The city of light and silk
One place you must visit if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the warm atmosphere on Lake Como is the town of Como itself, stationed between the mountains and the lake from which it takes its name. Once dubbed “the city of light and silk”, Como is the home of Alessandro Volta, the subject of the town’s Tempio Voltiano. Yet Como is also known for its long-standing silk-making traditions, which visitors can now discover at the Museo Didattico della Seta (Educational Silk Museum).
Also well worth a visit are the Gothic-style Duomo and the ruins of the Roman Baths, which date back to the 1st century AC. Another popular attraction is the splendid Villa Olmo, built in the neo-classical style with interiors decorated with frescoes by Ernesto Fontana. The villa is now the venue for cultural events and art exhibitions running throughout the year.
If you have enough time, take the cable car to Brunate - at 700 metres above sea level - to visit the Balcone delle Alpi (Balcony of the Alps), which offers a splendid view of the lake and the Alps behind.
Discovering the villas
Some of Lake Como’s luxurious villas have been transformed into museums - and there are some real gems to discover. In Tremezzo, the neo-classical Villa Carlotta offers the chance for visitors to admire works by Canova, Hayez and Thorvaldsen every April. The art is almost equalled by the stunning natural surroundings, complete with the colours and perfumes of rhododendrons and azaleas.
A few kilometres away, on the outcrop at Lenno, is the 18th-century Villa Balbianello, owned by the Italian Environmental Fund (FAI). It’s home to the Museo delle Spedizioni [Museum of the Expeditions] and has been chosen as the film set for many films, including Mario Soldati’s Little World of the Past, George Lucas’ Star Wars II and Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale.
A little further towards Ossuccio, a short ferry or boat trip will take you to the picturesque Isola Comacina, an open-air museum that you can discover by simply walking around. Start with the Romanesque Santa Maria della Maddalena, with its Gothic bell tower, but don’t miss the rationalist “artists’ houses”, built according to the style of Le Corbusier.
Last but certainly not least, it’s well worth taking the time to visit the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 14 Baroque chapels, and Villa Bernasconi in Cernobbio, a stunning example of early 20th-century Art Deco architecture. The villa was recently opened to the public in the form of a new interactive museum, which helps visitors to discover the history and lives of the high-profile figures that have lived here.
Passion for beauty from another era
On the lakeside a few kilometres from Como, Cernobbio is home to two villas competing for the crown in terms of beauty and elegance.
Built in the late 1800s, Villa Erba is now a centre of elegance where the atmosphere is full of the great artists and celebrities that have stayed there over the years. One is Luchino Visconti, who stayed here while working on the edit for his film Ludwig (1973). The villa appears many times in the director’s work - see The Leopard (1963), The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971) - and is still home to old frescoes, original paintings and stunning inlaid ceilings.
Villa D’Este, meanwhile, is a stunning aristocratic residence dating back to the Renaissance era that has now been turned into a world-class luxury hotel. Every May, the villa opens its doors to the public for the Concorso d'Eleganza, an exclusive event featuring participation from collectors and world-famous celebrities, who bring their gorgeous classic cars to the villa's grounds.
Bellaggio and its villas
Bellagio - also known as the “pearl of Lario” - is situated on the outcrop that divides the lake in two. The town is one of cobblestone staircases and enchanting alleyways, packed with stores, boutiques and romantic restaurants with lake views. As you walk around the historic centre, you’ll be met with the Basilica of San Giacomo, with stunning mosaics and masterpieces from the Perugino school, and the Torre delle Arti, which is home to work from local and international artists.
Right on the edge of the promontory is the Renaissance-era Villa Serbelloni, which is owned by the Rockefeller Foundation. It’s a unique place where history and culture meet, having hosted illustrious names such as Leonardo da Vinci, Giuseppe Parini and even Queen Victoria over the years.
In the summer months especially, you can't leave without visiting the gardens of the Villa Melzi d'Eril, with centuries-old trees, exotic plants and stunning sculptures.
Around half an hour from Lecco is Varenna, positioned on the side of the mountain and overlooked by the ruins of the Vezio castle. Once a simple fishing village, it’s now the jewel in the crown of the lake’s tourism industry. One of the biggest attractions is the Passeggiata degli Innamorati (Lovers’ Walk), a panoramic walkway over the water which leads from the jetty to the historic centre.
On the other side of the centre is the gorgeous Villa Monastero, on the banks of the lake. For many years, this house-cum-museum has hosted scientific conventions, with Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi giving some memorable lectures here in 1954. Also worth a look is Villa Cipressi, a wonderful example of the late-Renaissance architectural style. The shade of the cypress trees provides the perfect place to soak up the fairy-tale atmosphere of the lake.
In the footsteps of Manzoni
Lovers of literature will want to head to the elegant town of Lecco and its surroundings, where you can recognise some of the places featured in The Betrothed. The Don Abbondio church in the story is thought to be based on the Santi Vitale e Valeria church in Olate, while the houses in which Lucia was born (Olate) and got married (Acquate), as well as Don Rodrigo’s palace (Zucco) can also be found.
Meanwhile, the Pescarenico neighbourhood - the only mentioned by name by Manzoni - is still home to a square dedicated to Father Cristoforo and the convent of the Cappuccini to which he belonged.
Located in Alessandro Manzoni square is a statue of the writer, while documents and artefacts relating to The Betrothed are housed at the Museo di Villa Manzoni, which was once the family’s summer residence.
- Take a tour of the lake on board a Lucia, one of the small wooden boats previously used by fishermen. The name is a homage to the female protagonist of “The Betrothed”.
- Visit one of the many events held at Villa D’Este, including the Wine Symposium in November - a must-not-miss event for wine lovers. In the summer, the Festival Villa d’Este is a celebration of “la dolce vita” around Lake Como, complete with gala dinners, shows and classical music concerts.
- Hang around Villa Oleandra, in Laglio, in the hope of getting a glimpse of the owner, a certain George Clooney - perhaps in the company of some special guests like Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.
- Take a trip to the Fiumelatte river, in Varenna. Famous for having been mentioned in Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus, the river has a unique milky-white colour to the water on account of its steep route.
- Visit the Piona Abbey, on the Olgiasca peninsula, on the far end of the Lecco branch of the lake. It offers a stunning panoramic view of the lake and is a great place to soak up the unspoilt peace and tranquillity enjoyed by the Cistercian monks (who still live in the abbey today).