographically stunning towns on the lake. The mountains here are more rocky reminding me of the Dolomites or the Western Cape in South Africa rather than the more tree-dense mountains on the other side of Lake Como.
Simply walk along the waterfront for sweeping views of the picturesque town with the alps in the background. The old town one street in from the harbor is also quite beautiful. The baroque style buildings are beautifully maintained and there is a plethora of restaurants to eat at.
I had some of the most delicious gelato of my life at Cape Horn Artisanal Gelato. You know it’s good when there’s a huge queue of Italians waiting on a hot summer day.
Laglio is a small town located on the west shore of Lake Como, just 15 kilometers north of Como. The village is an excellent starting point for walks along the lake and across the surrounding hills, from where you can admire a panorama of rare beauty. The slopes above the village are rich in vineyards, olive groves and laurel plants, one of which once extracted laurel oil, famous for its medicinal qualities. After years of incredible anonymity, Laglio gained notoriety when famous actor George Clooney bought the historic Villa Oleandra in 2002, making it in his summer home.
Since then, this small town on Lake Como has indeed become a favorite place for paparazzi, fans or simply the curious, to the point that the city council had to approve a specific by-law in order to protect the privacy of Clooney (and that of its extremely famous guests), prohibiting everyone from standing in the immediate vicinity of the villa. Villa Oleandra is located near a picturesque harbor and it was built on an ancient Roman colony; it is also part of a larger property with three other adjacent buildings, all connected to each other by elegant scaffolding.
Where to eat
Of course one of the main highlights of any Italian trip should be focused around food! Expect to eat very well in Lake Como with all of your favorite Italian specialties. Also expect to drink on the regular as Northern Italy is the birthplace of the aperol spritz. Aperitivos are a way of life in this part of Italy and it’s quite an easy lifestyle to embrace.
Prices in Lake Como are generally higher than the Italian average. You’d expect to pay more for visiting places in Northern Italy than say somewhere in the south like Puglia. Also, Lake Como can be quite a fancy place depending on which area you’re in so you can pay for some really high end michelin starred tastings that will rack up a bill quickly.
Nevertheless, for every fancy upscale restaurant, there are 10 more that just serve solid Italian cooking in a relaxed environment for a reasonable price. I was never shocked at the prices I paid for any of my meals.
There are way too many restaurants to count and you could spend years experiencing them all. Here are some of the restaurants that I really enjoyed:
Hotel Du Lac – Varenna
While walking around Varenna, we discovered this beautiful hotel with a terrace that has views of the entire lake. This is the perfect place to have an aperitivo while watching the sun set over the mountains.
In addition, this hotel/restaurant also has a private dock so if you have your own boat (wink wink), then this is the perfect place to roll up like a VIP and go to your dinner. The food is fine dining style and also quite delicious albeit more expensive than other similar restaurants.
Da Luciano – Laglio
While we were in Laglio searching for George Clooney’s house (just kidding), we found this fantastic tapas style bodega right on the waterfront. This is definitely a lesser touristy spot that serves amazing cheeses, meats, breads, and wine. We got a little bit of everything including their lunch menu which were meatballs to die for.
The view from our little bench was breathtaking. Would definitely go back here.
Located in Cremia where we stayed, this is by far the best cocktail bar I found around Lake Como. They are located right on the docks with perfect views of the lakes and even the alps at the very north of the lake.
They make one of the best negronis I’ve ever had. This was an aperitivo time regular for us!
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