Ros Ormiston reveals ten of the best reasons to visit captivating Lake Como in Lombardy – there’s something to appeal to absolutely everyone…
Lake Como photos by Provincia di Como Servizio Turismo unless otherwise stated
1 The Villa Melzi botanical gardens at Bellagio
Bellagio is picture perfect with vibrant cafés and restaurants and busy shops, and is also home to the stunning Villa Melzi (above). This 19th-century summer residence was built for Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Duke of Lodi. The Neoclassical tastes of the Duke can be seen in the villa and its chapel, the work of the Swiss-born architect Giocondo Albertolli, a man so revered that Napoleon made him a Knight of the Iron Crown. The villa is a private residence, but the gardens, chapel and former orangery museum are open to visitors all summer. The beautiful and tranquil gardens, designed by architect Luigi Canonica and botanist Luigi Villoresi, offer lush foliage, seasonal colours and winding paths surrounded by several types of cypresses, camellias, azaleas, gingko and dozens of other types of exotic trees and sculptures. The Villa Melzi gardens are perfect for escaping the bustle of Bellagio while taking advantage of the fabulous lakeside views. Open from March to October.
2 Monzino’s museum at Villa del Balbianello
The 18th-century Villa del Balbianello (above) on the edge of the Tremezzo part of the lake at Lenno has beautiful interiors with wood-panelled rooms and wonderful mountain views. The estate was commissioned by the arts patron and scholar Cardinal Durini and was last owned by the first Italian to climb Mount Everest, the adventurer Count Guido Monzino.
As well as beautifully decorated rooms there is also an incredible collection of souvenirs from Monzino’s adventures, including his dog sled from a trek to the North Pole in the 1970s as well as books and maps from no fewer than 20 of his other expeditions. Monzino left the property to the FAI (the Italian National Trust), which keeps the villa as he left it and tends to the wonderful garden with its immaculate trees and terraces filled with sculptures. As you’d expect with such a spectacular backdrop, the villa is a popular choice with film directors and has had roles in blockbusters such as Star Wars and Casino Royale. Open all year round.
3 Rooms full of romantic art at Villa Carlotta
Located in Cadenabbia, facing the peninsula of Bellagio, Villa Carlotta (above) is an 18th-century treasure trove of art and sculptures with beautiful pieces from renowned artists and sculptors such as Francesco Hayez’s Last kiss of Romeo and Juliet, Palamedes by Antonio Canova as well as Eros and Psyche by Adamo Tadolini.
In 1843 the villa became a wedding gift to Carlotta, daughter of Albert of Prussia, and it now houses fabulous pieces of furniture and décor from that period. It’s surrounded by a wonderful park of approximately eight hectares, full of vibrant rhododendrons, fragrant magnolia and bamboo. It’s been adored by many, including the 19th-century Italian poet and art critic Enrico Panzacchi, who said of it, “From the terrace in Villa Carlotta my soul enjoyed the view of the water and mountains and the poetic laughter of dawns and sunsets.” It’s just a skip away from the ferry terminal, or you could hire a boat from Nautic Planet, with or without a driver. Open from March to October.
4 Some of the world’s finest silk
Before you indulge in the finest fabric in the world, take a trip to the Como Silk Museum, which gives an overview of the entire process from silkworms to fashion collections. The passion seeps through the displays of samples and instruments. Silk from Como is revered worldwide and stems from the introduction of mulberry trees around the lake by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, in the 15th century; silkworms, farmers and craftsmen did the rest. There are many shops around Lake Como selling beautiful silk items from dressing gowns to ties; brands that are well known include Frey, Ratti, Mantero (the producer of Chanel scarves) and Seteria Bianchi. Brands like Ratti encourage programmes for young designers, so have a look through the markets and silk boutiques for new names producing vibrant designs that look fabulous and should last a very long time.
5 Vintage steamer and water plane rides
What could be more romantic than sitting back and enjoying Lake Como from the decks of the Concordia vintage steam boat, built in 1926 with original ‘Liberty’ style décor and now recognised as the jewel of Como’s fleet of public ferries? You can cruise across the lake between Como and Varenna with several places en-route to hop on and off including Tavernola, Cernobbio, Moltrasio, Lenno and Bellagio. You can purchase tickets, including those with lunch, through Navigazione Laghi.
Alternatively, if you fancy a bird’s eye view, then try a thrilling flight in an Idrovolante waterplane with Aero Club Como (above). Founded in 1913, this is the oldest seaplane operation and flight school in the world. Find hidden parts of the lake with the incredible panorama of all its scenery along with the final excitement of landing on water. If you get hooked, you can also sign up for a course in becoming a pilot yourself.
6 Archeological sites on Isola Comacina
A woodland gem awaits in Lake Como with this little island that can be reached either by ferry from Ossuccio or by hiring your own canoe. Playing an important part in the history of Como, from Roman times to the Middle Ages, Comacina island is considered to be one of the most impressive archaeological sites of the Middle Ages in northern Italy. Excavations that took place in the early 20th century discovered many sites of interest, including the Basilica di Sant’Eufeumia, one of the most important basilicas of the 11th century, and the Church of San Giovanni. You’ll also find three artists’ houses built in the 1930s by Pietro Lingeri, who wanted to turn the island into a creative colony. There is a restaurant and a café if you fancy a spot of lunch, or it would make the perfect place for a relaxing picnic on a sunny day. Open from March to October.
7 The waterfall at Nesso
Take a trip to the picturesque village of Nesso (above). There are fabulous places to visit, including the Church of San Pietro and San Paolo, believed to date back to the 11th century and rebuilt in the 17th century in the Baroque style. Another attraction is Nesso’s steep waterfall, visited by many, including Leonardo da Vinci, who mentioned it in his Codex Atlanticus. Blue waters lie beneath the gorge’s steep waterfall made of the alpine waters of the Tuf and Nosè. There are several ways to see it: take a walk up several hundred steps into central Piazza Castello, where you will see and hear the gushing water; or go down to the shore and see it from the Roman bridge; a third alternative is to see the waterfall from a boat on the lake; or, for the more daring, why not take a dip in the blue waters beneath the waterfall itself?
8 Historic, elegant Moltrasio
This petite but very elegant town on the western shores of the lake has an interesting history: it was full of Partisans during the Second World War and is also home to the Neoclassical Villa Passalacqua, surrounded by beautiful gardens and one of the largest residences on Lake Como. It was built in the late 18th century by the Odescalchi family and later became home to the composer Vincenzo Bellini. Towards the lake, and only seen from the water (or by private invitation) is Villa La Fontenelle, the former home of fashion designer Gianni Versace, whose beautiful gardens were curated by the English art and landscape historian Sir Roy Strong. In the town of Moltrasio you will see the frescoed church of San Martino and Sant’Agata, dating back to the 13th century and housing the Holy Thorn, claimed to be a fragment from the Crown of Christ.
9 Getting sporty at Gravedona
In the northern, Alto Lario, part of Lake Como is the town of Gravedona, home of Palazzo Galio, the residence of Bartolomeo Gallio, locally born Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, along with the wonderful 14th-century frescoes of the late 12th-century church of Santa Maria del Tiglio. If you’re feeling sporty, there are plenty of opportunities on this part of the lake such as windsurfing and canoeing when it’s calm in the morning, and then kitesurfing and sailing later in the day when the wind picks up. On land, there is as much fun to be had with go-karting, trekking and horse-riding. One of the loveliest ways to see Gravedona is by bike – there are several trails for all levels with woods and lake views, not to mention the wonderful air.
10 Climbing to the top of Monte Grona
For those with a spring in their step there is a fabulous hike up to the peak of Monte Grona, over 1,700 metres above sea level and with 360-degree views on a clear day across Lake Como, Lake Lugano and the Swiss and Italian Alps. Depending on your fitness, it could take four to five hours to complete – and be sure to take supplies of water (there is a water refill station), power bars and warm clothes as the skies can turn from blue to grey without warning up there. You start by heading towards Rifugio Menaggio, where you can also recharge later with local specialities like polenta and missoltini, fill up on drinks, including wine, and even spend the night (half-board costs around €45 per person). Take a look at hiking sites for more details and tips, such as…
For more on travelling to Lake Como, check out Roz’s travel guide