What to see at Lake Como, the pleasure of sailing among beautiful villas
The mythical region of Lombardy offers enough attractions to enjoy a getaway from its capital. In addition to the historical-artistic heritage of the villages near Milan (link to article “What to see near Milan”) there’s a beautiful unique environment at the foot of the Rhaetian Alps. The high alpine mountains have shaped the region into magnificent and extensive lakes. Just an hour’s drive north of Milan is the most famous of them all: Lake Como.
With an inverted “Y” shape and surrounded by high, forested mountains, the huge Lake Como has been a place of inspiration for generations of artists and writers from all over the world. Today it’s home to some of the most exclusive villas in the world. Its proximity to Milan, Italy’s financial centre, the clean air, and the tranquillity of the landscape are reason enough for millionaires and celebrities such as George Clooney to spend their holidays here.
But Lake Como is so much more. It’s dotted with charming and proud towns, such as the lively town of Como, which gives its name to the lake, the impressive Bellagio, called the Pearl of Lake Como, and many other towns and villages that make this a unique place.
What to see and do at Lake Como
A good way to get to know Lake Como is to travel around its perimeter along the road that surrounds it. By doing so, you’ll be able to admire and enjoy all the magnificence of its landscape and be captivated by the splendour and luxury of its villas and palaces.
Route around Lake Como to visit its best villas
Assuming we’re heading off from the town of Como, we can take a pleasant day trip by car to visit the most beautiful villas on the lake. Read on for a brief introduction to this place’s many palaces and villas.
In Como itself, you can see two of the best palaces. Villa Gallia, which today is the seat of the provincial administration, and Villa Olmo, Como’s most important symbol. The latter faces the lake and is surrounded by elegant Italian gardens. Built in 1728, Villa Olmo is one of the most important architectural works of Lombard neoclassical architecture. Today its modernist rooms house art exhibitions.
Very close to Olmo, in Cernobbio, the next town to the north, you can visit the sumptuous Villa Erba. This 19th-century palace was built by a Lombard businessman as a display of his economic power. Today it’s used as a conference and exhibition centre. Also in this area is the luxurious Villa D’Este, which was designed as a royal residence in the 16th century.
A few kilometres further north, on the outskirts of the municipality of Lenno, is the Villa del Balbianello. It’s one of the most photogenic palaces in the lake area. In fact, scenes from films such as “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” or the James Bond film “Casino Royale” were filmed here. Built in 1787 for Cardinal Angelo Durini, the palace’s most striking feature is its spectacular hanging gardens. If you’d like to visit it, you can only get there on foot on Tuesdays and weekends by walking the kilometre from the town of Lenno. On other days of the week, it can be visited by water taxi from the town itself (for a fee).
Continuing north, Tremezzo is home to one of the most beautiful palaces on Lake Como: Villa Carlotta. This villa, built in the 17th century, was restored to become the wedding gift of Princess Marianne of Prussia to her daughter Carlotta for her wedding in 1843. The palace contains an important collection of works of art, including an impressive display of sculptures by Antonio Canovas. Its botanical garden is especially splendid in spring, with blooming azaleas and an explosion of colours.
On the other side of the lake, opposite Villa Carlotta, in the municipality of Bellagio, is Villa Melzi, a sober neoclassical palace that’s home to an interesting collection of archaeological artefacts. Its beautifully manicured gardens are another highlight.
Further north, on the other side of the lake, in the village of Varenna, you can visit Villa Monastero. It’s a former convent that became a huge private residence of the wealthy Mornico family between the 17th and 19th centuries. Its garden is famous for being home to a magnolia that may be over 400 years old. The interior of the palace is also striking because its walls are covered with leather from Spain to protect them from damp.
Lake Como boat tour
Lake Como has a complete network of ferry and hydrofoil routes connecting the main towns on its shores. The routes are operated by Navigazione Lago di Como, and there are ticket offices in all towns near the pier. What’s more, if you buy a day ticket, you’ll get unlimited ferry trips to the central towns of the lake (Varenna, Tremezzo, and Cadenabbia) from Bellagio.
Another option in Bellagio is to hire one of Barindelli’s luxurious mahogany boats that circumnavigate the cape that bears the town’s name on a one-hour trip for up to 12 people per boat.
Visit the villages of Lake Como
In addition to a water or road route around the lake, it’s worth stopping off in some of the most interesting villages along the route. Let yourself be surprised by their artistic beauty, their traditions, the cuisine, or the exceptional landscapes that surround them. The mild microclimate that surrounds them thanks to the lake, despite the proximity of the Alps, as well as the romantic atmosphere that shrouds these villages when the fog rolls in, are plenty of reasons to enjoy them.
The City of Como
With over 86,000 inhabitants, Como is the most important town in the area. Among the highlights of the town are the preserved sections of its 12th-century medieval city walls. Also of note is the Duomo, a beautiful three-nave basilica that began to be built in the 14th century and was finished in 1740, when its dome was completed. In Piazza del Duomo is the Palazzo Comunale, a 13th-century building in white, pink, and grey marble.
From Piazza de Gasperi, you can take the funicular railway up to the small village of Brunate. The beautiful views of Como and its lake are well worth the visit.
Bellagio’s strategic position in the central part of the lake made it a hotly contested strategic enclave for centuries, as demonstrated by the important remains of ancient fortifications. Today, it’s one of the most beautiful places on Lake Como, with breathtaking views, a maze of steep stone staircases, cypress woods, and lavish gardens.
Villa Serbelloni is one of Bellagio’s main attractions. Pliny the Elder is said to have spent his holidays in this ancient villa in Roman times. Surrounded by a huge garden with laurels and olive trees covering over 20 hectares, the present building built in the early 19th century belongs to the Rockefeller Foundation and hosts university students from all over the world.
From Bellagio you can reach the small town of Varenna, with a population of no more than 900, by boat. It’s a fishing village with two interesting churches, one from the 12th and the other from the 13th century, good, affordable restaurants, and a castle with spectacular views of the lake.
On the other shore of Lake Como, opposite Varenna, is Menaggio, a very popular tourist town of over 3,000 inhabitants, with many hotels, campsites, apartments, youth hostels, and residential properties.
Cernobbio is located next to the town of Como. With around 7,000 residents, it boasts several of the most beautiful villas on the lake: Villa D’Este, Villa Erba (already mentioned), and Villa Pizzo, a heavily restored 16th-century palace with a magnificent display of 17th century frescoes.
From Cernobbio starts a demanding but beautiful hiking route: the Via dei Monti Lariani, which climbs over 1,200 metres and offers unique panoramic views of the area.