Easter is around the corner. I always start dreaming about traveling to Southern Europe at this time of the year. Italy comes to mind and Lago di Como. Lago di Como is a lake which looks like a blue person walking on the map. It is surrounded by mountains with snowy caps (the Alps) and dotted with pittoresque little towns on its shores. Switzerland is very close by and Swiss tourists have influenced the prices here i.e. they do not mind paying a premium for the food and accomodation. Lake Como is beautiful both in the spring and in the early autumn. If you would like to avoid the crowds and the heat I would definitely recommend to avoid going there in the summer.
Como sounds lovely but which towns to visit around the lake?
Como town is very easy to get to by train from Milano. In general, you do not need a car to travel around the towns on the lake. Trains and boat rides are very accessible and a nice way to travel in Italy. We stayed in Como town for three nights, at an apartment right next to the Duomo. Initially, I found the town rather grey and gloomy. It is a medieval town with plenty of stone and marble buildings. However, walking around the lake I found the place beautiful. My recommendations: walk to the arch monument dedicated to Alessandro Volta – Life Electric, sit on the beach by the lake and the temple – Tempio Voltiano, have a coffee on Piazza Alessandro Volta next to the cherry blossoms (if you happen to be there in the spring), have a spritz aperol at a café near the water airplanes hangar.
Photo: Ekaterina Larsson
Walk on the right side of the lake all the way to the Villa Olmo gardens and admire the many other beautiful villas on the shore. Napoleon stayed in one of them when he visited Como between 1796 and 1815 as he also ruled the region during that time.
Take one morning to walk to the old tower close to the old city walls and have a “capuccio” (pronounced “kapusho”) at a street café.
Villa Olmo. Photo: Wikipedia
For a nice meal in the town of Como I recommend the restaurant Grotto del Sergente. The restaurant is a red house set on a little hill with a garden and serves food with locally sourced ingredients. We sat outside as it was the only place available, so book in advance if you plan to go there.
Piazza Grimoldi right next to the Duomo is also lovely for having a coffee in the sun in the morning. We bought a bottle of Barbera d’asti red wine from a shop near by and quite enjoyed it.
Take the funicular from the town of Como up the mountain to Brunate. Stroll around and admire the alpine style villas and the views of lake Como from above. Walk to the lighthouse Faro Voltiano and climb it up for a 350 degrees view of the lake from above. Eat lunch in one of the terrace restaurants with a view over the lake. We went to Ristorante Capanna and chatted there with the waiter Roberto who spoke a few languages but was very stressed to serve seven tables. “I am so stressed! But if you need me, just call out my name, Roberto!” No problem, Roberto! I ordered the pasta with reindeer meat and my husband ordered the board with different cheeses. All that with a glass or two of red wine of course!
Photo: Lake Como Tourism
You have to take a boat and explore the charming towns around the lake. There is a boat station in Como and I recommend going there early to buy tickets. But which towns to visit? Below are my top five:
Menaggio is a beautiful little town with the purple wisteria lacing the balconies of the public garden overlooking the lake! You can buy there some locally produced lavender body lotions or just have some pastry from the street bakery or coffee at a lake side café.
I bought a lavender lotion and asked the lady to recommend a nice lunch place. She recommended Albergo Ristorante Il Vapore and we loved it! No view to the water but a lovely service and really good food with normal prices.
The place is run by a family, I chatted and joked around with the lady – owner (with my little knowledge of Italian). For lunch we sampled some local fish with peppers and spaghetti alla chitarra there.
If you would like to stay in Menaggio and splash out – stay at the Grand Hotel Victoria.
Spaghetti alla chitarra
Varenna is a pittoresque old town with a laid back atmosphere. We walked along the water first, sat suntanning on a boat on the little beach below Hotel Villa Cipressi. Then we walked the tiny cobbled streets to Villa dei Monastero – an old monastery from the 12th century which was turned into a luxury residence in the 16th century.
The villa has a beautiful botanical garden right next to the water with lemon and orange trees, roses, wisteria, roman statues and fountains. It also has a nice little cafe as well where you can enjoy not only coffee but a cold beer as well.
Photo: Ekaterina Larsson
We then proceeded to find a restaurant to have a (late) lunch. We sat at Bar Il Molo, which I do not recommend for eating. The best feature is the location – right next to the water, with white chairs and tables placed in a terraced way. First, you had to fight with other tourists for a spot outside (yes, people are cutting the line and generally do not care to be polite). Then the waitress was not very polite either, seemed very annoyed while taking the order, the food took really long to bring and then a completely different waiter brought it. The food was on the expensive side and unfortunately not that good. I ordered a Caprese sallad, which had five (!) thin slices of unripe tomatoes. That shortcoming was compensated only by the tasty mozzarella in the sallad. However, as a whole, not a very good experience. So my advice is – take your repas somewhere else in town and just go for a drink at Bar Il Molo, only for the view.
Photo: Bar Il Molo
Belaggio is where everyone goes. It is a popular place for tourists or may be the only cute town on lake Como which most tourists have heard anything about thanks to George Clooney. I have to say that I was not very impressed with Belaggio town itself. Sure, it has nice little cobbled streets and small souvenir shops, small restaurants and bars. However, the other towns which we visited on the lake are so much nicer in comparison.
Photo: Ekaterina Larsson
Belaggio is worth going to just to see Grand Hotel Villa Serbeloni. The villa was built in 1850 for Countess Brizzoni’s birthday. Then it became a hotel in 1873 and was bought by the Swiss Bucher family in 1918 whose descendents run it to this day. Sir Winston Churchill, Roosevelt, the Rothschilds, J.F. Kennedy, Mary Pickford, Clark Gable and Al Pacino have stayed there.
Photo: Villa Serbeloni
We sat on the terrace of the hotel at sunset and took some spritz aperol which came accompanied with some appetizers by Chef Ettore Bocchia. The chef is famous for his molecular gastronomy and runs the Mistral restaurant at the hotel. I had the pleasure to sample his dishes at a Physics conference dinner at CERN 20 years ago.
As we were one of the few guests outside, the elderly waiter in a beautiful white jacket and white gloves chatted politely with us. He told us he loved visiting Norway and the fjords with his wife, but had not visited Sweden. I walked around the gardens of the hotel as well which were beautifully lit by the moon.
Photo: Villa Serbelloni
Tremezzo is another lovely little town. We visited Villa Carlotta there, mostly for the beautiful terraced garden filled with peonies, rhododendron, camellias and palm tress. The Villa has three paintings from the Italian artist Francesco Hayez. a leading artist of Romanticism, including The Kiss (L’ultimo bacio dato a Giulietta da Romeo, 1823), which I love. The villa is perched on a hill with beautiful views to the lake from its big French windows and balconies.
Photo: Ekaterina Larsson
My favorite stopping place in Tremezzo is Grand Hotel Tremezzo and especially the beach bar on the water by the swimming pool. We stopped by there for an aperitivo – a cocktail which your order always before having a dinner but never before having lunch. I ordered a spritz aperol and the most expensive bottle of coca-cola ever for my child but it was worth it!
Photo: Ekaterina Larsson
Cernobio is yet another nice little town on the lake. Stop by for lunch at Hotel Miralago before you head out to Villa D’Este. The villa was built in 1568 as a summer residence for the cardinal of Como, Tolmeo Gallio. Then it was a property of a Count and a Marquis, and the Princess of Wales – Caroline of Brunswick in 1815. The villa became a luxury hotel in 1873 and in 1913 the house and its 25 acre park became a National Monument.
I had the pleasure to be given a private tour by the PR Manager. She told me that they have some regular clients who come and stay there plus the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Robert de Niro. I did not bump into any of them but strolled around the magnificent gardens with a number of baroque and renaissance statues and fountains. The rooms were also fantastic with locally sourced textiles and accessories.
While enjoying a cup of a coffee with a silver tray of sweets on the terrace under the wisteria laced gazebo I could observe the ladies and gentlemen having lunch there. Truly a playground for the rich with style and sophistication!
The hotel celebrates 15o years this year and organizes a few events, such as for example the Villa d’Este coupé gathering of owners of an Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS from 1949 (only 25 such cars in the world).
Photos: Villa d’Este
If you have to pick only one villa museum to see?
Villa dei Balbianello is my absolute favorite villa museum! If you have to pick only one, go there! The location, the garden, just magical! The Villa is located on the tip of a tiny peninsula going into the lake in Lenno. The complex consists of two residential buildings, a church and a portico – Loggia Durini. Initially it was an ancient Franciscan monastery and then Cardinal Durini let build a beautiful residence in the 18th century. The terraced garden has magnificent oaks pruned into an umbrella shape, wisterias, green coves and beautiful stairways going down to the water. Scenes from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Casino Royale were filmed there.
Photos: Ekaterina Larsson
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