My new favorite European retreat – Lake Como and the Italian lakes region

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We visited Lake Como last year for the first time in the spring and loved it so much we went back again in the fall. Then we did a third trip in Fall 2019. I love this place. It has my heart. Every cliche about Lake Como and it’s beauty and romance are true. I kind of want to move here forever. I love it.

If you’re not familiar with the area, Northern Italy is worth every superlative I can think of – stunning, beautiful, amazing, gorgeous.

When I first visited Lake Garda I knew I would be back to that area again. Pictures truly do not do this place justice, and I am in awe every time we go.

This article will cover everything you need to know for your trip to Lake Como. I’ve visited a few times and have stayed in three towns on the lake, all in different areas.

The Lakes Region

This area in northern Italy is known as the lakes region. There are many lakes but the largest and most famous are Lake Garda, Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, and Lake Iseo. They are all situated in the Lombardy region and will quickly whisk all your troubles away.

They are also huge; at Lake Garda and Como it’s impossible to see across the entire lake. If you didn’t know any better you could very well think they are part of an ocean.

Since this post I’ve visited both Garda and Lake Como a few times. We already have plans to go again this year and have had serious chats about buying a vacation/rental home there.

Did you know? Lake Como is about 29 miles long and is as wide as 2.5 miles across in some areas. 

Which Town Should You Stay In?

Around Lake Como, there are many small villages, each one unique with its own charm. The most popular are Varenna and Bellagio, followed by Menaggio. The largest is Como at the Southern end of the lake.

I’ve stayed in Menaggio and Como, and would love to stay in Varenna (it’s so stunning there). We also stayed in Bellano, a small town further north when I was pregnant. If this is your first time visiting the lake, I’d recommend staying at one of the main four towns – Bellagio, Menaggio, Varenna, or Como – for the following reasons:

  • They get the most ferry traffic and have the most to offer in terms of restaurants, shops, and activities. They are also all located in close proximity to one another and form a triangle in the center of the lake, making it convenient to visit all three while there. If you’re driving, there is a car ferry and it’s fairly cheap – just keep in mind that even though this is a touristy area the ferries don’t run too often and stops in the early evening.
  • When you read elsewhere on the internet that you can’t go wrong staying at any of these towns, that is correct. Especially if this is your first time to Como. If I had a preference, though, it would be in this order: Varenna, Como, Bellagio, then Menaggio. This is also evident by the many other people who stay on the lake and is also reflected in hotel prices.

Getting Around The Lake

Ferry System

Menaggio, Bellagio, and Varenna form a triangle at the center of the lake and have the most ferries running during the day.

Although Lake Como is a wildly popular tourist destination, the ferry schedule is limited. The ferry system starts around 7:30am and stops before 8pm so you need to do some planning if you want to see more of the lake. If you miss the boat, there are public buses that run regularly, but it will take quite a bit longer to get to your destination.

Fees range from just a few Euro to hop from one town to the next (which is the case between the three main towns) or up to 29 Euro for a day pass. It’s possible to purchase a six-day pass as well. There are fast boats and slow boats. They have free time tables available which indicate the fast and slow boats. I recommend getting acquainted with it, especially if you will be hanging around for a few days.

 One of the ferry boats to get across

During high tourist season ferry tickets are booked in advance and it’s possible to be left stranded at the end of the day or stuck on a 3 hour slow boat on the way back. For this reason I recommend booking ahead and getting an out and return ticket so you are guaranteed a spot.

If you purchase a day pass or multi-day pass, be sure to have a plan B in case you can’t catch a ferry. For many ferries, you’ll want to be waiting at the platform at least an hour ahead of schedule to get your spot in line (well, the Italian version of a line anyway).

Private Boat Tour

A private boat tour is a great way to enjoy all there is at Lake Como. These can be private organized tours, personal tours, or you can even rent a boat for a reasonable price. We rented a boat for 3 hours for around 150 Euro one time and brought paninis with us. We stopped at a quiet spot and caught a swim while enjoying our lunch. It was definitely a highlight of that trip. Oh and there’s no license required to drive a boat here!

There are also many private tours available including a kayaking trip or a sailing cruise.

If you happen to be staying at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, which sits on a villa, then you get access to their private boat rentals.


There is a large bus network to get around the lake. It may be useful if you want to head to lake Lugano for the day or get a different view of the lake. Here’s a link to the lines and timetables (use Google translate to view in English).

When Should You Visit?

Lake Como is a popular tourist destination. I would argue that it’s a very popular spot. So, if you don’t mind a bit cooler temperatures, I’d recommend visiting in the shoulder season. This is from April to early May, and after September.

When we went in April there were few tourists and it wasn’t crowded at all. The weather was also quite nice with temps in the high 60’s/low 70’s (F). It wasn’t warm enough to swim but that didn’t bother me.

We went again for Labor Day in September and it was warm out, probably in the low to mid 80’s (F) with decent humidity. We stayed in Bellano in the fall, a village along the same side as Varenna, and went swimming at the local beach every day. If you want a town with a beach be sure to research this as not every town has one.

Lake Como Towns


I love Varenna. This village is chock full of winding narrow stairways and many shops and restaurants. Visitors can lounge at one of the many patio areas and enjoy a nice glass of vino along with their pasta or pizza dish. If ever you needed a place to fall in love again, Varenna would be my top pick.

Varenna Cityscape Lake Como Italy


Also known as the “Pearl of the Lake”, Bellagio is the largest of the main three towns. It is a hilly town full of pedestrian cobblestone walkways lined with artists and shops galore. And of course, don’t forget about the wine!

There are plenty of things to do when you are staying in Bellagio. You can easily spend your days walking the windy cobblestone streets or hopping on a ferry to the neighboring Varenna or Menaggio.

You can also visit Villa Melzi which is situated on a hill above the lake. This is one of the most beautiful villas that overlooks Lake Como and has been home to many distinguished guests.

Bellagio Lake Como Italy
Bellagio Lake Como Italy

This is where you will also find Villa Carlotta, which was originally built as a hunting lodge and later turned into a royal palace by King Gustav III of Sweden. It is one of the most important landmarks in Lake Como and was also featured in the movie, “The Pink Panther”.

Bellagio Lake Como Italy


The first time we visited we stayed in Menaggio (I wrote an entire post about it here). Since we went in April it was still off-season so we were able to land a great hotel at a really good price.

The prices were reasonable and we were able to get a fantastic lakefront hotel room at Hotel Bellavista with a balcony as large as our room. We paid about 130 Euros per night for the upgraded balcony room. If you don’t want to pay extra for the balcony, I think the prices were about 30 Euro less per night.

Even though it was April the weather was quite nice. The center of Menaggio isn’t hilly like the other two towns and doesn’t have quite the same amount of charm. It is still a cute little town with some restaurants and shops.

One night we went to a bar near our hotel and they were doing country line dancing in the dance area. COUNTRY LINE DANCING IN LAKE COMO. And, these people were really good! I think this was one of my favorite parts of the weekend and can be chalked up to another one of those random things that happen when you travel.

View from the other side of our balcony. Check out the snow capped mountain in the back!


If you want an area that’s more lively while staying on the lake, Como would be my top recommendation. We found the nightlife to be a lot of fun, the restaurant’s plenty, and many shops with all types of items.

Como is also a great place for children as there is plenty to do. There also aren’t any stairs to navigate, making it a great place for a stroller.

It’s also the closest town on the lake to Milan (about an hour by train or car).

I really enjoyed Como. While smaller towns are nice, I generally enjoy being around more lively places with nightlife and more things to do. So, it suited me well.

It really is much larger; there are a few piazzas, streets lined with shops, many great restaurant options, and the main pedestrian area is really pretty. Once you venture further away from the lake it’s more industrial, but it would take a lot of walking to get away from the main area.

It was here that we had our most surprising restaurant find; a Brazilian Steakhouse called Beija Flor. And it was fantastic. Even our Brazilian friend was impressed. I’m not sure why it has a 4.0 rating on TripAdvisor because we loved it – so much so that our friends went back to visit a year later.

Things to Do Around Lake Como

This lake is packed with all sorts of fun things to do and you can typically find something to suit anyone’s style. You could easily spend a week here and not even experience a quarter of the things to do here.

Here are some of my top recommendations.

Visit Brunate or One of the Mountain Towns

From downtown Como, there is a steep funicular that ascends to the top of the mountain in just a few minutes. At the top are these beautiful villages and some fantastic restaurants.

We ate at the Bellavista Brunate – just look at that sunset view! The food was fantastic and I wish we would have stayed up here for a night. We also went back a few years later to this same place and the sunset was just as stunning.

If you want to get some exercise, there are also hiking trails to get here as well.

Hike the Area

Lake Como is the perfect place to go on a hike. Whether you’re a well-seasoned hiker, or just looking to get some fresh air, there really is something for every fitness level.

If you want to skip the research, there are many guided tours. This hiking tour is highly rated and you’ll get some great shots from high above.

Visit Villa Monastero

We visited a villa in Varenna called Villa Monastero. This was the first and only villa I’ve visited so I have no idea how it compares, although from a boat trip we did I think there are other, more glamorous villas at other areas around the lake.

However, I think this one still is worth a visit. It has a large botanical gardens area and a house museum as well. If you want to enjoy it all I’d say give yourself at least 90 minutes (not including walking to or from the villa from Varenna). The villa is in Varenna and located at the top of the hill or town past the main square. If you visit Varenna I would add this to the list of must-see places. It was inexpensive and conveniently located as well.

Villa Monastero Varenna Lake Como Italy
Villa Monastero Varenna Lake Como Italy

Rent a Boat

To rent a boat on Lake Como all you need is a regular ID, no license is needed! So when I was pregnant we rented a boat out of Varenna for 3 hours. It was a highlight of our trip. We grabbed some panini’s, showed them our ID’s, and were given a short 2-minute instruction on using the boat. It was really that easy!

Visit Orrido di Bellano, a large Gorge

Bellano is a small town on the ferry system, northeast of Menaggio across the lake. There’s a small beach, a few restaurants, and a massive gorge tucked away in the center of town.

We stayed here when I was pregnant and were shocked that you could visit a beautiful gorge a few minutes from our apartment. Sadly I don’t have any photos (pregnant and walking was a feat in itself), but we loved it so much that we visited twice.

Orrido di Bellano is a very short walk from the ferry, just past the main square and up a few steps. There is an entry fee, and once inside you enter a massive natural cave system with waterfalls and long boardwalks winding high above the floor.

Here is the link with more information about the gorge.

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  1. Hi Brea,

    Good day, I hope all is well.

    I just wanted to ask you that my wife and I are travelling to Lake Como soon in October and we are considering staying either in Varenna or the town of Como. My wife will be almost 6 months pregnant during that time and I am afraid that the steps in Varenna might be too overwhelming for her.
    I read in your article that you were personally in a similar situation while staying in Varenna.
    Would you recommend against staying in Varenna given the circumstances?

    I look forward to your response and my best regards.

    1. Hi Ahmad, we stayed in Bellano, a small village north of Varenna when I was pregnant. I don’t recommend that town though, it is quite hilly and small. Varenna is also hilly, and there are stairs leading through narrow alleyways. But there are many restaurant options and cute shops. Varenna also has the villa that you can walk to, which we did when I was pregnant (with breaks). Como is completely flat. The large pedestrian area is quite large, so I’d recommend staying closer to the water so you can easily get on the ferry. There are many more shops and restaurants in Como, and as a result it’s much more lively. A downside of Como is that it will take a longer ferry ride to get to Varenna and Bellagio (arguably the best towns on the lake). I’d recommend waiting in line and booking your ferry tickets at least a day in advance so you can get the fast boats. So I would also think about how long you want to be on the water if you plan to visit other towns. We also rented a boat in Varenna (no license is needed!) and drove around the lake, even jumping in for a quick swim. That was a highlight. Another option if you would prefer to stay in the central area of the lake is to stay in Menaggio. Just be sure to stay in the little pedestrian area or right on the water to avoid hills. It’s a small town but it’s quiet and peaceful, and it’s a quick ferry over to either Bellagio or Varenna. I hope this helps, thanks!

  2. Hmmm, a friend and I are trying to decide which we can see for one day in mid-April. Lake Como or Garda. Garda is a little simpler if we see the monastery hanging on the cliff. We won’t be participating in water sports this time. We heard Garda might be warmer/prettier that early in the season. We’ve been to Italy, but neither of us have seen either lake. Thoughts? Thanks.

    1. Hi Melissa. I’m finishing up an article on this topic right now! If you only have a day I’d go to the one that’s closer to you. Coming from Milan, Lake Como is only about an hour train ride. If you’re in Venice or Verona, Lake Garda is much closer. If you go to Lake Garda, drive to either Malcesine or Limone. If you go to Lake Como, head to either Menaggio, Bellagio, or Varenna (it’s easy to get to any of these towns via ferry). I recommend checking the ferry schedule online if it’s a day trip so you can plan (the ferries don’t run as often as you’d think). They’re both absolutely beautiful so you really can’t make a bad decision! I will say that north Lake Garda is my favorite place on the planet, and Malcesine and Limone are absolutely stunning.

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