Lake Como: A pocket guide

Como was already a tourist destination in Roman times, when both Pliny the Elder and the Younger had villas here. The latter penned in a letter that “from my villa I can fish from my bed as if I were in a boat,” and nothing much has changed since then. Leonardo da Vinci came to Como on the orders of the duke of Milan. Even such “recent” visitors as Rossini, Verdi, Bellini, Liszt, Stendhal, and the English Romantic poets—and the lake’s own great writer, Manzoni—would recognize the lake today. It is one of the deepest in Europe, ringed with mountains and sprigged with towns and villages along its shoreline.

Como, Bellagio, Tremezzo, Blevio, Menaggio—these are all names that are synonymous with the prestige, elegance, charm, and beauty of Italy’s most romantic lake, and each region along the lake has its distinct features, climate, beaches, and sights. Virtually deserted during the winter, the wishbone-shaped lake awakens from its slumber in mid-March, when glamorous crowds begin flocking to the pretty towns clustered around its midsection: Bellagio, Menaggio, Tremezzo, Varenna. There are several luxury lakefront villas to rent with pools and gardens; from here guests tend to explore all around the lake, crisscrossing by ferry, renting a boat, or even driving.

A sight not to be missed is the magnificent Villa Carlotta, a former marquis’s mansion dating from the late seventeenth century that today functions as a museum. Located in Tremezzo, a 20-minute ferry ride westward from Bellagio, the grand villa today houses artworks, including sculptures by Antonio Canova. But most captivating are the romantic Italian gardens surrounding the villa, where roughly 20 cultivated acres bloom with camellias, azaleas, roses, and citrus trees.

In recent years, the city of Como, on the lake’s southwestern tip, has quietly blossomed into the most interesting spot. Its street plan is almost unchanged from the time of Pliny, and its magnificent fourteenth-century duomo is well worth visiting. A novelty here is the Tempio Voltiano, a neoclassical museum dedicated to Alessandro Volta, a local physicist who—surprise, surprise—invented the electric battery. The very grand Villa Olmo is a long but agreeable walk from here; follow your hike with a well-deserved reward from Gelateria Lariana, an artisanal ice cream shop specializing in such mouthwatering flavors as fresh fig and pistachio di Bronte.

True lake aficionados will leave the shore and head up into the surrounding hills and mountains along a network of ancient mule tracks. An occasional mountain inn might serve a hearty rustisciada—a dish of chicken, pork, and sausages with onions and mushrooms cooked in wine with crispy polenta. For the less intrepid, the Antica Strada Regina, an old Roman road on the western shores of the lake, meanders through ancient villages and olive groves just far enough above the lake to offer tranquility and fine views. From Como there’s a funicular up to Brunate, perched on a hilltop with spectacular views of the lake.

Unsurprisingly the lake’s cuisine is water-based (if not entirely lake-based). A typical dish is missultini—lake fish grilled with oil and vinegar and served with polenta. Other dishes include cuttlefish-ink tagliolini with tender shrimp and fava beans; swordfish crudo with chicory salad; and lardo di Colonnata, or a light seafood soup with mussels and homemade cavatelli.

Meet the Experts for Lake Como