Lago di Como, Italy

While living in Germany, we spent two summers in Lago di Como, or Lake Como, as it is known in the English-speaking world, and loved every minute of our time there. Lake Como is a place that really needs no further introduction, especially amongst the Europeans, but the rest of the world might not be so familiar with this little slice of paradise.

Of all the Italian lakes, it is the one that comes most heavily praised. Located in the region of Lombardy, Lake Como lies between Milan and the border of Switzerland. The very definition of the word 'mesmerizing', it is only a 90-minute drive from Milan and to date remains an extremely popular holiday spot for Italians and many Europeans too, and it’s easy to see why.

The third largest lake in Italy, the lake is surrounded by beautiful mountains and hills, which are dotted with quaint villages, expensive villas, and tourist resorts. Shaped like an upside-down letter Y, the principal towns of Como and Lecco are at the southernmost tips of their own branches of the lake, while narrow winding roads follow the squiggly shoreline above and through quaint fishermen’s villages, past belle époque houses and Neoclassical villas up to the centre of the lake, where the romantic towns of Varenna, Bellagio and Menaggio appeal to those looking for a bit of relaxation and tranquility.

There are plenty of options when it comes to accommodations on the lake, from the luxurious and swanky hotels in Bellagio to the more intimate apartments and rustic Bed and Breakfasts in smaller villages for those looking for a more authentic experience of the Italian village life. We decided against staying in the more touristy resorts and on both visits, opted for a quiet but beautiful B&B in the village of Lezzeno, a 10-minute drive away from the town of Bellagio.

Ferries link the major villages and towns of Lake Como, providing both a good form of public transportation as well as an excellent way to do some sightseeing from the lake. Boats crisscross the Lake and chug round bends and bays in a way that produces constantly changing views, all of them breathtaking. For those visiting the Lake for the first time, a ferry trip around the heart of Lake Como (between the key towns of Bellagio, Varenna, Menaggio and Cadenabbia) is definitely a must, to experience first hand all the breathtaking views the lake has to offer.

There are also plenty of private boats, which you can hire to take you on a tour of the lake should money and time permit. Most of the boat and ferries also stop at famous attractions like the Villa Fontanelle, which was previously owned by Gianni Versace until 1997, and the Villa del Balbianello, of such splendid beauty it was used as a set for parts of Star Wars: Episode II, as well as Casino Royale!

The town of Bellagio was one of our personal favourite spots on Lake Como. Although touristy, the town, cradled by cypress-spiked hills, has been called the most beautiful town in Italy and for good reason. With a beautiful promenade lined with trees and flowers, panoramic lake views wherever you look, charming and stately hotels, and an old quarter of cobbled streets and alleyways leading to quaint little shops, restaurants and cafes, it is easy to see why Bellagio is so popular amongst tourists from all over the world. Also known as the 'Pearl of Lake Como', a stroll along Bellagio will fill your senses with its exquisite beauty. This is also the perfect spot to indulge in some great food and people watching, with plenty of wonderful restaurants lined one after another, tempting you with its delicious local ingredients and fresh seafood.

Not to be outdone, Varenna, an ancient fishing village has a character all of its own. Free of through traffic, shaded by pines and planes and almost completely free of souvenir shops, this village is populated with homes and gardens that show the owners have a profound love of nature. At the upper reaches of Varenna lies the landscaped ruins of the Castello di Vezio, where Theodolinda, Queen of the Lombards, is said to have died in the 7th century. Varenna is also home to one of the oldest churches on the lake, the eleventh-century San Giovanni Battista with well-reserved frescoes depicting St John the Baptist.

The walled town of Como itself is a must-visit when in the area. Situated at the head of the lake, it is a comfortable, ancient, stately town, with much of its wealth coming from the factories dotting the outskirts, producing luxury silk items for the fashion houses of Milan, Paris and New York. With a good historic centre and lively squares, a must-see in Como is undoubtedly the Duomo, a splendid historic cathedral, which is also said to be the last gothic cathedral built in Italy. The romantic lakeside promenade is a focus of life in the town, where seafront gardens, a lively harbor and an international marina makes for delightful sight-seeing.

As is the case in Italy and in many other Mediterranean countries, the heart of the old town is usually the town square, which is also the perfect place to grab a coffee or gelato and do some people watching. Protected by high walls to this day, it is populated with small and interesting local and designer shops. From Como you can take the funicular to the village of Brunate, situated 720m above Como, for hiking trails and beautiful views of the lake and the Alps.

Food is also a reason why people come to Lake Como. With good food and family being the cornerstone of Italian life it is no surprise that there are restaurants to suit every occasion and budget. Whether it be an occasion for the family (Italians generally adore children so you can really take your child with you anywhere), a fine dining experience or rustic charm in a village so quaint you feel like you’ve taken a step back in time, the choice is plentiful and mouth watering.

When in Lake Como, you'll find the indigenous perch, simply known as Lake Fish, cropping up in antipastos, risottos and pastas, and as a dish on its own, at most decent local restaurants. Most restaurants catch their fish daily, and serve them in a variety of ways. The best way to have a taste of the various different ways this fish can be cooked and prepared is to order the Lake Fish Antipasto (available at most restaurants), which traditionally consists of Lake Fish served in five or six different ways on the plate. Missoltino, in particular, is a local specialty, where a fish called agony is salted and pressed for months, and served traditionally with polenta. 

There is an abundance of attractions, nightlife, shops, history and fine cuisine to suit every interest in Lake Como. Whether you want to relax, go for a hike in the mountains, visit the splendid villas, absorb the culture and history or dine on the finest Italian cuisine or a charming local restaurant off the beaten track, there is much to be experienced and enjoyed in Lake Como.

We absolutely loved our time there, and would return for another visit in a heartbeat. The romantic waterfront vistas, elegant residences, dreamy gardens and sumptuous villas and palazzo dotted around the shorelines is something that has to be witnessed and experienced first hand, and I consider myself very, very lucky to have been able to spend not just one, but two amazing vacations in this utterly breathtaking corner of bella Italy.


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