How to spend a perfect weekend in Lake Como

Advice

A one-hour drive north of Milan, Lake Como is the most glamorous of Italy’s lakes, hemmed in by the snow-capped Alps with picture-perfect villages on the water. Milanesi pop here for the day for a breath of fresh air and to soak up the fabulous vistas, while international visitors – the Clooneys, the Kennedys – have long been drawn by the grand lakefront hotels and the elegant mahogany Riva boats that zip along the lake’s deep blue waters. 

Smart hotels and expensive boats aside, Lake Como is rich in culture, with opulent villas that once belonged to artists, writers, opera singers and explorers. Pliny the Elder, author of the first encyclopaedia, was born here, while 19th-century soprano Giuditta Pasta is known to have entertained composers Bellini and Donizetti in her lakefront residence on the eastern shore. 

Though famous spots such as pretty Bellagio still pull in the majority of visitors, the lake has retained its authenticity, with plenty of sleepy fishing villages, such as Laglio, Torno and Nesso, home to rustic, family-run trattorias serving up traditional hearty fare, including risotto al pesce persico (risotto with perch).

Lake Como is ripe for exploration, with forested mountains providing excellent hiking opportunities and memorable views. It’s also renowned for its lush gardens ablaze with flowers. But, to fully enjoy the lake, make sure you explore by boat – most of the sights are best seen from the water.

Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do…

For further Lake Como inspiration, see our guides to the area’s best hotels, restaurants, nightlifeshopping and things to do.


In this guide


How to spend your weekend

Day one

Morning

Start the day in Como, the provincial capital, a graceful town that was for centuries Italy’s capital of silk production. Enjoy a stroll along its pedestrianised cobbled streets lined with elegant boutiques and restaurants, and don’t miss the Duomo, a blend of Gothic and Renaissance architectural features.

From Como, drive up the western shore along the narrow lakefront road – it’s a gorgeous stretch, passing through pretty lakefront towns offering lovely views. Alternatively, catch a boat north from Como’s jetty (steamers make for a particularly romantic trip, although they are rather slow; the hydrofoil services speed the journey up substantially).

Hop off at Lenno, and catch a taxi boat service to the magnificent Villa del Balbianello, a spectacular mansion with impeccably manicured grounds set on a promontory that juts out into the lake. If it looks at all familiar, it is because you will have seen it in James Bond’s Casino Royale. Take a guided tour of the villa, the former home of traveller Guido Monzino, and then enjoy a stroll along the shaded path that leads back to Lenno.



Villa del Balbianello, Lake Como


Lake Como’s iconic Villa del Balbianello is all manicured grounds and panoramic terrace


Credit: This content is subject to copyright./Frank Lukasseck

Afternoon

Enjoy a late lunch at La Fagurida, a laidback family-run restaurant serving traditional hearty fare in a gorgeous location high up above Tremezzo. Spend the afternoon strolling the grounds of exquisite Villa Carlotta, a grand pale pink house that is probably Lake Como’s most famous attraction. Its lush terraced gardens are sublime, home to azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias tumbling towards the shore. 



Villa Carlotta, Lake Como


Spend the afternoon strolling the grounds of exquisite Villa Carlotta


Credit: Glenn van der Knijff/Glenn van der Knijff

Late

For dinner, head to La Baia in the lakefront town of Cremia and tuck into great local dishes that make the most of lake and mountain ingredients (try the signature Periscotto, creamy Parmesan risotto with fillets of pan-fried perch). Belly full, stroll over to Lo Scalo, a charming cocktail bar with tables lining Cremia’s old jetty that is one of the best places on the lake to enjoy an evening tipple. For more suggestions of the best nightlife in the area, see our guide.

Day two

Morning

Catch the boat to Varenna, a hugely romantic lakefront town with steep cobbled streets and a tranquil front with a handful of cafés by the water (if you’re travelling by car, use the ferry boat service from Bellagio or Cadenabbia). Then, wander around the beautiful terraced gardens of Villa Monastero, home to exotic species of flora from the world over. It’s a gorgeous spot – you can easily while away some time with a book in hand at one of the panoramic benches.

Pop into Macelleria Salumeria Lillia, a butcher’s and no-frills deli where you can pick up some ingredients for a picnic. Then, hike up the steep trail from opposite Villa Monastero to reach the ruins of the Castello di Vezio, a former military outpost offering sublime views of the lake.



Varenna, Lake Como


In the morning catch the boat to Varenna, a romantic town with steep cobbled street sand cafés by the water


Credit: Getty

Afternoon

In the early afternoon, head back to Varenna’s jetty and enjoy the short boat ride across to Bellagio. The views from the boat are sublime, with Varenna’s ochre-coloured houses snugly nestled on a promontory, and Bellagio opening up before you. You will have left the best until last – dubbed “the pearl of the lake”, Bellagio truly is a treat: its lakefront promenade is lined with oleanders and lime trees, while its quaint cobbled streets are sprinkled with boutiques and restaurants.

Book in a tour of Villa Serbelloni, which has a lovely location on a hilltop above town. Owned by the Rockefeller Foundation, Villa Serbelloni (not to be confused with Bellagio’s luxury hotel Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni) has a gorgeous park that offers wonderful views of the three branches of the lake. For tickets, head to the Promo Bellagio office on Piazza della Chiesa. If time allows, stroll the gardens of Villa Melzi, which look out towards Villa Carlotta on the opposite shore. 



Villa Melzi, Lake Como


Stroll Villa Melzi’s pretty gardens, home to azaleas, rhododendrons, maple and cedar trees


Credit: © 2016 Olaf Protze/Olaf Protze

Late

Dine at Dispensa 63, a delightful rustic-chic restaurant in the heart of Bellagio serving flavourful home-cooked dishes that draw on Italian culinary traditions, with wines carefully sourced from small producers around the country. For more suggestions of the best restaurants in the area, see our guide.


Insider tips

Money saver

If you’re travelling to Lake Como from Malpensa Airport, there’s no need to travel to Milan to change trains. From the airport, catch a Trenord train to Saronno and change there for Como. You’ll reach the lake in 1hr18min for €11.10 (£9.50), saving yourself both time and money.

Attractions

To make the most of Lake Como’s wonderful gardens, try and visit in spring, when brilliant flowers are in bloom, with rhododendron, camellias, magnolias and azaleas tumbling down to the shore in a riot of colours.

Neighbourhood watch

From Como, catch the funicular up to the hilltop town of Brunate, where you can admire beautiful Art Deco villas and soak up gorgeous views of the lake. For a bite to eat, head to Bellavista, a boutique hotel with a popular restaurant that serves up authentic local dishes in a pleasant dining room offering wonderful vistas.

Hotels

Book a treatment at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo‘s T Spa and you can enjoy access to the most comprehensive Spa facilities on the lake, including a panoramic sauna, steam room and infinity pool with hydromassage jets.

Did you know?

For centuries, Como was a major producer of silk, with scores of silkworm farms producing raw silk until the early 20th century. To this day, hundreds of firms in the area continue to design, manufacture and print silk items for major fashion houses, although these days the silk is imported from China.


When to go

The season typically runs from Easter to the end of October, with spring and autumn the best times to visit, although increasingly more hotels in and around Como are staying open for the festive season. In spring the lakes’ historic gardens are in bloom with a blaze of exuberant azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. Temperatures are mild, with pleasant warm days and cool nights, and a sprinkling of tourists in sight.

As the summer months roll in, crowds start descending to the lakes, in particular in the sweltering months of July and August when Italians take the bulk of their holidays and prices soar. From September onwards, the crowds begin to subside again and temperatures recede, making autumn an ideal time to enjoy the lakes’ dreamy and romantic atmosphere.


Where to stay

Luxury living

Slick Il Sereno provides a breath of fresh air from Lake Como’s classically styled five-star hotels, with interiors made of wood, stone and plenty of glass, allowing for wonderful lake views. Sit back poolside with a cocktail in hand, unwind at the spa or tuck into creative dishes at the Michelin-starred restaurant. Plenty of activities, including fishing trips, wine tasting, cooking classes and picnic on the lake experience, can also be organised. There are also three Rivas available to rent.

From

£
641

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Il Sereno, Lake Como


Il Sereno provides a breath of fresh air from Lake Como’s classically styled five-star hotels

Boutique bolthole

MUSA Lago Di Como has a pleasant waterfront location opposite Isola Comacina, the lake’s only island. Food reigns supreme at this small, sophisticated boutique hotel run by two talented chefs. Hop on a public boat at the nearby jetty to explore the lake or, come evening, sip creative cocktails at the waterfront bar to the sound of waves lapping the shore, then enjoy a civilised supper of fabulously prepared dishes.

From

£
590

pn

Rates provided by
Booking.com

Budget beauty

A wonderfully romantic three-star hotel tucked away in the heart of Varenna. Albergo Milano is set in a typical lakeside building (the oldest part dates back to the 17th century), the hotel’s interiors mirror the furnishings and decorations of houses in the area. Most rooms have lake views, the welcome is genuine and the atmosphere laid back: this is the kind of place where you can casually nip down to the lake for a swim or while away the afternoon on the terrace with a drink in hand. 

From

£
162

pn

Rates provided by
Booking.com


What to bring home

Founded in 1919, Picci is an historic shop selling a selection of silk items, from hand-sewn ties to handkerchiefs, designed and made in Como.

For foodie delights, head to Le Specialità Lariane, where you can stock up on local specialities, from dried lake fish to wines, olive oils and veggies preserved in oil.


Need to know

  • Boats ply the three larger lakes (Como, Maggiore and Garda), with fast services for longer journeys and car-ferries connecting various towns around the lakes. Travelling by boat is the most enjoyable and efficient way of getting around, providing lovely views of impressive lakeside villas and gardens that are best viewed from the water.
  • Travelling from one lake to another is more complicated as buses and trains have inconsistent timings. You’re better off hiring a car, especially at the two smaller lakes (Orta and Iseo).
  • Zipping along the lakes in a hired motorboat is a thrilling way to get around, giving you the flexibility to explore at your own pace and allowing you to stop off at sights of interest along the way.
  • Water taxis can be organised at virtually all hotels, and you can rent boats with a skipper by the hour or by the day.
  • This being northern Italy, public services work well, with high levels of service offered in restaurants, shops and hotels.
  • The larger lakes, in particular Lake Como and Lake Garda, are home to some of the country’s best five-star hotels with prices to match. You’ll also find a number of superb Michelin-starred restaurants dotted along the shores, offering some of the country’s finest cuisine. While the lakefront towns inevitably attract the bulk of the tourists, you can easily veer off the beaten track, exploring lesser-known villages and heading inland, where you’ll come across typical trattorie serving genuine hearty Italian fare at a fraction of the cost of the restaurants along the shoreline.
  • Souvenir and trinket shops abound in popular destinations such as Bellagio on Lake Como and Isola dei Pescatori on Lake Maggiore, although tucked away here and there you’ll find family-run shops selling high-quality crafts and excellent local produce including wines, cheeses and olive oil, all of which make for great gifts.
  • Expect to pay a tourist tax on your accommodation; this ranges from about €1 to €5 per night, depending on the rating of your hotel.

About the author

Kiki Deere is Telegraph Travel’s Italian Lakes expert. Raised bilingually in northern Italy, Kiki is lured back to the Lakes time and time again, in search of great local food, a dose of culture, and heady lake views.

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