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Updated: 26th November 2018
As the first sun rays of the day broke over the mountains and the crisp November air felt a hint of warmth, the colourful little villages of Lake Como, stacked up against the hillsides around me, lit up in golden hues. There’s no better way to start a long weekend in Lake Como than on the lake itself, bobbing around to sound of the gentle waves as your boat ambles between various little villages and towns.
At 7.30 in the morning, we were just a few tourists on the one-hour tour looping back to the main city on the lake, Como, but many others were commuting to work. I couldn’t help but feel slightly jealous that this was how each day heading ‘to the office’ began around the lakes of Lombardia.
For many people who head to Lake Como for a long weekend, the city of Como acts as a launching point for one of the many boats that ferry visitors and locals alike to the smaller Italian towns and villages that dot the lake.
Como, the capital of Lake Como
My arrival at Lake Como had coincided with sunset, so the little streets of ancient houses and medieval buildings were illuminated by the blue hour. Small shop windows were packed with displays of olive oil, limoncello and silk, a famed local product, while drinkers on outside terraces lingered in the light of the heater flames.
The Duomo of Como, with its intricate statues on the outside and interesting design of linking the town hall and church together, dominates the main square. With all the architecture of these three buildings from different time periods, it makes quite the impression. Down sidestreets, you’ll find historical churches, theatres and overhanging wooden balconies from the old houses.
Being winter, and with a reduced ferry service running, the next morning would see me drive to the ‘pearl of Lake Como’, Bellagio. Checking in for the night to Hotel Metropole Suisse provided not only a relaxed luxury place to rest my head but an incredible location right alongside the water itself, where I sat admiring the view from my window until it was time for dinner.
Cocktails and cuisine in Como
There are many bars and restaurants in Como, ranging from tiny cocktail taverns with pianos and old artwork decorating the walls, through to modern dining in stylish settings. At Caffè Teatro, we settled into one of the back dining rooms in this deceivingly large yet intimate restaurants and launched straight into the red wine to warm the November Chill.
The food in Lombardia is more hearty than your stereotypical Italian cuisine and as beef tartare was prepared at the table, followed by Ragu pasta and grilled duck breast, the restaurant more than lived up to its theatrical name.
Without a doubt, my favourite part of being in Como was how easy it was to jump on the boats, and the next morning when we joined the one-hour loop service before departing to Bellagio, I, as I have so often before in Italy, felt myself leaving a part of my heart behind. If you ever plan on booking a trip to Italy, you would be a fool not to include Lake Como on your itinerary.
Admire the views in Brunate
Home to some of the first luxury hotels in the region, Brunate sits in a prime position looking down on Como city and Lake Como. For those looking to splurge and have a balcony view to be proud of, checking in to this high-end real estate is an option.
For those who want to admire the view like I, the Como funicular will ferry you up from Como every 15/30 minutes, depending on the season, and just moments from the funicular station you’ll find incredible vantage points and viewing platforms to admire this serene section of Italy from above.
The funicular costs around five euros for a return ride, and although the cars themselves have had a modern overhaul, you can still enjoy the history of the stations and tracks while in the waiting areas thanks to the displays on the boards.
Onwards to Bellagio and the Ghisallo Cycling Museum
Being winter and with fewer options to transfer to Bellagio, one of the famous and most beautiful spots on the lake, we drove rather than taking a boat transfer.
One of the bonuses of using four (or two) wheels to get around the lake is you can take in incredible views from above the lake, and genuinely get a sense of the scale. Being just a few kilometres from the Swiss border means often you are admiring two countries peaks, not only one.
One place well worth stopping on route to Bellagio is Magreglio, where a fantastic platform at the Ghisallo Cycling Museum offers you the first glimpse at Bellagio, and during the winter months, the snow-capped mountains make a beautiful contrast against the multicoloured facades of the villages.
Inside the Ghisallo Cycling Museum, you’ll find a history of cycling, especially within Italy, and a short tour will take you from wooden bicycles to some of the most famous bikes from modern-day cyclists. The nearby church is where people would gift their old bikes as donations, and while the chapel is still decorated with many of these bicycles, the collection had become so large the museum now accommodates many of these.
The pearl of Lake Como, Bellagio
Continuing down the winding roads to Bellagio itself, you’ll soon arrive at the tip of Lake Como, where the lake points into three directions from Bellagio.
With a hearty local meal at Bilacus restaurant under your belt, a relaxed environment specialising in the traditional local dish of Perch and rice risotto, you can wander the beautiful Bellagio streets and realise why this is known as the pearl of Lake Como.
During the winter months I know how crowded this popular destination gets from friends who have visited, but travelling Europe during the off-season, it was blissfully quiet which allowed for photos devoid of tourists but also meant many of the business were closed. Luckily, for ice-cream addicted self, we stumbled upon a gelato house more than happy to provide a creamy treat on a chilly day.
Don’t miss magical Varenna
Jumping onboard the twenty-minute crossing to Varenna from Bellagio, I found perhaps my favourite place I visited on the lake and one of my top hidden gems in Italy.
Varenna might not be the most popular destination, but I had been informed by a local friend it was the most adorable and wow was she right. As the boat slowly pulled up to Varenna, and the colourful buildings danced in the lake reflections, I was so glad I had taken the detour to visit here.
From the impressive castles and churches that lay higher up the mountainside to the coffee houses providing excellent views from the lakeside, my time in Varenna was spent wandering aimlessly, admiring botanical gardens, and hopping between coffee shops so I could pause and admire the view, cappuccino in hand. With fishers walking around and a real sense of a local village, Varenna stole the show for me.
Leaving for Lecco
The Varenna-Esino station offers fairly regular connections onwards to Monza and Milan, but I had one more stop I wanted to make it to on my long weekend in Lake Como, Lecco.
A larger city on the lake, Lecco is where you are more likely to find your highstreet tours and locals going around their day to day life, it was likely my least favourite stop on the lake, but it’s still worth a visit.
The tower of the church flanks the mains square, but the most magical part of Lecco for me was the views from the watered. In the blue hour of the day, the twinkling lights across the nearly flat water created a perfect reflection, and with such imposing mountains, it was the ideal way to end the day, of course, Aperitivo in hand.
The food of Lombardia
While pizza and pasta are of course staples across the whole country, the Lombardia cuisine is much more focussed on Risotto.
Throughout my long weekend in Lake Como and Milan, I had various risottos, usually with a saffron base but topped with different items, from perch to beef. Other treats included traditional stewed beef with Polenta, mouthwatering Tiramisus, beef capacious with generous toppings of truffles and small fried balls of meat and cheese, a real contender for finger snacks to the more famous Arancini.
When in the north of Italy, for those who drink alcohol, taking part in Aperitivo, sometimes called happy hour, is a must. For a fixed fee you can enjoy a drink of your choice, you’ll catch me with an Aperol Spritz or Negroni, and enjoy snacks supplied by the bar. These can range from fully stacked buffets to plates dropped on the table to share. Not as common in the south of the country, this is the perfect appetiser before heading to dinner.