Weekend in . . . Lake Como
Gardens at Varenna’s Villa Monastero, a former monastery. Photograph: Annalisa Brambilla for The New York Times
The Grand Hotel Tremezzo. Photograph: Annalisa Brambilla
Lake Como, in the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy, deserves its reputation as a playground for the wealthy. Virtually deserted during winter, the wishbone-shaped lake awakens from its slumber in mid-March when glamorous crowds begin flocking to the pretty towns clustered around its midsection: Bellagio, Menaggio, Tremezzo, Varenna. But in recent years, the city of Como, on the lake’s southwestern tip, has quietly blossomed into the most interesting spot for visitors of all bank account sizes. A raft of openings has infused new life there, transforming the oft-overlooked transit hub into the lake’s new place to be seen.
To the lighthouse Who’s afraid of heights? In Como, join the crowds clambering aboard the funicular that ascends the mountain to Brunate, a small town perched about 1,600ft above the lake (round-trip ticket, €5.30).
But upon arrival, leave the visiting masses behind by continuing on foot up the treacherously steep rocky trail – less than a mile long, but what feels like the same in elevation gain – that ends at Faro Voltiano, a remote lighthouse on a nearby peak. The reward for completing the trek is blissful solitude and an unsurpassed panorama across the city and lake to neighbouring Switzerland.
Off the wall In late 2013, Banksy’s Como doppelgänger stepped out of the shadows by opening a street-art gallery named after his pseudonym, Mr Savethewall. The unusual name belongs to Pierpaolo Perretta, a local businessman who shed his suit and steady salary to focus full-time on his art, created by using cardboard or similar materials that can be affixed without defacing walls.
Among the provocative paintings on display is an incisive image of a young girl praying to a tablet, “Please, Holy iPad, give me back my Dad.” The affable artist is often available to explain the inspiration for his varied works, including a modern pipe design that was presented this year at the prestigious Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan (Milan Furniture Fair).
Supper in season Until recently, Como had few dining options befitting the discerning Milanese who escape here at weekends. But the Market Place, a sophisticated farm-to-table restaurant that opened in 2010, has set a new standard for local cuisine. The delightful restaurant has about two dozen seats in a simple yet stylish dining room, where black-clad servers shuttle beautifully presented plates from the glass-walled kitchen. A recent primo of cuttlefish-ink tagliolini with tender shrimp and broad beans aptly underscored the restaurant’s emphasis on seasonal products.
Desserts were also divine, especially an airy millefoglie with orange-scented Chantilly cream drizzled with toffee and fleur de sel. Dinner for two, about €100.
Fresh sips Without an invitation to a private party at a lavish lakeside villa, Lake Como’s night-life scene is limited. Your best bet in Como is the Fresco Cocktail Shop, a cosy bar with a timeworn interior (rough wood-beam ceilings, exposed-brick walls) but an inventive drinks menu that’s heavy on unusual spirits and seasonal fruit. Try the Flora, a refreshing twist on a spritz that’s made with Aperol, mint and Champagne and topped with a dollop of creamy passion-fruit foam (€9). Or befriend one of the nattily dressed bartenders to order off-the-menu libations such as black-tea-infused whiskey, poured from a smoke-filled decanter.
Saturday 9am 5 Cups and cupolas The cafe Cremeria Bolla, opened in 1893, is a local favourite for a morning caffeine fix in Como. Savour a superlative cappuccino at an outdoor table, a fine vantage point from which to watch the city streets spring to life. Then head to the nearby Duomo di Como, the city’s green-domed Gothic cathedral whose origins date from the late 1300s. Among the treasures inside are a collection of ancient tapestries and paintings by the Renaissance-era artist Gaudenzio Ferrari (free).
Wardrobe wins Should a modish Milanese man arrive in Como without a warm sweater or dapper dinner jacket, he can find what he needs at A.Gi.Emme. This exquisitely stylish store began as a small shoe shop but has since expanded into a mini-empire with four shops around town, including locations for women and children. At the men’s shop, splurge on classics that will never go out of style, such as soft cashmere cardigans, tailored wool blazers and cosy scarves that are chic antidotes to chilly lake breezes.
Dockside dining Hop aboard a bus or a boat bound for Bellagio, a picturesque (and very popular) mid-lake village about 18 miles north of Como. For lunch, skip the touristy tables in town and seek out Ristorante alle Darsene di Loppia, a sunny restaurant nearby. Whether seated inside the bright dining room or beneath the leafy pergola on the veranda, take a cue from the dockside location and focus on fresh fish. Recent highlights included swordfish crudo with chicory salad and lardo di Colonnata (€16) and a light seafood soup with mussels and homemade cavatelli (€14). After lunch, stroll through the gardens of the neo-Classical Villa Melzi (€6.50), a shortcut to the lakeside promenade that leads back to the ferry pier in Bellagio.
It takes a villa Many of Lake Como’s lovely waterfront villas remain the private domain of privileged residents, but a few are open to the visiting public. One of the most magnificent is the stately Villa Carlotta, a former marquis’s mansion dating from the late 17th century that functions as a museum. Located across the lake in Tremezzo, a 20-minute ferry ride west from Bellagio, the grand villa today houses artworks, including sculptures by Antonio Canova. But most captivating are the romantic Italian gardens surrounding the villa where roughly 20 cultivated acres bloom with camellias, azaleas, roses and citrus trees (admission, €9).
Aristocratic aperitivo After a garden stroll, take a break on the beach. Lake Como may not have sandy shores, but at the nearby Grand Hotel Tremezzo, the hulking luxury hotel has installed T Beach, a full-service beach club complete with trucked-in sand, sun beds, umbrellas and a full-size pool floating in the lake. Go around sunset for a Campari aperitivo (€10) served with golden views of Bellagio across the lake. Or if the beach party atmosphere seems too artificial, head south to Villa d’Este, a supremely sophisticated hotel in the charming town of Cernobbio. Generations of guests have sipped aperitivi at the storied hotel’s Bar Terrazza, nibbling on olives in the shade of ancient chestnut trees while watching boats cruise past.
Night at the palazzo After the sun sets, take your evening meal inside another gorgeous edifice. Opened in 2013 in a renovated two-story palazzo near the waterfront in Como, Theoria is a tearoom, lounge and restaurant (called I Tigli in Theoria) set around a lovely courtyard strung with fairy lights. The first-floor dining room is an elegant space with arched windows, wooden ceilings and servers dressed in traditional Trentino folk attire.
On the walls are rotating art exhibitions, and on the tables are French-inflected dishes such as sea-bass quenelles and foie gras with raspberries.
After dinner (about €50), head upstairs to the handsome lounge, which serves impressive platters during aperitivo hour and late at night pours well-mixed nightcaps such as the Hugo, with mint, lime, elderflower syrup, prosecco and soda (€9).
Charged morning There’s no finer way to greet the day than a walk along Como’s sparkling waterfront. From Piazza Cavour, follow the lakeside promenade westward past Tempio Voltiano, a neo-Classical museum dedicated to Alessandro Volta, a local physicist whose name should ring a bell – or rather, induce a spark – he invented the electric battery (or voltaic pile) and the electric unit was called “volt” in his honour.
Double back upon reaching the palatial Villa Olmo for a round-trip stroll of just under two miles – enough exercise to warrant a reward from Gelateria Lariana, an artisanal shop scooping homemade gelato in mouthwatering flavours such as fresh fig and pistacchio di Bronte.
On the water Speedier services exist, but lazy Sunday afternoons are best spent aboard a slow ferry that floats past villas and small villages clinging to the water’s edge. After a couple of hours of cruising, alight in Varenna (round-trip ticket, €23.20), a small town hugging the lake’s eastern shore.
From the dock, stroll south along winding cobblestone lanes to Villa Monastero, a former monastery and noble’s residence that today draws visitors to its lakeside gardens (admission, €5). Promenade beneath cypress and citrus trees and through the beautiful waterfront loggia while savouring the views that have lured admirers to Lake Como’s stunning shores for centuries.
Faro Voltiano, Brunate; funicolarecomo.it.
Mr. Savethewall, Via Giovio 5, Como; savethewall.it.
The Market Place, Via Borsieri 21A, Como; themarketplace.it.
Fresco Cocktail Shop, Viale Lecco 23, Como; frescococktailshop.it.
Cremeria Bolla, Via Pietro Boldoni 6, Como; cremeriabolla.it. Duomo di Como, Piazza Duomo 6, Como; cattedraledicomo.it.
A.Gi.Emme, Via Vittorio Emanuele II 91, Como; agiemme.com.
Ristorante alle Darsene di Loppia, Via Melzi d’Eril 1, Loppia di Bellagio;ristorantedarsenediloppia.com. Villa Melzi, Via Lungolario Manzoni, Bellagio;giardinidivillamelzi.it.
Villa Carlotta, Via Regina 2, Tremezzo; villacarlotta.it.
T Beach, Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Via Provinciale Regina 8, Tremezzo;grandhoteltremezzo.com. Bar Terrazza, Villa d’Este, Via Regina 40, Cernobbio;villadeste.com.
Theoria, Via Bianchi Giovini 41, Como; theoriagallery.it.
Tempio Voltiano, Viale Guglielmo Marconi 1, Como;cultura.comune.como.it/tempio-voltiano. Gelateria Lariana, Lungo Lario Trento 5, Como; 39-031-266-388.
Villa Monastero, Viale Giovanni Polvani 4, Varenna; villamonastero.eu.
A restored 17th-century convent has been transformed into B&B Convento Sant’Antonio (Via Rezzonico 23, Como; bblakecomo.it; from €90), a year-old bed-and-breakfast in central Como . The owner, Giampiero Molteni, is an antiques dealer, so rooms are adorned with artworks and beautiful antiques.
In 2010, the historic Villa Roccabruna reopened as part of the opulent CastaDiva Resort & Spa (Via Caronti 69, Blevio; castadivaresort.com; from €650), a lavish lakeside estate with 73 rooms and two exclusive private villas in the village of Blevio, about three miles north of Como.
© 2014 The New York Times, distributed by The New York Times Syndicate