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.
If you can afford the overpriced fare of a water taxi to the Palazzo Barbarigo hotel in Venice, you’ll want to take it. It’s a very romantic way to arrive at the front door of your hotel. The reward is a quality art deco boutique hotel on the Grand Canal.
It is relatively small double-story hotel. Plush and luxurious, its art deco décor evokes the best of a bygone era, and as Conde Nast Traveller said it is ‘an alternative to the usual grand dame hotel’.
It is a great hotel for couples looking for a romantic place to stay in Venice. The 18 rooms and junior suites are large and very comfortable with four poster beds, flat screen TV, chaise lounge, rain showers and mood lighting. Although there are no balconies, the windows are big and they open out wide so you never feel claustrophobic.
The reception and front door that opens directly onto the canal are downstairs with a couple of rooms, whilst the bar, breakfast room and lounge are upstairs with the rest of the rooms leading off the lounge. (You would think this might make the rooms noisy, but ours wasn’t at all). Aside from a couple of rooms at the front, most rooms face onto a quieter side canal that still gets a fair share of traffic, and you can see the grand canal if you look out.
The hotel doesn’t have a full restaurant, so we stepped out to a recommended local eatery, Trattoria Da Ignazio, for a quick dinner.
A real old school place, with lopsided, low ceilings and cheerful yellow walls. The service and the homely, traditional Italian food was superb. We went with our waiter’s recommendations and every one was delicious. The only other waiter looked at least 100 years old and he we were fascinated all night as he shuffled about serving his tables without skipping a beat.
Back at the hotel we had a nightcap at the bar, which makes you feel like you’re in a 1940’s movie set, with a tiny terrace overlooking the canal, that’s almost deserted later at night. Looking out, it reminded me of those typical western towns in movies, but in this case with a watery main street.
We slept deeply, thanks to the double-glazing on the windows and when I opened them to look out, traffic was in full flow. Three gondolas went by below packed with tourists followed by a rubbish barge and police patrol.
Breakfast was the best I’ve had just about anywhere. There’s no generic buffet or stodgy, stale food here. A mountain of fruit, pastries, cheese and meat is served individually to your table, along with coffee or tea and a list for you to order additional items, most at no extra cost. You would have to be ravenous to finish all that food.
The hotel doesn’t have any facilities like a spa, gym or garden, but it is perfectly situated to explore Venice, either by vaporetto or on foot through the alleyways that take you to the famous Rialto Bridge, which offers great views over the Grand Canal.
We spent the day wandering, and getting ridiculously lost, as we tried to criss-cross a couple of districts. Along the way we took in famous sights like St Mark’s Square, partially under water because of the high tide, and the Rialto Market, where locals were shopping for their daily fresh fish and vegetables. A few hours later, having come full circle, we gave our weary legs a break with a long lunch on the Grand Canal. Surprisingly, the area where we sat had been knee deep in water a couple of hours earlier. We filled up happily on pizza and wine, and enjoyed the busy waterway before returning to the comfort of our room for a well deserved afternoon nap.
We were pretty tired the second night, so we spent the evening relaxing in the hotel lounge, researching the next part of our trip. It was comfortable and quiet, and we felt like we were in our own living room. We only saw the other guests as they filtered back to their rooms after their evening out. The barman was very attentive, but never intrusive and we were grateful for the complimentary snacks.
When we left the following morning (after another incredible breakfast), we hopped on the vaporetto (water bus), for a last tour of Venice and climbed off at the train station. With the cold wind and the rain setting in, we had thoughts about heading back to the comfort and warmth of our hotel, but our train was waiting.
Venice is sinking, but it’s not global warming that’s to blame, but rather the tidal wave of tourists that flood the city every day in season. In 2016 alone, more than 500 ships and and 1.5 million tourists poured into the city. Throw in stifling heat, crushing crowds and canals that smell worse as the heat rises and your trip might not be all you dreamed of. The solution? Head there out of season and you’ll have a far better time with as much space as you like to see the city in all its glory.
With less people crowding the city in late autumn, we decided it was safe to stay in a central area. We chose the luxury art deco Palazzo Barbarigo hotel on the Grand Canal, close to the main thoroughfare that would take us straight to the Rialto Bridge. You can of course stay in the outlying areas, but as charming as the side canals are, they can be very quiet, and it isn’t as necessary to escape the crowds out of season.
Click here for the story on Palazzo Barbarigo hotel.
Everyone heads to Venice for a different reason, whether it’s architecture, art or history. Whatever you plan to see on the way, the truth is Venice as a city on water is what’s fascinating. A surreal film set that’s best enjoyed by walking every inch of it. It is a fantastic walking city, with thousands of narrow alleys and paths linking the 6 districts, and not a car in sight. It isn’t as big as you might think and most sites are within easy walking distance of each other, but the alleys are often very narrow, and even in late Autumn there were bottlenecks as people tried to get the best photo opportunity or tour groups stopped to admire a building.
Walking shoes on and map in hand we started early, heading up the narrow alleyway to our first stop at the famous Rialto Market. Since 1097, yes that’s right 1097, Venetians have depended on the Rialto markets for their daily fish, fruit and vegetables. It’s best to arrive early if you want to see the Erberia (vegetable market) and Pescheria (fish market) in full swing because the wholesalers and most of the retailers close up shop by midday.
The Erberia and Pescheria are only open Tuesday through Saturday, so locals suggest not ordering fish in restaurants on Mondays, because the fish is unlikely to be fresh.
There are also several stores selling gourmet goods around the market area and more stalls leading up to the bridge that sell non-food items (these are always open but mostly cheap Venetian masks and souvenirs).
The Rialto Bridge also is filled with shops selling souvenirs and tourists congregate at the top trying to get the best photo they can without strangers in it. Stop at the top watch the watery freeway below. You feel like you’re in an alternate historical universe.
We crossed over to San Marco, the busiest district in Venice, thanks largely to St Mark’s Square, where you’ll find The Basilica of San Marco, the greatest symbol of Byzantine Venetian History. The square was partially flooded when we got there thanks to the high tide and waiters knee deep in water were setting up tables in anticipation of the receding tide as tourists crowded the dry areas around the basilica and queued to climb the campanile for a view of the city.
We passed the Doge’s Palace, the residence of the former ruler of Venice, and the headquarters of the Venetian Republic, a city state that existed for more than 1,000 years. For centuries the Doge’s Palace had three fundamental roles: as the Doge residence, the seat of government and as the palace of justice, but since 1923 it’s been a museum. It is also where you’ll find the famous Bridge of sighs that connected a palace to a prison.
As we trawled the alleyways, getting lost more often than not, we saw countless churches, galleries, museums and antique stores each offering up a glimpse of Venetian history. So if that’s what you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. Head to the home of Venetian 18th Century art at Carezzonico Museum or the Gallerie del Accademia for pre-19th century art. If modern art is more to your taste, you’ll find it at the Penny Guggenheim museum, which hosts a modern art collection collected by the famous lady herself.
When you’ve done enough walking and seen enough, spend the afternoon sitting at a restaurant on the edge of the Grand Canal. They can be overpriced, but if you stick to pizza and a bottle or two of wine it makes a very worthwhile, romantic and entertaining interlude as you watch venetians go about their day.
As the sun sets you might want to take a gondola ride. It is an expensive tourist trap, but if you’re feeling particularly romantic, book one through your concierge to prevent being ripped off.
With so much to see, there’s no doubt Venice is a fascinating city and it’s a place you should see once, if only for a day or two.