We didn’t spend much time in Lombardy on our vacation. However, the four days we scheduled for Lake Como were amazing. A beautiful sunny day on the boat, myriad of romantic villas with terraced gardens and cozy little towns with nice cafés and restaurants…Lago di Como is about this and more. What do the Star Wars have to do with it and where is the greatest WWI fortress in Europe? I’m about to tell you, just stick with me.
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Lombardy is much more than just a Milan. Of course, it’s famous as a city of fashion…well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but I’m no fashionista, so I find Milan kind of boring, but the countryside around - that’s a whole other story.
Lombardy is the region of lakes with three major tourist destinations: Lake Como, Lake Garda, and Lake Iseo. The setting among the hills and lakes with the majestic peaks of the Alpes in the backdrop is only one of the things to admire there.
The cuisine is delicious, the wine is at least as great, and the fortresses and villas are stunning. We scheduled 4 days in this area but I can definitely imagine coming back to buy a nice villa for my retirement next to George Clooney.
Well, I don’t intend to bore you to death with the facts and names, so let’s get going with the best of Lombardy to explore. I am well aware, there’s much more to Lombardy than Lake Como. However, I aim to provide my personal point of view and advice on your trip, so I chose the best places to visit based on my own experience. Don’t worry though, there will be another set of articles about Lombardy out soon. ?
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The area around Lake Como was a holiday resort for the Italian nobleman from the 16th century to the declaration of a republic. That kind of lasts, just replace the nobles with rich people.
Its shape resembles a basketball player aiming for a jump shot. The outline of the lake is strewn with cozy little towns and grandiose villas. Most of the towns have nothing to offer though, except a good dining option. The restaurants are great, but then again, Italians know how to cook. Talking about food, check the 12 facts you didn’t know about Italian food.
The shores are mostly steep and rocky, so the access to water might a bit problematic. We solved that by renting a boat, but you’re a beach person, there are also many lidos. In case you haven’t heard about lidos yet, I explain that in my article about Cinque Terre.
Besides, the boat trip is a great option to explore the shores of Lake Como from the other side (greetings Adele). That way, you can admire the myriad of villas against the rocky landscape and take a dip in the water far away from the crowdy beaches.
Booking is essential here, unfortunately, it’s a similar situation as with restaurants—the websites are usually nonexistent or not working, so you need to book that on-site (which means you need to come back some other day, as it’s usually fully booked) or make a call (safer option).
I can recommend the Newton Rent a Boat. They offer great boats for a good value, don’t require you to have license for motor boats (which is extremely rare), and the staff is super friendly. Just keep in mind, there is a deposit for the boat and the fuel is paid extra in cash…I didn’t notice, so I had to make an extra trip to ATM.
We rented the boat for 4 hours, which in my opinion is enough. If you don’t have this much time to spare, you can wrap it up in less and still enjoy the best views.
There are countless grand palaces on the shores of Lago di Como. It would be a week trip just to visit all of them. Fortunately, there’s no need to do so. The Villa Carlota is one of the mansions worth visiting.
The villa stands atop the terraced garden and boasts a unique art exhibition, on the two floors, you can admire the rare sculptures and paintings as well as the stunning lake view.
The Villa is surrounded by an 8 ha (20 acres) botanical garden with various exotic plants including palms, cedars, and citrus fruits. Apart from the landscaped garden, there is also a part with a small forest and a creek. If you’re mad about plants and gardens, you can get lost in there for hours. We spent there around an hour including the exhibition in the villa.
Have you ever seen a medieval abbey? If not, I strongly recommend visiting Piona Abbey in Colico. The complex dates back to the 8th century, although the bigger part of it is the outcome of the 12th extension. I’m not a religious person myself (I’m Czech after all), however, I was stunned by the architecture and the pristine atmosphere of this place. The abbey stands on the rocky promontory above Lake Como, offering a marvelous view of the surroundings.
The cloister is still home to the Cistercian monks who are to these days actively involved in agriculture in this area. You can support the monks and buy some of their products in an adjacent shop. Although, the wine and olive oil are like four times costlier than the products from other farmers in the region, just saying.
Fun fact: Recent discovery points out, that there was an older octagonal bell tower on the other side of the church, which was also depicted in the background of the left window in the Last Supper fresco by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Lake Como area is also great for hiking as the majestic mountains surrounding the lake offer beautiful vistas. If you have more time to spend around, check also other hiking options. Monte Grona is towering to 1 736 m (5 696 ft) above the town of Breglia. There you need to buy the daily access ticket for 3 EUR (3.4 USD) and head off to the Monte Grona hike.
Halfway to the summit, we came across the Rifugio Menaggio, a mountain refuge with accommodation and restaurant. The food was great and for a very good price. From there you can choose one of two ways: Via Direttissima (shorter but steeper) and Via Normale. There is a third option, Via Ferrata, reserved for mountain climbers with adequate equipment.
The route up and down took us around 5 hours, including the lunch at Rifugio Menaggio. It was a bit challenging, but the views up there are totally worth it, just remember to wear proper footwear, flip-flops would be a straightforward way to kill yourself out there.
Our Top Tips for Lombardy: Top Highlight: Villa del Balbianello Must Do: Book the boat trip on Lake Como. What they don’t tell you: Go in September to avoid the tourist peak.
A hidden gem for all big boys, the Museum of Motto Guzzi Motorcycles is in Mandello del Lario and hides a unique collection of various models. The exhibition explains the history of the brand and shows off over 150 motorcycles from the very first prototype from 1919 to the recent one, including the race machines. I’m not a huge fan of this brand, but I enjoyed the tour. The tour takes about an hour and it’s completely free. The perfect option for a rainy day around Lake Como.
All the towns on the shore of Lake Como are charming and cute to stroll around but there’s almost nothing to visit in there. Bellano is an exception. There is a large gorge carved into the heart of the town with many potholes and caves. At a first glance, it looks like an elven city of sorts.
It’s all linked by a system of footbridges, so you can explore the whole route and get smitten by the fairytale charm of the rocks covered in moss and ferns and the deafening musical background of a waterfall thunder.
It reminded me of the gorges we’ve visited on your quest to the best places to see in Austria, just a bit smaller. Plan around an hour in your schedule for this visit.
The best-preserved World War I fortress in Europe is a hidden gem of Lombardy. It was built between 1912 and 1914 to protect the main passageways to Italy from Switzerland and Austria-Hungary. And it’s a truly powerful structure. The walls are 2-4 m wide (6-13 ft) and four massive cannons with a 13 km (8 mi) firing range and 360° rotation are still functional!
I recommend taking the guided tour in English. It takes around an hour, the guide speaks fluently and there’s a lot of interesting information you don’t want to miss. I was so thrilled about the fortress I felt like being in a boy’s dream.
The fortress must have been virtually invisible as it stood in the Austrian cannon fire line. The powder magazine was therefore 15 m (50 ft) underground so that the gun powder was safe. What blew my mind off, was that there was an air-conditioning system very similar to what we have nowadays.
During the tour, we also got to the cannon tower control room. That was my favorite part. Each cannon structure weighs over 100 tons and just the ammo weighs around 50 kg (110 lb), based on the projectile type. Now I understand that there were 6 members needed to operate the guns. It wasn’t exactly a dream job though. These six men were in a closed steel shell, firing a 100-ton cannon. After a few shots, the crew went completely deaf from the resonance wave.
The parking is 450 m (1 480 ft) from the fortress. However, the navigation keeps trying to lead you through the pedestrian zone, so watch out for that. There is an idiotic parking ticket machine that took us a while to figure out. It works but brace yourself. The price is 1 EUR per hour.
Perhaps the most famous house in the whole region is Villa Del Balbianello. The splendid 18th-century villa sits peacefully on the shore of Lake Como opposite Bellagio town, surrounded by gardens. I had totally no expectations of this. Like, yeah, another old house on the shore, what fun. Eh, I must admit I had to succumb to its charm the moment we arrived there.
There are two buildings on the premises to visit, a church, a terrace with a breathtaking view of the lake, and extensive gardens. The exhibition in the villa is alright, full of glass paintings, shiny thingies and with an extra room for the exhibition of Guido Monzini. The former owner was the leader of the Italian Mount Everest expedition, so if you’re interested in mountaineering, this might be an interesting experience too. However, I dig the terrace. The view is charming, and the atmosphere is so romantic, even Anakin Skywalker went soft there. In case you need proof:
If you’re a big Star Wars fan, I have good news for you. The villa is available to rent for big events such as weddings. But the Stars Wars, episode II is not the only famous movie filmed there. Daniel Craig also chilled out in these gardens James Bond, for instance. Either way, this one is a must if you’re around Lake Como.
Although there are countless hotels and accommodation options around Lake Como, I suggest you stay in Milan and take day-trips. Here are the top hotels in Milan and Lake Como.
iQ Hotel Milano is a trendy hotel in the city center, only a few minutes from the main train station. Especially renowned for its friendly staff and wonderful wellness and fitness center.
Milano Verticale is suitable whether you’re there for business or pleasure. Pets are welcomed as well; the wellness center and the restaurant are top-notch, and do I even need to start about the private garden in the heart of the city?
The classy Boutique Hotel Matilde lies in the historical center of Milano, around the corner from Piazza Duomo. You can bring your pets with you, enjoy the best quality services and authentic Lombardy cuisine.
AlMolo5 is a boutique hotel near Bellagio offering a private parking area, boat rentals, and magnificent views of Lake Como. The restaurant on the shore of the lake takes pride in the delicious fresh Italian seafood dishes. What’s the downside? None.
Do you want to stay in one of the typical villas at Lake Como? Welcome to Hotel Helvetia, a former noble residence renovated in 2013 with its own garden and private access to the lake. What else should I say, the magical views, wonderful restaurant, and modern rooms go without saying.
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