Fairytale villages, beautiful lakeside villas and celebrity spotting on the enticing shores of Lake Como. Here's our day self-boating on this Italian gem.

While the hordes of tourists and A-listers who throng to Lake Como plant this Italian destination firmly in the travel fantasies of many, it still seems to cling effortlessly to every bit of the charm it’s famous for. Nestled between mountains, this Y shaped slender beauty stretches 46 kilometres along Italy’s Lombardy region.

Italy isn’t short on amazing places to visit, but if fairytale Italian villages, glamorous hotels, classical botanical gardens and beautiful lakeside views are your thing, Lake Como is sure to be one for the bucket list.  Thanks to a warmer microclimate fueled by the lake, dining outside under wisteria-draped patios subtly lit by lanterns, is possible for many months of the year.


Midway through an amazing 10 days in Italy, we started our Lake Como trip in Bellagio. Situated near the centre of the lake at the meeting point of the two legs, Bellagio has been the home to several noble families since the 15th century. Framed by expertly shaped cypress trees, its heritage is visible today in the beautiful villas and gardens dotting this idyllic town. After strolling around the alleyways, we headed for the lakefront to catch the Bellagio to Varenna ferry. It runs roughly every 30 minutes, takes just under 15 minutes, and offers great views.

Varenna is a small village, tucked into the rocks and ideally situated on a promontory where the three legs of the lake meet. Being a little off the regular tourist route, it’s a nice relaxing place to soak up the atmosphere. Full of narrow laneways that descend into the lake, it oozes charm and character. On our stroll around the town, we collected the Church of San Giorgio, the beautiful lakeside terraces along Villa Monastero and Villa Cipressi and took a pitstop at Varenna Caffé (Contrada Scoscesa 13), which had decent coffee and a fantastic selection of innovative bruschettas. It turned out to be a great breakfast find.


Next up was Tremezzo – around 40 minutes by ferry – to visit Villa Carlotta. This amazingly picturesque villa, located at the top of a formal terrace garden with views across the lake to Bellagio, is reminiscent of some of the incredible locations in Cinque Terre. The second floor of the villa has a very impressive art collection, compiled by Giovanni Battista who was in a position of power under Napoleon’s Northern Italian government. The collection contains a number of impressive works including marble sculptures Eros and Psyche by Adamo Tadolini and Mars and Venus by Luigi Acquisti dating to 1805. The botanical gardens the villa rests on top of, contain bountiful ferns, azaleas, rhododendrons and small redwoods. You could be mistaken for thinking you were in Japan with these amazingly manicured gardens.

After the villa, we had lunch at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. This beautifully set grand old dame with sweeping views across the lake is worth poking your head inside for a peek at the sumptuous art deco interiors. Unfortunately, however, we had a very disappointing lunch of lazily slopped together, uninspiring and overpriced dishes – nothing like the inspiring traditional Italian food elsewhere.  But if you are willing to forgive them for crimes against food, the view from the deck is simply stunning. There are other options along the front if you’d prefer food over location. Sometimes it’s a difficult choice when you have such sumptuous views on offer.


After being thoroughly enamoured by Lago di Braies in the Italian Dolomites, it was time to see more of this other famous Italian lake by boat. We found Lake By Boat the best value operator at the time of our visit for what we wanted to achieve: 1 hour or so feeling like James Bond exploring this fantastic area. The boat rental was €70 for the hour which comfortably housed all four of us and would take 6 with no problem.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of doing something you don’t do very often and not totally failing at it. None of us had ever really driven (sailed? skippered?) a boat before, so with some apprehension I was selected as the designated captain for our tour. After a quick explanation of the mechanics of the boat from the friendly chaps at Lake By Boat, we were on our way. Luckily the instruction for the boat took a total of 5 minutes and comprised “push this forward to go, back to stop, and steer this wheel like a car.” Anyone with a simple grasp of a Sony PlayStation could handle this baby with ease.

From the boat dock at Bellagio (located not where the ferries depart but at the tip of the town), you can make your way – via your own route – to a number of fantastic sights on the lake. We started off by heading back past Varenna to line up our perfect travel shots just the way we wanted them, then across the lake to sail by those beautiful gardens in Tremezzo – an unmissable attraction on any Northern Italy itinerary.


We knew in advance the one thing we really wanted to see was Villa Balbianello. As the site of a Franciscan monastery from the 13th century, Balbianello was a seat of republican activity in the late 18th century when it was purchased by the Visconti family who has made numerous renovations to the villa and the gardens since. The balustrade still carries the Visconti emblem today. The villa is more famous today for being the hospital where Daniel Craig recuperates after some shenanigans in Casino Royale. Call me a tourist, but I get a kick out of seeing movie locations in the flesh.

After Balbianello, we cruised around the lake some more and stumbled across Villa La Cassinella. Only accessible by boat or helicopter – and I think the later would take some more training – this magnificent villa is a feast for the eyes; in particular, the quality of their topiary is second to none. The boat company told us this property was owned by Richard Branson, however, Richard himself disputes this saying “George Clooney is reputedly my next-door neighbour. My wife Joan is very sad to report that this is untrue. George once said he wanted to swap lives with me for 24 hours. As quick as a flash, Joan said: Done!”

After villa spotting on the lake, we made our way back to the boat dock to finish our lake-faring journey. At this point, I was keen to hand over the reins to one of my passengers as I wasn’t looking forward to the manoeuvre required to get this thing safely to dock. I admit I was only partially listening to this part of the instruction because I had that joystick in my hands and I wanted to go. My passengers declined, leaving the job to me, which I completed satisfactorily thanks to the helpful advice being shouted out by the three voices sipping champagne behind me.

As this sun was still shining and the weather warm, we strolled back into Bellagio and found a nice spot on the front for a couple of Aperol Spritz as the sun went down over the lake. Como is a beautiful destination for a couple of days, and with a bit of searching you’ll be surprised at the value you can find in some of its local establishments. For us, the complimentary food that was delivered with our Aperol Spritz was enough to satisfy and cap off a fantastic day on Lake Como.


The ferry service on Lake Como is regular, however, there are fast boats and slow boats, getting from one end of the lake to the other can take up to two hours, so check the schedules here in advance. Slow boats run until 1 October at which point everything shuts down.

In the lower end of the lake ferries stop at Como, Tavernola, Cernobbio, Moltrasio and Torno (with some additional stops), and in the middle section, the stops are Varenna, Menaggio, Bellagio, Tremezzo and Lenno. Look out for these destinations when booking your accommodation for easy access to the ferry network. A €15 daily ticket is available for unlimited journeys on the ferry, however, the individual return trips are not expensive so a quick calculation is required before you take that option.

Looking for other great things to do in Italy, here are 23 great reasons to visit Verona.

Beautiful villas and idyllic Italian villages - celebrity spotting on Lake Como.

Beautiful villas and idyllic Italian villages - celebrity spotting on Lake Como.