Lake Como is a bit off the tourist’s path and that’s one of the reasons I loved it so much. It’s far enough out of the way that most people haven’t heard of it. It’s not really on the “way” to anywhere, so it has to be a destination spot, rather than just a day trip as you pass through a major city.
When we arrived in Lake Como, it was like a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. We had just come from the cruise ship, and while I like how many destinations you get to see on a cruise, I hate feeling like you’re part of a huge crowd that just rolls into town for a few hours and back out. I prefer to experience new places from as much of a local standpoint as possible. When we stepped off the train in Lake Como, the air and the energy was so different, and it was what I was craving. There was a calmness and a relaxation that immediately set it. The small towns of Lake Como are away from all the hustle and bustle of the larger cities and, while still a tourist spot, there was more of a small town way of life.
Choosing a City to Stay In
The cool thing about Lake Como is that there are so many towns lining the lake, so you have so many options to choose from. At the middle of the lake, there are three of the most popular towns – Varenna, Menaggio and Bellagio. All three of these towns are accessible to each other by ferry, so we figured we could make the most of our trip and see all three towns by choosing one of them to stay in. We chose Menaggio. Once we got to the lake, we were surprised how close all of these towns were – we had pictured a further distance, but you could easily see the other towns from across the lake.
Getting to Lake Como
The best way to get to Lake Como is by train. In our case, we took the train from Venice all the way to Varenna. Once you arrive at the Varenna train station, the ferry station is just a few minutes walk, so it’s not hard to do with your luggage. If you choose to stay further south or to start your journey in the town of Como, the train also goes directly into there.
It’s very important to note that the ferries stop running by about 7:30 in the evening. If you are planning on taking the train and ferry to your destination, make sure that your itinerary coincides with the ferry schedule, otherwise you could end up spending too much money trying to taxi around the lake or hiring a private water taxi (assuming they’re still available). You can check the ferry schedule here.
Our Accommodations – Grand Hotel Menaggio
We chose to stay at the Grand Hotel Menaggio and we were so happy with our choice. It is literally next to the ferry station in Menaggio, so once our ferry docked, we just wheeled our suitcases next door and checked in. The hotel has a gorgeous, sparkling pool right on the lake and views that can’t be beat. We chose a Lake View room and it was worth the small extra cost to do so. The view was stunning, and at night you were able to see the moon come up over the town of Varenna across the lake and it was the most picturesque scene.
Breakfast was included with our lake view room, and I would probably categorize it as an “Italian Continental Breakfast Plus”. I’m making up new terms over here. It had many items that you’d expect to see in a continental breakfast, but with hot options, better food and with an Italian twist. Rather than bread and bagels, there were croissants, baguettes and muffins. There were multiple kinds of cheeses to choose from, prosciutto, salami and bacon, as well as a few cereals. Once you chose your seat on the patio, the waiters would bring you American coffee or an espresso. The food was good and I loved sitting on the edge of the lake to enjoy my breakfast.
I also loved swimming in this gorgeous pool next to the lake! As with most pools, you have to claim your pool chairs pretty early in the day. The restaurant and breakfast tables are next to the pool, so when we went down for breakfast, we took our towels and claimed our seats. The pool was clean, refreshing and not too over-saturated with chlorine, as I usually feel about most hotel pools. The pool was not heated and I LOVED that – when you want to cool off, it should be refreshing, not feel like you’re diving into bath water.
Quiet Hotel, Relaxing Atmosphere
I will say, if you’re looking for a party hotel, this is not your place. We were the youngest by far, and most of the hotel guests seemed to be enjoying their retirement. When we laid out by the pool, it was sometimes so quiet that we felt we should whisper. This was a great change of pace for us, as we were looking to relax, but it’s good to know if that’s not your intention.
The only other downside for me was that the rooms were definitely outdated, decor-wise. The colors, wallpaper and quilt all reminded me of my grandparents house and it is probably time they replaced the bed. The rooms probably have not been updated in quite a while – not my style, but on the other hand, it may fit their main clientele very well. The bathroom was also very darkly-lit and the shower pretty small. However, none of these things would keep us from staying there again. Overall, we really loved staying here.
The small town center of Menaggio was just about a 5 minute walk from our hotel. There are some cute shops on the main street, but the town center is mostly focused on food and drink. On our first night, we not only discovered the place with the best Aperol Spritz of the entire trip (and we tried a lot), but we found the best pasta as well, which made me so incredibly happy.
Hotel du Lac in Menaggio is right next to the water in the town center. They have a cafe with tons of tables outside. Since our restaurant did not open until 7:00pm (Europeans do dinner late), we sat at the cafe for an hour or so and drank aperol spritzes. We had tried quite a few, since these are a popular pre-dinner drink in Italy, but these were hands-down my favorite. They were made very well. The server also brought out potato chips and olives for us to snack on. We noticed, especially in Lake Como, but Italy in general, that when you order drinks, they usually bring you a snack as well. It could be as simple as potato chips, but we also had someone bring out an entire salami and cheese board, free of charge when you order drinks.
We had dinner at Osteria Il Pozzo. Also in the town center, but tucked back into a little corner, it was some of the best food we had. Every day they hand make all of their pastas, and they have a daily rotating menu, so it’s always different. Everything was so fresh and so tasty. We drank Chianti, ate a delicious buffalo mozzarella salad, and enjoyed ravioli in a mushroom cream sauce as well as an amazing pesto penne pasta dish.
The next day, after spending the morning at the pool, we ventured back to Varenna, where we initially got off the train. This town was probably my favorite of the three. It was small and quaint, but it had some amazing restaurants right on the water, where you could eat lunch while people-watching on the small beach. Getting lost in the stairways and the streets of Varenna was wonderful – we would disappear up a staircase built into the rocky hill and then find a hidden restaurant or bar tucked among the stones.
We ate lunch at Nilus Bar, right on the water. I had the pizza with salami and yellow peppers and it was incredible. I ate a lot of pizza on this trip, so when I mention one in particular, you know it’s good! We also ended up at Hotel du Lac Varenna (a totally different hotel than the one in Menaggio) for a bottle of wine later in the day. This is where they served us an entire cheese and prosciutto board for free with our wine!
Varenna was definitely a bit better for shopping than Menaggio. If you are looking to buy some souvenirs, I would suggest doing so in either Varenna or Bellagio.
On our last day, we hopped on the 15 minute ferry to Bellagio. This was very similar to Varenna, just on a larger scale. This was definitely the “city” of the three and the main tourist attraction. There were so many more restaurants and shops to choose from and we wandered around for quite a while, catching the very last ferry back to Menaggio.
We decided to hunt down a little restaurant called La Fontana. We had heard it was great food and worth finding, even though it was tucked back in the town a little ways. This turned out to be a little bit of a scavenger hunt, as the Google Maps location was definitely not accurate. Once we knew we were in the general vicinity, we were able to ask a local, who pointed us in the right direction. The restaurant was small, with only a handful of tables both inside and outside, but they made great use of the space.
La Fontana is owned and run by a couple of Italian brothers. Both men were in the restaurant that day and helped us decide what to order. They were very helpful and quite fun to talk to. We started with an appetizer that consisted of goat cheese and chives, rolled up in dried beef, like you would normally see salami or prosciutto. This was our favorite part of the meal! We also had the spaghetti carbonara with eggs, bacon, pecorino cheese and olive oil and the homemade ravioli stuffed with robiola cheese and spinach, topped with gorgonzola sauce and nuts. The ravioli was my favorite, and also one of the dishes that the brothers recommended to us!
Streets of Bellagio
After lunch, we wandered for a while through the streets, buying a couple souvenirs and some spices and cooking ingredients for me to bring home. When we decided it was time for more wine (when in Italy!), we wandered into a cute little wine bar called Aperitivo et Al. We sat at the back, next to the wine cellar, and opted to do a couple different local wine tastings. The bartender was very knowledgable and talked about each of the wines, grapes and regions as we experienced some of our favorite Italian wines.
I Will Be Back!
I absolutely loved our time in Lake Como. Three to four days was a perfect amount of time to explore Menaggio, Bellagio and Varenna. It was such a relaxing experience and I loved that we found a spot a bit off the beaten path, with few tourists. I would highly recommend Lake Como as a stop on your Italy itinerary!