Lake Como has been the playground of the rich and famous since Roman times and it’s hard not to feel like one of them as the train pulls into the station at Varenna.
With an area of 146 km², Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful. It is shaped like an inverted Y and the small towns of Bellagio, Menaggio and Varenna sit at the intersection of the three branches of the lake, where is where most people travel to from Milan. Each of these towns has its own particular charm, and is worth visiting.
If you just want to do a day trip from Milan, the best thing to do is to take the train from Milano Centrale to Varenna, which only takes about an hour. It’s an easy 10 minute walk into the village. Head for the town square first, then walk down the steep stairs and alleyways to the lake. (It’s much better than walking up). Varenna is a stunning place, with less than 300 residents and it’s unique because the road runs above the town, so it feels less spoiled than other towns.
When you’re done, catch a ferry to Bellagio. Just buy a ticket at the dock and hop on. It’s only a 15 minute trip across the lake with the Swiss Alps in the background. Bellagio is the busiest town on the lake and has been set up very much for tourists, but it is worth visiting because it is beautiful. Although we didn’t get to Menaggio, a couple of Varenna locals said they prefer it to Bellagio because it is far less touristy. So if you have time it’s worth catching the ferry across there too.
To go back to Milan, catch the ferry back to the Varenna and head to the train station. If you don’t have a return ticket you may need to buy one from the travel agent on the way to the station.
If you can, I highly recommend staying a couple of nights on Lake Como. We picked Varenna because it is a small, picturesque town that is in the middle of the lake, easy to reach from Milan and has a good ferry schedule to other towns.
We caught the train from Milan to Varenna in the afternoon, and being autumn it was pretty cold. To make it worse we were given the wrong directions to our hotel and had to walk up lots of ridiculously steep stairs. So we were pretty pleased to reach our charming boutique hotel Albergo Milano and be shown to our room that had a large deck with the most incredible view over the lake. It was everything we’d hoped for.
Having made it in time for sunset, we ordered a bottle of bubbly and sat on the deck as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. We had a violent storm during the night, but the next morning, the village and all the mountains were blanketed in snow. Varenna is only five stops from St Moritz, at the end of the railway line, so there was plenty of snow.
Luckily we had made it to Lake Como just in time, because Varenna and Bellagio basically shut down for winter from mid-November to March as the tourists stay away or head to the towns closer to St Moritz for skiing.
When we tried to walk around to do a bit of sightseeing we ended up hopping from bar to restaurant to bar trying to stay warm, which truth be told, wasn’t too bad because we discovered a great hole in the wall. At the Borgovino restaurant a table of retired locals was having a long, lazy lunch. They took up four of the seven tables and with the wine flowing it was a cosy, festive afternoon. I recommend a stop in here for a meal and a bottle of wine. The owners know what they’re doing with food, wine and service.
The next day was much warmer and we managed to catch the ferry to Bellagio where we walked through the town and did some shopping. It is a beautiful town and is the quintessential ‘Italian village on a lake’ that you dream about, but I’m pleased we stayed in Varenna, because somehow it just feels a touch more authentic and homely, without the overpriced designer stores.
Having said that, most people would be very happy to stay in Bellagio, especially if it’s at the elegant 5 star deluxe Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. Owned by the Bucher family for 3 generations, it stands at the end of the Bellagio promontory, with spectacular views of Lake Como and the Alps.