Lake Como, Italy frequently tops lists of the world's most scenic lakes. Whether or not your personal ratings match up, there is no denying that this area possesses the charm and beauty necessary to attract some of the world's wealthiest tourists, many of whom buy pricey mansions along the shoreline.
You need not bring riches to this popular destination. In fact, you can enjoy an affordable visit if you arrive armed with some of the tips highlighted below. Lake Como makes a great budget travel escape when exploring Central Europe.
Welcome to Lake Como
Glaciers carved out the formation of Lake Como, which looks like an inverted letter Y on maps. There are towns located up and down the lake shore, but the most visited and revered of these line up in the middle of the inverted Y and are connected by ferry services. These are organized according to west shore, south shore, and east shore locations.
The best-known towns for visitors are Bellagio, Menaggio, and Lierna. Other cities that attract visitors include Varenna, and Como.
When to Visit
The most popular season for visitors is summer, with its relative warmth for exploring and boating. Winter visitors usually combine a lake visit with skiing in the nearby Alps. Several Italian ski resorts are a short distance from Lake Como, and St. Moritz, Switzerland is also within about two hours, assuming Maloja Pass is open.
Autumn is an excellent season for visiting Lake Como, as accommodations are more likely to be available amid much smaller crowds. If you arrive outside of those warm months, be certain to check for closings on roadways, rail services and exhibits. Many will use the quieter months to retool or reduce services.
Where to Stay
For an area of relatively small population, the Lake Como region offers a wide array of accommodations at all price points. Many of these operations are rather small, and the good ones book up quickly with word-of-mouth publicity and repeat customers. If you find a place you like, it's best to make reservations as early as possible.
In Menaggio, the Garni Corona Hotel is located on the town square or piazza. A renovation was completed in 2015, and room rates appear to be a bit higher than in years past. But this is still a good mid-range choice that offers a great location and free breakfast each morning.
A short walk uphill from town reveals the Menaggio Youth Hostel, which almost certainly must offer one of the best views of any hostel in Europe. Triple rooms can be had for under $50/night.
Airbnb.com lists the average nightly rate in this area at about $135 USD. But a recent search revealed roughly 300 properties offered at less than $100/night. You'll find some of those selections are impractical if not conveniently connected to good transportation or a heavily visited town along the lake. In other words, to connect with some of the best offers, you might need to rent a car. Plan accordingly.
Where to Eat
Larian cuisine prevails in the Lake Como area, but you can find inexpensive meals in many of the towns. Beware of the lakefront places that cater mostly to tourists. Although some of them are excellent, others serve up overpriced meals that rely more on views than delicious food.
You can splurge here without breaking the bank. Look for places that offer fixed price menus, which typically provide an appetizer, entree, and dessert.
In the town squares (piazzas) of Lake Como's towns and villages, quite a few deli-style restaurants serve sandwiches, pizza, and other modestly priced food. This is not a place where you'll find large chain restaurants. Be grateful for the break and explore the possibilities.
The local favorites here include braised wild boar (native to the hillsides along the lake), and fresh lake perch.
Trains run about a dozen times a day between Varenna Esino and Milan Centrale. The trip takes about an hour, and budget seats are sometimes less than $10 USD. From the train station, it's a short walk to the Varenna docks, where access opens up to other nearby communities via efficient ferry services.
If you can't afford an extended boat trip on Lake Como, you can at least enjoy the ferry rides. A short run between Varenna and Menaggio, for example, is less than €5 and often quite enjoyable. A band of thunderstorms can result in delays or cancellations, so keep your plans flexible.
If you have a car, be aware that many of the town centers here are devoted to pedestrian traffic, and parking might be difficult in summer. But those with cars can enjoy some terrific scenic drives.
Buses also connect the Lake Como towns, and are useful in navigating some of the larger urban areas where walking is more difficult. Cabs are not always easy to find here, and tend to be expensive.
Castle of Vezio
If you're up to it, another great afternoon can be spent climbing the trail from the Hotel Olivedo and exploring the Castle of Vezio, (Castello di Vezio) which hovers over Varenna on a steep hillside. This venue was featured on an episode of CBS-TV's The Amazing Race.
Views from the grounds of the castle are spectacular, and once you hoof it to the top, you'll understand why this place was chosen as a defensive position in the Middle Ages. Taxis will take you from Varenna to the summit for about €12. If you hike, expect the ascent to take about 45-60 minutes.
Admission to the grounds is €4. A falconry demonstration also is staged at certain times of the year. Be sure to check schedules for the castle, as times of operation vary by season.
Day Trip: Milan
Milan is just more than an hour by train from the Varenna station. Although some claim it takes a back seat to other Italian cities such as Venice and Rome, it is nonetheless a city that will keep you busy with quality attractions for several days. This is the home of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, and you'll need reservations and tickets to catch a glimpse of the masterpiece.
But the city also offers a peek into the world of high fashion, some historic gems, and the world-famous cathedral (Duomo) that is in itself worth a day trip.
Be aware of your time of day for travel to-and-from Milan. Avoid the peak commuter times and save money on train tickets.
More Lake Como Tips
Villa Carlotta offers a combination of museum and gardens that's tough to match on any other 70,000 square-foot patch of Italian soil. The villa dates back to the end of the 17th century, and you'll find about 150 varieties of flowering plants in the gardens, which are open all year.
Funicolare Como-Brunate provides rides to a beautiful vista, quiet walks, and some restaurants. The town of Brunate is just east of the village of Como. Although the funicular cars can be crowded, the town generally is not. Rides are less than €6 each way.
Como is at the bottom of the western leg of the lake's inverted Y shape, about 25 kilometers by road from Bellagio. It is a fun place to explore, and offers an excellent duomo that dates back to the 14th century.
Beware of wild boars if you explore the wooded areas surrounding the lake. They might be a favorite dish in local restaurants, but they can also pose a threat to hikers.
Some visitors allow themselves to be talked into attempts to swim across the lake. Even at its narrowest points, the distances are far more challenging than first appearances might suggest. The water is cold, even in summer. There are events in which experienced swimmers try this, but they have support staff following closely.
In places such as Bellagio, it's fun to set aside an afternoon to "get lost." No plans, no itineraries. Wander the narrow streets and explore the native shops.