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).