Take a Road Trip Around Lake Como, Italy

Recently, while walking through New York’s flower district, I passed by several verdant trees on the sidewalk, including many mini cypresses. Within moments, I was transported back to my trip in Lake Como, Italy, the perfect synthesis of natural and man-made beauty. The scenery is jaw-dropping, while the towns and villas surrounding the lake are truly magnificent. Lake Como is doubly blessed. It is home to one of Italy’s most impressive and unforgettable vistas. The panoramic views of both make Lake Como the ultimate lakeshore vacation.

Even on this fourth visit, I was wowed yet again. My first two trips in my early 20s as a backpack-wearing day-tripper afforded me a taste of the lake. My whetted appetite inspired me to return eight years later with my husband to celebrate our fifth anniversary following the birth of our first child. We explored Tuscany, Venice and the lake region, including Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore, but Lake Como was clearly our favorite because it was the most spectacular.

On this trip, the easy one-hour drive from Milan to Lake Como was quite fun in the stick-shift Alfa Romeo, which was driven my husband. We drove through the town of Como, the center of the wishbone-shaped lake. The medieval, walled town is a bustling metropolis with people of all generations strolling and frolicking by the lake. Silk scarves and ties can be found everywhere as 80 percent of Europe’s silk comes from this region.

We headed a few minutes north to Cernobbio, home to one of the most iconic hotels in the world, Villa d’Este, where the cypress- and magnolia-lined driveway leads to Belle Époque-style grandeur. The hotel is set on prime lakefront real estate. The manicured gardens and hotel grounds are breathtaking. The gardens incorporate classic Italian Renaissance and English Victorian landscaping. We rushed to park our car and my husband proudly showed the welcoming staff a picture of us on their terrace during our earlier visit. He was convinced we both looked the same! We posed in the same spot on the terrace to take the “after” picture. My friends enjoyed the split photo posted on Instagram and agreed that we haven’t changed much.

While lingering through a delicious and leisurely Italian lunch of fresh salad and homemade pastas, we watched the sailboats, windsurfers, jet skis and canoes on the shimmering cobalt lake. As we strolled through the park-like gardens of the hotel, we relished the glorious views. Our afternoon was pure Italian idylls.  

Next stop was our hotel, several towns north in Tremezzo. The twisting roads that fringe the lake and the dramatic scenery from every angle make traffic seem irrelevant. The quaint towns with their waterfront eateries, gelato shops and boutiques were filled with local residents and tourists. At the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, we were given a warm welcome by the general manager, Silvio Vettorello, and the hotel’s friendly staff.

A palatial property enveloped in opulent décor, The Grand Hotel Tremezzo offers incredible views of the lake. The hotel décor is a great balance of traditional and contemporary furnishings in jewel tones. We were lucky as our room had a balcony overlooking the lake. The small but well-designed white marble bathroom had a deep bathtub and shower. I was impressed by the wealth of other amenities the hotel offered, including a spa, tennis courts, a wine bar and three pools, one of which floats on the lake. The La Terrazza restaurant is an excellent dining option, where the food, service and views are sublime. Our meals on the spacious balcony made for a serene dining experience.

The following morning, our first excursion was to Villa del Balbianello, which is the jewel of Lake Como. It is a stunning villa with equally impressive grounds that can only be approached by boat. Formerly owned by Guido Monzino, a wealthy explorer who collected artifacts from his global expeditions, the villa was bequeathed to the National Trust of Italy in 1988. The gloriously preserved interiors and gardens were featured in “Casino Royale,” a James Bond movie. Although the villa is a popular tourist destination, it was easy to navigate the crowds even during peak season.

We then headed by ferry across the lake to the most picturesque town in Europe — Bellagio. With winding cobbled streets, hanging wisteria vines from petal-soaked terraces and lake vistas from every angle, Bellagio has a charm like no other town. The snow-capped Alps hover in the background to add even more beauty to this fabled town. We dined at the terrace of the famed Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, which was built as a neoclassical villa in 1850 before becoming a hotel.

We marveled at the scenery around us at the water’s edge before strolling a short distance into the Villa Melzi Garden on the bank of the lake. As we ambled along the interesting sculptures dotting the lake, we were amazed by the vistas and the snow-capped peaks. Gazebos and pergolas dot the expansive gardens. By our third morning, I announced to our breakfast server that my plan was to lounge by the floating pool and process the beauty around me. He politely smiled but declared that I can’t do so before visiting Villa Carlotta next door.

My husband and I wondered if there was anything even more spectacular still left to be seen. Yet, once we caught a glimpse of the elaborate wrought iron fence of Villa Carlotta with its ascending marble steps and colorful gardens, we were more than impressed. It is a masterpiece embodying nature and art in pure harmony.

The lakeshore villa faces the Dolomites and the peninsula of Bellagio. The views throughout the 17-acre park are divine. We walked amongst diverse varieties of azaleas, rhododendron, camellias and fragrant citrus trees before heading to the bamboo forest. Finally, we toured the Villa, which was a wedding gift to Carlotta around the 1850s.  As it turned out, Villa Carlotta was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

After spending a few hours lounging by the pool, we headed to the nearby town of Lenno for dinner. My friend had advised not to miss this dinner experience. I am grateful our Waze navigated us as we zigzagged up the steep slopes toward Al Veluu Ristorante, nestled in the hills. After being received by Luca and Cheryl, we were led through the fruit and vegetable garden to a balcony that afforded scenic views of the lake and Villa del Balbianello. As the sun set, we dined al fresco for a classic and delicious Italian meal. We drank fresh Bellini from the nearby peach trees. The impeccable service, food and ambiance made our romantic dinner memorable.

We could have easily stayed a few more days to travel to the eastern shores of the lake, hike the nearby mountains or even drive to Lugano or St. Moritz, both just an hour away. Sadly, I actually underestimated the amount of time needed to experience this fabulous destination. Lake Como does not leave you; its allure endures and stays with you long after you leave. I look forward to my next taste of this dolce vita.