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Lake Como


Lake Como

Laine McDonnell

Lake Como quietly emanates a sublime elegance that goes back millennia. Steep mountains cascade into deep blue waters, affording only a thin line of estates and small hamlets to dot a perimeter that is otherwise exquisitely natural. I’m not sure anything can prepare you for that first moment when you behold Lake Como. And it’s not a feeling that dissipates. After a few days in Bellagio, every glance out the window of my hotel or picturesque boat trip upon the water inspired not only that awe but also a sense of how lucky I was to be there, in this most special part of Northern Italy.

The medieval village of Varenna, in the central region of Lake Como, charms with narrow streets and lakeside cafes and villas. SAHACHATZ /

A sunset view of the village of Mezzegra with its 17th-century church of Sant’Abbondio. Andrew Mayovskyy /

Como’s history

The deepest lake in Europe, Lake Como’s Y-shape was carved by a glacier 10,000 years ago. Although evidence of settlements from the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age proves this area has been inhabited for millennia, it became fashionable when Julius Caesar set up a city near what is now Como to connect his territories with Switzerland outposts. Aristocrats and influential Romans such as Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger were residents there, as Como flourished as an important trading centre. 

Private boats are the best way to get around Lake Como in summer. Aleks Kend /

 Cows graze on the mountaintops above the lake.  Aleks Kend /

At the turn of the 18th century, Lake Como became a highlight on the Grand Tour, a circuit of travel that wealthy Europeans embarked upon to experience the best of the European continent. Consequently, tourism began to supplant silk as the region’s top industry.
In 1859, Lake Como became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy after centuries of foreign rule and fighting between the Duchy of Milan, the Spanish, the Austrians, the French, and the Lombardy. 

Throughout the ages, Lake Como has hosted such famous visitors as Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, composer Giuseppe Verdi, who composed some of La Traviata while at Villa Margherita Ricordi, and modern-day movie stars such as George Clooney, who owns a villa here in Laglio.  

How to get around

Driving around Lake Como takes expertise, grit, and nerves of steel, due to windy vertiginous roads that are narrow and vary greatly in elevation. Therefore, once you get to Lake Como, take advantage of the lake itself to get around. There are fast ferries that connect the main villages such as Bellagio and Como, but also slower ferries that take you all the way around the lake with some helpful narration of what you’re looking at. 

The best way to get around, however, is to hire your own boat for the day with someone knowledgeable. This way, you can take the time to stop for a mid-morning espresso on the veranda of the grand dame of the lake hotels, the Villa d’Este, in Cernobbio, and later enjoy a glass of wine or a light lunch in picturesque Varenna. Lake Como is a close community, so your guide will know the important villas, who owns them, and all the good gossip. 

The villages

In Como, ride the funicular up the mountain to Brunate, but don’t stop with the camera-wielding masses, rather carry on up the trail all the way to the lighthouse at Faro Voltiano where you can get the best view of Como and the lake, and even see all the way to Switzerland. 

The village of Como has become something of a mini-Milan, as chic boutiques, trendy farm-to-table restaurants, and swanky hotels pack the streets with sophisticated tourists. I found myself, like most tourists, buying a lovely, locally-made silk scarf here to look like the locals when the breva, or breeze off the lake, cools everything down.

 The narrow stone streets lead down from the medieval Castello di Vezio to the lake. Mikadun /

 Just off the lake, the main square of Cernobbio has Harry’s Bar and other attractions.  Mikadun /

The town of Bellagio sits on the peninsula that splits the lake, the centre of the “Y,” and is one of the most enchanting spots in all of Italy. Expect cobblestone streets, charming squares, little shops, restaurants, and tempting gelaterias. The Villa Serbelloni, a 15th-century villa-turned-luxury-hotel, is stunning both inside and out. My stay here included much exploring of the hotel’s lavish dining and ballrooms, taking in the magnificent lakeview poolside, and indulging in Aperol spritzes to the sound of a big band music in the lounge. While most of Lake Como’s villas remain privately owned, the stately Villa Carlotta in the town of Tremezzo has been turned into a museum. Inside the villa, don’t miss the masterpieces of sculptor Canova, and then head outside for Carlotta’s magnificent Italian gardens, teeming with 20 acres of flowering rhododendrons and azaleas in the spring. 

Cernobbio is amazing in that it’s one of the most elegant places in Europe, and boasts some of the top hotels and restaurants in the world, and yet everyone is made to feel like a local. It’s as if you gain acceptance to the private club of Cernobbio merely by having the good taste to have sought it out. The Villa d’Este might be the only scenery prettier than the lake itself, so be careful when sitting on its veranda not to get whiplash trying to decide on the better the view. Every year, they host the Concorso d’Eleganza, a car show featuring 50 vintage luxury cars made between 1920 and 1980, which draws aficionados from around the world. Cernobbio houses another icon, Harry’s Bar, an offshoot of the original Venice location, which is known for its traditional Italian dishes, high profile patrons, and impeccable cocktails, which it somehow manages to pull off without even a hint of pretension. 

The lush botanical gardens of the the Villa Carlotta.   iryna1 /

The museum of the Villa Carlotta is known for its artwork and sculpture. Fulcanelli /

Get to know the locals

It was here at Harry’s Bar that the Italian way of life began to sink in as I talked to Riccardo Marazzi, an owner of the establishment and lifelong Cernobbio resident who implored me to appreciate “the deep history of this place and the calm and idyllic peace that you can find here.” We enjoyed a glass of red wine as he helped me plan my itinerary here for the next few days. He broke it down simply as to what every visitor needs to take away from Lake Como: “the sense of Italian style mixed with elegance and simplicity of Northern Italy.”

English Text by Laine McDonnell   Translated by Rui Chen