The drama, wealth and beauty of Italy's Lake Como

A visit to the picturesque villages that ring the lake in northwest Italy charms.
Published September 13 2017

COMO, Italy

At first glimpse of Lake Como, we were smitten.

Steep, green hills surround the lake, framing deep blue water. Picturesque villages nestle along the coastline. To the north, snow-capped Alps stretch tall to form a dramatic backdrop.

The scenery is stunningly beautiful and calming, even during the busy summer tourist season. Boat traffic on the lake is surprisingly light, mainly just a few passenger ferries shuttling tourists and locals between the charming towns. And the villages, each with a distinctive personality, are delightful to visit.

Lake Como, tucked alongside the foothills of the Swiss Alps in northwest Italy, is easily accessible by train. The trip takes about an hour from Milan to the south, and about three hours from Zurich to the northwest.

The majority of train travelers arrive in the town of Como, at the southwest tip of the wishbone-shaped lake. Como is a bustling lakeside town that has a wealth of resources, and it's also a good starting point for visiting the lake's smaller villages. Clothing stores, hotels, restaurants, cafes and gelato shops line Como's streets, but the town retains an old-world charm with its narrow, cobblestone walkways, and buildings dating to the Middle Ages.

For a spectacular, panoramic view of the area, board a funicular at Como's waterfront for the steep climb to the tiny hilltop hamlet of Brunate. Locals call Brunate "the balcony of the Alps." It sits 2,300 feet above sea level, and on a clear day, it rewards visitors with a view of towns up to 9 miles away.

The best way to see Lake Como and visit its many quaint villages is by ferry. Buy an all-day ticket that gives holders on-and-off privileges, then sit back and enjoy the approximately 18-mile trip to the popular midlake area, or hop off at any stop that looks appealing along the way.

Cruising the impossibly scenic lake, with pastel villas dotting the hillsides and palatial homes and hotels hugging the water's edge, it's easy to understand why Lake Como has long attracted A-list celebrities. A tour guide traveling on our ferry pointed out a yellow lakefront mansion that belonged to late designer Gianni Versace, and the waterfront estate of George Clooney and his family in Laglio. (A boat was docked in front, and a window was open, but there was no sign of the Clooneys.)

Just two ferry stops from Como is Cernobbio, a quiet, elegant residential village. The stately Villa d'Este hotel dresses up the waterfront to the right of a welcoming dockside park. Iron fences enclose beautifully landscaped estates. Colorful Prada and Jimmy Choo stilettos adorn the windows of a corner shoe store on a short shopping street. Nearby, a shaded courtyard cafe is a perfect place to duck in for a cool, afternoon glass of prosecco.

In the midlake area, the darling village of Lenno is known for its handmade olive oil. Lenno is also the location of Villa del Balbianello, a stunning mansion with elaborate terraced gardens that is now owned by the National Trust of Italy. The villa has appeared in movies including Casino Royale and Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. A tour of the mansion and its meticulously manicured grounds is worthwhile. The villa's previous owner was explorer Guido Monzino, who led the first Italian expedition to climb Mount Everest. Photos and keepsakes are on display.

Just beyond Lenno, the village of Bellagio sits at the junction where the two legs of Lake Como come together. This upscale midlake town boasts waterfront stores carrying designer labels and an air-conditioned walkway to help keep window shoppers cool. After shopping, take a break at a lakeview cafe, or walk to the park at the northern tip of Bellagio for a lovely view of both sides of the lake.

Though Lake Como is a playground of the rich and famous with high-end hotels and stores that can rival those on Rodeo Drive, it also can be surprisingly affordable for the average visitor. There's a wide range of accommodations and restaurants, so it's not hard to find places to suit most tourists' budgets.

Our favorite place on Lake Como is across from Bellagio — the village of Varenna. It's a low-key town with a casual, comfortable outdoor cafe that clings to the waterfront, and steep, stone-stepped lanes dotted with shops and restaurants. A small medieval town square ringed with restaurants sits on a street above the waterfront. There are no big hotels, but several smaller hotels and guesthouses face the lake and offer fabulous views.

My fiance, Drew, and I were fortunate to spend three days in Varenna in October last year, during the shoulder season, a slower and quieter time before hotels and businesses shut down for the winter. We got to know a server in what became our favorite restaurant and we felt like locals. With fewer tourists around, the cozy town stole our hearts.

If you visit Varenna, be sure to stop for a delicious, house-made gelato at the little shop on the romantic lakeside walkway that leads back to the ferry dock. It might just be the taste of Lake Como that brings you back.