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is lake como worth visiting?

Is Lake Como Worth Visiting? 7 Reasons the Answer is Yes

Nestled in Northern Italy’s Lombardy region, against the foothills of the Alps, Lago di Como is the third-largest lake in Italy, but one of the best-known in the world for its centuries-old towns, dramatic scenery, and upscale appeal. Lake Como has been a playground to the rich and famous for years but has also seen Romantic writers, artists, and aristocrats sweep through on their grand European tours. So, is Lake Como still worth visiting?

Lake Como is shaped like an upside-down Y with three slender branches that meet at different resort towns on the water’s edge. The city of Como is at the bottom of one of these, with its Renaissance buildings, boutique shops, and mountain funicular, but there are plenty of places worth seeing in Lake Como and a lot of reasons to visit.

Our guide looks at all the things that make Lake Como unique from the water sports to the landscaped gardens and the quintessential Italian cuisine. Let’s get into it.  

The Lake Activities 

lake como
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There’s a lot to do in Lake Como and a lot to be said about it. Lake Como covers nearly 150 square kilometers and each town that sprawls along the waterfront offers something different. However, we can’t deny that the lake itself is, and should be, the biggest pull to this area.

The beauty of the lake has inspired writers and creatives for centuries, and any traveler will find peace and serenity in the nature of Lake Como, where Alpine mountains are reflected in the water’s glacial surface. But it’s also a destination for active visitors and the lake provides the perfect balance between the two. 

You can’t visit Lake Como without taking a boat trip – whether it’s just the public ferry from one village to the next or a private half-day cruise on a Larian Gondola with champagne and your own captain. Lake Como doesn’t have tides, but since it is situated in a basin surrounded by mountains divided into valleys, air currents circulate the waters, especially around the Lecco branch and to the north of the lake. This makes it perfect for more adventurous water sports and no activity is more authentic to Lake Como than sailing.

Visitors can also windsurf, kitesurf, water ski, wakeboard, and paddle board depending on the weather conditions. The surrounding area is bisected by trails for mountaineers and cyclists too, and there are even public pathways that wind up to the Swiss border. 

If you want to explore the lake on your own terms, opt for a kayak rental for a fraction of the price of a boat trip, but remember that there might be some limitations as to where you can go. 

The Villas and Gardens

Villa Carlotta, Lake Como
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It’s not all about the natural scenery of Lake Como. One of the best-known things about the lake is its popularity with the wealthy. While this might mean your holiday costs a little bit more, it also means that Lake Como is very well looked after. 

The manicured gardens and spectacular villas that dot the coast are a sight to behold from the lake, but you can actually visit a lot of them – just don’t expect to go knocking on Mr. George Clooney’s Lake Como mansion anytime soon.

Villa del Balibianello is located in the commune of Lenno, overlooking the southwest branch of the lake from the tip of a small wooded peninsula. The villa is a fairytale property built in the 16th century and its grandeur speaks for itself with pristine terraced gardens and a romantic structure, but the villa is also well-known as a filming location for the James Bond movie, Casino Royale. Members of the public can take a look inside and stroll the lush gardens for €11. 

The botanical gardens and museum at Villa Carlotta also shouldn’t go amiss. Located in Tremezzo, the villa was built at the end of the 17th century for marquis Giorgio Clerici. The imposing building with its decadent white facade now houses a collection of revered works by sculptors such as Bertel Thorvaldsen, Giovanni Migliara, and Antonio Canova, as well as paintings by Francesco Hayez and antique furniture left by previous owners.   

The Villages 

Aerial panoramic drone view of Moltrasio town on Lago di Como lake, Italy.
Photo by olegbreslavtsev on Envato Elements

As we’ve said, Lake Como is big, and there are a lot of different settlements along its coast. The water might be mesmerizing, but the towns that populate Lake Como’s shores can be even more charming. As well as global elites, Lake Como has been inhabited by normal people for thousands of years. If you prefer quaint fisherman’s houses over showy villas then there are plenty of places to go. 

Bellagio is home to some of the grandest villas, as well as luxurious hotels and upscale restaurants, but its old cobbled streets in the center of town, where flower pots spill over Juliet balconies, are sure to win you over too. Como is the biggest town on the lake, located at the southern tip. The city is often used as a stepping stone to get to other parts of the lake, but don’t underestimate it, it’s so much more than its ferry port and scenic funicular.

Como is home to the Gothic Duomo built in the 15th century, as well as the Basilica of San Fedele, dating back to 800 AD. There are historic buildings at every turn and the lakeside promenade is colorful and enchanting. Don’t miss the Porta Pretoria, the town’s ancient gate, or the Museo Didattico Della Seta for a lesson in the history of Como’s rich silk industry. 

Varenna is often dubbed the most peaceful and picturesque of Lake Como’s villages. The hillside town with its peach-hued houses that contrast the grandeur of its neighbor, Bellagio, is as authentic as you can get in Lake Como. The town dates back to 769 AD when it was founded by fishermen. Today, there are just 900 residents and the main attractions include the Church of San Giorgio, Villa Monastero, Castella di Vezio, and Sentiero del Viandante, an ancient panoramic trail that starts its third stage in Varenna and leads up towards the Swiss border.

Menaggio is directly across the lake from Varenna and a more laid-back answer to Bellagio, with plenty of hotels, boutiques, cozy cafes, and even a small golf course. Colorful houses climb the hillside where remnants of the medieval walls flank the town. Check out Piazza Garibaldi, an unusual 19th-century building that is used as a cafe and spot for evening entertainment.

Among Lake Como’s other highlights are Tremezzo for glamorous lakeside retreats, Nesso for low-key stays in nature and dreamy summer swimming spots, and Bellano, a fishing town with a deep ravine and Alpine hotels.       

The Location

Milan
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One reason you can’t say no to Lake Como is that it’s so easy to get to and a great vantage point to other areas of Italy, as well as some of Italy’s northern neighbors. You’ll have to fly into Milan if you’re coming from overseas, but this is why the lake makes such a convenient addition to a city break in Italy’s fashion capital. 

The train ride from Milano Central to Como San Giovanni Station, located in the center of Como, takes just 40 minutes. This means you could transport yourself from Italy’s urban economical hub to one of the most tranquil destinations in Europe in the time that it takes you to get to work.  

Despite the small-town appeal of Lake Como’s waterside villages, the train station in Como is surprisingly well-connected. There are direct trains to Milan, Venice, Genoa, and Molteno for you to continue your Italian adventure, and from Milan, you can easily connect to Bologna, Rome, and Naples. Yet, even closer than Milan to Como’s pebbly lapped shores are a number of destinations in Switzerland. 

In fact, Como is less than an hour’s walk from the Swiss border, and the train ride to Chiasso, at the southern tip of Switzerland, takes just six minutes. Visiting Como is a great excuse to cross into Europe’s mountainous neutral country, even if just for the day, and you won’t need a passport if you’re an EU citizen. 

The Food

saffron Risotto from Lombardy
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You can’t talk about Italy and not mention the food. The culinary techniques of the Italians have left one of the most powerful marks on western civilization and it’s no surprise that the birthplace of pizza and pasta is a destination for foodies. 

Of course, Italian gastronomy is much more than spaghetti carbonara, and, thanks to the lake’s geography, you’ll find a unique mix of ingredients and culinary traditions. Lake Como heralds some obscure delicacies but Italian favorites are also served up daily.

Italy’s landlocked northern region of Lombardy is known for its rice dishes, in particular, risotto recipes, but also soups, stuffed pasta broths, cured meats, and local cheese. They eat polenta more than pasta, but tortellini is a regional specialty and Alpine influences inspire the hearty stews and dairy exports. 

That said, Lombardy might be landlocked but Lake Como’s expansive waters allow for some diversity in the humble regional food. Just like many of the activities here, the cuisine is centered around the lake. Seafood is a staple in Lake Como’s food culture and freshwater fish like shad, perch, whitefish, pike, and eel are abundant in the lake and present on every menu. 

You’ll find the perfect marriage of Lombard favorites and lake influences in the local gastronomy, with specialties including Risotto con Filetti di Pesce Persico (perch risotto) and Missoltino (the sun-dried shad). There are also rural mountain staples to be enjoyed like Brasato di Cinghiale Selvatico (braised wild boar), and Polenta Uncia (polenta enriched with mountain cheese and butter).    

The area is known for its Michelin Guide restaurants, upscale hotels, and sleek bistros, but look a bit harder and you’ll find equally impressive food in the rustic Italian trattorias and wine bars.  

The Wine

Bellagio, Lake Como
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Lombardy is also one of the richest wine regions in Italy, particularly for sparkling wines like Franciacorta and Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico, but you’ll also find grapes like the bright, cherry-scented Valtellina grown here. Most of the wines come from family-owned, artisan wineries, so where better than lavish Lake Como to indulge in a wine tasting or two?

You can taste wine anywhere, from the decanters of house red in the tucked-away trattorias to the Mamete Prevostini Winery on a fully-fledged tour. However, we recommend Bellagio as a good place to start.  

Enoteca Cava Turucciolo offers food and wine pairings for an intimate experience in an 18th-century restored wine cellar, but there are also more modern activities on offer like the E-bike tours of nearby Swiss vineyards, and the self-serve bars in Bellagio where automatic wine-dispensers supply you with samples of the best local wines.  

The Weather

lake como
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Italy is known for its warm Mediterranean climate, but northern Italy, in particular, feels all the seasons and the mild weather at Lake Como can bring better flexibility for travel. The change in seasons also gives you a chance to experience all the facets of Lake Como and you could see it in a completely different light depending on when you go.  

July is the hottest month in Como with average highs of 83 degrees Fahrenheit and lows of 68. At this time of year, the lake is a summer resort with water activities in full swing and pebbly beaches populated with swimmers and sunbathers. Things start to cool off in fall, and mild but still pleasant temperatures dominate throughout September and October. This can make it easier to navigate the towns, especially those with steep steps. 

It seldom snows in Como, but winter is cold and the lake is magical around Christmas time. The Alps that surround the lake are usually snow-capped from November until March, making for unforgettable scenes and striking reflections in the crystalline water.

Lake Como is also a pricey destination, but cooler weather brings fewer tourists even though the region is spectacular all year round. This means visiting in winter can be much more budget-friendly, especially if you head to the lake between January and March. Things start heating up again in April and hundreds of flowers bloom in front of every villa. It’s also quieter and can be cheaper for hotels in the spring over the summer.  

How long do you need in Lake Como?

Most tourists visit Lake Como for a couple of nights, choosing to spend two to three days exploring the lake and villages. However, if you want to make the most out of the surroundings and visit more than one of the charming towns that sit on the water’s edge, we recommend a week or even more in the area. 

Is Lake Como expensive?

The most expensive thing in Lake Como is the accommodation, especially in well-known areas like Bellagio where the average price for a hotel is around €200 a night. However, you can find B&Bs and hostels on the water in less sought-after towns for a fraction of the price. Food isn’t as expensive as it is in Milan, but it depends on where you go. You can get lunch for €11 and a sit-down dinner for €25 per person, but the upscale hotels can charge €30-50 per dish. 

When is the best time to visit Lake Como? 

The best time to visit Lake Como is between April and October when the weather is warmest, the rhododendrons and azaleas are in full bloom, and festivities are rife. July is the hottest month, but also the most expensive, closely followed by August. Aim for the shoulder seasons if you want lower prices and don’t mind the mild temperatures.