In 1818 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to Thomas Love Peacock: “This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty, with the exception of the arbutus islands of Killarney. It is long and narrow, and has the appearance of a mighty river winding among the mountains and the forests”. Undoubtedly romantic and beautiful, there’s a reason that Lake Como is Italy’s most visited lake. But with 24 towns and villages that make up Italy’s third largest lake, it can be tough to decide which towns are worthy of a visit during the perfect 3-day getaway. Following our Lake Como itinerary, don’t miss three must visit towns on Lake Como during your stay.
Day 1: Varenna and Lecco
Many people consider the steep hillside village of Varenna to be the most heavenly of all the towns on Lake Como, preferring the charming fisherman’s houses to the showier villas and grandeur of neighbors like Bellagio. And even though tourists do find their way to Varenna either on the short 15-minute ferry ride across the lake from Bellagio or arrive here on the direct train line from Milan, this village is still authentic and very much lived in by its 882 residents.
Varenna has actually been inhabited since the Iron Age. Even in the 12th century BC, Varenna was the very center – both commercially and geographically – of Lake Como.
The thing to do in Varenna is relax by the lakeside, enjoy a lingering lunch and visit the gardens of the two villas: Villa Monastero and Villa Cipressi. There’s several touristic waterfront restaurants, and we suggest walking right on by them. Instead head to Al Prato for lunch. It’s located on a quiet little piazza and has a menu of homemade and fresh caught lake fish.
Work off lunch with a trek up the steep, narrow lanes to the Castello de Vezio. As you make your way up through the streets of the village, keep an eye out for all of the water bottles. They’re hard to miss, really, and is a tradition of the residents to keep stray cats from peeing on their doors.
The climb up to Castello di Vezio is well worth the effort. As you climb, a panorama of the lake opens up. From here, it’s easy to see the peninsula where Bellagio is situated and which divides the lake into two parts: Lecco on the left and Como on the right.
Castello di Vezio has been standing on the bluff above Varenna for more than a thousand years. It was built by the order of the Lombard Queen Theodelinda as a military outpost and the strategic location was key to defending the lake and surrounding villages.
These days the castle has a permanent exhibition and hosts temporary art exhibitions, as well as being home to a falconry. Part of the permanent exhibition is a collection of “ghosts,” which are made from white chalk. Willing tourists who offer to pose in the spring and summer will be covered with gauze and the white chalk to make the ghost sculptures. The sculptures remain in the castle grounds until the snow comes and destroys them, then new ghosts are made again the next spring.
Climb the castle turret for more even more stunning views of Lake Como. The turret also has a permanent collection of Lariosauro. It was a water reptile with a long neck and head that reportedly lived in Lake Como when this mountainous lake was covered by sea some 225 million years ago during the Middle Triassic Period. Most of the species of the Lariosauro have been found in the area of Lake Como, but recently some have also been found in China.
Lariosauro might not just be an extinct dinosaur, either. A fisherman reported seeing a reptile-like creature swimming in Lake Como in 1946. Another reported a creature with webbed feet in 1954. And a diver reported encountering a creature with the head of a crocodile and webbed reptilian feet at a depth of 328 feet in 1957. The sightings went on and on.
Loch Ness might have Nessie, but Lake Como has Lariosauro and nicknamed him Larry, for short. Maybe bring a pair of binoculars and keep your eye out!
While Larry might be a figment of imagination spurred on by the media, Castello di Vezio’s birds of prey are very real – and impressive. The falconry trains and cares for birds of prey, including hawks, a buzzard, a barn owl and a great horned owl. The birds are outside in the olive grove (which is one of the most northerly olive groves in the world) during the day until the training demonstrations, so that visitors can observe the different birds of prey close up. The great horned owl is named Artu and he is one of the few left in the world.
Falconry is an art that has been practiced for thousands of years and was recently inscribed on to UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage of humanity. For the well being of the birds, demonstrations only take place in good weather and when it’s not too hot. But even if the demonstration is not scheduled or is cancelled, you can still observe the birds.
After hiking back down to Varenna, either hop back on the ferry or on the train to Lecco. Not too many tourists make the 25-minute ferry journey to the town made world famous by Alessandro Manzoni’s masterpiece, The Bethrothed.
Lecco is actually a bustling city that has long been a commercial center of trade, stretching back to at least 1149. The lakeside promenade and the bell tower of Basilica di San Nicolo are the highlights when it comes to the sights here, but you also won’t want to miss going on a Lake Como food tour.
Far away from the mass tourism of Bellagio, Lecco is the best place to rub elbows with the local Italians and taste some of the best products of Lombardy. This region is known for its delicious mortadella, bresola and alpine cheeses.
The 2.5-hour twilight walking food tour in Lecco combines sightseeing throughout the lake front town with tastings of cured meats from Lombardy, like the IGP protected Bresaola, alpine cheese, foccacia, local lake fish and the typical meatballs of Lake Como called Mondeghilo. The tour ends with a sit down dinner of homemade pasta and some Valtellina wine.
The campanile of Basilica di San Nicolo is the other thing not to be missed in Lecco. It dates back to 1864 and sits, quite literally, on a secret. Beneath the bell tower are underground passages that were used as shelter during WWII aerial attacks. You can climb the 400 steps up to the top of the campanile for a panoramic view over Lecco and this leg of Lake Como. Just be sure to reserve in advance as the bell tower can only be climbed on a guided tour. It’s free, but a small donation for the preservation is appreciated when you join a bell tower tour.
Day 2: Bellagio
Bellagio is called the pearl of Lake Como and is strategically situated at the intersection of the three branches of the y-shaped lake. It was already famous in Roman times, long before Americans began visiting and wanting to see the village the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas is infamously named after. Even Pliny the Younger spent a short period in Bellagio and left us some of his works where he described his studies about the place, hunting and fishing.
Start out your day in Bellagio by taking it in from the water on a kayak tour. Paddling along Pescallo Bay, you’ll pass by Villa Serbelloni and the Rockefeller cliffs. The guided points out the posh villas that dot the hills around Lake Como’s most famous village.
After the 2-hour kayaking tour, head in to Bellagio’s old town center for lunch. Terrazza Barchetta has been a fixture of Bellagio since 1887 and the simple restaurant offers homemade dishes typical to Lake Como. Try the almond crusted lake trout, a bowl of spaghetti alle vongole or the Naples-style pizzas.
The restaurant is perched among the shops and sights of the old town. Wander through the shops and take time to visit the Basilica di San Giacomo, just a short walk up the cobbled steps of Bellagio. The church was built between 1075 and 1125 and is famous for its Romanesque exterior and gold-accented interior.
When your legs tire of all the up and down hills, it’s time for a gelato break. There are ample benches to enjoy gelato while taking in the views of the lake.
Wander back down and along the lakeside promenade for stunning views of the Alps across the lake. Make your way toward Piazza della Chiesa to join a guided tour of the historic Villa Serbelloni.
Villa Serbelloni has an ancient history. Where the villa sits today was once the site of a villa belonging to Pliny the Elder, a Bellagio born army and naval commander in the early Roman Empire. He was also an author and perhaps even the author of one of the first encyclopedias. The villa we see today was built sometime in the 15th century and became the property of Count Alessandro Serbelloni, for whom it is named. It was his heir, the Duke Serbelloni, that built the spectacular gardens, spending an exorbitant amount of money on them.
The villa fell in to disuse for a period after the death of the Duke and it was eventually purchased by a Swiss company in 1870 that turned the villa in to a hotel. Princess Ella Walker purchased the hotel and she left it as an inheritance to the Rockefeller Foundation in 1959. It’s been owned by the Rockefeller Foundation ever since and operates as one of the poshest hotels on Lake Como. The magnificent gardens are open to the public, but only on a guided tour which is available at 11am and 3:30pm from April through November.
Lake Como truly is one of those places you must visit, which is why several celebrities have homes here. It has made appearances in movies such as Ocean’s Twelve, Casino Royale and Star Wars, and was even the backdrop for Gwen Stefani’s music video “Cool”.
Know Before You Go