From George Clooney and Richard Branson to John Kerry and Madonna, Lake Como is increasingly known as a fashionable playground for the rich and famous. But that doesn’t mean you need a gold-plated invitation to join the party. With the stunning snow-capped Alps set against the shimmering deep blue of one of Europe’s largest lakes, this seductive Northern Italian oasis located about 90 minutes north of Milan is also a natural paradise waiting to be discovered by the common traveler.
And with 31 small towns and municipalities filled with world-class dining, culture, beaches and natural wonders spread out across three separate lake branches, you can try but you’ll never see it all. Here’s how to make the best of your time in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
1. Ferry Rides
This is one of the easiest, most pleasant low-impact activities you can take part in, and no trip to Lake Como is complete without at least a few rides on the local ferry. Via an excellent network of slow-rolling water cruisers that serve as the main mode of transport between towns, it’s the perfect way to take in the scenery without having to do any work. We recommend just hopping aboard and riding one to some random town you’ve never heard of, where you can unearth hidden treasures like the tiny town of Abbadia Lariana, whose beautiful beach is equipped with an on-site bar and where you can set up camp at the nearby Camping Spiaggia.
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Ideally situated at the natural junction of all three legs of Lake Como, Bellagio is a beautiful if touristy location from which the famed Las Vegas casino borrows its moniker. Like most towns along the lake, the best thing to do here is take a romantic stroll while admiring the town’s opulent architecture set against stunning natural backdrops. Bellagio also makes an excellent base of exploration to other locations around the lake such as the six-mile Lake Como Greenway, following an antique connection road built by the Romans and accessible via a quick ferry ride to the west side of the lake. The town of Bellagio itself is packed with magnificent churches and lavish villas, while also making a prime location for wandering about the surrounding mountains.
3. Funicular Rides
One of the coolest ways to see the sights is riding one of several local cable cars (or funiculars), such as the one that takes you from the main town of Como up to the peaceful village of Brunate. Making its first run in 1894, the charming little gondola-like mountain rider runs up a steep gradient up to 55 percent via a romantic seven-minute journey to Brunate, where you can take a dip in the pool at the friendly travelers hot spot Hotel Paradiso Sul Lago while taking in expansive views of the entire Lake Como region. You can also access Brunate by a steep mountain pass on the equally beautiful (if far more terrifying) harrowing narrow road up to the top.
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Accessible from Bellagio by a quick ferry ride to the east side of the lake, this lesser-known small town is not as popular with tourists as Bellagio, but may be even more beautiful. Offering a laid-back and more under-the-radar vibe with gorgeous colorful buildings set against the shimmering water, Varenna has many peaceful escapes such as the Hotel Eremo Gaudio, a former monastery set high in a magnificent stone villa overlooking the lake, whose stunning balcony is easily one of the best places in the world to enjoy a cocktail or two. Although no one would fault you for just spreading out a blanket and plopping yourself on the beach all day either.
5. Locanda del Dolce Basilico
Anywhere you eat in Italy is good and Lake Como is certainly no exception, with plenty of high-priced eateries dotted throughout its ancient cobblestone street centers. Gelato is huge here, with the locally made Italian delicacy popping up at any town you find yourself in. But we discovered our best meal of the trip at an obscure eatery known as Locanda del Dolce Basilico, located in the mountains near Brunate, which offered that ultra-friendly mom and pop ambiance that had us feeling like we were home … but that might have been because, for the owner and her husband, at least, it was home.
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As some of the most famous sites in all of Lake Como, the stunning villas perched high upon the lakeside are must-sees for any local traveler. And Villa d’Este (pictured above) is easily one of the best, an opulent former summer residence of the local 16th century cardinal and today one of the world’s finest hotels (with rates ranging from $1,000-$4,000 a night). But even if you’re not staying there, you can still explore the immaculately curated gardens situated in the lush 25-acre park that surrounds it. And if you really want to indulge in the lifestyles of the rich and famous, rent a seaplane from the Aero Club Como and explore the lake by air. Not that you need to, as just being here will make you feel like royalty.
7. Lakeside Strolls to Mountain Hikes
While train service between towns is also excellent, the cool lake breezes and mild Mediterranean climate will make you want to get out and walk as much as possible. Most towns like Varenna offer beautiful paths along the lake for romantic sunset strolls, or you can get into the mountains for more strenuous nature hikes starting from towns such as Menaggio, located across the lake from Varenna. Treks like the Antica Strada Regina pass through not only stunning nature, but also highly camera-worthy sites of historic importance including old churches, villages, tunnels and fountains.
Jay Gentile is a world traveler and freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications including SPIN, VICE, Chicago Tribune, Thrillist and Consequence of Sound.