By our third day in Milan, we already felt like we’d been there a week, which is one of my favorite things about travel. Time moves so slowly in the best possible way. We’d managed to see some of the major Milan sites (more on that in the next post) and having a Tuesday free of client calls and other responsibilities, we decided to make a day trip up to Lake Como.
Lake Como has been on our radar for a long time. It is pretty famous – George Clooney has a villa there (as do many other rich and famous people) and is known for being gorgeous and a popular summer destination for domestic and foreign tourists. And, it is an easy train ride from Milan.
Getting to the Lake by Train to Varenna
We chose our Milan Airbnb in part due to its proximity to the Milano Centrale train station knowing we could arrive there from the airport, would depart there to Padua, and it would make any day trips we chose to do from Milan easier. So we got up at our normal time and had our normal breakfast and headed for the train station a little before 8 to catch the 8:20 a.m. train to Varenna. I bought our tickets for 7 euro each on the Trenitalia app before leaving to save time and with the short luggage-free walk, we got onto the waiting train shortly after 8 and had our pick of seats.
We realized after departure we should have chosen to sit on the left side of the train for better views. Luckily, the women in our row on the left departed the train after a couple of stops and we moved over. Once we reached the southern tip of the lake about 45 minutes into the journey, we enjoyed the lake and mountain views for most of the rest of the way and arrived about 9:30 a.m.
We knew we wanted our first activity to be a hike up to the Castello di Vezio ruins, which I’d read was fairly steep but worthwhile and we figured that would provide a good activity compared to just walking around the towns along Lake Como. We set off from the train station following Google maps up the switchbacking main road but soon found walking paths that cut through the switchbacks. It was quite a climb but had nice views of the lake sometimes and it was very pleasant. The walk up reminded us a lot of our walks in Brasov, Romania, which we loved, and one of the straightaway paths with a view over some olive fields brought us right back to our Cinque Terre hike 11 years ago. We realized later that there was a bit shorter path if we’d left from town rather than the train station, but we had a great time on our hike, so I’m glad we took the path we did.
We arrived at the top about 10 minutes after the castle opened for the day at 10 a.m. According to the website and literature at the castle, it was built over 1000 years ago in medieval times by Queen Theodelinda to defend the lake and its villages. The restoration of the ruins took place in the mid-20th century and it is now open to the public seasonally for just 5 euro admission. On certain days and times, there are falconry demonstrations and we saw and heard a caged black kite within the castle walls. The ruins are made more atmospheric by statuary ghosts placed throughout. It was very cool and photogenic and made our time in Varenna much more memorable.
After our castle visit, we took the shorter path down to the city center and walked along the cobbled street. Although it was only a little after 11, we’d built up an appetite so after walking along the water from one end of town to the other, we found a restaurant near the tourist center with outdoor seating that was willing to serve an early lunch to us. When we sat down, we were the only ones there with an intention for food. Italians don’t eat lunch early and many restaurants don’t even open until 12 p.m. However, shortly after our food arrived, several other tables started looking at menus, so at least a few people thought we had the right idea by eating so early. Chad got the risotto Milanese (saffron risotto), which was something he’d been wanting to try, and I got a pizza with grilled vegetables on it, which are now my favorite pizza topping. It wasn’t a brilliant meal but it was satisfying and we were finished by just after 12.
Going from Varenna to Bellagio by Ferry
After lunch, we walked down to the ferry terminal to buy a ticket to Bellagio, which is right across the lake from Varenna. The line was long, but we made it to the front just in time to board the 12:25 ferry. The trip was just 15 minutes and was fun and refreshing.
Bellagio is called the Pearl of Lake Como for its beauty and it’s position at the point of two branches of the lake. It was definitely old and pretty, but also looked a lot like Varenna and many other old European cities we’ve visited.
We began our time in Bellagio by walking down to the point where there is a nearly 360-degree view of the lake. Then we walked through the old town and looked for a park or garden to enjoy. We ended up at the Villa Melzi garden and while the admission was a little steep at 8 euros each, it was a very pretty garden and we had fun walking around it. And it too was quite photogenic!
We’d checked the boat schedule when we arrived and knew we wanted the 3:25 fast boat to Como, so a little after 2 we headed to the boat terminal to buy our tickets for 15 euro each. We’d already done a lot of walking so decided to try to find a cafe where we could try a local cocktail. We succeeded at the Hotel Florence just up the road. Unlike other cafes closer to the terminal, there were several tables open and we found a nice spot in the shade. We decided to go fully local with our appertivi cocktail choices and get something Campari-based. Chad got an americano, which is bitter Campari, red vermouth, and soda, and I got a spagliato, which is bitter Campari, red vermouth, and prosecco. The flavor was interesting, but not our favorite, but the good thing was the bitterness meant we drank them slowly.
Going to Como by Hydrofoil (fast boat) and Milan by Train
At 3:15 we finished our cocktail and back to the dock to be ready by board the boat. It ended up being a bit late but made up time over the water and we arrived in Como by 4:20. The main level of the boat was quite crowded but went downstairs in the front and there was plenty of space. Chad used the hour-long ride to take a little nap.
Como is a much larger town than Varenna or Bellagio and still has some of its medieval structures within the town center. We were pretty tired from our long day already but enjoyed walking along the lake near the Tempio Voltiano then into the old town where we found a scoop of gelato for Chad. After we headed up to the train station to buy tickets on the 5:36 p.m. train. We had a fair bit of time to sit around, which Chad doesn’t love, but by then we’d already walked over 10 miles so it was definitely a full day. When we arrived back in Milan, we stopped by our grocery store to pick up some microwave popcorn to have for dinner and called it a day.
Visiting Lake Como from Milan was definitely worthwhile and not at all difficult. I read other people’s blogs before we left so I knew the basics of how we’d get around and what we might do and we ended up having a pretty perfect day for us. I’m really glad we did it.