Lake Como is a bucket list-worthy travel destination known for its scenic shores, exclusive luxury villas, and frequent celebrity sightings. While Lake Como does have a reputation for being a playground for the rich and famous, the natural beauty and culture of the area are surprisingly accessible. So whether you’re stopping in on a day trip from Milan to Lake Como, or spending your whole trip getting to know the Italian Alps, here is everything you need to know about visiting Lake Como. Be sure to check out our video of the visit.
History of Lake Como, Italy
Lake Como has been among Europe’s most glamorous vacation destinations for millennia. Ancient Roman rulers were the first to build luxury villas along the lake’s shores in the 1st century A.D., and aristocrats, business tycoons, and socialites have followed suit throughout the centuries. Lake Como’s appeal comes from the dramatic scenery of the glacier-made lake surrounded by the foothills of the Alps, and its mild climate, which supports the beautiful gardens that you will see surrounding the many villas along the shore.
Building palatial villas along the lake started with Roman aristocrat Pliny, who built many villas around the area, the two most famous being Tragedy and Comedy. These Pliny villas have become a source of mystery in Como, and researchers have spent years identifying these villas and their locations. When you visit, see if you can find the site of Comedy, and then visit the purported site of Tragedy, upon which now sits Villa Serbelloni, built by the Rockefeller Foundation as a conference center and residency program for scholars, artists, policymakers, and even heads of state.
Other famous villas in the area have been owned by aristocrats and luminaries, such as the Marquis of Milan, Caroline, Queen Consort of King George IV, and Princess Marianne of Nassau. Guests of these historic villas have included Franz Liszt, Gianni Versace, Maya Angelou, and countless other influential creatives.
These days, celebrities often rent, buy and sell villas along Lake Como’s shores. The most famous current residents of the area are George and Amal Clooney, but Lake Como has attracted the rich and famous for decades, including Sylvester Stallone, Richard Branson, and Madonna. So when you visit, keep an eye out for the Clooneys strolling along the streets of Como or out boating with their famous friends.
Traveling to Lake Como
The best way to get to Lake Como is by train from Milan. A 40-minute train ride will take you from Milan directly to the center of town in Como. There are also local trains that will stop at many little towns along the lake, like Varenna, where you can start your exploration of the lake by taking a ferry to Como.
You can also arrive by car, about an hour’s drive from Milan, winding through the beautiful Alpine foothills. A road trip by car can be a great way to get around Italy, especially if you are looking to get up into the more secluded areas of the Alps to hike or ski. Como is about 3.5 hours from Venice, and 3.5 hours from Florence, if you’re starting from other parts of Italy.
Getting Around Lake Como, Italy
The first thing to know about traveling to Lake Como is that even though the lake is named after the town of Como, many little towns surround the lake, each unique in their charm and worth a visit. Travel to these towns by ferry, which allows you to sightsee around the lake as you travel. There is also a bus system and several funiculars that will take you up into the hills surrounding the lake. If you drive into Como, you should park your car and take public transportation to explore the area, as driving and parking in small Italian towns are famously tricky.
The Best Things to Do in Lake Como
The best thing about Lake Como is that even though it has a reputation for attracting glamorous, wealthy visitors, the area’s natural beauty is free to experience for everyone. Hiking, exploring, swimming, and strolling along the lakeshore are the best ways to experience Lake Como’s idyllic setting and stunning scenery. Here is a breakdown of where to explore and what to see in Lake Como.
Como is the largest city on the lake’s shores and is the perfect jumping-off point to explore all of Lake Como. Start in the Piazza Duomo and explore the city’s iconic 14th-century church, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. The Gothic church began construction in 1396, and the impressive cupola was completed in 1770. You can also climb to the top of the dome and look out over the city of Como and beyond.
Como has been home to many prolific scientists and artists, and their work is celebrated in Como’s many museums. A few favorites are Tempio Voltiano, a museum of the work of Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electrical battery; the Como Archaeological Museum, housed in a palace and home to artifacts of the history of Como, and Museo Storico Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian revolutionary, instrumental in the creation of the Kingdom of Italy.
Get Out on the Water When Visiting Lake Como
There are many ways to get out on the water in Lake Como. Find what works best for you and spend the day soaking in the cool lake air and warm Alpine sunshine. You can rent boats out of Como, water skis, jet skis, paddle boards, kayaks, and other kinds of watercraft. If rentals are not your thing, take a long ferry ride from town to town. You will get the same scenic views of the lakeshore without the boat rental price tag.
Go Sightseeing for Famous Villas When Visiting Lake Como
A few famous villas on Lake Como are open to the public. You must visit at least one before leaving. The beautiful Villa Carlotta is one of the most popular. It has stunning gardens covering 20 acres just outside the village of Tremezzo. Named after the Princess of Nassau’s daughter, this villa has a rich aristocratic history and is now one of the most romantic spots in Italy.
Not far from Como, another famous villa is Villa Olmo, with similarly gorgeous gardens and a beautifully decorated interior. Other favorite villas are Villa Melzi d’Eril in Bellagio, Villa Balbianello in Tremezzina, a Star Wars movie set that now hosts beautiful weddings, and Villa d’Este, which is now a hotel that accepts reservations. Unfortunately, most of the famous villas in the Lake Como area are open only for special events and exhibits. A bit of research will pay off to see if any are available when you visit.
Explore By Boat | Bellagio, Lake Como
Como is a great starting place to explore Lake Como, Italy, but to experience everything the area offers, make sure you get out to at least one of the surrounding towns. Perhaps the most famous village on Lake Como is Bellagio, home of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Villa Serbelloni and a great spot to grab some fantastic authentic Italian food.
Like Varenna and Menaggio, other idyllic towns dot the lake coast, and each is uniquely picturesque. These smaller towns are great ways to beat the crowds at Como or Bellagio. They also often offer more affordable restaurants and hotels. Mountain villages like Brunate or Piani d’Erna are reachable by funicular. This is a fantastic way to see the area from a cable car.
Check Out the Trails
Hiking in Lake Como, Italy is the way to experience the area’s natural beauty. If you’ve spent parts of your trip in big cities like Milan, Rome, or Florence, spend some time unwinding out in nature on the trails in the Como area. For a walk following the lake shore, try the Wayfarer’s Path, an old mule track running between Varenna and Bellano. For a hike into the mountains, take the funicular to Brunate. You can then hike to Mount Piatto, where you can either turn around or head downhill back to the lake.
There are hikes for any difficulty level in Lake Como, Italy. Don’t let the sight of the mountains put you off. Walking around one of the picturesque village parks is an easy way to see the beauty in the Como area. Check out Parco Val Sanagre in Menaggio or Parco Civico Teresio Olivelli in Tremezzo for easy walks and stunning views.
Enjoy the Food and Wine
Lake Como is known for its great food, given the supply of fresh fish from the lake. The proximity to the famous Lombardi wine region and the strong tradition of northern Italian cuisine from Milan also contribute. In Como, restaurants will serve local specialties like perch, sardines, and lake shad fresh caught from the lake. Other local favorites are wild boar, served braised or in a stew, and pizza in the Neapolitan style.
Pro tip: If you want quality Italian food in Como and save a little money, find a restaurant in town, not on the lakefront. The locals live in town, so you will find authentic cuisine without the price tag of the lakefront view.
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