Northern Italy’s 3 big lakes: Lago Maggiore, Lago Garda and Lago di Como is a synonym of ‘the good life’. It’s practically impossible not to loose yourself to the glory of past decades when vacationing here - and why should you? My favorite one, Lago Como (or Lake Como) is on the rise - once again. Here’s why you must visit this corner of paradise.
Located in the North-Italian region of Lombardy and approximately one hour’s drive from Milan Malpensa Airport, Lake Como is not only a refuge for the international jet set and hedonists; it’s a favorite amongst Italians, too. Being the 3rd biggest lake in Italy, it houses several picturesque towns along the coast, and the views from here are simply impeccable. The lake takes its name after the small town of ‘Como’, which was established by the Romans thousands of years ago. Already back then, Como was the place to be. Fun fact: a depth of 410 meters makes this lake one of the deepest in Europe.
From Como to Bellagio
If you’re planning to visit Lake Como, you must not only stay in one town; there are simply too many beautiful historical destinations to visit! You can sail from one town to another and feel like Audrey Hepburn in the 1950’s (then settings haven’t changed at all). Apart from the biggest town, Como, which is located only a few kilometers from the Swiss border, I’d recommend exploring Tremezzo, Varenna, Lecco, Bellagio and Laglio. Last-mentioned is probably best known for housing George Clooney’s million dollar villa (which was previously owned by the Heinz family (the ones with the ketchup)), but it’s worth strolling up and down the hilly medieval streets to experience the true meaning of the Italian saying la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing). Italians have always been world champion’s in this discipline!
Bellagio is probably one of the first tourist spots along the river, attracting the rich and the famous since Medieval times. It was the place to be in Hollywood’s hey days, and despite the fact that tourists from all over the world still flock here on a daily basis, Bellagio has managed to retain its original charm. The historical center of Bellagio only accommodates around 200 locals whereas the number of hotel beds are 900. You do the math. A stay at the lovely Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is mandatory if you wish to experience to glamorous side of Lake Como; historical personalities like Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy have stayed here, and it’s the only five star hotel in Bellagio.
Impressive historical villas
It’s hard to find a celebrity who didn’t own (or still owns) a villa on the shores of Lake Como (George Clooney, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Sylvester Stallone etc.), however, they shouldn’t be the reason for your visit. There are so many other beautiful villas, which you can actually enter and explore on your own. My favorite is Villa del Balbianello: an impressive house, which was previously owned by the explorer and business man Guido Monzino. When he died in 1988, he left the place to the government, but everything inside remains as it was during his lifetime. Even his cigarettes are still there! The villa appears in several Blockbuster movies including Star Wars and James Bond ‘Casino Royale’.
Another interesting villas to visit is Villa Carlotta (with an amazing botanic garden) in Tremezzo and Villa Melzi in Bellagio.
Spoil your taste buds
Since forever, Italy has been synonymous with gastronomy, and what better place to indulge in some real Italian food than at the shores of Lake Como? You’ll find plenty of good eateries with something for all budgets: from the small local pizzaria to the Michelin-star hideaway. La Colombetta probably belongs to the first category even though celebrities like George Clooney has been spotted here several times (then it must be good, right?!) It’s a very popular restaurants amongst locals and tourists alike, and it’s not hard to understand why; the atmosphere is cosy and traditional, and all recipes have been carefully handed down from one generation to another.
If you’d like to splurge on a dinner experience out of the ordinary, it’s recommended to pay Mistral Restaurant a visit. Nestling inside Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni and over-looking the lake from the front row, there’s no denying that Mistral is worth visiting for its location alone! The restaurant is well-known for its molecular cuisine combining traditional Italian dishes with modern elements. Mistral has one Michelin star.
Last, but not least, it’s somewhat mandatory to visit Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, as it has been an institution here for more than 60 years! This is the only island of Lake Como, and you’ll find a rich history going back more than 1000 years. The restaurant on the island was established in 1948 and, believe it or not, the menu hasn’t changed a bit since then. The owner, Benvenuto Puricelli, is known for his hospitality and candid personality; he has been running the place for decades. The food is simple, but genuine - a true Italian feast with local wine and bread shared at the table. It can be rather crowded during high season.
Visiting Lake Como is like stepping back in time. Its traditional and elegant take on tourism hasn’t changed, but there’s no doubt that the area is more popular amongst all kinds of tourists than ever before. Locals speak of the so-called ‘Clooney effect’, which has caused a 25% increase in tourism; this is why you must plan your visit in advance and be careful not to step directly into a tourist trap. Some might argue that going here in the beginning or at the end of the season (May, September, October) is best.