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La Dolce Vita in the Italian Lakes: Visiting Como, Italy

La Dolce Vita in the Italian Lakes: Things to do in Como, Italy

Lake Como epitomises La Dolce Vita – conjuring up images of 1950s film stars speeding across its sparkling waters on motorboats or zipping through narrow streets on a Vespa. This famous lake lies to the north of Milan, where Italy meets Switzerland. In the summer months it’s overrun by glamorous crowds of second-homeowners and day-trippers from Milan, but in spring and autumn it’s a lot more peaceful. The town of Como is often used as a stepping stone to luxury hotspots like Bellagio and Varenna, but it’s got plenty of charm of its own – and some not-so-A-list prices. So here are the best things to do in Como, Italy – on and off the water.

Read more: The first-timer’s guide to visiting the Cinque Terre

Things to do in Como, Italy

The funicular railway from Como town to Brunate

The funicular to Brunate

Take the funicular to Brunate

For the best view around, head into the hills above Como town to the village of Brunate. The climb to the top starts from an unassuming wooden building alongside the lake in Piazza Alcide de Gasperi. Since 1894 a funicular railway has been carrying people between Como and Brunate. Trains run around every 30 minutes and cost €3 one way or €5.50 return, and the journey only takes seven minutes, with the two trains passing each other halfway.

The funicular’s gradient is as steep as you can get at 55°, with the red roofs of Como town and the blue of the lake spreading out in front of you as you rise up. If you can tear your eyes away from the lake, look out for muntjac deer among the trees next to the tracks. Brunate is a holiday resort for well-heeled Milanese who built smart Art Nouveau villas looking out over the lake. It’s nicknamed the ‘balcony of the Alps’ and on a clear day you can see why.

The funicular railway from Como town to Brunate

The funicular and one of Brunate’s churches

In winter it’s covered in a thick layer of snow, and most villas were still shuttered up in April, but there are churches to explore and a few cafés and restaurants where you can take in the panoramic views. There’s also a network of walking paths from Brunate, including a 6km mule path which takes you down to Torno on the lakeside. But we decided 700 metres wasn’t quite high enough, so we headed on up towards the Faro Voltiano – Volta’s Lighthouse.

The lighthouse is named after physicist Alessandro Volta who lived in Brunate for a while, and was built in 1927 to mark the centenary of his death. The route to the top took us about 30 minutes, running through the narrow streets of Brunate and on up a rocky path to the lighthouse. From the top you get a view over the lake from a different angle, looking down at the towns of Chiasso and Cernobbio, and over the border into neighbouring Switzerland.

Views from Volta's Lighthouse in Como town, Italy

Looking out from the lighthouse

Set sail on Lake Como

The lake is the hub of life in Como, with a constant streams of boats – from vintage cruisers to car ferries – as well as seaplanes coming in to land. Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy, stretching 50km from one end to the other and shaped like a wishbone, with the town of Como at the bottom of the left fork. Along the lakefront are a string of towns, villages, opulent palazzos and gardens. So one of the best ways to explore Lake Como is on the water.

There are tons of different options for boat trips on the lake. We took a one-hour circuit of the Basin of Como with Navigazione Laghi, which calls at Cernobbio, Moltrasio and Torno. Tickets cost €7.60 per person or €8.90 for a day ticket where you can hop on and off along the way. With the sun shining and the breeze fluttering the flag behind us, it was a relaxing way to soak up the views, with villages spilling down from the surrounding hills to the water’s edge.

Boat trip on Lake Como with Navigazione Laghi

A boat tour around Lake Como

There are also longer day tours to the central part of the lake and the towns of Bellagio and Varenna, Villa Carlotta’s art museum and botanical gardens, and Piona’s Cistercian Abbey. Or ferries shuttle between towns from Como to Colico, with normal and faster hydrofoil services. Or if you want to channel Sophia Loren, you can hire a classic wooden Riva speedboat and captain for a spin around the lake – headscarf, giant sunglasses and prosecco a must.

A bit more affordable are the self-hire motorboats, which you can hire by the hour (with or without boating experience). Having your own boat means you can go wherever you like, and take a closer look at villas with famous owners or a film star past, including Villa del Balbianello which has featured in films like Casino Royale and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

A classic wooden Riva speedboat on Lake Como

Seeing the lake in style

Explore Como’s old town

There’s more to Como than just the lake, and the historic heart of the centro storico stretches back from the waterfront. Most of it is pedestrianised so it’s easy to wander through its medieval squares, cobbled passages and churches. There are also some of the original city walls and gates still standing. Where a lot of Lake Como’s villages are straight from a postcard, Como feels more like a ‘real’ place with locals shopping and downing espressos in its pavement cafés.

The giant dome of the cathedral, the Duomo di Como, dominates the town’s skyline. It took from 1396 to 1740 to build so mixes up different architectural styles. Head inside to take a look at its paintings and tapestries – and don’t forget to look up to where the ceiling is decorated with blue and gold. Como is also famous for its silk, and there’s a museum about silk-making called the Museo della Seta as well as shops where you can buy locally made fabrics.

Inside and outside the Duomo cathedral in Como's centro storico

Como’s Duomo

Walk the waterfront

Join the locals for a promenade along the lakefront walkway – there’s a steady stream from pram-pushing mums in the morning to elderly gents putting the world to rights before their evening aperitif. Head west from Piazza Cavour past rows of boats to the Tempio Voltiano, a Greek-style temple that’s another memorial to Alessandro Volta. It houses a museum about his life and work, with the instruments he used to create the first electric battery.

Just before you reach the temple, a narrow pier juts out into the harbour with a new Volta-inspired sculpture called Life Electric at the end of it. It was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind to look like voltage flowing between two poles of a battery (or so they say) and is made from reflective steel. Back on the waterfront you can watch the seaplanes coming into land at the Como Aero Club before reaching the lavish yellow and white Villa Olmo.

Neoclassical Villa Olmo on Lake Como, Italy

Villa Olmo

This neoclassical beauty was created by a Swiss architect at the end of the eighteenth century. Now it’s owned by the city and is used for exhibitions and events. But you can stroll through its gardens with their sculptures and fountains. From the villa it’s about a mile back to the centre of Como. Or if you want to to carry on walking it’s another 30 minutes on to Cernobbio, where you can catch the boat back to Como if you don’t fancy the return walk.

Or head east from Piazza Cavour along the quieter path towards the water jet of the Como fountain. In April the trees lining the path were draped with blossom but in the summer there’s a public beach with pool next to Villa Geno, a smart waterside wedding venue. It’s just under a mile, and if you fancy a drink with a view on the way back, you can pick up a bargain €4 takeaway Aperol Spritz from the funicular station and grab a bench by the lake.

Waterfront walks along the shore of Lake Como, Italy

Walking the waterfront

Day trips from Como

A couple of days is enough to see the highlights of Como, but if you have more time there are some great day trips, including Milan which is under an hour away. We took the train from Como Lago station to Milan Cadorna. You can change onto the Metro to reach famous landmarks like the Duomo or the elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Or just outside the station is Castello Sforzesco – a huge Renaissance citadel surrounded by parkland that’s home to a diverse group of museums, from musical instruments to archaeology – perfect for a rainy day.

The Swiss border is even closer, and you can catch the train to Lugano in just over half an hour. This lakeside city is part of Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Ticino region. There are more boat trips available on its lake, funicular railways to the top of Monte San Salvatore or Monte Brè, a beach and pool to cool off in on a sunny day, or you can visit nearby Bellinzona with its hilltop castles. Though beware the prices in Switzerland are a lot higher than in Italy.

Boats on Lake Como

A boat on the lake

The details

How to get to Como, Italy

The region’s roads can be crazy, especially at weekends, but Como’s easy to reach by train. From the main station Como San Giovanni it’s an hour to Milano Centrale, or head north into Switzerland (35 minutes to Lugano or just under 3 hours to Zurich). There’s also the smaller Como Lago station with trains to Milan Cadorna. The nearest airport to Como is Milan Malpensa, which has some direct trains to Como or you can change at Milano Porta Garibaldi.

Where to stay in Como

We rented a one-bedroom AirBnB apartment, a few minutes from the lake close to Como Lago train station. It’s a light and spacious place with a terrace for evening drinks. The apartment cost £104 a night for two people, including fees (and if you’re new to AirBnB you can save £25 with this link). Or splash out at the five-star luxury VISTA Palazzo Lago di Como, a converted 19th-century palazzo overlooking the lake with a guest-only rooftop bar and restaurant.

The Life Electric sculpture in Como Italy

The Life Electric sculpture

What to eat in Como

Each region of Italy has its own local specialities, and Como is no exception. There’s freshwater fish from the lake, like perch which is served with a creamy white risotto in the dish risotto con il pesce persico, and sun-dried lake shad (which are a bit like sardines). There are also polenta dishes, cassoela (pork stew) and cheese from the mountains. And leave room for ice cream from Gelateria Lariana, whose lakeside location always has a queue out of the door.

Looking for somewhere to stay in Como?

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Exploring the Italian Lakes with the best things to do in Como, Italy, including the funicular to Brunate, boat trips on Lake Como and waterfront walks. #Como #LakeComo #ItalyLa Dolce Vita in the Italian Lakes: What to see and do in the town of Como on Italy's beautiful Lake Como #Como #LakeComo #Italy

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Johanna Bradley
    April 24, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    It’s every bit as beautiful as I remember, Lucy. 🙂 🙂 Many years since my visit and we didn’t manage the funicular. Shame! If ever I’m back that way… 🙂 Thanks for sharing! Hope you had a lovely Easter!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      April 24, 2019 at 1:33 pm

      Thanks Jo – such a lovely place, I was eying up a few waterfront villas which will do nicely! Hope you had a lovely Easter too, mine involved a lot of house painting and DIY but enjoyed the sunshine.

  • Reply
    Campervanfans
    April 24, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    Hello Lucy. We would like to share your story on our website. Since we were unable to find a ‘Press this’ button on this post, we would like to ask you for your permission to share.

  • Reply
    Martina Roy
    April 27, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    This is very really unique helpful information. keep it up. Thank you so much!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      April 27, 2019 at 5:20 pm

      You’re very welcome!

  • Reply
    Sharon Rausch
    May 2, 2019 at 7:07 am

    I learn so much from you as well! Thank you so much for sharing your helpful information.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 14, 2019 at 4:15 pm

      You’re very welcome!

  • Reply
    Anna Parker
    May 10, 2019 at 7:33 pm

    Love the beauty of the Italian lakes! We popped out to the lake when we were in Milan and visited the little towns by boat, better than staying in the city by a country mile (but didn’t find George Clooney..)

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 14, 2019 at 4:10 pm

      So lovely being out on the water!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    May 11, 2019 at 8:24 am

    Such a beautiful spot and one which I need to sort out a visit to soon! Lakeside walks, sailing and funicular to get the best views from – something for every kind of visitor!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 14, 2019 at 4:02 pm

      There really is a bit of everything – and the food and drink is a bonus too!

  • Reply
    Dylan Jones
    May 12, 2019 at 7:37 am

    The Italian Lakes look beautiful. You capture the feel of Como really well, I’d love to ride the funicular to see those awesome views from the hills.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 14, 2019 at 4:01 pm

      Can’t beat a view from up on high!

  • Reply
    Sally Akins
    May 13, 2019 at 2:22 pm

    Oh this is definitely somewhere I want to visit! The architecture and scenery look gorgeous, and I definitely like the idea of the self-hire motorboats

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 14, 2019 at 1:03 pm

      I need to go back just to do the motorboat trip, it looked so glamorous!

  • Reply
    Kathryn Burrington
    May 13, 2019 at 5:09 pm

    I’ve longed to visit this part of Italy for so long. I’m very envious, to say the least. I didn’t know anything about Como old town though. That ceiling in the cathedral looks fabulous! So pretty.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 14, 2019 at 1:01 pm

      I didn’t know much about Como itself either but it was a really nice surprise!

  • Reply
    Sharon Rausch
    May 16, 2019 at 10:54 am

    I can hear good sound thank you so much for sharing nice post.

  • Leave a Reply

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