For years, I thought that it was my Bolognese landlady who had convinced me to take my first trip to Lake Como. “Devi vederla,” she said. (You must see it). In retrospect, I realize that the first suggestion had been planted earlier by Professor Ricci, who waxed lyrical one morning about the opening passage of I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), the famous Italian novel by Alessandro Manzoni. Every Italian schoolchild knows the opening line by heart, “Quel ramo del lago di Como,” (That arm of Lake Como). Ricci captivated me with an in-depth explication of the literary importance of that geographic description of the two unbroken mountain chains which cut the lake into “a series of bays and inlets as the hills advance into the water and retreat again.”
The area offers tranquility in a hurried time (priceless). Like most things Italian, it conveys a sense of beauty and style. Some travel to Lake Como for the potential of seeing local homeowner, George Clooney, or for the horticulture, which springs from the mild microclimate. Others travel here like me, because, as Dante pointed out, life is a journey that should include paradise.
The breathtaking, natural beauty of Italy’s Lake District has drawn the rich and famous throughout history: Roman soldiers, Renaissance nobility, famous poets and writers as well as present day movie stars. One of Como’s many claims to fame is that it is the birthplace of Pliny the Younger, affectionately referred to in our family to as “Pliny the Tiny,” a line taken from an old B. Kliban cartoon. As friend Michael Stoughton, Art History Professor emeritus from the University of Minnesota, commented, “the heathen Pliny is featured on the façade of the Como Duomo, as is his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who had homes in both Como and Rome.” Only in Como could heathens grace a Christian place of worship.
The views of the lake are particularly picturesque from the lakeside promenade that encircles the city of Como at the southern tip. The northern hills surrounding the lake are capped by the lofty beauty of the Alps. There are plenty of palatial villas to view and to covet nestled amid hillside gardens. The area is also world-renowned for the Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, the Melzi Gardens in Bellagio as well as those at the exclusive lakeside resort, Villa d’Este.
The city of Como is the right place to relax after your flight to Milan. Enjoy the natural beauty of this striking, sun-dappled glacial lake. It always makes for a perfect place for me to decompress and recover from jet lag when I am flying into Milan’s Malpensa airport.
When to Go
Anytime from April to late September is best, but I fell in love with Como on a rainy, windy October afternoon when I saw the city and lake for the first time from inside a damp, crowded city bus.
The azaleas and rhododendrons are at their peak in May. The climate is mild and often sunny, and you will be surprised to see both palm trees and bougainvillea in an area that also receives winter snow.
How to Get There
Milan’s international Malpensa airport is close, roughly 30 miles as the crow flies, or a 49 minute car ride according to Google Maps. Linate, the second largest airport, although closer to central Milan, is still quite close to Como. There are direct trains from Zurich to Como (www.trenitalia.com); that trip takes about four hours.
A rental car is easy to obtain at either airport or take public transportation. Malpensa offers train service to downtown Milan and then you may board a regional train directly to Como, or take a regional train line right from Malpensa. It will connect you, via a transfer in Saronno, to the downtown Como train station. A taxi is another option.
Places to Stay
Try the new hostel a few blocks away from the train station. It has been recently updated with brand new bathrooms, great beds, and good lighting. The atmosphere is welcoming and offers a great mix of people from all over the world.
Albergo Terminus (****)
Located in the heart of downtown Como, this former 19th century manor house is now the Liberty style Hotel Terminus on Lungo Lario Trieste, 14; Tel 031 329 111; www.hotelterminus-como.com; it is close to the cathedral square, with a deck that overlooks the lake and affords a breathtaking view of Lake Como. There are 40 air-conditioned guestrooms and a fitness area including sauna. The lobby is elegant with marble floors and beautiful furniture. Rooms start at 205 euros.
Hotel Metropole Suisse (****)
The recently renovated Metropole Suisse built in 1892, is situated in the centrally located Piazza Cavour on the shore of Lake Como; Tel 031 269 444; www.hotelmetropolesuisse.com. Run by the Cassani family for the past 100 years, it offers 71 rooms, 12 which have balconies with views of the lake. All rooms have air conditioning; satellite TV, and high speed Internet connection. Prices range from 99 euros in the low season for a single to 246 euros for a suite in the high season. My mother felt that just seeing the mammoth bathrooms was worth the price of admission.
Engadina Hotel (***)
A completely refurbished, centrally located 24 room hotel with free WI-FI access in all rooms, just 8 minutes away from the San Giovanni train station on Viale Rosselli 22, is now a 3-star hotel; Tel 031 570 008; www.hotelengadina.com. When I first discovered it in 1971, the Engadina was a simple hotel that catered to budget minded students, who didn’t mind a shower that was barely large enough for one person. Now the Engadina offers lovely rooms, a café, lounge, bar and free parking. Singles start at 65 euros, double rooms for 95 euros, and a triple at 140 euros.
Hotel Firenze (***)
A hotel were I have stayed with my daughters and husband, is often frequented by European families, located at 16 Piazza A. Volta; Tel 031 300 333; www.albergofirenze.it. The 44 rooms are basic yet pleasant and clean. It is centrally located in the Piazza Volta. Prices for doubles start at 99 euros. It is easy to overhear a number of languages being spoken during breakfast.
Places to Visit
Check out the 16th century tapestries inside the main church and the façade that includes Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger in its stonework. Construction of the Duomo began in 1396 and ended in 1740 when the huge dome was completed. Next to it is the elegant 13the century Broletto, the old town hall.
If time permits see the Romanesque church of San Fedele, the Cistercian church of Sant’Agostino, the Romanesque Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, and the 11th century San Carpoforo. Also of note are the medieval city walls including the Porta Praetoria that was once a majestic entrance to the Roman city.
Walk by the small temple-like museum which contains relics of the famous physicist who invented the battery, Alessandro Volta, who gave his name to the unit of electricity, the “volt,” who was born in Como. The building is impressive to see from the exterior while you are enjoying a promenade of the lake.
The villa, a short walk from downtown Como, where Napoleon once stayed, has frescoed rooms and a park which is open to the public. It is frequently the site of art exhibitions and concerts.
Take the cable car (funicolare) up to Brunate, about 2000 feet above the lake. You are rewarded on a clear day with postcard-perfect views of the lake, enchanting villas and superb gardens. Walk to the Volta lighthouse, located in San Maurizio, 150 meters above Brunate. If you are hearty, continue walking to the Sanctuary of Santa Rita. The views are outstanding and you can see the Swiss Alps as well as town of Brianza and Lake Como. My daughters and I were entranced by a friendly, local gardener, who delighted in sharing the beauty of his portion of paradise.
Take a hydrofoil (aliscafo) or the ferry (traghetto) up the lake to the town of Bellagio. The western shore is more picturesque than the eastern. The Gestione Navigazione Laghi (39 031 579 211), www.navigazionelaghi.it provides information about boats that leave from Como or Bellagio, or any of the larger towns that dot the lake. The boat ride alone is a highlight of the area.
Where to Eat
Via Rodari 6; Tel 031 264042, closed Tuesdays, www.ristorantesociale.it
Definitely a gem in the heart of Como, located right behind the Duomo and very close to the Ferrovie Nord train station. Open for lunch from noon until 2 pm and for dinner from 7:30 pm until 10:30 pm. We had an outstanding mixture of three pasta dishes based on our waiter’s suggestion. The second floor has beautiful frescos and an exquisite fireplace. The restaurant is a former palace owned by Pope Innocent XI. The management also rents out five apartments.
in the Hotel Metropole e Suisse, Piazza Cavour, 19; tel 031 269444
Features local and regional cuisine, and you can eat outdoors while enjoying a lakeside view.
Osteria del Gallo
Via Vitani 16; tel 031 272612
Open mornings up until 7 pm, closed Sundays and evenings. No credit cards. Moderate prices. A traditional wine bar (osteria). You find all types of people here including workmen, tourists, and middle class Italians on a brief, weekend holiday. There are excellent cheeses and salami (salumi), especially the bresaola, a dried, air-cured beef sausage from the Valtellina in Lombardy, hearty soups, and a daily special main course (secondo) and dessert.
Il Gatto Nero (The Black Cat)
Via Monte Santo 69, Cernobbio; Tel 031 512 042
Is mentioned by current guidebooks. It is closed on Mondays. Located in the town of Cernobbio on the western side of the lake, the restaurant affords a wonderful view of the lake and has elevated prices. It is always full and is the haunt of the rich and famous. If you are lucky enough to land a table, the proprietor might share photos of his favorite guests, Matt Damon, George Clooney, and Michael Douglas.
Via Manzoni 12-A; Tel 02 7602 0130
The restaurant that by far had the most hits (by 1000’s) on www.comolake.com. It is both a restaurant and pizzeria located just a few steps from the historic center of Como, www.ristorantedonlisander.it. It features cucina lariana, local specialties like spaghetti allo scoglio (spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and seafood), tagliolini alla bottarga (pasta with cured fish roe), and risotto al pesce persico (risotto with perch) as well as an ample selection of wood-fired pizzas. The word Larian comes from the Latin word for Lake Como, Larius, which has been Italianized as Lario.
The entire area surrounding Lake Como is home to many world-class restaurants at various price points for every occasion including fine dining and romantic get-ways. Check out the suggestions offered on www.bellacomo.com for more information about dining in Como, Tremezzo, Colico, Moltrasio, and Isola Comacina.
What to Eat
Pesce del giorno (fish of the day). As you might expect, lake fish is a specialty including lake trout, salmon, and carp.
Crema di Lario-a dolce (sweet) is a mixture of cream, lemon, and a dry liqueur.
Asparagi di Rogaro-asparagus from the town of Rogaro. What my English doctor friend could not get enough of, one rainy May afternoon when the spring asparagus had just arrived.
Polenta taragua, cornmeal favored with cheese.
Missoltini, lake shad which has been dried, pressed and then cooked in special tins called missolte.
Taleggio and Bitto are two of the well known cheeses of the area.
Places to Visit
Bellagio has kept its steep medieval alleyways and offers splendid 18th century villas. Walk around the gardens surrounding the Villa Serbelloni, an impressive, old hotel with a fresco covered foyer, once frequented by Alfred Hitchcock, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy. Tel 031 950216; www.villaserbelloni.com. Have an aperitivo, tea or coffee in the reception area of the hotel.
Lungo Lario Marconi, Tel 031 950318 www.giardinidivillamelzi.it
Via Regina, 2; Tel 034 440405; www.villacarlotta.it; admission 7.50 euros
Open from March 15 through October 31 from 9-11:30 am, 2-4 pm daily. April-Sept 9 am -6 pm daily. My British AFS father, an avid gardener, David Partridge, describes it as, “a delightful garden chocked full of azaleas, camellias, and bougainvillea with gravel paths and a steep incline that requires attention when traversing the various sections.” It sports a large park and an 18th-century residence with Canova sculptures. The house and gardens were a wedding present given to Princess Carlotta by her mother, Princess Marianne of Prussia.
This is the only island in Lake Como. Inhabited since Roman times, the island passed to the Goths and then became part of the Byzantine empire. You can take a public ferry or hire a private boat to visit the island that has many church ruins to explore. The legendary Locanda dell’Isola Comacina is located close to the shore. A colleague of mine said, “Be sure and book in advance as the restaurant is always full.” Tel 0344 55083. He went onto explain that the evening boat ride with his wife was both romantic and magical.
There are other interesting towns such as Menaggio, Lenno, with the Villa del Balbianello and the Romanesque Santo Stefano church and baptistery. Mountain walks offer panoramic views of the lake.
For hundreds of years the Como area has been known for high quality silk. Como manufactures 80% of the silk produced in Europe. Silk worms were first imported in the 14th century and in the 17th century production increased dramatically because of the large-scale cultivation of mulberries, worm food. Check out the Museo della Seta (Silk Museum) in Como.
Boutiques line the central square and sell top quality, fashionable silk merchandise. Scarves and ties make excellent gifts. Look for the following shops: Mantero on Via San Abbondio, 8; or Binda, which has an outlet on Viale Geno 6; Frey on Via Garibaldi, 10 also has a factory outlet outside of Como on Viale Risorgimento in the hamlet of Mornasco, near Como. La Tessitura, on Viale Roosevelt, 2/A C is another excellent spot for silk shopping. Their web site, has excellent choices for a variety of silk related products. There is a regular Saturday market in Como’s central square which offers food and a limited selection of clothing, and on Sundays the square becomes a market for antiques.