Lake Como and Lake Maggiore Travel Guide

Lake Como and Lake Maggiore Travel Guide

Kerry Murray

Set against the snow-capped peaks of the Alps and steep mountain cliffs, the lakes of northern Italy were created at the end of the last Ice Age and their crystal waters, quaint towns and breath-taking vistas have long since captured our imaginations. These waters have always been the playground of the rich and famous; Lake Como, in particular, has been popular with the aristocratic crowd since Roman times and more recently, has become well known as the not-so-secret retreat of George Clooney, amongst other celebrities. Characterised by regal villas, gracious sailboats and narrow winding roads following the contours of the water, there are several lakes within this Alpine region, each with their own distinct personality and attractions.

Things to do in Lake Como

Undoubtedly the most famous of them all, Lake Como lives up to its glamorous reputation with private villas dotting the shoreline and speedboats zipping back and forth from private jetties. The town that gives the lake its name, Como, is not much to look at and as a general rule, the further north you travel the prettier and more authentically Italian the towns are. On the western shore, a short distance from the famous Villa del Balbianello, the small town of Lenno is a must see. The tree-lined promenade along the water runs the length of the town and in amongst the coffee shops and restaurants, there are several very regal villas overlooking the shore. Without a doubt, one of the very best quality ice creams we found was at La Fabbrica del Gelato on the main square in Lenno. Everything is homemade and in addition to the usual favourites they also feature a wide range of typically Italian flavours such as blood orange sorbet and zabaglione. If you only eat ice cream in one place during your visit, then this is the place to do it. Religious experience guaranteed.

Across the water, at the point where the lake splits into two southward pointing arms, you find Bellagio, the crowning jewel of the region and also the busiest town on the water. Perched on the steep slopes and with water surrounding the town on three sides, the easiest way to get here is by ferry from one of the many other towns along the lake, the boats are frequent and run late into the evening. The town itself is very popular with tourists, and the narrow cobblestone streets are quite crowded during summer months. Outdoor dining is a must and Ristoro Forma e Gusto is a quaint little place tucked away in the narrow streets. Specialising (of course) in Italian cuisine, they feature many typical local dishes on the menu, and their pizzas are very popular, not without good reason as they´re delicious and homemade, with local ingredients and flavours.

Cannobio | Photo: Kerry Murray

Cannobio | Photo: Kerry Murray

South of Bellagio in the small town of Lezzeno, the Filario Hotel and Residences is the perfect base from which to explore Lake Como. The town itself is a bit removed from the bustle of the popular attractions which affords a more authentic and relaxing experience, but the hotel is central enough that the 21 exclusive rooms and apartments have spectacular views of Bellagio, Comacina Island and Villa Balbianello. Ferries to various other towns are just a short stroll away, or you could hire a speedboat and zip across the water at your own pace. Further south, tucked up against the steep cliffs with the most spectacular lake views, is the Villa Làrio, a historic villa and boutique hotel. With only six luxurious suites, Villa Lario puts the emphasis on quality instead of quantity and the property boasts private lake access and pontoon, terraced gardens and the most divine infinity pool that in itself would be reason enough to never leave the hotel.

Opened in the second half of 2016 Il Sereno Lago di Como has already won a design award and is one of the most sought-after addresses on the lake. Conceptualised by Patricia Urquiola, one of Italy´s most internationally celebrated designers, the hotel features only 30 suites, in keeping with their philosophy of intimate luxury and personalised service. Each suite is designed to make the most of the privileged location, right on the shore of the Lake Como, and large windows blur the boundaries between indoors and out, and maximise the spectacular views. If you are in search of sophistication, luxury and top class service without all the pomp and formality of old-world Europe, then Il Sereno is the perfect choice.

Cannobio Farmers Market | Photo: Kerry Murray

Cannobio Farmers Market | Photo: Kerry Murray

Things to do in Lake Lugano

To the east of Lake Como, Lake Lugano is smaller and shares her shoreline with Switzerland in several places. Compared to her larger neighbours, the lake is a bit more exclusive and expensive. With the majority of the coastline taken up by private villas and residences, it´s not easy to find public access to the water here, apart from within the small shore-side towns. The city of Lugano lies on the Swiss side of the border, on the north side of the lake and is an eclectic combination of Swiss orderliness and Italian flair. Indisputably, the most picturesque part of the city is the lakeside promenade where people gather in the evenings for gelato or the quintessentially Italian Aperol Spritz. El Mojito is a hip little outdoor bar, right on the waterfront, that has great views across the water and is the perfect spot for sundowners before heading into the city for dinner.

Tucked away up in the Alps with expansive views across Lake Lugano and surrounding Ticino mountains, the Kurhaus Cademario Hotel and Spa is one of the leading hotels in Switzerland. Built in 1914 this mountain hotel has a long-standing reputation for its restorative qualities and newly renovated and re-opened in 2013, this 100-year-old institution continues in great style. Boasting a comprehensive spa and wellness complex, and a highly acclaimed gourmet restaurant, it´s the perfect choice year-round. In summer to enjoy the lake and mountains and in winter for the ski slopes and snowy landscapes.

Lake Lugano | Photo: Kerry Murray

Lake Lugano | Photo: Kerry Murray

Things to do in Lake Maggiore

As its name suggests, Lake Maggiore is the largest of the lakes in the region and also one of the most well-known, popular with honeymooners and international tourists. As with Lake Como, the further north you venture, the better it gets. On the western shore, the small town of Verbania juts out into the water and is a quiet little place of cobblestone streets and magnificent views across the lake. Sursum Corda, on the main piazza, is a funky upbeat little bar nestled in between the more traditional Italian restaurants and a great spot to chill after a day’s sightseeing. And for dinner, head over to the neighbouring town of Intra to the quaint Osteria del Castello for an amazing collection of wines and menu of fresh ingredients and local flavours. Heading further north you find Cannobio, a gorgeous little harbour town. Undeniably one of the prettiest on the lake and in spite of its popularity, it retains its Italian nonchalance and laid-back attitude. As with all these towns, the lakeside promenade is where the action happens, and Cannobio is no exception. There is no lack of choice when it comes to drinking or dining but for a gourmet experience with Michelin guide credentials, head to Lo Scalo on the waterfront. For the foodies looking for gourmet gifts, Sapori Italiani (also on the promenade) has an excellent selection of local specialities, cured meats, cheeses and antipasti. Also not to be missed is the weekly farmers market, every Sunday. It takes over the town and is a wonderful source of fresh produce and local arts and crafts.

Heading still further north, cross the Swiss border and follow the lake to Locarno. In comparison to the smaller towns along her shores, Locarno is a very modern city; only the piazza and historical centre give any clues as to her Italian heritage. Located in the old town, Falegnameria Perucci is a homeware and interior design store with a special focus on wood in their creations. With the utmost respect for the natural characteristics of their medium, they specialise in custom projects and one-off pieces. The Giardino Lago Boutique Hotel, just outside of Locarno, is a blissfully relaxing little hotel right on the shores of the lake. With only 14 rooms, the hotel places great importance on intimacy and personalised service and with their in-house spa, rest and relaxation are guaranteed.

Things to do in Lake Orta

The western-most of the Italian Lakes, Lake Orta is one of the smaller lakes at only 13 kilometres long and is very much off the tourist radar. The sleepy Omegna at the northern end of the lake is one of the bigger towns on the water and is as typically Italian as you can find. The town centre features several coffee shops and outdoor esplanades from which to sip your cappuccino, and people watch. Because very few tourists venture this far west, you won´t find any of the usual souvenir tat and in comparison to some of the bigger lakes, the laid-back vibe here makes for a refreshing change.

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