How to spend a weekend in Lake Como

As northern Italy’s most exclusive getaway, Lake Como offers la dolce vita in spades — lakeside glamour, rooftop dining and sleepy nooks — all easily explored in a slow-paced weekend.

By Angela Locatelli
Published 17 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 23 Jan 2021, 15:07 GMT
Lakefront of Lecco, a city located on the southern tip of Lake Como.

Lakefront of Lecco, a city located on the southern tip of Lake Como. 

Photograph by AWL Images

Lake Como reveals itself in stages. Its cobalt-blue waters surrounded by hills of conifers. Look closer and you’ll see the quaint villages with snow-capped Alps in the distance. Finally, the slender bell towers, the cypress-flanked promenades and the fishermen’s boats bobbing by the piers. This Russian doll of details and colours warns visitors that understanding Lake Como takes a little time.

Italy’s third-largest body of water has been charming respite-seekers since Roman times. And while at first glance little seems to have changed since then, over the past two decades the shores have been working to redefine lakeside glamour. The catalyst was George Clooney — the lake’s honorary citizen — who bought a holiday villa here in 2002, giving the resort the Hollywood seal of approval. Hotel openings followed, including Il Sereno, which delivered a dose of contemporary to Lake Como’s neoclassical banks; and, in spring 2020, a Mandarin Oriental — all serving a new generation of travellers keen to explore one of Lombardy’s most popular natural playgrounds.

Day one: sightseeing, strolling & a scenic dinner

Watch the city wake up from Passeggiata Villa Olmo, a shaded promenade in the town of Como. Starting at the villa, take a short walk to centro storico, the resort’s urban heart. For the obligatory morning caffeine fix, head to Caffè Monti, a local institution where the outside patio is perfect for people-watching. One street over, Como Cathedral represents one of the most significant Gothic churches in Northern Italy. Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque elements were added over the centuries, but the structure’s defining features remain its skylight-shaping light-azure domes. Continue to Via Vittorio Emanuele, Como’s main shopping alley with various boutiques and side streets to while away the rest of the morning.

Midday hunger pangs should be fixed at Michelin-starred I Tigli in Theoria, set in a 14th-century bishop’s palace. Book in advance to snatch the coveted ‘chef’s table’ — connected with the kitchen but separated by soundproof glass. Then, head to the 17th-century Villa Carlotta in Tremezzina, on the lake’s western shore. The interior of this lofty mansion displays statues, neoclassical furniture and paintings, including masterpieces by Antonio Canova. The star of the show? The botanical garden, famous for its rhododendrons and azaleas. As dusk falls, sit down for a scenic dinner at the atmospheric Gatto Nero, a hilltop restaurant that’s known for its sensational views of the lake basking in twinkling lights.

Como Cathedral represents one of the most significant Gothic churches in Northern Italy.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day two: snacks, shopping & a speedboat tour 

Start the day at Pasticceria Poletti, a homely cafe that serves freshly-baked cakes in Cernobbio. The small town sits just over a mile from Como, and offers a gateway to the weekend’s main event: a tour of the lake on a Riva boat. As the speedboat skirts the banks, play a game of guess the owners of the various mansions and listen to the skipper’s tales of the lake’s most notorious residents.

Starting to feel peckish? Moor in Lezzeno, a sleepy village drowsing over the lake’s eastern hills, and make a beeline for Ittiturismo da Abate. The menu in this family-owned restaurant is based on the catch of the day, including lake specialities such as missoltini and rice with perch.

Back on the water, make time for one more stop. Bellagio — jutting out on the promontory where the Y-shaped lake forks into two branches — encapsulates the region’s placid charm. Set aside a couple of hours to stroll around the scenic promenade with green-shuttered houses and quaint cobbled streets. Highlights include visiting the numerous shops selling local souvenirs or reaching Punta Spartivento, an observation deck at the tip of the peninsula.

Back in Cernobbio for a last hurrah, head to the Renaissance-style Villa d’Este, the lake’s grand dame hotel and overall biggest pride. The villa offers several dining options, but opt for Veranda, the main restaurant, for a gourmet meal by the property’s famous baroque garden. After dinner, take a walk up the water staircase to the nymphaeum among centennial trees and dramatic statues.

Como's best three scenic experiences

1. Aero Club Como
Book an air excursion on a seaplane to take in the scenery from up high — though, arguably, the most thrilling part of the experience comes towards the end, when the small plane glides down and alights on the gentle waves. 

2. Como-Brunate Funicular
This popular funicular railway takes visitors on a steep seven-minute ride from Como to the panoramic village of Brunate, which offers views over the lake to the Alps beyond. The numerous hilltop villas are also worth a visit. 

3. Greenway of Lake Como
This leisurely six-mile hike through the lake’s pretty villages follows the Via Regina. Hikers can walk the entire route, from the municipality of Colonno to the community of Cadenabbia di Griante, in a little over three hours. 

Don't miss: Como's lakeside lidos

There are numerous lidos on the lake’s shores, but for a reasonably priced option, head to the beach in Faggeto Lario to rent a bed and take a dip. For something more upscale, head to Lenno, where the lido includes gazebos and a restaurant.

Published in the Lombardy 2020 guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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