Varenna, a beguiling village bursting with florid plantlife, exotic flowery perfumes and birdsong, is a short ferry ride away from its rival in postcard beauty, Bellagio. Its pastel-coloured houses defy the standard laws of physics, seeming to grip for all they're worth to the steep slopes that rise from the lake. Make sure not to miss the Villa Monastero, a former-convent-turned-private-residence in the 17th century.
It's impossible not to be smitten by Bellagio's waterfront of bobbing boats, its maze of steep stone staircases, red-roofed and green-shuttered buildings, dark cypress groves and rhododendron-filled gardens. Like the prow of a beautiful vessel, it sits at the crux of the inverted Y that is Lake Como; the Como and Lecco arms of the lake wash off to port and starboard. Wander out of the old town centre to Punta Spartivento and gaze north up the third arm towards the Alps. In Roman times, Pliny had one of his favourite villas here.
Bellagio is hardly a secret. On summer weekends, foreign tourists are overwhelmed by hordes of day trippers up from Milan. Try to come midweek if you want a modicum of peace. It makes a nice base for ferry trips to other locations on the lake, in particular Varenna, on Lake Como's east shore.
With its charming historic centre, Como sparkles year-round. Within its remaining 12th-century city walls, the beautiful people of this prosperous city whisk about from shop to cafe, sweeping by the grandeur of the city's cathedral, villas and the loveliness of its lakeshore with admirable insouciance. The town is a lovely spot for an aimless wander, punctuated with coffee and drink stops, especially in Piazzas Cavour, Alessandro Volta and San Fedele.
In 1127, the Milanese conquered Como's forces and ordered the destruction of all walls and buildings save its churches. Centuries later, Como built its wealth on the silk industry and it remains Europe's most important producer of silk products. You can buy silk scarves and ties for a fraction of what is charged at boutiques internationally.
Como is flanked to the east and west by steep and thickly wooded hills (scarred in part by the spread of residential housing). Northeast along the waterfront from central Como, the Funicolare Como–Brunate takes just seven minutes to reach Brunate, a quiet residential village which seems to float above Lake Como – it sits at 720m above sea level. The views are pretty but partial – this is not the place for a sweeping panorama unless you walk further into the hills. Brunate's baroque Chiesa di San Andrea , with its faded pink exterior and giant bell peeking out of the bell tower, is hard to miss. In San Maurizio , a steep 40-minute walk (the first stage of the Dorsale hike) from Brunate's funicular stop, scale 143 steps to the top of the lighthouse, built in 1927 to mark the centenary of Alessandro Volta's death. The Como tourist office can provide a map with various suggested walks around Brunate.
Lecco is an array of centuries-old villas and parks decorating a mighty, mountainous background.
The city of Lecco grew rapidly beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, and eventually became one of the most important Italian industrial centers. Today, it is the capital of a wealthy and productive Province.
The city enjoys an almost unique position, surrounded by a fantastic, fairytale-like countryside. Barricaded between rugged mountains, the wide basin is dominated by the Grigne Mountain Group, San Martino and the unmistakable crest of Resegone - mountains so beloved by artists the likes of Alessandro Manzoni and Stendhal.
A 1km walk along the lake shore from Lenno's main square, Villa Balbianello has cinematic pedigree: this was where scenes from the 2006 James Bond remake, Casino Royale and Star Wars Episode II were shot. The reason? It is one of the most dramatic locations anywhere on Lake Como. Built by Cardinal Angelo Durini in 1787, Villa Balbianello was used for a while by Allied commanders at the tail end of WWII. The sculpted gardens, which seem to drip off the high promontory like sauce off a melting gelato cone, are the perfect place for hopelessly romantic elopers to spend a day. Visitors are only allowed to walk the 1km path (amid vegetation so florid as to seem Southeast Asian) from the Lenno landing stage to the estate on Tuesday and at weekends. On other days, you have to take a taxi boat from Lenno. If you want to see the villa, you must join a guided tour (generally conducted in Italian) by 4.15pm.
Tremezzo (population 1300) is high on everyone's list for a visit to the 17th-century, waterfront Villa Carlotta, whose botanic gardens are filled with colour in spring from orange trees knitted into pergolas and some of Europe's finest rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias. The villa, strung with paintings, sculptures (some by Antonio Canova) and tapestries, takes its name from the Prussian princess who was given the place in 1847 as a wedding present from her mother. Upstairs, rooms with period furniture provide an insight into the life of the princessly. You too can swan from the Salotto Impero (Empire Room) to Carlotta's bedroom and wonder what it must have been like to hit the hay after a hard day at the villa. It is a short walk southwest of the Cadenabbia car ferry stop.
Of all Cernobbio's villas, Villa d'Este, a 16th-century palace that now houses a luxury hotel, has the loveliest gardens. They burst with spring colour – rhododendrons, camellias, hydrangeas, oleanders, azaleas and jasmine bushes. Among the many grand trees is a venerable plane tree more than 500 years old. You can visit only in groups of no fewer than 10 people by prior booking.
Villa Erba (Jana's favorite villa)
The 19th-century Villa Erba has been turned into a congress centre, sporting a somewhat incongruous modern glass structure plonked down near the villa. That said, business generated has allowed the creation of a museum inside the villa. It is open only for organised visits that are booked ahead.
Boat Rides on the Lake Como:
- Lake Como Paid Tours: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/italy/lombardy-and-the-lakes/lago-di-como/activities/sightseeing-tours/lake-como-day-trip-milan/item-v-2872ZV07-id
- Lake Como Public Ferry Rides: http://www.navigazionelaghi.it/
- Expo: http://www.expo2015.org/it
- A great guide to things to do in Milan: http://www.timeout.com/city-guides/20-great-things-to-do-in-milan/
Other cities to visit:
- Bergamo (30 min away from Milan and from Lecco): http://wikitravel.org/en/Bergamo
- Rome (3 hour train ride with Italo or Frecciarossa, 2-3 day trip): http://wikitravel.org/en/Rome
- Venice and Verona (1-2 day trip)
Verona (2 hours away from Milan): http://wikitravel.org/en/Verona
Venice (1 hour farther than Verona to the east): http://wikitravel.org/en/Venice
- Bologna/Parma (a day trip)
Parma (1 hr 30 min away from Milan): http://wikitravel.org/en/Parma
Bologna (30 min more east of Parma): http://wikitravel.org/en/Bologna
- Firenze/Siena (1-2 day trip)
Florence (3 hrs by car from Milan) - http://wikitravel.org/en/Florence
Siena (1 hour south of Florence) - http://wikitravel.org/en/Siena