For your first visit you need no less than 3 full days to fully explore the top destinations. You will likely leave feeling that more time was needed.
Worthy destinations: Bellagio; Menaggio; Como; a number of villas around the lake.
Left for another visit: Varenna.
Do not miss: Renting a motorboat for a leisurely ride around the lake.
Last visit: August 2013.
We fell in love with Lake Como during our only trip there so far (which happened fairly late into our explorations of Italy). Picturesque villages, extravagant villas, green mountains, blue expanse of the lake – it all combines to project such beauty and serenity that even the biggest crowds of tourists cannot negate.
We mostly explored the Western shore of the lake between Como and Menaggio, with a couple of visits to Bellagio. There are fewer major points of interest on other stretches of the shoreline, but there are certainly some sights that we were not able to fit into our itinerary.
Boating on the lake
Let’s start with the absolute ***must*** activity when you are vacationing on the lake – renting a motorboat ♥♥♥ for a few hours’ ride around the lake. As much as you can explore the lake by car, on foot, or via public boats or ferries, you will only be able to see a number of most interesting sights when conducting your own water ride. You might also decide to bring food and wine aboard and have a picnic in the middle of the lake, or even go for a swim.
The most-common rental period is 3 hours, but that will fly by really fast. I suggest at least an hour longer.
There are several places offering rentals, but in high season it is important to make reservations in advance. We used AC Boats in Menaggio – not the cheapest, but offering nice service and a well-run boat.
One of the main tourist points on the lake, at the convergence of the two lower “legs” of the lake, Bellagio ♥♥♥ is an attractive town, with a lot of good eateries and nice shops, as well as some notable architecture. Stairways to higher streets cannot be avoided if one wants to get away from the waterfront.
Parking could be a problem on market days; we had a bit of luck on our first visit, but had to look for parking literally in the neighboring village the other time. If you intend to arrive by ferry, it makes a lot of sense to leave the car on the other side and plan to depart by ferry as well.
The market ♥♥ itself – every Thursday – is of the arts-and-crafts variety, a lot more interesting than the standard clothes-and-accessories kind.
Villa Melzi ♥♥♥, at the edge of the town’s waterfront, offers expansive beautiful gardens, flatter and more open-spaced as compared to other grounds around the lake. The mansion is not open to public, but there is a pavilion next to it with some sculpture and portraiture.
Places to Eat
Ristorante Bilacus ♥♥♥, on Salita Serbelloni. We did not get a table on the roof terrace, but the interior room was still quite pleasant. Excellent extensive menu; all of our choices were fantastic and the service was extremely friendly and efficient. Generous portions, too, assorted smoked fish appetizer can serve as a meal by itself. Among the things we liked most were pasta in asparagus curry, ravioli con funghi porcini, and panna cotta and tiramisu for dessert. Our damage: €132 for the party of five (one small child), with a bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2013.
Trattoria San Giacomo ♥♥♥, at the top of the same Salita Serbelloni. The place is rather small but extremely popular; people wait for available tables, either sitting on the steps (there is a chest of pillows ready and available for that) or having a drink at an enoteca opposite the walkway. We lucked into getting one of the few tables on the sidewalk, and were treated to unparalleled people-watching opportunities. The service was good and efficient, the food was excellent, from minestrone to stufato to ossobuco; prix-fixe menus (fish or meat) are a great deal. Fantastic desserts, several varieties of strawberries with cream, tiramisu, a great selection of cheeses. Our damage: €152 for five people (one small child) with 2 bottles of wine. Last visit: Summer 2013.
Menaggio ♥♥♥ is one of the largest towns on the western shore of the lake, with the best waterfront promenade of all – wide, long, paved, full of flower beds, adorned by fountains. It has a very nice pedestrianized centre, with a couple of small churches and a comparatively wide main piazza surrounded by cafés.
Friday nights, the arts-and-crafts market ♥♥ that you can catch the previous day in Bellagio decamps to Menaggio promenade.
There are seemingly many areas to park in Menaggio along or close to the waterfront, but finding a spot could be as challenging as elsewhere on a busy day.
In Tremezzo ♥, the major road that hugs the western shore of the lake emerges from being hemmed in by buildings on both sides and instead runs directly along the shore. There are several impressive palaces that look onto the lake from this road, including a high-end resort.
The major point of interest in Tremezzo is Villa Carlotta ♥♥♥, a gorgeous botanic garden built into the steep mountainside (it requires quite a lot of up and down walking). There are several interesting rooms in the mansion itself (no extra cost to enter), with decorated ceilings, sculptures and paintings.
Places to Eat
A passing-by choice for lunch, a bar on the side of lakefront highway, the first one if you walk from Villa Carlotta towards Cadenabbia ferry. The food turned out surprisingly good, even though suspected of the frozen/re-heated variety. The owners, chatty old people, aided by a couple of seeming regulars, made the meal pretty colorful and far from run-of-the-mill. We ordered a bottle of rosato, so the bill came to €75 for five people (one small child), cash only.
It is technically in Cadenabbia (on maps, it is also often marked as Griante), but it is within walking distance from Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo. Highly recommended for crossing the lake to Bellagio and runs more frequently than passenger boat service on the lake. The crossing takes about 15 minutes. You don’t have to have a car to use the ferry; in fact, on busy days it is recommended that you do not take your car to Bellagio.
There are other ferry points in Menaggio and Varenna, but we only travelled several times between Cadenabbia and Bellagio.
Located at the tip of the western leg of the lake, Como ♥ is by far the biggest town in the area, but is not overly impressive in the “must-see” fashion. Its central pedestrianized area is nice, anchored by the impressive cathedral ♥♥.
Places to Eat
A random choice for lunch, Pepe Nero ♥ is situated around the corner from the cathedral. Service was slightly below par, but tolerable. The food was quite good, pasta ai funghi got high marks all around, panna cotta was deemed even better than the one we had the previous night in Bellagio. Our damage: €100 for five (one small child) with a bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2013.
Lenno ♥ is also among the larger towns on the Western shore. Its extensive waterfront, around a picturesque bay, on Tuesdays hosts a large market of the clothes-and-accessories variety. On market days, finding parking in Lenno is a nightmare.
There is a pebble beach on the southernmost edge of the bay.
The town is home to one of the top attractions on the lake, Villa del Balbionella ♥♥♥. From the beach in Lenno, a water taxi (runs once in 30 min) can get you to the grounds without climbing (€5 one-way, €7 round-trip), but if you choose to walk, it is a demanding 20-minute mostly-uphill trip. The villa’s grounds consist of compact terraced gardens, with beautiful views over the lake from a number of vantage points. Timed guided tours allow access to the villa (extra cost); the tour is not overly illuminating, but the building itself is quite interesting and a few rooms and exhibits are worth the investment. Every room in the house has a gorgeous lake view.
Places to Eat
A passing-by choice, Bar Sport Lenno did not elicit either exceptional praise or complaints from us. The only note in the diary states: Acceptable, not too expensive. Last visit: Summer 2013.
Argegno ♥♥ is a pretty village a few kilometers south of Sala Comacina. On its waterfront piazza several eateries surround a fountain, and the pedestrian sidewalk on the quay offers beautiful perspectives on the lake, whose shoreline bends around Argegno.
Places to Eat
La Piazzetta ♥♥♥ – movie-like European-style setting on the piazza by the fountain. On the menu there are a dozen different pizzas, and a handful of each category of appetizers, primi and secondi. Very good quality of food. Excellent dessert – millefoglie nociole, which coupled with the setting pushed the place into the three-heart territory. Our damage: €145 for five people (one small child), with a bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2013.
Sala Comacina ♥ is a small village on the Western shore that does not boast any major points of interest. It is nonetheless quite picturesque with fantastic views over the lake. It sits on a small bay created by Isola Comacina, the only island on the lake. On the island there is a popular restaurant and a few archaeological sites (we did not go there).
The beach in Sala is typical of the lake: a patch of sand with a fence running around. Access to the water is on the side; serviceable but hard to get used to. Many of the beaches in the area are like that, although normal ones – albeit, pebble not sand – exist in places.
Places to Eat
Locanda La Tirlindana ♥♥. Ideal setting on a small piazza open to the lake with stunning views across. Small menu, but the food is very good. Boats dock at the piazza’s edge specifically so that people have meals at La Tirlindana. Efficient service. Our damage: € 135 for five (one small child), with a bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2013.
Ristorante La Comacina ♥♥, on the main road towards the southern end of the village. Family service, very friendly, endearingly amateurish at times. Great views from the balcony, similar to those from Tirlindana, but from a higher vantage point. There are only a few tables on that balcony; I suspect the ambiance is not the same if you are seated in the interior room. The menu is very good, but we did not try visually very appealing fowl (saw it at the neighboring table). Excellent duck with apples and oranges for an appetizer, gnocchi or tagliatini for primi, ok beef filet for the main course. Fish from the lake is only ok; fish fried in butter got higher marks. Desserts are also only ok, except for the excellent cheese selection. Our damage: €125 for party of five (one small child), with only one person choosing multi-course meal, including a bottle of house wine. Last visit: Summer 2013.
Casa Matra Ponto ♥♥ (website) is a very nice, old-world-charm semi-attached house, with kitchen, dining room, living room on the first floor, two bedrooms and a full bathroom on the second (very narrow stairway is a minor inconvenience for luggage movement), plus a seating area and a balcony in the master bedroom. The owners offered a welcome basket and stocked the fridge with basic necessities. The apartment is in the middle of the village, two steps away from the shore, as well as a few eateries and shops. Its biggest shortcoming is the outside noise – it sits close to the only major road as well as to the town belltower; even with all the windows closed, the passing cars and the quarterly bells (the latter, thankfully, not through the entire night, but only between 7am and 10pm) are a nuisance.
There is no parking by the apartment – it is located on a pedestrian alley. Parking in the village overall is a challenge, with likely spots to be found on the road leading up into the mountains above the village (it can be reached via staircases on foot to get to and from your car); there are a couple of small lots on the lake level, rarely offering an empty spot. We loved the place, but the inconveniences of parking may make it not suitable for everyone. Last stay: 2013.