Things to do on Lake Como in the Italian Lakes region of Northern Italy include everything from staying at a sumptuous lakeside grand hotel to exploring the beguiling village of Bellagio. Just because the European summer is coming to an end, doesn’t mean your Italian Lakes touring needs to. The first time we explored Lake Como was winter and we fell in love; autumn and spring are also beautiful on the lake.
Lake Como is the quintessential Northern Italian lake – enchanting and exuding elegance and old-world glamour. It was also the first of the Italian Lakes that we experienced a couple of decades ago on a winter holiday, when we made the sophisticated little city of Como our base for exploring the lake that shares its name.
The best way to explore Lake Como’s waterfront promenades, palatial villas and luxuriant gardens is on a private speed boat tour on polished wooden Cadenazzi speed boat or behind the wheel of a flashy sports car (we recommend hiring a car for pick-up from Milan airport) – although we were driving one of those sensible compact European models perfect for navigating the narrow lanes of Italy’s historic centres. See our Italian Lakes road trip for driving Lake Como and beyond.
As the stately old hotels, elegant lakeside villas and sprawling sculpture gardens attest, the alluring Italian Lakes have long been a desirable holiday spot for grand tourists, well-heeled Europeans, a favourite weekend retreat for fashionable Milanese, and a popular summer destination for foreign tourists.
Yet of the cluster of picturesque lakes – Lake Orta, Lake Maggiore, Lake Lugano, Lake Iseo, and Lake Garda – that pepper Italy’s northern region of Lombardy and straddle the borders of Piedmont in the west and Veneto in the east, Lake Como is the most refined, romantic and ritzy of all, and it’s my favourite Italian lake.
NOTE: if you prefer to let someone else take care of all the arrangements, Luxury Escapes, which offers luxury tours for less, currently has a 9-day small-group Italy tour on offer that begins in the Italian Lakes and travels to Venice by First Class Rail for $3,699 per person, valued up to $4,284. It takes in Lake Garda, Stresa, Isola Bella, Isola Madre, Lake Como, Locarno, Bellagio, Lake Maggiore and Isole Barromee, Milan, Verona, Lake Garda, and Venice, and includes hand-picked accommodation, daily breakfast, first class train travel, walking tours, lakes cruises, and more.
As travel in Europe is still a little chaotic right now, with airlines continuing to lose luggage, see our essential tips to surviving the summer travel chaos.
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Things to Do on Lake Como in the Italian Lakes Region of Northern Italy
Northern Italians love their lakes, often decamping to Lago Maggiore and Lago Garda for the summer. But when the weekend nears, no matter what time of year, it’s to Lake Como they escape.
Some 50 kilometres north of Milan, Lake Como is an easy hour’s drive and driving is how the Italians love to get there and get around, punctuating zippy road trips with relaxed rides on polished speed boats.
Stay in a Grand Hotel on Lake Como
Lake Como hotels are so much more than somewhere to sleep. There are few more quintessential Italian Lakes experiences than a stay or three at one of the grand old dames that dot the shore.
In Como itself, the pick of the splendid antique piles is 19th-century Albergo Terminus on the waterfront, which has a penthouse with panoramic lake views and a sumptuous Art Nouveau bar-restaurant that’s worth a meal.
Just across the bay at Cernobbio is Villa d’Este, a palatial 17th century estate that became a hotel in 1873. Boasting lavish suites and whimsical gardens it has seen more famous lips sip prosecco on its jasmine-scented terrace bar than there are boats bobbing in the lake.
The sumptuous Grand Hotel Tremezzo, dating to 1910, was a favourite of another Hollywood legend, Greta Garbo, who gave the hotel a plug in the 1932 film The Grand Hotel.
Renovated in 2014, the Aurelia Suite is named after one of the great ladies of the owner’s family and is furnished with her precious antique collection. However, it’s the floating lake pool and sandy lido overlooking Bellagio that brings most guests here.
You’ll find more of our picks of the best Italian Lakes grand hotels here.
Shop the Elegant Boutiques and Farmer Markets
Shopping is another one of the best things to do on Lake Como although note that most shops on Lake Como only open from Monday to Saturday, close for lunch, then reopen in the afternoon, although in Como town and Bellagio many shops stay open all day, especially throughout the busy summer tourist season.
You’ll find the most sophisticated shopping at Como and Bellagio, where the cobblestone streets are crammed with chic boutiques selling fashion, jewellery, shoes and handbags, and shops specialising in Italian crafts and souvenirs, including hand-painted ceramics, pottery and glassware, as well as gourmet food and wine.
Lake Como is famous for its silk, and Como and Bellagio are the best places to shop for silk scarves, shawls, foulards, cravats and ties. In Como, A Picci (via Vittorio Emanuele 54) is a well-regarded, old-fashioned store stocking fine quality classic pieces.
In Bellagio, Pierangelo Masciadri (salita Mella 19), a Brera Academy graduate, creates beautiful silk creations using his own prints with designs inspired by history, art and architecture. His shop displays photos of the rich and famous who have come here to buy his products.
There is a farmers market every day in at least one town on Lake Como. The open-air street markets sell fresh produce, plants, clothes and accessories, and household items. They’re usually held from early in the morning until around noon, although on Saturdays they are often held all day. You’ll typically find them on the main piazza and in surrounding pedestrian streets.
Eat and Drink Your Way Around Lake Como
One of the best things to do on Lake Como – and it doesn’t matter which part of the lake you’re on – is to partake in the Italian rituals of a late afternoon passeggiata and aperitivo, a cocktail or two with few small dishes of chips, nuts and olives, at a waterfront café-bar.
After, you can stroll to a local osteria, pizzeria, trattoria or ristorante for dinner, then saunter to the nearest gelateria to buy a gelato and take a slow stroll along the water’s edge.
Lake Como’s grand hotels all have endearingly old-fashioned restaurants, often furnished with antiques and dripping with chandeliers, with exquisite lake views and outdoor dining on a waterfront terrace.
Café-bars are located on the waterfront at Como and other towns and villages around Lake Como, as well as lining the perimeters of most piazzas. Most of the bars doubling as cafés open all day, from morning until fairly late at night, and might close one day a week.
Bars that mainly serve as wine bars tend to open around lunch and close after midnight. Como has the most interesting bars and a fairly lively bar scene compared to the other towns, while Bellagio’s waterfront bar-cafés are probably the most romantic for a pre- or post-dinner drink.
During summer, some of the villa gardens, such as Villa del Balbianello host happy ‘hours’ (generally from for a couple of hours) which will feature an alfresco cocktail bar and live jazz or other music.
See our Culinary Guide to the Italian Lakes for more tips and recommendations.
Discover the Luxuriant Gardens and Splendid Villas of Lake Como
The Italian Lakes are home to many splendid villas with luxuriant gardens open to the public but Lake Como boasts the most enchanting lakeside villas with lush gardens. Some also allow picnics, so check their website and take a hamper.
The grand Villa Erba at Cernobbio was the ancestral home of film director Luchino Visconti and featured in his film The Leopard. The 19th century mannerist villa was lavish and in 2003 was restored to its former splendour. Visits are by guided tour by appointment only and you need to book in advance.
Stunningly located on the edge of Lenno (you can arrive by foot or boat), Villa del Balbianello was built in 1787 by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini and was the home of 20th century explorer Count Guido Monzino (famous for being the first Italian to reach the summit of Mount Everest) who bequeathed his beloved house to his country.
It boasts an alluring location, graceful loggia, enchanting gardens, and richly decorated interior, with sweeping staircases and panoramic terraces with unparalleled lake and Alps vistas. An engrossing collection includes precious objects, art and antiques, including pre-Colombian, Chinese and African art, beautiful 18th century French and English furniture, and personal mementoes from Monzino’s trips.
Located in Tremezzo and originally built in 1690 for the Milanese noble, the Marchese Giorgio Clerici, the palatial pale pink Villa Carlotta was sold in 1801 to politician and patron of the arts, Battista Sommariva, who developed the gardens and established a remarkable art collection that drew travellers to the villa.
In the 19th century Princess Marianne of Nassau bought the mansion and gave it to her daughter Carlotta as a wedding gift on her marriage to George II of Saxen-Meiningen. George was a passionate botanist and he and Carlotta created the 14 acres of wonderful gardens that can be visited today.
The front terraced Italian garden is dramatic, with symmetrical staircases, walls of climbing roses, geometrical arrangements of flowerbeds, hedges, fishponds, statues, fountains, and its ‘tunnels’ of citrus trees. The sprawling botanical gardens are also impressive with meandering paths through magnificent woods. Picnics allowed here so bring a hamper.
Explore the Cobbled Lanes of Beguiling Bellagio
From Tremezzo, you can take a car ferry across to Bellagio, above, a captivating village of steep cobblestone alleyways, charmingly old-fashioned shops, and lush gardens and leafy parks on the tip of a forested peninsula.
Bellagio is often unfairly dismissed as a tourist trap, but stay a night or two when the moonlit lanes are deserted and you’ll realise most tourists to Bellagio are day-trippers. The serenity is blissful.
Don’t even think about staying anywhere but the luxurious Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni dating to 1873, and decorated with frescoes of mythological scenes, antique French wallpapers, gilt-edged mirrors, and Murano glass chandeliers. A water-view room is a must.
Take a swim in the enormous lakeside swimming pool and enjoy a meal at the magnificent Michelin-starred Mistral restaurant by Ettore Bocchia, the engineer of Italian molecular cuisine. Book ahead and dress up.
From Bellagio, a car ferry can take you to Varenna on Como’s eastern shore, where tiny alleys offer turquoise-water views and a 13th century convent is home to heavenly perfumed gardens and a pretty loggia at Villa Monastero.
On the drive back to Como, stop at Lecco to mosey along the esplanade where local fishermen like to cast a line and watch the action on the water.
Get a Birds Eye View of Lake Como
Lago di Como offers visitors a wonderful array of ways to enjoy the crisp light, fresh clean air, superb scenic vistas, and the languorous lake itself.
One of the first things to do on Lake Como to get an overview of the area is to take the steep and slightly daunting funicular to the town of Brunate, some 720 metres above the town of Como.
If you’re here on a clear day the views are phenomenal and strolling around the village of Brunate is also worth your time. If you’re feeling in need of some exercise, you can walk back down to Como or head off into the hills on one of the many hikes that originate from here.
Given that Lake Como is often seen as a glamorous destination, taking a scenic seaplane flight from Como across the lakes is an idea. Aero Club Como offers scenic flights that do a loop of the Como leg of the lake. On a clear day, the views are spectacular, especially if there is snow around on the mountains.
Get Out on the Water on Lake Como
Catching the public ferry from Bellagio to Como or Como to Bellagio, one of the must-see destinations on the lake (see above) is one of our favourite things to do on Lake Como and is an excellent way to see the villages and towns along the way from the water, which is where they look the prettiest.
Less of a bargain, but far more glamorous is doing a private speedboat tour or hiring a boat to chart your own watery path around the lake. Neither girls in bikinis nor macho James Bond-like men are included in the boat hire fee, but it’s still a very memorable way to experience Lake Como.
There are several more active ways of experiencing Lake Como. Sailing and windsurfing is best at the northern end of the lake due to the better and more consistent winds called the ‘breva’.
Dervio, north of Bellano, is the best base for sailing, where there is a great sailing school, Orza Minore. Windsurfers tend to congregate at Domaso, further north and on the west side of the lake, where there are also catamarans for hire.
Kayaking is also a popular way of enjoying Lake Como while allowing you to be a bit of a water-based snoop, seeing how the rich and nouveau riche decorate their little lakeside villas and gardens.
Images used courtesy of Luxury Escapes.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you have any questions or suggestions for things to do on Lake Como in Northern Italy’s Italian Lakes region.