Lake Como, Italy – how to explore it on a budget

Author: | Last Updated: 20 Jul 2019

Julius Caesar was one of the greatest leaders of all time, so it stands to reason that he was a pretty clever guy. You can see signs of this even to this day: leap years? His idea to keep us in sync with the solar cycle. Bound books? He was one of the first people to store scrolls in this way. Travel to the northern Lombardy region of Italy and you’ll probably stumble upon another example of his inspired thinking …

Wedged in between steep, forested hills on the shores of Italy’s third biggest lake, you’ll find where he chose to build the town of Como. Almost impregnable from attacks, the town grew into a city and has flourished in the 2,000 odd years since. The incredible views of the surrounding scenery don’t hurt either. Nowadays, the region around Lake Como serves as a prime example of the stunning beauty and delicious cuisine that Italy has to offer.

The Lake Como region has traditionally been thought of as been expensive to visit for tourists. But is it possible to visit Lake Como on a budget. Definitely ! Here are some essential things to see and do on your visit that will not break the budget:

Sample​ the local cuisine

You don’t need me to tell you how incredible Italian food is. A lesser-known fact is that the Lombardy region is known for its superb risotto and pesto dishes.

Head to Via Vitani in Como’s old town. Not only will you be treated to one of the city’s most historic streets, you’ll also find a superb eatery there called ​Restaurant Degustaria ​ .
Once inside, overlooking either an interior courtyard or the bustling Roman street, I’d personally recommend the home-made pasta, topped with mouth-watering pesto freshly ground that day. The risotto is also perfectly cooked in the Lombard way, hitting you with an explosion of flavours with every forkful.

Tip: it’d be rude not to wash it down with a glass of the Curtefranca wine, a local favourite and a perfect accompaniment to the risotto.

Il Duomo di Como

Starting out in the city itself, it’s hard to miss the outstanding marble cathedral, known locally as Il Duomo di Como. The​ ​ importance of it to the locals cannot be overstated, nor can its beauty.

Carefully constructed over a period of almost 400 years, it shows off an assortment of styles, from Romanesque to Gothic, with the cherry on the
cake being its wonderful cupola. Once inside, you’ll be treated to a selection of golden tapestries from the Renaissance period.
Try and spot​ two statues of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, two Roman philosophers native to Como.

Marvel​ at the stately villas

With the Roman influence strong in the region, many wealthy visitors over the centuries were inspired to build grand houses overlooking the water.

The most famous result being the Villa del Olmo, a majestic 18th century mansion built close to the city. Its splendour attracted Napoleon Bonaparte to stay here as a guest and you can imagine the view he would have had, opening his room’s curtains in the mornings to see huge gardens spread out between him and the lake.

Further up the lake is Punta Balbianello, near Lenno, a wonderful stately home on a peninsula that juts out into the lake, giving it panoramic views of the water.

Ride​ the cable car

From the city itself, look out to the lake and turn your head to the right: carved into the wooded hill, you’ll see a cable-car slowly ambling its way to the top. This is the funicular, essential for any visit.

For a few euros, jump on board and you’ll begin your ascent towards the pretty hilltop village of Brunate, with its baroque Chiesa di San Andrea.
Tip​: don’t look behind you until you reach the top – there you’ll be rewarded with a grand view of the city and its Duomo, glittering in the sun.

If you’re feeling energetic you could even climb up and reward yourself with the car back down, but only if last night’s risotto has given you plenty of carb-fuelled energy. Be warned though, it’s pretty steep.

Sail​ across the lake

A trip to Lake Como isn’t complete without setting sail from the city’s harbour and taking in the idyllic surroundings that engulf the senses.

The ferry service here is highly developed, having been founded in the 1820s, and it zig-zags between the small towns around the lake.

I recommend buying the daily pass (between 15 and 28 euros) as this allows you to have a full day hopping on and off whenever you feel like it. The service starts early and ends late so you really do get bang for your buck this way. You can even take your car on some of the ferries but this is more costly.

Explore ​the Villages

The area is dotted with scenic villages that offer sweeping views of the landscape. It’s possible to visit several in a day either by driving through the winding roads that snake around the lake, or by the aforementioned boat.

My personal favourite is Cernobbio, placed on the west shore. Start off by wandering down the pretty main street, lined with a parade of colourful houses on each side, before dropping down to the riverbank and taking a dip in the cool water.

It’s easy to see why super-rich celebrities choose to spend their holidays here (George Clooney has a villa a little further up the coast): it’s a perfect blend of picturesque architecture and jaw-dropping vistas.

Take a look​ around Bellagio

Considered the jewel in Lake Como’s crown, Bellagio is perched upon a perfect spot between the two branches of the lake.

If you’ve had a hard day darting between villages on your way here, then Bellagio will help you to relax. An easy walk guides you through the centre of the town where you can browse through shops hosting local food, perfume and clothes.

A particular favourite of mine here are the red-roofed houses that cluster around the town’s waterfront. It’s a great place to come to at dusk, when it’s easy to understand why our friend Pliny the Younger had his favourite villa here.

Buon viaggo!

So there you have it, an all-in-one guide to one of Europe’s most beautiful destinations.

Three days is a perfect amount of time to visit but the truth is that it’s possible to pass weeks here; looking at the scenery here never gets old​.

Buon viaggo!


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