In northern Italy’s Lombardy region, where the Alps begin their sharp ascent toward Switzerland, rests an assemblage of bright blue glacial lakes. This landscape of breathtaking waters tucked beneath jagged limestone peaks is known as the Italian Lake District, and for centuries, it has served as a source of inspiration and harmony for painters, writers and poets alike. Today, the Italian Lake District is populated by a vast gathering of captivating havens bursting with the charm of old-world architecture, rich history and a multitude of unique cultural remains, and each lake offers its own influence.
Near Verona, Lake Garda is Italy’s largest lake and a perfect destination for foodies and vineyard hoppers. Thanks to the strong winds off the Dolomites, sports enthusiasts relish in Lake Garda’s sailing, kite surfing and windsurfing. Straddling the Swiss-Italian border is Lake Lugano, where the surrounding mountains grow straight up out of the water, and the town of Lugano boasts lakeside promenades, waterfront parks and tons of chic shopping worthy of a lengthy stay.
Lesser-known Lake Iseo is the region’s hidden gem and is surrounded by a number of medieval towns as well as the legendary valley walls of Val Camonica, adorned with more than 300,000 prehistoric carvings. Another well-kept aquatic secret of the Italian Lake District is Lake Orta. This westernmost lake is also the smallest in the Lake District at only 8 miles long. Some even argue that it’s the quietest of the lakes. The lake’s allure is accented by the winding streets and stone walls of the small town of Orta San Giulio.
Lake Maggiore, north of Milan, is Italy’s second largest lake and home to the picturesque Borromean Islands. This enchanting group of small islands bursting with ornamental gardens and magnificent palaces neighbors the charming botanical lakeside town of Stresa, and the surrounding mountains and vast countryside deliver tons of hiking and biking opportunities around the lake.
Still, as remarkable as each of these lakes is, they are all rivaled by one lake in the region — the long-admired Lake Como.
Just an hour outside of Milan, Lake Como is perhaps the region’s best-known tourist destination. Since the early days of the Roman Empire, the town’s blue waters and reflected mountaintops have attracted the rich and famous, and their influence is evident all around. One glance at Lake Como leaves little wonder why Hollywood A-listers like George Clooney and international celebrities like Richard Branson own lakeside villas here.
At more than 1,300 feet deep, Lake Como is Europe’s deepest lake, which accounts for its extraordinarily blue waters. And like the other lakes in northern Italy, Lake Como is set amid the foothills of the Alps, which plunge straight down into the water, but what truly sets this lake apart from the rest is the more than 100 miles of stunning shoreline that have summoned the most exclusive company of lakeside towns.
More impressive than all the other lakes in the Italian Lake District, the shores of Lake Como are studded with beaches, medieval remnants of old stone villages, magnificent villas and lakeside estates, and elegant promenades. And while they are all in such close proximity to one other, each somehow feels as though it were Lake Como’s only town.
Situated between the two southern branches of Lake Como, this elegant hillside village is considered one of the most beautiful towns in Europe and is the most popular town on the lake. In fact, it is even known as “The Pearl of the Lake.”
A visit to Bellagio begins with a walk along the promontory toward the tiny, ancient streets of the old town center and the beautiful Church of San Giacomo. From here, Bellagio is an endless exploration of boutiques, restaurants and hotels. A short walk from the streets of Bellagio is the old fishing village of Pescallo and the marina and sailing club.
Bellagio is best known for its two breathtaking villas. The sloping lakeside gardens of Villa Melzi, built in the early 17th century, are filled with exotic trees, camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas. Meanwhile the slopes of the Bellagio promontory feature Villa Serbelloni, a luxury hotel built in the 15th century with 50 acres of park and garden, including plants, statues, small caves and water features.
On the western shore of Lake Como, directly across from Bellagio, is the quaint town of Tremezzo. Home of the five-star Grand Hotel, Tremezzo might be the lake’s best lodging option. The Grand Hotel is seven floors of Art Nouveau boasting 90 rooms, three pools and a spa housed in its own 18th century villa. Best of all, guests of the Grand Hotel can rent or charter their own boat and tour the lake in style.
Tremezzo’s beautiful Villa Carlotta is surrounded by a vast 19-acre terraced botanical garden containing 500 species of plants, including ancient trees, palms, rhododendrons, azaleas, Japanese maples, cacti, bamboo and orchids. Inside this 17th century villa is an art collection filled with masterpieces as enchanting as the gardens outside.
Another celebrated Tremezzo villa is Villa del Balbianello, which has been featured in a number of films including “Casino Royale” and “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.” But make time to see Lake Como and Isola Comacina from the Greenway del Lago di Como. This easy 6-mile stroll starts in Tremezzo and visits several unique villages.
At the foot of Mount Bisbino, the small town of Cernobbio offers a peaceful yet cosmopolitan vibe and is best known for some of Lake Como’s finest villas: Villa d’Este, a renaissance residence and one of the grandest hotels in all of Italy; Villa Erba, an imposing 19th century villa filled with astounding frescos; and Villa Bernasconi, a truly stunning example of Lombardy’s floral-style architecture.
However, the town of Cernobbio also marks the start of the 80-mile-long La Via dei Monti Lariani, a well-marked footpath that extends to the northernmost point of the lake and the town of Sorico. Long used by locals to reach the Alpine meadows, the trail rambles at an average altitude of more than 3,000 feet through the unspoiled nature of the surrounding valleys. Hikers will follow mule tracks and roads built during World War I as they pass through ruins of ancient settlements with magnificent mountain views and the occasional wildlife. Dividing the hike into four sections allows travelers to spend nights recouping in the villages of San Fedele Intelvi, Val Menaggio and Garzeno.
On the west side of the lake, about midway up, Menaggio is a popular base from which to explore Lake Como. Menaggio also has one of the best promenades filled with cafes, bakeries, restaurants and shops lining the edge of Piazza Garibaldi. This historic center is the site of the beautiful façade of the Church of Santa Maria and the medieval Church of San Carlo, which is accompanied by a beautiful bell tower. Other notable Menaggio churches include San Stefano and San Giusto.
Because of Menaggio’s strategic location, it stood proud as a walled city complete with towers, castles and other fortifications during medieval times. Today, some of the remnants of these historic structures can still be seen. Overlooking town is the 10th century castle of Menaggio, still with the perimeter walls, two towers and the entrance still visible.
Outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate Menaggio’s large, unspoiled Val Sanagra Park in the heart of the Lepontine Alps. Encountering pristine forests of birch, silver firs and alpine spruce, a walk through this park is certain to include the chance sighting of red deer, chamois and roe deer, as well as Italy’s oldest rock formations dating back to the Carboniferous era.
This old stone fishing village, dating back to the 11th century, is a quaint, rustic escape from the other bustling towns of Lake Como. In fact, there’s really very little to do here, which is why it’s such a popular choice with visitors.
While away the morning hours by taking in the exquisite lake views toward Bellagio and Menaggio from the Varenna’s stone beach. From there, stroll the picturesque cobblestone pedestrian lanes and sloping alleyways to the town’s well-preserved medieval center and discover the 14th century Church of San Giorgio and the much older Church of San Giovanni Battista.
To check off another Lake Como villa, stroll through palm trees, yuccas, dracaena, cypresses and oleander in the gardens of the Villa Monastero, which was once a Cisterian female convent. Then visit the 13th century Castle of Vezio, now dedicated to the art of falconry and the breeding and training birds of prey.
Head out of town a little ways to visit the hamlet of Fiumelatte and picnic alongside the shortest river in Italy, and return to the main piazza along the scenic and romantic Passeggiata degli Innamorati, otherwise known as Lover’s Walk, that traces the edge of the lake.
In the end, a visit to Lake Como seems to present one minor setback. With so many inspiring towns, how does anyone choose? Luckily there is no need to choose; you can have them all. Lake Como supports a vast water taxi system, and almost every town has its own boat landing. So pack your swimsuit and a pair of hiking boots and make your way to Northern Italy’s Lake District. The enchanted shores of Lake Como are waiting.