Are you wondering what are the things to do in Lake Como? Of all the Italian lakes, slender, forked Lake Como (Lago di Como) comes most heavily praised.
This has been the retreat of choice for hard-pressed urbanites for a couple of thousand years at least. The combination of forested mountains and blue water is bewitching. The lake came into its own in the Romantic era, when artists, writers, composers and countless creative wannabes sought inspiration from the magnificence of the surroundings and the simplicity of the working life led by locals.
The lake’s principal towns – Como and Lecco – mark the southernmost points of both forks of the lake. The Ramo di Como is the more visited of the two; its twin, the Ramo di Lecco, is quieter and wilder. They meet at the Centro Lago, the most beautiful part of the lake, oriented around the trio of Menaggio – a pleasant base for walking and exploring the hinterland – and, for unrepentant romantics, Varenna and Bellagio.
We take a closer look at the best places to visit and things to do in Lake Como, so check out our cheat sheet on how to travel like an Italian…
1. Enjoy the local wines… with a view
A short walk away from the lake on bustling Via Plinio brings you to Como’s architectural set-piece, Piazza Duomo.
The current cathedral replaced the ninth-century church of Santa Maria Maggiore, remnants of which survive in the south wall. Work began in the 1390s, while Gothic held sway – first with the interior and then, from 1457, the west facade. The Duomo’s north door, designed by the Rodaris in 1507, is known as the “Door of the Frog”, for the frog which is carved – coincidentally, alongside the words Sanctus Paulus. Centuries of curious tourists have rubbed the little beast smooth. While searching for unique things to do in Lake Como or if you are tired or you want to enjoy the view look no further than “Theoria – Ristorante i Tigli in Theoria”. Superb Italian choice of foods, just near the Duomo. You can’t go wrong with one of the local wines: Chiaretto is a light red wine from Bellagio, Domasino a sparkling light wine from Domaso, and the villages of Rogaro, Griante or Carlazzo also produce their own light wines. Brianza is home to Bianco Secco di Montecchia, a dry white wine.
Tel: +39 031 264005
Address: Via Aurelio Bianchi Giovini, 41, 22100, Como, Italy
2. The Funicular
One of the best things to do in Lake Como is to walk north along the lakefront to Piazza Matteotti, as the road will lead you to the funicular. The little carriages take seven minutes to creep up the hillside alongside the gardens of wonderful nineteenth-century villas to Brunate, a small resort that offers excellent views of the lake. Brunate is also a good option for hikes – the tourist office has free leaflets detailing routes.
You can walk back down to Como via Eremo di San Donato, or you can have a longer hike to Molina and get back to by taxi boat.
Address: Piazza Alcide de Gasperi, 4, 22100 Como
3. A unique experience
Isola Comacina is Como’s only island and one of the authentic places in Lake Como. It lies opposite the town of Sala Comacina, across a mirror-calm stretch of water known as the Conca dell’Olio, or Basin of Oil. The island is wild and unkempt, dotted with the ruins of nine abandoned churches. Occupied by the Romans, it later attracted an eclectic mix of dethroned monarchs, future saints, and the pirate Federico Barbarossa. Eventually, it allied with Milan against Como – which prompted Como to sack the island. Abandoned for centuries, it was bought by a local, Auguste Caprini, who outraged Italy by selling it to the King of Belgium after World War I.The island is now administered by a joint Belgian/Italian commission.
Since 1947 the island has been home to an exclusive restaurant, Locanda dell’Isola Comacina. The owner has made a selling-point of an elaborate “exorcism by fire” at the end of every meal, stemming from a curse supposedly laid on the island in 1169 by the Bishop of Como and involving – essentially – flambéed liqueur coffee. To eat here you pay an all-in price of €75, which covers a set menu with wine.
Tel: ++39 0344 55083-56755
4. Enjoy the local dishes in Menaggio
MENAGGIO, 37km north of Como, is a bustling village resort with a good deal of character. It is well-kept, attractive and has a great view east across the water to Bellagio and Varenna. It also sees more of a mix of tourists than many of its neighbors, with a reputation for sports and activities – notably hiking and cycling in the mountains – as well as sunbathing and swimming.
Menaggio’s lakefront square has several restaurants serving set menus – and with its holiday atmosphere, it can be lively after dark: restaurants serve late – but for a tad more quality stroll the lanes further back. We liked Il Vapore, a pleasant little restaurant in a quiet, central location serving local dishes in the small dining room or on the flower-decked terrace.
Tel: +39 0344 32229
Address: Piazza Tommaso Grossi 3, 22017 Menaggio, Italy
5. Hiking and adventure sports around Menaggio
While searching for things to do in Lake Como you can also go on a hike. There’s a good selection of hikes in the countryside around Menaggio, ranging from a two-and-a-half-hour walk to the pretty village of Codogna, to the Sentiero delle 4 Valli, which leads for 50km through four valleys to Lake Lugano in Switzerland. The tourist office can provide descriptions of the routes in English, including details of how to get to the various starting-points by public transport, but take a map as well. There are a beach and a vast pool at the Lido (late June to mid-Sept daily 9am–7pm), as well as water skiing and other activities at the Centro Lago Service on the waterfront.
E-mail: [email protected]
6. A Piece of history for dinner
Cradled by cypress-spiked hills on the tip of the Triangolo Lariano – the triangle of mountainous land between the Como and Lecco branches of the lake – Bellagio has been called the most beautiful town in Italy. It’s not hard to see why this is one of the unique things to do in Lake Como. With a promenade planted with oleanders and lime trees, fien-de-siecle hotels painted shades of butterscotch, peach and cream, a spectacular mid-lake location and a crumbling core of stepped, cobbled alleyways, Bellagio is the quintessential Italian Lakes town. This little place has a long history. The Roman statesman Pliny the Younger may have had a villa on Bellagio’s promontory in the first century AD.
Like everything in Bellagio, restaurants can be pricey. You’d do best to book a table – essential at weekends and in the summer peak period. One of Bellagio’s most pleasant, attractive dining spots is Silvio, located just above nearby Lóppia. This is an excellent, modern restaurant attached to an old hotel; the views are beautiful, and the fish – freshly caught by Silvio himself – is superbly prepared.
Tel: +39 031 950322
Address: Via Paolo Carcano, 10-12, 22021 Bellagio CO
7. Bike to Madonna di Ghisallo… and don’t forget to fuel up
The triangle of land south of Bellagio between the two branches of the lake is lush and sunny, busy on the coast but with plenty of quiet inland villages. A little south of Pescallo, a minor road climbs on a twisting course up into the mountains towards Erba, on the Como–Lecco road 28km south of Bellagio. The views over the lake from the peak of Monte San Primo (1686m), a steep walk of a couple of hours from the end of its branch road, are much photographed – a breath-taking panorama, with Bellagio on the tip of its triangle down in front.
Back on the Erba road, at the top of the ridge behind Bellagio is the church of Madonna di Ghisallo, patron saint of cyclists – a diminutive building but a hugely popular draw for weekend day-trippers; inside, it’s packed with trophies, jerseys and cycling memorabilia of all kinds. If you fancy the time-honoured approach (on a bicycle), be prepared for an exceptionally tough climb on slopes of 14 percent – reckon on two hours or more to cover the 12km from Bellagio.
Here is a monument to cyclists, marked “Then God created the bicycle”. If you biked up here, maybe you would like to fuel up at Ristorante Ghisallino before taking the road down.
Tel: +39 031 965463
Address: Via Adua, 35, 22030 Magreglio (CO)
8. The loveliest spot- Varenna
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Another place to visit in Lake Como can be found halfway up Lake Como’s eastern shore, gazing back at Bellagio. Varenna is probably one of the loveliest spots on the whole lake. Free of through traffic – which is diverted around the village – shaded by pines and planes, and almost completely devoid of souvenir shops, Varenna is set around steep, narrow stepped alleyways, a little cluster of attractive old houses and waterfront cafés. It’s an unassuming little place which repays however much time you’re prepared to devote to it.
Varenna’s best place to eat is also its smallest. Hidden away in the narrow lanes off the main piazza is the tiny Il Cavatappi, with just five tables. Booking is essential for this delightful little restaurant, where the owner/manager/chef takes the time to discuss the menu with you before turning out simple, beautifully cooked dishes with first-class ingredients.
Tel: 0341 815349
Address: Via XX Settembre, 10 – 23829 Varenna (Lecco) – Lago di Como
9. Picnic on the shore
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On the drive north of Menaggio, fast tunnels tempt you inland to check out authentic places in Lake Como. Instead, follow lungolago signs onto the slow, narrow lakeside road. That way, you’ll stumble across Rezzonico, a sleepy hamlet of cobbled lanes woven around a thirteenth-century castle, with a steep path leading down past a trickling stream and grazing sheep to the stony beach – one of the quietest bays on the lake (swimming is banned). Ferries stop by the picturesque fifteenth-century campanile of San Martino. Grab a pizza at the Trattoria Pizzeria Del Platani or just picnic on the shore.
Tel: +39 0344 50139
Address: Località Rezzonico, San Siro Rezzonico, Lombardia, Italy
10. On the Footsteps of Alessandro Manzoni
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Lecco, 30km east of Como at the foot of this branch of the lake, is a commercial hub, though prettily spread around its little stretch of waterfront beneath towering mountains. The principal draw for Italians is that Lecco was the childhood home of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), and was the setting for his classic work I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), published in 1827 – the first novel to be written in the pan-national Italian. It is required reading in Italian schools to this day.
As you stroll the lakefront, past the Torre Viscontea – remnant of a medieval castle – you could pop into the Basilica, which boasts a set of fourteenth-century Giotto-esque frescoes. The most attractive part of town is Pescarenico, an old fishermen’s quarter located on the north bank of the River Adda as it flows out of Lake Como on its way into Lake Garlate. It’s an atmospheric spot, with narrow alleys and a picturesque, sixteenth-century riverfront piazza.