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Visiting Lake Como, Italy’s Most Famous Lake

Lake Como, or Lago di Como in Italian, is undoubtedly Italy’s most popular lake – and it’s held that title since long before the exceptionally hunky Mr. George Clooney bought his house on the shore of the lake. In fact, although there are plenty of people each year who flock to Lake Como in the hopes of getting a glimpse of George (or one of the lake’s many other famous residents), the lakeside towns can’t blame their overflowing feeling on the local celebrities. Summers on Lago di Como have seen congested roads and tourist hordes for decades.

It stands to reason that if so many people are heading for Lake Como, there must be something there worth heading for, right? The answer is a resounding yes. There are lots of reasons Lago di Como is incredibly popular, not least being its stunning views and gorgeous water. The towns which dot the lake’s shores are picturesque and charming, and each one of them feels like it could be home to any number of the rich and famous set. Summers find these towns brimming with not only overseas visitors but also floods of tourists from northern Europe, particularly Germany and the United Kingdom, while weekends throughout the year tend to be when residents of nearby Milan take the time to get out of the smog-filled city. In other words, while the winters are certainly slower, there isn’t really a time of year when Lago di Como is deserted.

Of course, lots of savvy travelers read about the crowds and take that as an invitation to avoid the lake altogether. This is a reasonable reaction, and while the crowds will be big enough for some people to never make the journey to Lake Como, it’s really a shame to never lay eyes on it. So if you’re one of those people who’d like to take in the natural breath-taking beauty of Lago di Como without getting swallowed alive by big bus day-trippers, I’ve got some budget hints for you below so that you can still make the trip without needing a trust fund to do it.

Lake Como is easily identified on maps of Italy by its shape. You’ll find it in Italy’s North, in a part of the Lombardy (Lombardia) region that’s known as Italy’s lake district, and it looks roughly like an upside-down “Y.” It’s the third-largest lake in the country, behind Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore, and although it’s narrow enough that you can see across it easily it is one of Europe’s deepest lakes. Lago di Como has glacial origins, and it’s known as a pre-Alpine lake because of its location nestled among the pre-Alps.

These are some of the better-known towns on Lake Como:

  • Bellagio – This beautiful town sits at the intersection of the three branches of Lake Como, and it’s a great base from which to explore the lake. Bellagio benefits from the lake’s overall temperate climate, so it’s nice to visit year-round, although it’s decidedly more popular (and way more crowded) in the summer. This isn’t a town that has a ton of budget options, especially if you’re hoping to sleep in a room overlooking the lake, but if you’re willing to stay a bit further from the center of the action you can find good deals. This is the town where George Clooney’s villa is, so be on the lookout for star sightings!
    >> Cheap hotels in Bellagio
  • Como – The town of Como, from which the lake gets its name, sits at the top of the lower-left arm of the upside-down “Y” of Lake Como. It’s the biggest town on the lake, being home to more than 80,000 people – so you can imagine how crowded it can get in the peak of the summer high season! Despite its size, you’ll find it to be charming and romantic (especially when it’s not so crowded), and because of the plethora of transportation options it’s also a good base for seeing the lake and the region. Como is a popular day-trip from Milan, and due to its size you’ll find a wider range of accommodation choices than you might in smaller lake towns.
    >> Cheap hotels in Como
  • Menaggio – Menaggio is a small town on the western side of Lake Como, in an area which was under Roman rule around 200BCE. Visitors today can see what remains of the medieval city’s former walls, but for the most part Menaggio is seen as an incredibly charming lakeside village that serves as the perfect backdrop for romantics and honeymooners. The town’s population swells in the summer months, and it’s considered a resort town, but it’s also a popular destination for budget travelers because the only hostel on Lake Como is in Menaggio.
    >> Cheap hotels in Menaggio
    >> Hostel in Menaggio
  • Tremezzo – Like the other towns on this list, Tremezzo is primarily known as a lakeside resort town. It lies on the western side of Lake Como near Menaggio, and across from Bellagio. Tremezzo has its fair share of lakeside villas, like many of the towns along the lake do, but it’s particularly well-known for the gardens which come with those villas. The best-known villa in Tremezzo is Villa Carlotta, which was built in the 17th century and boasts an elaborate and beautiful Italian garden. The villa is now a museum, and visitors can tour both that and the gardens themselves.
  • Varenna – Set on the eastern side of Lake Como across from Bellagio, the town of Varenna is noted for its more rustic appeal. It’s a bit less polished than its upscale neighbors across the lake, but that’s part of what makes it special – and just because it’s been called “rustic,” don’t expect this town to be any less beautiful. Varenna is home to several gorgeous lakeside villas, extravagent-looking gardens, and a nice array of restaurants and shops (many of which have lake views). The town’s tiny population grows exponentially during the summer, but in the off-season it remains blissfully overlooked by day-trippers who head for Bellagio and Como by the bus load. Do note that because of the geography of the town, most of the accommodation options require a bit of an uphill walk away from the lake – but that means you’ll be rewarded with great views in the end.
    >> Cheap hotels in Varenna

Now, for those of you who are – like me – unwilling to fork over all of my hard-earned money for one night in a luxury lakeside villa, but who don’t want to forgo the pleasure of visiting the lake, there are a few things you’ll want to think about.

  1. Consider doing the lake as a day trip instead of an overnight venture. This does mean that you’re giving up on the kind of early-morning or late-evening peace and quiet that generally comes to towns that are popular with day-trippers, but it also means that you don’t have to even look at the high prices the hotels in those towns charge. And if you’re staying in another city within a reasonable distance – say, Milan – for any length of time, you can even make a couple day trips out to explore different shores of the lake and different kinds of towns.
  2. Planning your Lake Como trip for the slower season can save you a bundle, especially in the most popular lakeside towns. Yes, they’re going to be relatively busy all year long, but Bellagio in January is going to cost far less than Bellagio in August. And if you stay in one of the lesser-known lakeside towns instead, you can save even more in the slow season. The good news is that because the lake’s weather remains pretty moderate year-round, you’re not likely to be subjected to biting winds and torrential rain if you’re visiting in the winter. It’ll obviously be chillier than in the summer, but it’s unlikely to be downright miserable the whole time.
  3. Just as visiting in the slow season can save you money, avoiding the most popular towns can, too – and that’s going to be true almost any time of the year. Instead of setting up camp in Como or Bellagio, find a quieter and smaller town on the other side of the lake and see if you can’t get a better deal on a room. No matter where you stay, you can always visit the bigger and more touristy towns because they’re all relatively close by – but this way you’ll avoid paying through the nose just to say you’re in a hotel in Como.
  4. Choosing a hotel that’s not right on the lake can usually save you quite a bit, as it’s the lake view that those lakefront properties are charging an arm and a leg for. Most of the towns on Lake Como have a central area that’s just a short walk from the lake itself, so you’d still have easy access to all the perks of the beautiful scenery – you just might not have them right outside your hotel room window. But unless you’re planning to spend the bulk of your vacation in your room, the view from the balcony probably isn’t worth what they’re charging for it.

>> Check out some of the hotels on Lake Como and find deals on the hotels in lesser known towns around the lake!

original photos, from top to bottom, by: paolo màrgari, ezioman, paolo màrgari, crazbabe21, xrrr, Tania Ho, Aconcagua, Luca Zappa