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Visiting Como Town & Lake Como: Top Attractions, Hotels & Tours

Lake Como
Lake Como
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Only 48 kilometers north of Italy's commercial capital of Milan, Como's leafy lakeside and stone-paved streets seem a world away. You can see its Roman origins in the orderly grid of streets of its historic center and the remains of the Roman gate, Porta Pretoria. It's more evident in walled Medieval Como, a rare example of Romanesque fortifications, with the imposing Porta Torre (tower gate) at Piazza Vittoria. If your taste runs to something more modern, Como was a hotbed of Rationalist architects, who laid the foundation of Modernism.

Como is easy to walk around, and its tourist attractions are within walking distance of the train station and boat landing. Como revolves around its lakefront promenade and the adjacent Piazza Cavour, from which you can follow the short Via Plinio to Piazza del Duomo. As you stroll past shops, you can't help notice the abundance of silk; Como has a long history as the center of Italy's silk manufacture, so it's a good place to do some shopping. Bookending the harbor are the beautiful gardens of Villa Olmo on the west and the funicular to Brunate on the east, two of the most popular things to do in Como.

1 Duomo (Cathedral)

Duomo (Cathedral)
Duomo (Cathedral)
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The 14th-century façade of Como's cathedral that nearly fills one side of Piazza Duomo is pure Gothic, a marble face highlighted by detailed stone carving and statues around a rose window, edged with delicate carved pinnacles. (Oddly, instead of the expected saints, the statues at either side of the main door are of Pliny the Elder and Younger, Roman residents of the lake who were far from friendly to early Christians.) It isn't until you enter that you'll see why this church is hailed as Italy's finest example of the14th-century transition from Gothic to Renaissance styles. Polychrome painting and gilding on the side altars "update" the older look of the rose window and deeply carved main altar, but the mix is harmonious. If you're energetic, climb to the 18th-century dome.

Address: Piazza Duomo 6, Como

2 Museo Archeologico

Near the cathedral are the adjoining museums of archaeology and history, the first filled with an exceptional collection of artifacts unearthed in local excavations that offer glimpses into the lives of the earliest human settlements. The modern and well-lighted displays make this museum especially appealing.

Address: Piazza Medaglie d'Oro 1, Como

3 Museo Storico Giuseppe Garibaldi

This history museum is in a former palazzo, with furnished period rooms and exhibits showing local traditions and history. Especially fine and well-displayed is the collection of handmade lace.

Address: Piazza Medaglie d'Oro 1, Como

4 Basilica di Sant'Abbondio

Basilica di Sant'Abbondio
Basilica di Sant'Abbondio
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It's worth the walk from the center to see this exceptional example of an early 11th-century basilica built in the Lombard Romanesque style. The tall narrow interior seems more like the earliest Christian basilicas and is decorated in 13th-century Gothic fresco cycles, in quite good condition.

Address: Via Regina 35, Como

5 Brunate

Funicular to Brunate
Funicular to Brunate
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A funicular from the east end of the lakefront saves the steep climb up to the terrace settlement of Brunate, almost directly above Como. The views encompass the town and southern lake, backed by mountains. Climb higher to reach a terrace (with a conveniently placed café) looking to the north, across a different panorama of lake and mountain views. A two-hour climb from Brunate brings you to the summit of Monte Boletto.

Exploring Lake Como's Towns and Villas

Lake Como

Lake Como
Lake Como
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The narrow and fjord-like Lake Como (Lago di Como in Italian) is 50 kilometers long and shaped like an inverted Y. But there is little of interest in the southeastern arm, and a ferry conveniently shuttles cars across from the eastern shore to Bellagio, the lake's most beautiful town, sitting at the point of the peninsula where the arms converge. Como is no stranger to tourists, having been a favorite of upper-crust Romans, whose villas predated those of royalty, and Hollywood stars who have favored it more recently. The lake between its steep wooded shores is beautiful enough, but on either side rise mountains, and to the north, the Alps, making the views even better.

You can tour the lake on a day excursion for the scenery, with a stop or two at towns. Or if you have a bit more time, you can see the major attractions around the lake by hopping on and off the frequent boats and ferries. To tour at leisure and on your own schedule take two or three days and drive the 249-kilometer perimeter, crossing on the ferry between Varenna and Bellagio.

Boat trips

Car Ferry on Lake Como
Car Ferry on Lake Como
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Regular boat services connect most towns from early spring through fall, but not all routes stop at the smaller towns. The frequent ferry (car and passenger) across the lake makes getting from Menaggio or Tremezzo, on the west shore, to Bellagio and Varenna easy. These are among the best places to visit on Lake Como. Before setting out by boat, check the day's schedules carefully so you'll know when the latest one returns and from what town. Summer hydrofoil service is fast, but don't expect to see anything en route.

Cernobbio

Cernobbio
Cernobbio
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Palatial Villa d'Este, built for an English queen and now a luxury hotel, sets a high standard for lake villas, with terraced gardens climbing the steep hill behind it. The rest of the town isn't quite so grand, but it has a nice holiday air, and is the starting point for a narrow winding road up 1,310-meter Monte Bisbino to a pilgrimage church and panoramic views.

Villa Balbianello

Villa Balbianello
Villa Balbianello
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On the lake shore underneath steep Monte Crocione, Lenno is best known for the villa and gardens that cover Punta di Balbianello, a long peninsula that curves out into the lake. The Baroque villa, built for an 18th-century Cardinal, is surrounded by terraced gardens where lake views are framed by columns and balustrades. The best way to get there is by boat from Lenno, or on certain days, you can walk the trail to the villa. You can see the interior, but only on guided hour-long tours, which fill quickly in busy tourist seasons. The highlight is the garden, though, so don't be too disappointed if you miss a house tour.

Address: Via Comoedia 5, Lenno

Villa Carlotta

View from Villa Carlotta
View from Villa Carlotta Navin75
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In Lake Como's mildest spot, the Tremezzina Riviera, foliage remains green all winter, so it's no wonder one of Italy's most famous gardens is here. Although the 18th-century palace of Villa Carlotta is filled with sculpture and paintings, most tourists come to see its fabulous hillside of gardens. At their best in May, when the camellias and 12-meter-tall banks of massed rhododendrons are in bloom, the gardens are filled with colorful flowers throughout the season.

Address: Via Regina 2, Tremezzo, Como

Official site: www.villacarlotta.it

Abbazia di Piona (Abbey of Piona)

Abbazia di Piona (Abbey of Piona)
Abbazia di Piona (Abbey of Piona)
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The 13th-century Cluniac monastery of Piona surrounds the 11th-century church of San Nicola and its beautiful Romanesque cloister. This small enclosure is surrounded by delicate, graceful columns, each with a different stone capital carved in motifs that include plants and animals. The cloister walls are covered in 14th- and 15th-century frescoes. In a shop near the gate, the Cistercian monks sell herbal lotions, honey, and candies made with products from the abbey gardens.

Address: Via Abbazia di Piona 57, Colico

Villa Monastero

Villa Monastero
Villa Monastero
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A long flight of stone stairs lead down into the terraced gardens of Villa Monastero. The formal beds of native and exotic plants that stretch along the shore have their share of statues, colonnades, and miniature temples, but with a relaxed and unfussy air. The villa is now a conference center, open for tours when it's not in use. The gardens are a short walk south of the town (where you should park, if driving), a charming cluster of pastel houses along steep streets. Look for the parish church, with a giant fresco of St. Christopher on its façade.

Address: Viale Giovanni Polvani, Varenna

Official site: www.villamonastero.eu

Bellagio

Bellagio
Bellagio
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There's no question that Bellagio knows it's the prettiest town on the lake, with its setting on the long point where the lake's three arms meet. No matter which way you look, the views are superb and usually framed by gardens or carefully maintained buildings. Pricey shops line its few streets, one of which is a long flight of stone stairs connecting the upper town with the boat landing. Two gardens, one stretching along the lake and the other high above town, are the main tourist attractions - apart from the picture-perfect town itself.

Villa Serbelloni

Villa Serbelloni view
Villa Serbelloni view
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High above town, the terraced gardens are spread around the historic Villa Serbelloni, which was clearly built to maximize the views of Lake Como and the Alps beyond. The highlight of the gardens, which are carefully landscaped in the 19th-century Italianate style, are the rose gardens set in boxwood hedges. The villa is not open to the public, but the park is open for 90-minute guided tours (except during bad weather), which you must reserve at the Promo bellagio office in Piazza San Giacomo.

Address: Piazza della Chiesa 14, Bellagio

Villa Melzi

Villa Melzi
Villa Melzi
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The perfectly landscaped terraces and gardens surrounding Villa Melzi d'Eril are all original to their early-1800s design to frame lake views with cypresses and statues. Highlights are the water garden; a neo-Moorish pavilion; and the orangerie, where there are changing art exhibits. The neoclassical villa is not open.

Address: Lungo Lario Manzoni, Bellagio

Where to Stay in Como for Sightseeing

With most of its attractions close to the shore where boats leave for tours of the lake, Como is compact and easy to visit. Hotels in all price ranges are within a few minutes' walk of the lake, both train stations, and the tourist attractions. Here are some highly-rated hotels in Como:

  • Luxury Hotels: Facing the lake across Piazza Cavour and surrounded by dining and shopping options, Barchetta Excelsior has spacious rooms, with lake views, and includes breakfast. Recently refurbished rooms at the Palace Hotel overlook the lake near the boat landing and Milan train station; breakfast is included. Also adjacent to the Milano station and steamer landing, Albergo Terminus Hotel has old-world elegance in its public areas and modern up-to-date guest rooms, some with balconies overlooking the lake and mountains.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: A two-minute walk from the main train station and close to the lake, Borgo Antico Hotel offers a free continental breakfast and modern rooms with thoughtful details. Balconies in the smart, modern rooms at Posta Design Hotel overlook a busy square in the heart of town, near the lake and cathedral, but rooms on lower floors can be noisy. Hotel Plinius, in the center of town, halfway between the main station and the Duomo, has small rooms but includes breakfast.
  • Budget Hotels: About 10 minutes from the boat pier but a five-minute walk from the main station, family-run Hotel Engadina has basic rooms with free parking and continental breakfast included. Just off the lake, near the funicular up Brunate, Hotel Quarcino has free parking, is close to restaurants, and an easy walk to the Duomo. Some rooms have balconies with mountain views. Best Western Continental has small and somewhat dated but comfortable rooms near the main train station and a 10-minute walk from the lake and Duomo.

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Lake Como

The town of Como, at the southern end of Lake Como, is an hour from Milan. You can get there by train, then board one of the regular boats that stop at towns around the lake. A convenient way to see both the town and lake from Milan is to take a tour with a professional guide who can point out the highlights.

  • Full-Day Tour to Lake Como from Milan: A Lake Como Day Trip from Milan tour includes transport to Como by air-conditioned coach, a boat tour of Lake Como, free time for shopping in Como and visits to the town's highlights. From April to October, tours include time to explore picturesque Bellagio, while tours from November through March include a funicular ride up to the village of Brunate for views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
  • Visiting Lake Como on Your Own: Two different train lines leave Milan for Como, arriving at different stations, both within walking distance of the boat landing for lake ferries. These boats have varying routes, some stopping at more towns than others, but all offer unparalleled views of the lake, lakeside towns and villas, and mountains. You can ride the whole circuit or hop off to explore or stay overnight in lakeside towns.

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