The first time I heard about Lake Como, I was in Avignon, France, chatting about travel destinations with an American mother and daughter. The mother gushed about how much she wanted to visit a place called Lake Como, Italy. I was completely unfamiliar with the place, but made a mental note to stop there when I made it to that part of Europe.
About six months later, I found myself walking alongside the lovely Lake Como, and I was thankful for that chance conversation in Avignon. Though it was mid-November and the skies were hazy, Lake Como was quietly stunning, with few visitors and beautiful views.
The Lake Como area can be pricey for sure, and the hostel options are limited. If you’ve never been there before, it can be difficult to know where to stay. Smaller towns lie on both sides of the lake, with the larger city of Como at the lake’s fork. Varenna, on the west side, said to be a quieter and more budget-friendly option than some of the swankier towns.
Happily, I found a host on Couchsurfing.com who was kind enough to let me stay in his apartment just south of Varenna for two nights while he was away. When he returned, we both stayed in rooms in the large attic apartment in his parents’ house a few doors down.
Couchsurfing.com is a website that pairs travelers with free accommodation in locals’ homes. It’s a great way to get an authentic local experience, meet local people and save a little money while you’re traveling, but you do have to be careful who you choose to stay with. My host in Lake Como was great and provided several helpful recommendations about what to see and do in the area.
One of those recommendations was a visit to Villa del Balbianello in the town of Lenno. Lake Como boasts several historic villas offering tours for a fee. Villa del Balbianello is owned by FAI, Italy’s version of the National Trust, and is very well-maintained. I was lucky enough to arrive in Lake Como just before the villa closed for the winter season and, because tourist visits were so low at the end of the season, I had the gardens to myself and a private tour of the fascinating four-story villa.
Villa del Balbianello was most recently owned in the 1970s by a traveler and businessman with an interesting collection of art and memorabilia from his expeditions all over the world. The entire top floor is devoted to a museum documenting his adventures in photographs and pieces of art he collected, as well as a huge arctic sled. Maybe I’ll create my own riff on his gallery when I get home!
The villa served as the Naboo lakeside retreat in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and as James Bond’s place of recovery in the film Casino Royale. It’s certainly picturesque enough to feel like a movie set.
On my second day in Lake Como, I took a ferry from the western side of the lake to the town of Bellagio, a popular spot on the lake. The town is home to harbor front hotels, wine bars, shops, cafes and a beautiful Romanesque church. I enjoyed browsing in the shops and wandering up and down the narrow streets.
In Italy, there is a lovely tradition called the “aperitivo.” In restaurants offering an aperitivo, a glass of wine or beer will be served with a plate of snacks at no extra charge. When I got hungry, I found a little restaurant advertising its apertivo special for just 4.5 Euros. I ordered a glass of wine and got enough food for my lunch.
I also enjoyed walking along Bellagio’s lungolago, a long rectangular park along the edge of the water with plenty of places to city on a park bench and enjoy the views. When I had seen all there was to see and relaxed on a park bench for a while, I caught the ferry back to the other side of the lake.
On my last full day in Lake Como, I took the bus to the city of Como, which my host said was especially nice during the holiday season. After exploring the smaller towns around the lake, I was surprised at the comparatively large size of Como. The city has a beautiful harbor with a wide pathway running alongside the water. It’s very pleasant to walk along the pathway and admire the stately villas, now hotels and government buildings, overlooking the lake.
Como also has plenty of shopping streets and cafes as well as a funicular railway that rides to the top of the hill overlooking the city. It costs about 7 Euros to ride the funicular, which I did. Unfortunately, the fall haze made it difficult to get a great view. Still, I enjoyed walking around the area atop the hill and exploring the quiet churches and neighborhoods overlooking the bustling city below.
The town was decorated beautifully for Christmas, with lights in the narrow streets and a Christmas market in the main square selling cheeses, sausages, Italian cookies and hot spiced wine. I indulged in a couple of cookies. Really, who could resist?
My visit to Lake Como felt a little like a dream. Maybe it was the hazy sky, the slower pace, or all those Christmas lights, but whatever of the reason, Lake Como was utterly relaxing and wholly enjoyable. Thanks for the recommendation, American lady in Avignon!