For hundreds of years it’s been a popular destination with the rich and famous but there are plenty of things to do at Lake Como for the humble tourist, too.
Lake Como isn’t Italy’s largest lake (that honour belongs to Lake Garda), but there’s no denying it is one of the most attractive.
It’s easy to see why celebrities like George Clooney and Richard Branson have purchased their own piece of paradise here and why many people take their holidays to Lake Como.
The lake (known as Lago di Como in Italian), is shaped like an upside Y, and is lined with lush gardens, luxury villas and pretty villages hugging the shore. Just like the Cinque Terre, it’s known for its breathtaking scenery.
Getting to Lake Como
There’s a good road network servicing the towns and villages around Lake Como but driving can be a bit ‘white-knuckled’, especially during the summer months when it seems that half of Milan flocks to the lake.
Many of the roads are particularly narrow and winding, and with Italy’s wannabe F1 drivers sharing the ride with you, driving can be a bit nerve-wracking.
If you don’t have a rental car, the best way to get to Lake Como is by train. Como, at the base of the western arm, is the biggest town on the lake and has a major train station on the Milan to Switzerland line.
On the eastern side of the lake, the Varenna-Esino station (Tirano-Lecco-Milan line) is a popular gateway for those staying in Varenna, Bellagio or villages further north.
Getting around Lake Como
The best way to hop between towns is by the frequent ferry services that operate on Lake Como. Ferries ply both arms of the lake regularly and are a relaxing way to get about.
Tickets can be purchased from the ticket offices at each ferry terminal where you’ll also find the daily schedules displayed.
Buses also connect the main towns of Como and Lecco with smaller lakeside towns as well as more remote villages on the surrounding mountains.
Things to do at Lake Como
Now for the fun part, my tips on what to do in Lake Como.
Visit lakeside towns and villages
From the regional capital, Como, with a population of 85,000, to tiny hamlets, Lake Como’s towns all hold their own charm.
If you’re short on time, I suggest you include the following gems in your itinerary when you visit lake Como.
A thriving city, Como is a shopper’s paradise with the full range of services you’d expect in a large centre. Famous for its silk production, Como is the place to buy silk products, including scarves and ties, at reasonable prices.
The historic centre is dominated by the impressive Duomo which dates back to the 15th century. The focal point of Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral is a mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
The pedestrianized piazza is lined with cafes and restaurants and is as good a spot as any to grab a bite to eat and people watch.
Just a few minutes’ walk from the piazza, Como’s waterfront is lined with parks and is the perfect spot to cool off on a hot day whilst watching boats of all shapes and sizes bob up and down on the lake.
To see the lake from above, catch the funicular (cable car) up to the quiet village of Brunate. There are nice views, a faded pink church to visit and lots of walking trails for the more energetic.
Perhaps the most well known town on Lake Como, Bellagio is perfectly located at the point where both arms of the lake meet.
The best way to arrive is by boat as the view will take your breath away.
Narrow cobbled streets, built on steep slopes, entice you along them. Lined with quaint buildings, shops and eateries, it’s easy to spend hours wandering the alleys that snake up from the shore.
The busy lakeside promenade is a hive of activity during summer with more cafes and restaurants, shops, both ferry terminals and the public swimming pool located here.
You can also board the tourist train here for a short trip around town.
Bellagio is also home to two gardens that are open to the public, Villa Melzi and Villa Serbelloni.
Whilst it doesn’t have any significant attractions, the village of Menaggio has plenty of natural beauty.
The lovely lakeside promenade is one of the prettiest on the lake and is busy with water sports in the warmer months.
A large public swimming pool with a private beach, mini golf and an 18 hole golf course are just a few of the ways you can keep yourself occupied in Menaggio.
To my mind, Varenna Lake Como is the real jewel and one of the best Lake Como attractions.
Gelato-coloured houses cluster around a small harbour just a few steps from one of the best-preserved medieval centres of the region.
Whilst it is popular with tourists, Varenna doesn’t seem as over-run as Bellagio (it’s just a 15 minute ferry ride away), and I’ve chosen to stay here on both my visits.
Aside from the gorgeous lakeside setting, the main attraction here is Villa Monastero, once a Cistercian convent. Its extensive gardens are now open to the public and feature plant species from around the world.
Above the village on a high cliff sits Castello di Vezio. The walled castle, built around a squared tower, has restored battlements and a real drawbridge – and provides great views over the lake below.
There are regular falconry displays most days, too!
Home to the beautiful Villa Carlotta, visitors flock to Tremezzo to wander the gardens and enjoy the art exhibitions on display in this magnificent villa. (More on Villa Carlotta below).
Also worth a look is the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, on the waterfront and with unsurpassed views across the lake to Bellagio. Built over 100 years ago in the Art Nouveau style, this is old-world luxury with a modern twist.
As well as over 20,000 sq. m. of private grounds, the hotel boasts three swimming pools including an infinity pool, and a floating pool that sits above the lake – you’ll see it as your ferry approaches the jetty.
You may not be able to afford to stay here and indulge in the facilities (rooms start from 729 euro per night), but from one of the many restaurants lining the waterfront you’ll be able to see how the other half live!
Visit a Villa
Lake Como must surely boast more luxury villas than anywhere else on earth. You’ll be hard pressed to decide which ones to see but three definitely worth visiting are:
Villa Melzi (Bellagio)
An easy stroll from the centre of Bellagio, the park-like gardens of Villa Melzi are a good example of a traditional English-style garden.
The garden stretches along the lake front and is home to a range of plantings, sculptures, a water lily pond and an Orangery which houses a small museum.
The villa is a private residence and is not open to the public but the gardens can be visited daily from late March until October.
Villa Carlotta (Tremezzo)
Prussian princess, Carlotta, received the villa as a wedding gift from her mother in 1847. Today the villa is open to mortal subjects who can wander amongst the botanic gardens and visit the princess’s former home.
Most famous for the rhododendrons and azaleas that bloom in spring, Villa Carlotta’s gardens also include giant sequoia and Cyprus trees, a Japanese garden, tropical plants and a beautifully tranquil fern valley.
The villa itself is furnished with period furniture and also serves as a gallery, hosting art exhibitions and musical events.
Villa Carlotta is open every day from mid-March to late October. It is easily reached on foot from the ferry landing dock at Tremezzo.
Villa Balbianello (Lenno)
Sitting on its own small promontory jutting into the lake, Villa Balbianello was built as a place for quiet reflection back in 1787. Not much has changed today – except when Hollywood calls!
Scenes for the 2006 version of Casino Royale and Star Wars Episode II were shot here and for this reason, the villa attracts many visitors who also admire the well-tended manicured gardens.
Inside the villa, rooms are furnished with 18th-century English and French furniture as well as a collection of Chinese, African and pre-Colombian art. Entry to the villa is by a guided tour only.
Open mid-March to mid-November, daily except Mondays and Wednesdays. There is limited access by foot from Lenno on Tuesdays and weekends so the best option is to take a taxi-boat from Lenno.
Enjoy a lake cruise
Taking a cruise is one of the best things to do at Lake Como and a good way to see some of the houses of its famous residents, like Richard Branson.
The views of the lakeside towns and villages are best seen from the lake, and whilst you can experience these from one of the regular ferry services, a lake cruise is highly recommended.
Cruises depart from many of the lakeside towns (Como, Bellagio and Varenna to name a few) and a number of different vessels (including a lake steamer) offer various itineraries around the lake.
Another option is Taxiboat Varenna who offer fantastic cruises on their Venetian-style water taxi.
Captain Luca provides interesting and entertaining commentary as you cruise past some of the most spectacular scenery on Lake Como – sunset cruises are available, too.
If you want to catch a glimpse of Richard Branson’s villa or George Clooney’s house, this is the way to do it.
Enjoy the Lake Como scenery
Be sure to take some time to enjoy what brought you to Lake Como in the first place – the scenery.
Everywhere you look you’ll be greeted with spectacular views, so find a quiet place to sit and appreciate the gorgeous scenery all around you.
Where to eat at Lake Como
There’s no shortage of places to eat around the lake, and in summertime the lakeside promenades are busy with visitors dining al fresco at the many cafes and restaurants.
You’ll generally pay more for a meal with a view so make sure you check out the dining options away from the waterfront, too.
Fish is, naturally, a menu specialty.
When to visit Lake Como
The best time to visit Lake Como is from May to September, with the hottest months being July and August when average temperatures are around 22°C (72°F).
Temperatures can reach as high as 35°C + (95°F +) so it may be wise to check if your Lake Como accommodation has air-conditioning if this is a concern.
If you don’t like crowds, avoid visiting from June until the end of August!
By visiting just before and just after the peak months you may experience cooler weather but you’ll also have more chance of getting that prized waterfront table for dinner.
Do you have any tips for things to do in Lake Como? Share in the comments down below!
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