Looking for a relaxing day trip away from the business buzz of Milan? Catch the train and head North to Lake Como, a long, winding lake tucked at the base of the Italian Alps. Lake Como is renowned for its natural beauty. Many people in Europe refer to Lake Como as a popular resort destination. The seemingly most popular fact being that George Clooney has a summer home on the lake… Ok, cool I guess. But all jokes aside, this lake is not just for superstars, it is a very doable and incredibly worthwhile trip. You can spend your day exploring colorful villages, visiting lavish villa gardens or old Roman castles, and indulging in pasta and gelato at a lakeside café. I mean, who’s to say, maybe you will even catch a glimpse of George cruising his boat around the lake!
Lake Como meanders through the valley between the mountains. Each pocket of water along the coast holds its own little town perched along the hillside with colorful houses and stone churches. Although, this beauty is not totally easy to come across, because it does require a bit of planning. Within one day from Milan, you can easily hit three small, lake towns: Como, Bellagio and Varenna.
I found that while planning our trip, it was really difficult to find information regarding what to do and how to get around. Perhaps because not many people attempt to do all three cities in one day. (It is a bit ambitious)
So hopefully this can come in handy for someone. You can buy train tickets ahead of time at trenitalia.com and the ferry tickets the day of. Make sure to check schedules, because the ferry online runs twice a day. And check the weather too, because you definitely don’t want to take a two hour ferry ride in the rain!
- Catch a morning train from Milan Central Station to San Giovanni in Como at the southernmost tip of the lake (Trenitalia, 30 minutes and 4.80€)
- Take the scenic ferry ride from Como to Bellagio, a small town on a peninsula (2 hours and 12€)
- Hop on the ferry again from Bellagio to your last stop the eastern side of the lake, Varenna (30 minutes and 6€)
- Finally, take an evening train back to Milan from Varenna Esino Station (Trenitalia, 45 minutes and 6.70€)
*You could surely do the same trip in reverse if you prefer, but I recommend it this way because Varenna is the perfect place to have dinner and watch the sunset.
Once we arrived in Como, we walked through the cute downtown, past a town hall and university building towards the lake. It was a quiet and cloudy morning, so we peacefully strolled through plazas surrounded by pastel-colored buildings.
The architecture actually reminded me of the buildings in Salzburg and Innsbruck, which makes sense because the lake was controlled by the Austrians for a few decades in the 1700s. It was also originally founded by the Greeks, Caesar sent troops there in the first century BC to protect trade between Italy and Switzerland. Clearly, this territory has always (and will always) be highly sought after.
In downtown Como there was a street market with local meats, like boar and prosciutto, and cheeses and wines. A happy, old man was playing a piano in the square next to the main cathedral, Cattedrale di Como, which by the way, is gorgeous inside and out. This Piazza Duomo is the perfect place to get a morning cappuccino.
After wandering around the shops in the downtown, walk along the lakeside and through the narrow residential streets to the Funicular, Funicolare Como-Brunate. You can pay a couple euro to ride an old, red cable-car up to the top of a hill where there is a small town called Brunate. Its a short, fun ride; you can see beautiful villas built on the slopes while also enjoying the incredible, mountain views.
At the top there are some shops, terrace restaurants and houses. We ran around taking pictures and followed the soft sound of an choir singing a capella into an elegant, open-air cathedral, the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea Apostolo.
After hurrying down the funicular, we boarded the ferry and enjoyed the trip to the next town, Bellagio. The ferry was quite crowded with tourists, but of course for good reason. It was absolutely beautiful. The alpine crystal waters contrast perfectly with the warmly-colored houses and the deep emerald hills.
Bellagio proved to be a much more charming village than Como. It is also probably the most touristic of the three cities. You can spend your afternoon strolling up and down the cobblestone staircases built on a hillside, checking out small shops, wine bars, art galleries and cafés. Lots of the apartments have hanging plants and beautiful wrought-iron balconies with lakeside views.
It would be nearly impossible to not enjoy the stone arches, spring flowers and fairy-tale like atmosphere, and of course, the smell of fresh baked pizza wafting through the alleyways. There are unlimited choices of food, but we had a yummy lunch at a corner restaurant called Vecchio Borge. After we wandered around, check out a couple old churches and strolled through the strolling through the Parco Martiri della Libertà. Before hopping on the next ferry we got pistachio gelato.
Once we had our fill of beautiful Bellagio, we decided to move along to our last stop, Varenna. So we hopped back on the ferry for another short ride.
While the three lakeside villages are small and similar in style and architecture, they each have their own particular feel, thanks to the different layouts and monuments. Varenna is known for its small-town, sleepy, fisherman vibes, lavish garden villas and the Castello di Vezio.
Although we didn’t make it up to the castle, we spent a while getting lost on the small, winding streets. We often followed the bright colored walls, choosing our route by whichever direction seemed most appealing at the time. But even around every nook, cranny and corner of the village, the lake is almost always in sight. We stumbled upon many narrow, photogenic stairways and churches covered in moss and ivy. The main cathedral, San Giorgio is a 14th Century stone masterpiece with painted fresco ceilings.
Tempted by seeing the hundreds of refreshing, pink Spritz drinks, we settled in to eat dinner at a restaurant along the water called Bar il Molo. We had paninis and gnocchi while sipping our summery cocktails and watching the sun set across the lake. Couldn’t get much better than that.
Honestly, after having been to a few different parts of Italy, I can confidently say that I think Lake Como is the most beautiful place I’ve seen in Italy… and MAYBE even one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in Europe.
When I reflect upon my weekend trip now, I enjoyed our day at Lake Como much more than the city of Milan itself. Nothing against Milan, these small towns are just breathtakingly unique, and incredibly manageable. You feel so productive after having seen three towns in one day! I would even fly into Milan solely for the purpose of returning to the lake. So trust me (and Caesar and George), its worth the trip.