Lake Como could be described as La Dolce Vita of Italy. This upscale resort area in Italy’s Lombardy region where Italy meets Switzerland is well-known for its spectacular scenery set against the foothills of the Alps.
For many years this area was a popular summer retreat for aristocrats and the wealthy thanks to the beautiful villas, stunning gardens, and peaceful villages. But even today huge crowds of tourists and locals come to spend time at these Belle Époque Era towns on the shores of Lake Como.
This post is featuring my experience of visiting 3 of the prettiest towns on Lake Como – Bellagio, Varenna, and Menaggio.
Bellagio is often called “The Pearl of Lake Como” and is widely considered to be among the most beautiful towns in Europe. It is classy, glamorous, and frankly more expensive than other small towns around the lake.
It was our first visit to Lake Como. We spent 3 days in Bellagio and this lovely town left me wanted to go back for more.
We traveled by bus from the city of Como and when we arrived, I was taken by stunning panoramic views of Lake Como and the surrounding Alps. The town has unbeatable Old-World elegance with shopping arcades, flower-lined promenades, luxury hotels, and villas facing the lake.
How to explore Bellagio:
The best way to discover Bellagio is by walking through its picturesque cobblestone streets. The town is small and located on two levels.
The lower part runs along the waterfront promenade with hotels, shopping arcades, bars, and restaurants. And the higher part needs a lot of uphill climbing on cobblestoned stairs until you reach Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. From the top of this street, you can get picture-perfect views over the rooftops of Lake Como.
Basilica of San Giacomo
The Basilica of San Giacomo is a Romanesque church built in the 12th century. It is located in the center of the old town – Piazza della Chiesa – on the hillside, and it makes a great landmark from the water. We found this beautiful old church while strolling along Via Guiseppe Garibaldi.
Bellagio is well-known for two villas and gardens:
- Villa Serbelloni
- Villa Melzi
I have read a lot about Villa Serbelloni and its scenic location. This luxurious holiday villa by the lake was built by the noble family from Bergamo in the middle of the 19th century. Later on, the villa was converted into 5- star luxury hotel. It’s well-known for beautifully maintained gardens which occupy a large area above the town. The Villa Serbelloni Gardens are owned by the Rockefeller Foundation and can be visited on guided tours.
Villa Melzi and Gardens
Villa Melzi was built at the beginning of the 19th century. Francesco Melzi D’Eril, the Vice-President of the Napoleonic Italian Republic commissioned to build this perfect example of neoclassical architecture as his summer residence. The villa is set in beautiful gardens with classical statues and century-old trees. The villa is not opened to the public. But you can buy a ticket and stroll the gardens.
On a hot August day, this place was a perfect retreat. Filled with native and exotic plants, small ponds, and park benches perfectly situated with the views of the lake, this was a wonderful place to go for a stroll.
Cruising Lake Como
Cruising Lake Como was our favorite experience. We purchased tickets for a boat ride from Bellagio to Varenna and then to Menaggio. It cost us 15 euros per person for the whole day. We spent a wonderful time being on a boat passing magnificent villas with gardens, enjoying gorgeous lakeside views of Bellagio and other small towns that sit on the edge of the lake.
Trombetta express train
Another great way to explore Bellagio is to hop on the Trombetta express train. It’s a small tourist train which you can board on the ferry dock and then enjoy 30 minutes tour of panoramic views of Bellagio. You can request a stop at a few locations such as the Hotel Belvedere, Villa Melzi, and San Giovanni Church.
Varenna is located in the center of Lake Como, on the eastern shores of the lake. It can be easily reached by boat from other towns like Bellagio and Menaggio.
We took a boat ride to Varenna. And it looked exactly like it was described in touristy brochures – a small fishing village with brightly colored houses and villas that sit close to each other on the waterfront of Lake Como.
We spent a few hours there before going back to Bellagio. The place looked rustic and charming, romantic, and peaceful. We walked along the lovely promenade and admired the views of the lake, the boats, and the mountains.
Even though Varenna is a popular destination, it tends to be less crowded than the famous resort-town Bellagio. The town has a train station, which makes it an ideal choice for travelers from Milan who are not planning to drive to the lake.
As with most towns on Lake Como, we started our visit to Varenna with a promenade along the lake. The path began exactly where we got off the boat. The first part of the promenade is a narrow path. Then when we approached the town center, we had lovely views across the blue waters of the harbor to the pastel color houses with mountains rising steeply behind.
And I will be honest – the walk is very picturesque.
Varenna’s town center is very small with several tiny cafes, waterfront restaurants, gelato shops, and bars. It is a perfect place for lunch. It was Sunday and the place was overrun by tourists who came here to have an idyllic lunch. We couldn’t even find any available seats at any of these places for lunch.
A little further we reached a small stony beach with many swimming enthusiasts. Behind the promenade, we found the old part of Varenna with ancient alleys and steep stairs. We followed those passageways and passed many old stone houses with overhanging flowerpots, and ivy-covered balconies.
It was a hot summer day, and after climbing so many steep stairs we decided to stop for an Italian aperitivo at one of those bars with the view.
Piazza San Giorgio
Piazza San Giorgio is the main square in the village surrounded by two historic monuments – the Church of San Giorgio and the Church of San Giovanni Battista.
The Church of San Giorgio is located at the top of the square and is dominated by its tall bell tower visible from the lake. Inside the church, you can find wonderful ancient frescos. At the bottom of the square is a small church of San Giovanni Battista with impressive medieval frescos inside.
Castello de Vezio
The ancient Castello de Vezio that overlooks Varenna is dated back to the 11th century. We started our climb but never made it to the top because it was quite a steep walk to get there. But I can tell that the views from the top will worth the effort. Probably we will go there next time!
Like all towns around Lake Como, Varenna has several luxurious villas.
Here is a list of villas to visit for their lush gardens:
- Villa Monastero
- Villa Cipressi (now a hotel)
Menaggio is one of the largest towns on the lake. It is very easy to visit Menaggio because it is located directly across the lake from Varenna. Hence, you can visit both towns in one day by taking a boat. Usually, it takes 15 to 30 minutes to reach both towns from Bellagio.
Menaggio is a lovely and very laid-back town. It was not as crowded as Bellagio and Varenna. We really liked this town and spent half a day strolling along the elegant lakefront promenade. It started at Piazza Garibaldi and runs along the Lake Como between flower beds, palm trees, and colorful houses.
Piazza Garibaldi with its 19th century architecture is a popular meeting place. This place is filled with small boutiques, cafes, and bars. You can see many locals and tourists stopped here for a cappuccino or gelato while enjoying a breathtaking view of the lake.
The Old Town of Menaggio is located in the upper part of the town and still keeps the medieval look with stone buildings, narrow alleys, and steep stairs.
In medieval times, Menaggio was a walled city. It was worth hiking up the steep stairs to explore the older part of town where we could see the remains of the old medieval wall.
Villa Mylius Vigoni
Villa Mylius Vigoni is one of the best things to see in Menaggio. This beautiful villa was built in the first half of the 19th century and is famous for its lush English garden.
You can book a guided tour of the villa and its large gardens on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Unfortunately, the tours were not available In August when we visited Menaggio.
At the end of the day, we stopped for an aperitivo at one of many cafes facing the lake and watch life goes by. Real Italian La Dolce Vito!
Where we stayed:
Hotels in Bellagio are more expensive than in some of the neighboring towns. We stayed at Hotel De Luc.
Hotel De Luc is a family-run, boutique hotel located right in the center of Bellagio overlooking the main squire. Our room was clean and modern with gorgeous lakeside views from our terrace. My favorite part was to spend time on a rooftop bar with a glass of Italian aperitivo while enjoying the unbelievable views of the lake, distant mountains, and small boats crossing the lake.
How did we get to Bellagio:
We traveled to Bellagio from Venice by train and then by bus from the city of Como.
The easiest way to get to Bellagio is to fly to Milan and then take a train to Varenna (1 hour). Bellagio doesn’t have a train station so you will need to take a boat from Varenna to Bellagio. The boat takes 15 minutes, just check the schedule ahead of time If your train arrives late, so you will get on the last boat.
You can purchase your boat tickets at the booth at the boat terminals. Some boats do not go directly to Bellagio. So, when you purchase your tickets, you can ask the cashier which boat you should get on.
Have you ever traveled to Lake Como? Share your experience with us in the comments.
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