Tucked away in the Italian Alps, Lake Como has been considered one of the most glamorous travel destinations in Europe since Ancient Roman times. Centuries-old villas that once housed the crème de la crème of Italian aristocracy still skirt the lakeshore, and modern-day residents have included elite celebrities like George Clooney, Giovanni Versace, Lionel Messi, and Madonna. But just because Lake Como has a reputation for luxury doesn't mean it's inaccessible. In fact, this alpine retreat is just a short train ride away from Milan and has plenty to enjoy for travelers on a budget.
As the most popular option of Northern Italy's lakes, there's plenty of incentive to visit Lake Como. Come for the picture-perfect vistas, a romantic weekend getaway, an afternoon of boating on the lake, or for the charm of the idyllic lakeside villages. Whatever your reasons, a trip to Lago di Como never disappoints.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit since the weather is still quite pleasant and the lake is much less crowded than the summer months. During the winter, ferries will run less frequently and many lakeside hotels and restaurants will close for the season, but you can ski in the nearby mountains and enjoy the wintry solitude of the lake.
Lake Como is a popular weekend destination for people from Milan, so weekdays may be less crowded. July and August are the months when many Italians have vacation from school and work, and the refreshing escape of this alpine lake from the heat makes it one of the most popular destinations to visit.
Since it's become an international tourist destination, English is widely spoken and understood in most hotels, restaurants, and attractions around Como. However, learning some key Italian phrases never hurts. While all of the local residents speak Italian, part of the charm of Lake Como is that each of the small villages around the lake also has its own distinct dialect. Walking around and exploring, it's common to hear neighbors speaking to each other in their local tongue.
As with the rest of Italy—and most of Europe—the local currency is the euro. While paying with a Visa or Mastercard usually isn't an issue, some smaller businesses may only accept cash, but ATMs are widely available in the town of Como. Be aware that if you cross the nearby border into Switzerland, the currency changes to the Swiss franc.
Ferries link the major villages and towns of Lake Como, providing both a cheap form of public transportation and a convenient way to do some sightseeing from the lake. There is also a bus system to villages around the lake and several funiculars to take you for a scenic ride into the hills. You can rent a car in Como if you want to explore other nearby areas on your own, although be aware that most of the local villages are designed for pedestrians and parking isn't easy.
The funicular from Como to Brunate provides rides to a beautiful vista, quiet walks, and some top restaurants. The town of Brunate is just east of the village of Como and although the funicular cars can be crowded, the town generally is not. Rides are less than 6 euros each way, or roughly $7.
Things to Do
Outdoor activities are the best way to take advantage of Lake Como's breathtaking natural beauty, from watersports to hiking to boating. If you're visiting in the winter months, then the Alps are just a stone's throw away for excellent skiing and snowboarding options.
- Head to the Water: To fully enjoy Lake Como, you have to be on Lake Como. When the weather is warm, nothing beats renting a boat and water-skiing on the lake with friends. If you're traveling alone or seeking a more affordable option, don't overlook the ferries. Not only are they a great way to explore other towns, but they're a cheap way to get scenic views of surrounding mountains from the lake.
- The Gardens of Villa Carlotta: These luscious gardens in the village of Tremezzo cover 20 acres of rich landscape with exotic plants and flora. Once you're there it's easy to see why it's one of the most popular attractions around Lake Como, not to mention one of the most romantic. After strolling around the gardens, check out the historical art collection inside the villa itself.
- Get Out of Como: Como is the eponymous town around the lake and the first destination if you arrive by train from Milan, but don't limit yourself to the city limits. The lakeshore is dotted with quaint and picturesque Italian villages, some of the most popular ones being Bellagio, Varenna, and Menaggio.
Read up on the 10 Best Things to Do in Lake Como for more ideas on how to get the most out of your trip.
What to Eat and Drink
You don't need to be next to the sea for great seafood, since restaurants around Como often offer fresh-caught fish right from the lake. Perch is one of the specialties of the area and to eat it like a local, try the risotto with perch (risotto con il pesce persico). If you're a fan of grilled sardines in the summer, you have to try missoltino, or sun-dried lake shad. Locals will tell you to watch out for wild boar while hiking, but you should seek it out on the menus of Como restaurants, often served braised or in a stew.
Although not as internationally famous as Tuscany, the region of Lombardy where Como is located is one of the biggest wine producers in Italy. If you aren't familiar with what to choose, don't worry. All of the high-end restaurants have a sommelier who can provide guidance and if you're in a small bistro, the owners surely have a delicious house wine to try.
For more must-try dishes and the best places to try them, check out our review of Lake Como's best meals.
Where to Stay
Lake Como has a variety of lodging options, from campgrounds to historic villas to luxurious five-star retreats. Bellagio is one of the most popular—and most elegant—cities to stay in, and the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio is a top luxury hotel and one of the oldest. Grand Hotel Tremezzo is another luxury option, while the modern Hilton Lake Como offers a wide range of rates, depending on the season. The Lake Como Hostel in Menaggio is easier on the wallet and also has to be the hostel with the best view in all of Europe.
See the top-rated Lake Como hotels for more of the best places to stay around the lake.
The easiest way to get to Lake Como is by train from Milan. The ride is only 40 minutes from Milano Centrale station to Como San Giovanni station, right in the center of the town of Como. Trains run more frequently in the busy summer months but also book up faster, so buy tickets early to get a seat and snag the best deals.
Money Saving Tips
Lake Como has a reputation for luxury and exorbitant traveling, but you don't need a big budget to visit this scenic paradise. If you want to vacation like a celebrity but at a fraction of the price, just follow these tips.
- Take a Day Trip: Accommodations tend to be the most expensive part of staying around Lake Como, so you can save a lot of money by visiting for the day. It's a quick train ride from Milan and tickets start at under 10 euros for a roundtrip ticket (about $12). Leave in the morning, spend the day exploring, and head back to Milan by dinnertime for an excursion you'll never forget.
- Eat Inside the Town: Restaurants with balconies overlooking the lake may provide a beautiful backdrop, but more often than not, you'll be paying for the view when the food is unremarkable. Enjoy the views before and after lunch, but look for restaurants in the town farther away from the water. Not only will you find more authentic and higher quality meals, but you'll also avoid paying a premium for lake views.
- Go For a Hike: One of the best activities you can do around Lake Como also just happens to be free: hiking. The mountains that circle the lake provide endless routes for trekking and exploring, and all of them promise Instagram-worthy views of the landscape.