Surrounded by the Rhaetian Alps and shaped like an upside-down Y, Lake Como is one of the most stunning destinations in the Old Continent. In 2014, The Huffington Post crowned it the “best lake in the world,” but its fame as one of Europe’s most exclusive retreats goes back to the Roman era. For centuries, the lake and its surroundings have attracted an exclusive and elite crowd from all over the world.
And then, came the artists. From romantic poets and painters to the creators of Star Wars, the allure of the area has also inspired many forms of art. Visiting the lake in the summer of 1867, American author Mark Twain captured the magic of the lake in The Innocents Abroad and wrote that its beauty “seems reflected out of Heaven itself.”
While it still maintains its classic timeless charm, the beauties of the lake have (thankfully) become more and more accessible to tourists from every walk of life. The combination of neo-classical palatial villas, old villages and breath-taking vistas, makes a visit to its shores a unique experience. While planning in advance is always a good idea, Como and its surroundings are a great place to just let yourself get lost.
To get you started, here are some tips on how to experience the lake (almost) like a local:
The best way to explore the area is by riding a Vespa on the lakeside narrow streets: you will be transported to a timeless Fellinian atmosphere. You can start exploring from almost any area or small town on the lake, as they’re all connected via land or water but the most popular and convenient starting points are Bellagio, Como and Cernobbio.
The lake’s three branches converge in Bellagio, a small resort town where lakeside lidos and beaches (yes, actual beaches) are surrounded by narrow alleys full of restaurants and staircases covered in bougainvillea.
The streets of the Borgo, a showcase of medieval and baroque architecture, are picture-perfect frames to a magnificent view: the intersection of the three “legs” shadowed by a clearer glimpse of the Alps. Bellagio is also one of the main hubs of the lake’s boat service (water taxis and ferries are not the fastest options to move around, but definitely the most scenic), which connects it to Como, Menaggio and other popular destinations.
The city of Como lays where the two southwestern shores meet. While the pre-Roman town is the capital of the province of the same name, it still retains the quietness – and size – of a village. Inside the walled town, the Gothic Dumo or cathedral, the medieval buildings and the baroque facades, are symbols of the city’s rich history.
During spring and summer, Como turns into a dynamic touristic hotspot. Piazza Cavour and Piazza Volta – two of the main squares – are full of bars and eateries where locals and visitors enjoy long meals and stroll around, taking in the vibrant atmosphere.
Throughout the past ten years, the restaurant scene in the city has also evolved, becoming more international and edgier but dockside traditional aperitivos, meals and snacks are a must no matter where you end up.
Cernobbio, a small town only five minutes from Como’s city centre, is renowned for two of the most beautiful villas flanking the lake: Villa Erba and Villa D’Este (a 5-star hotel, restaurant, private club and location for exclusive events). Adding to the charm, the tiny historic centre is another lakefront gem, especially the main square, called “Riva” by locals, where every Sunday, celebrities and residents gather at the iconic Harry’s Bar for a typical Italian lunch.
It’s almost impossible to get tired of the jewels that the lake and its surroundings offer to the eyes. Every village – there are almost 30 municipalities on the lake – is worth a quick stop to enjoy yet another baroque balcony covered with flowers, enchanted views or an Aperol Spirtz with a side of focaccia.
Other must-see villages:
Moltrasio – Among other things, it’s home to two beautiful old churches, a trendy lido and the renewed hotel and restaurant Grand Hotel Imperiale.
Tremezzo – The 18th century-style stunning Villa Carlotta is located here and features sculptures by Antonio Canova and paintings by Francesco Hayez. Tremezzo is also the location of one of the lake’s oldest and most elegant hotels: Grand Hotel Tremezzo.
Menaggio – While it’s quite far away from Como and most of the other touristic destinations on the lake, the picturesque main square full of restaurants and bars, as well as its unique view, is worth the travel.
Villa Balbianello – For its unique gardens.
Villa Carlotta – For the museum and botanical garden facing the lake.
Villa Olmo – For its art exhibitions and neoclassical architecture.
Villa Melzi d’Eril – For its historical statues and selection of flowers.
Trips and activities
Water Sports on the Lake – Many of the lakeside resort have sport facilities. One of the trendiest one is the Wakeboard Club of Blevio, which attracts a young crowd and turns into a lounge bar at night.
Trip to Brunate – Situated on the top of the Como valley, Brunate offers one of the best panoramic views in the area as well as a tour of Liberty-style villas.
Trip to Isola Comacina – A tiny island in the middle of the lake that you can reach by private boat only. If you’re lucky enough to visit the lake at the end of June, you’ll witness the spectacular fireworks.
Filario Hotel & Residences – With a fresh and different take on the lake’s elegance, the luxurious hotel distinguishes itself with a contemporary design.
Posta Design Hotel – A more affordable option situated in the heart of Como, this recently redecorated hotel is perfect for visitors who want to stay in the city.
B&B Villa Le Ortensie – Cosy, romantic and more traditional, its is a great affordable option in Faggeto Lario.
Il Sereno Lago di Como – Part of “The Leading Hotels of The World”, this newly inaugurated hotel is the latest – and trendiest – addition to the lake’s luxurious accommodations.
I Tigli in Theoria – A Michelin starred restaurant and lounge bar situated in the historical “Palazzetto del Vescovo” (the former residence of the bishop) in the heart of Como.
Locanda dell’Isola Comacina – A traditional “locanda” offering fresh-water specialties in the beautiful setting of the Comacina Island.
Il Gatto Nero – A classic Italian restaurant with a break-taking vista of the lake.
The Market Place – Situated just outside Como walled town, it’s perfect for a chilled dinner in a casual environment.
Una Finestra Sul Lago – literally “a window on the lake,” is ideal for a romantic dinner at sunset.
Ristorante Villa Lario – Situated in the homonymous boutique hotel, it offers modern Italian dishes and an impressive selection of local and international wines.
Figli dei Fiori – Flowers & Food – A newly opened urban eatery in a flower shop with a picturesque garden.