Many visitors to Italy are well aware of the celebrated beauty of Lake Como, the third-largest lake in the bel paese (beautiful country), and they yearn to visit this northern Italian gem. But it's not necessarily the easiest place to get to know.
Long renowned for its dramatic scenery, lush gardens, romantic waterfront villages, and the historic villas, Lake Como has more recently become famous as the place where George Clooney has a compound and where a revolving door of celebrities Instagram their stays at his Villa Oleandra.
Given its proximity to Milan, throughout history Lake Como was traditionally a holiday destination for the Milanese upper classes. Even today, there’s a more upscale feel here. Still, well-heeled locals stroll the promenade on weekends, and carefully curated villas and gardens preside seemingly around every turn.
Frequent trains (check schedules here) run to Como from Milan and take about an hour. The rail connection makes the town of Como an excellent jumping off-point for taking ferries to other destinations.
But there’s a warning that comes with doing that. The ferries that crisscross the lake are a convenient way to village-hop (check schedules here), but if you stay in one of the smaller settlements that are nearby (the most popular ones are Bellagio, Lenno, Menaggio, Tremezzo, and Varenna), you may find your ability to get around is limited, especially in low season, which runs from about October until March.
Lake Como, which has an upside-down Y shape, is only 29 miles in length and less than three miles across, so encircling it by car would only take three or four hours if you don’t make stops. That can be picturesque, but the roads are narrow and have many hairpin turns, so that method isn’t for everyone.
If white-knuckle navigation doens't put you off driving Lake Como, keep in mind that street parking can be impossible to come by, and some of the villages are limited-traffic zones of slender alleyways.
Yet getting around on foot presents its own challenges. The most famous town on the lake is photogenic Bellagio, but you can’t reach it directly by train—you have to get off in Varenna and then ferry over in about 15 minutes, or you can take a fast boat all the way from Como (about 45 minutes; there's a slower ferry that takes about 2 hours).
Bellagio has a shady lakefront promenade overlooking the place where the two branches of the lake's Y come together, and from there, you’ll see the Alps off in the distance. Steep alleyways lined with shops and cafes climb up from the port. Bellagio is idyllic—it’s as if every jasmine and wisteria branch has been artfully draped—but that also makes it a major draw for tourists, so it can be overly crowded in spring and summer.
Varenna (pictured above) is another quaint area village with its own tangle of cobblestone streets, and it’s just a short ferry hop across the lake from Bellagio. Varenna is pretty, but ultimately there’s not much to do in it except, perhaps, to have lunch on the lake and admire the views during a quick stroll.(Bellagio, Italy | Credit: Shutterstock / Pascale Gueret)
Several towns on the western side of the lake are also worth visiting, but if you don’t have a car, you’ll have to use the train to go to either Como or Varenna and then ferry over. Both Lenno and Tremezzo, which are a few miles away from each other and connected by a gorgeous yet somewhat challenging walking path, were once a summer retreat for the aristocracy.
That past still quite apparent today: Villa del Balbianello, in Lenno, is an 18th-century palazzo sitting high on a promontory with an especially ornate garden. Villa Carlotta, in Tremezzo, is a 17th-century property that has a rich art collection and an elaborate botanical garden.
Menaggio, a little further along the lake (again, there is no train station, but you can take the ferry from Varenna or Como), has a northernly position that offers dramatic mountain views. Like Como, Menaggio has more going on; its series of squares is connected by streets filled with shops and restaurants. There’s even a medieval castle to visit up the narrow cobbled alleyways behind the town.
There's no doubt that Lake Como region is a place of great beauty, but visitors often find it to be much quieter than they were expecting. That makes it a popular honeymoon destination, but more active tourists might wish there were more than sleepy towns and villas that visitors won’t be permitted to access.
If you want beaches, high-adrenaline water sports, or more variety in the towns, there are other lakes in the Lake District, such Garda, that are larger and do have those things.
On a day trip from Milan, Como (plus a quick ferry ride to one or two other towns) might give you a taste of why its region is famous as a hideaway. But many visitors find it markedly subdued and demure. That lack of flash doesn’t necessarily make for epic touring, but explains why super-wealthy celebrities like Clooney choose it for retreating into private life.