One of my dearest friends has often referred to Lake Como as a fairytale and after our first visit to this dreamy destination, I have to concur. Even after researching numerous travel sites prior to our trip, I still wasn’t prepared for the beauty of this Italian paradise. We took the train from La Spezia to Milan then switched trains to Varenna. We selected Varenna as our home base after watching several travel shows on the region; we were really happy with this town and found it to be the most charming of those we visited.
Our apartment was in a perfect location, with a terrace offering the most breathtaking view of the lake you can imagine. We were treated to some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. Another bonus with this apartment was that we did not have to climb too many steps to reach it, and its access to both the lake and the piazza were very easy. The small but charming piazza S. Giorgio in Varenna has a hotel and a number of restaurants, a pharmacy, a bank, two markets, and the medieval St. George’s church built between 1250 and 1300. The town is also home to a romantic garden, the Villa Monastero, which we enjoyed wandering around for a few hours one afternoon. In addition to the piazza, Varenna has a lively waterfront with quite a few good restaurants, cafes and gelaterias, all reachable from the ferry dock by taking the promenade that clings to the rocks over the lake. The walkway is covered with blooming vines and passes through stone arches that connect it to stairways leading to the higher section of the village. All of these stairway lanes host restaurants and shops selling wines, cheese and local art.
The Villa Monastero overlooks the lake and is reminiscent of an ancient Greek or Roman garden. As you walk along the numerous paths, you’ll be treated to fountains, statues, mosaics, and the Villa which is now used for events. The gardens are open every day but the Villa can only be toured Friday through Sunday. Entry is €5 for the gardens and €8 for both the garden and villa.
Bellagio is by far the most popular of the lake towns and is a 15-minute ferry from Varenna (it’s important to note that Varenna has three ferry options: car ferry, passenger ferry and the fast ferry. Each is on a different schedule, which is confusing. Your best option is to go to the ferry dock and ask the ticket desk for information). In Bellagio you’ll find high end shopping and a lot of restaurant options. Dave and I typically like to eat one meal a day around 4:00 PM. This proved challenging around the lake as most of the restaurants are closed from 2:00 PM to 7:00 PM. Fortunately a lot of the cafes serve crisps and olives with your drinks so you won’t starve. Plus, there are lots of side streets to explore while you’re waiting for your favorite restaurant to open.
Bellagio has a garden / park called Villa Melzi which is a short walk from the main center of town. This garden is very manicured and has more open space than Villa Monastera. Walking the paths, you will find grottos, a gorgeous villa, a chapel overlooking the lake, and many small hidden spots to sit and rest and admire your surroundings. At the far end of the garden is a restaurant called Ristorante Darsene di Loppia just outside the gate that gets great reviews, just be sure to arrive before 2:00 PM!
One afternoon we took a ferry to Menaggio to explore the town, but found it to be very small. We walked along the lake to the Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi then up the via Calvi to the Parrocchia Santo Stefano. We spent about an hour exploring some of the small streets until we found our way back to the main piazza. We decided to head over to Tremezzo to visit the Villa Carlotta, and learned the quickest option was to take a little train that runs on the road. I was hesitant because it looked like a children’s ride, but decided it was our best option. It turned out to be fun and an interesting way to see the area between Mennagio and Tremezzo.
Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo is another beautiful garden and villa. The grounds are less manicured than Melzi but more refined than Monastero. This garden has waterfalls and a café, and required a bit more climbing. The gardens at Carlotta are massive, and there are long and short walking options. The trails aren’t marked well so although we thought we were taking the short walk, we inadvertently took the long walk, which only took about an hour. The trail ends at the villa where you can walk around at your leisure and admire the exquisite sculptures and architecture. Be sure to walk out to the terrace to get a view of the courtyard fountain with the impressive lake view beyond.
The last town we visited was Como, which is at the southwest tip of the lake. We took the fast ferry which was €16 per person each way and took nearly an hour. Como is a beautiful town but much busier than Bellagio. There is a lot more car traffic in Como that you won’t find in most of the other villages, but you also have a lot more dining options. The ferry drops passengers almost directly in the piazza Cavour which is lined with cafes (and a rather ugly hotel). Following the via Caio Plinio Secondo will lead you to the piazza del Duomo and the very impressive Cattedrale di Como. Have a seat at one of the many cafes to soak up this piazza and the Duomo and perhaps wait for the ringing of the chapel bells. Heading further south/southwest will take you to the piazza San Fedele where you’ll find some unique buildings and architecture (and of course, more cafes!).
To the left of the ferry dock in Como is a small park that includes a children’s playground and a number of monuments and sculptures, including the Life Electric, Monumento alla Resistenza Europea, the Tempio Voltiano honoring Alessandra Volta (inventor of the electric battery) and an imposing WW1 memorial. Further to the right of the ferry is a funicular to the tiny 12th century hilltop town of Brunate. We had planned to take the funicular to Brunate but it was closed for repairs so we’ll have to put that on our list for our next visit.
Regardless where you stay or visit, Lake Como is bound to enchant. It has indeed earned its fairytale reputation!