I’m not sure why it took me so many visits to Europe to finally make it to Lake Como, Italy but I can say it was definitely worth the wait! After visits to Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore, other popular lakes in Italy's north, in the past, I thought I knew what to expect but I was in for a surprise.
Now that I've visited Lake Como, it won't take much to convince me to return. I hope my tips for where to stay and what to do at Lake Como encourage you to visit Lake Como, too.
When I started planning my trip, my main criteria when choosing where to stay at Lake Como was based on one thing - it had to be right beside the lake. There are plenty of Lake Como towns offering lakeside accommodation but most of the hotels I looked at that had lakeside positions were too expensive for our four night stay so my search continued.
Like many people, when I thought of Lake Como, the city of Como and the tourist hotspot of Bellagio were the locations that immediately came to mind. I’d never heard of Varenna until I read a travel memoir about Italy but when I discovered it was just a short ferry ride from Bellagio, I was sold.
Researching further, I then read all the tourist literature that claimed Varenna was a rival to Bellagio for its beauty. This is no lie - it really is, in my opinion, one of the best towns on Lake Como to base yourself.
I finally found an amazing apartment in Fiumelatte, a couple of kilometres from Varenna, that was well priced and was perfectly located.
You can read more about the apartment here but suffice to say it was right on the lake (with its own small private ‘beach’). When we stood on our balcony we could look down and see trout swimming below.
The view from our balcony looking back towards Varenna was stunning but no matter where you look around the lake you’ll see similar views. With gelati-coloured houses built right along the shoreline and clinging to the steep hillsides, it really is picture postcard scenery.
Where is Lake Como?
Lake Como is in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, about an hour from Milan. The Lake is shaped like an upside down letter Y and Bellagio is situated right at the fork where the two legs of the lake meet. Varenna sits just across the lake from Bellagio.
Getting between the towns that are dotted around Lake Como is easy as the ferry service that operates on the lake is excellent. Ferries depart Varenna at least every hour during the summer months for Menaggio, Bellagio and Tremezzo. See the ferry timetable here
The trip to Bellagio takes just 15 minutes from Varenna so our car didn’t move once we’d arrived at Fiumelatte. We simply caught the ferry whenever we wanted to get around and this was one of the things I found so pleasant about Lake Como. The regular ferry service is why I think Varenna is the best place to stay in Lake Como without a car.
There was no need to have to worry about negotiating narrow streets or finding somewhere to park - if you are prepared to walk a little to reach the ferry port, a car isn’t necessary.
Another bonus with choosing Fiumelatte/Varenna as our base was that it was far less inundated with tourists than Bellagio but still provided everything we needed for our stay. There is a small grocery store and a bar in Fiumelatte but most days we walked to Varenna (about 25 minutes leisurely walk) where there are lots of restaurants, cafe and shops selling souvenirs and gelato.
We could quite easily have visited Como for a day (it’s at the southern end of the lake) or even Milan for that matter as trains run regularly to both Como and Milan from various towns along the lake. We were quite content, though, to stay in ‘our’ little part of the lake and just relax.
Update: We visited Lake Como again in July 2015, this time staying for a week in the same apartment that we rented in 2014. Again we visited Bellagio and Villa Carlotta but also included visits to Como and Menaggio in our sightseeing (all by ferry). We also did a day trip to Milan by train - just a one hour journey from Varenna.
Things to do in Lake Como, Italy
Below are just a few of the things to do at Lake Como which we included in our itinerary.
Bellagio was a highlight. Strolling the steep, narrow alleys and browsing in the many shops was a delight.
Silk ties and scarves from Como and leather goods from Florence are popular items for sale - buy them from shops in the winding village streets not from the harbour front, as prices will be cheaper.
Wander the lakefront promenade and watch the ferries to-ing and fro-ing.
Prefer to stay in Bellagio? Click here to search for apartments and hotels in Bellagio, Lake Como
Villa Carlotta, a late 17th Century Italian villa with 70,000 square metres of magnificent gardens, can easily take up half a day. We caught the ferry from Varenna and spent about three hours at the villa which is home to plants from around the world.
Built beside the lake at Tremezzo, the gardens offer a fantastic view of the lake and the chance to see some exotic plants. The villa itself is now a museum housing priceless artworks and there’s also a cafe and gift shop.
With its compact town centre and colourful houses cramming the shoreline, Varenna is definitely a hidden gem. Lakeside cafes, gelateria and a small number of shops, mainly selling paintings and handmade products, hug the waterfront and provide the ideal place to sit and enjoy a coffee or meal and take in the view.
A stroll along the lakeside walkway, about 400 metres long, leads from the main shops and cafes to the ferry port for easy access to many of the lake’s other towns.
On our final night at Lake Como we booked a boat tour. Lake Como is home to some beautiful homes and villas including Villa Balbianello and Villa Melzi, as well as Richard Branson’s private villa.
Our one hour cruise with Taxi Boat Varenna started and finished in Varenna and took us down the Como leg of the lake (the ‘rich’ leg, according to our guide, Luca) as far as Lenno and past these impressive villas.
The cruise was a great way to learn a little more about the lakeside villas and towns, and with the sun beginning to set as we made our way back to port, the perfect end to our stay. You can also do a sunset cruise followed by a 4-course meal at a local restaurant.
Need to know about Lake Como
- The public ferry service from Varenna to Bellagio or Villa Carlotta costs aroun €10 per adult return. Journey time is about 15 minutes to Bellagio and around 30 minutes to Villa Carlotta. High speed ferries operate some services (surcharge applies) and there’s also a car ferry service available.
- Entry to Villa Carlotta costs around €10 per adult for both the museum and garden.
- Bilacus Restaurant in Bellagio offers superb meals at reasonable prices. We enjoyed our first lunch there so much we went back two days later! Although it doesn’t have lake views - it’s located in one of Bellagio’s winding, pedestrian streets away from the harbour - it does offer a lovely garden terrace in which you can eat.
- By the waterfront in Varenna, try Cafe Varenna Bistrot for everything from breakfast through to dinner.
- La Passarella, on the lakeside walkway in Varenna, sells delicious home-made gelato.
- The pizzas from Bar Il Molo on the lakefront at Varenna are great - I had a vegetable pizza and it was one of the best I've ever had.
Where to stay in Lake Como
As I mentioned above, I was looking for affordable accommodation right on the lake and chose an apartment for my stay at Varenna.
There are however lots of other accommodation choices both with and without lakeside positions. Click here to browse Lake Como hotels and apartments.
My top tip for visiting Lake Como
During summer, avoid travelling to Lake Como from Milan on either a Friday afternoon or a weekend (and vice versa). We drove from Milan late on a Sunday afternoon and the traffic going back to the city was bumper to bumper.
The lake is a popular weekend getaway destination for the Milanese so if you could stay off the main roads on weekends, I'd highly recommend you do so.
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