1. Isola Comacina Lunch and the Exorcism of Fire
No trip to Isola Comacina, Lake Como’s only island, would be complete without a meal at the legendary Locanda dell’Isola. Whether you make your way to the island by private boat, public ferry or even a vintage seaplane, proprietor Benvenuto Puricelli himself will likely show you to your seat wearing his signature bobble hat and tartan vest. The waterfront tables under the trees are prime real estate, offering unobstructed views and gentle waves literally lapping at your feet. No need for menus here – the Locanda has been serving the same seven-course meal since 1947 and not even Clooney himself can get special requests. All of the food is locally sourced, completely no-frills and utterly delicious – antipasto of marinated fresh veggies and local cured meats, lake trout straight from the grill garnished with a slice of lemon, roast free-range chicken and in-season fruit served with homemade vanilla ice cream.
The final course is one of the best things to do in Bellagio. In 1169, long before Benvenuto and the Locanda were here, Bishop Vidulf of Como placed a curse on the island, declaring that anyone who dared inhabit the island would die “an unnatural death”. Pooh-poohed as simple superstition for centuries, the curse seemed to rear its ugly head when two of the Locanda’s early owners died rather suddenly and rather “unnaturally”. British author Francis Drake, who dined here in the 1940s, suggested a fire ritual would dispatch the curse – and thus the “Exorcism of Fire” was born. At the end of each meal, Benvenuto sounds a bell and exorcises the curse as he burns brandy in a copper pot. The fire is doused with strong Italian coffee and copious amounts of sugar before serving to save us all from certain death. Cin Cin!
2. Sun and Fun at Bellagio’s Lido
A cool beach club by day and a stylish club by night, the Lido offers round-the-clock fun and one of the best Bellagio activities. Bring bikinis and beach towels for a day at the “beach” and lounge around on the sand-covered decking under a canopy flapping in the breeze. Convenient ladders – or a long water slide – lead into the cool lake water for a refreshing dip or a few laps; the bar offers cocktails, light lunches and great coffee. Visitors can purchase full or half-day passes that provide access to the changing rooms, bathrooms and a lounge chair; umbrellas and gazebos are available for an extra fee.
When the sun starts to set behind the mountains across the lake, grab a shower, slip into your LBD and join the see-and-be-seen set for the evening festivities. Weekend Dine & Dance parties offer a set menu, a welcome drink and complimentary night club entrance to dance the night away under the stars. Live bands, renowned DJs and expertly mixed cocktails spice up the night. The famous/infamous party boat departs from Como on weekends at 10:30 p.m. and leaves Bellagio again at 2 a.m. – but the party keeps going on board!
3. Stand-up Paddleboarding
From Polynesia to the Italian Lakes – the ancient tradition of Stand-Up Paddleboarding, or SUP in the lingo, has gone global. This “active relaxation” that today’s travelers crave is one of the best things to do in Bellagio, and Bellagio Watersports has everything you need for a Lake Como SUP adventure. The hamlet of Pescallo, just a leisurely ten-minute stroll from the town center, is a charming fishing village facing the Lecco branch of the lake and the home of Bellagio Watersports. Let resident expert Michele sort you out with SUP equipment – a board, paddle and life vest – before giving newbies detailed instructions or sending more experienced SUPers on their way. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time for paddleboarding, when there is barely a ripple on the lake and boat traffic is at a minimum. The views around Pescallo are second to none: the mountains rising in the distance, the beautifully manicured gardens of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Villa Serbelloni and the boats bobbing in the harbor. For SUPers who like their active relaxation a little more active, Michele offers guided balancing and stretching exercises on the board – a real full-body workout and (most likely) an excuse to get wet!
4. Anchors Aweigh for Villa del Balbianello
Nothing quite compares to rounding the Làvedo Promontory in a private boat and catching the first sight of the Villa del Balbianello on its hillside perch. The yellow twin towers, the terra cotta roof tiles and the arched loggia climbing with vines make for a stellar photo op, with the entire complex immersed in an oasis of green – domed oaks, stately cypresses and knobby plane trees. The complex has quite a history – built by a Cardinal Durini in the late 18th century on the site of an ancient Franciscan monastery, expanded by the Marquis Visconti during the 19th century and then restored to its former glory by American businessman and politician Butler Ames after WWI.
Guido Monzino, who left the estate to the Italian National Trust after his death in 1988, is perhaps the villa’s most exciting personality. A noted explorer and true Renaissance man, tours of the villa include his library and maps, eclectic exhibits of his ancient Chinese, African and pre-Colombian artifacts, a rare collection of paintings on glass and myriad memorabilia from Guido’s global adventures (including a narwhal horn and retro Mount Everest gear). A stroll through the exquisitely manicured gardens is an absolute must – with or without reenactments of the James Bond and Star Wars scenes filmed here!
5. Shopping, Silk and Sweetbreads in Como
Como has been Europe’s premier center for silk production since the 15th century. Not only did the silk boom bring prosperity to the people of Como, the city was able to attract renowned artists and architects, politicians and priests, merchants and Milanese aristocrats to turn this lakeside village into a bustling and beautiful provincial capital. It’s a great place for a day trip from Bellagio – by car with the twists and turns of the lake road or by ferry with the great views and peace of mind! Must-see sights include the 15th-century Cathedral or the Tempio Voltiano, dedicated to electricity pioneer Alessandro Volta, but the real draw in Como is the shopping!
For all the skinny on silk, check out the Museo della Seta for interactive displays tracing its evolution from silkworm on the mulberry bush to luxurious finished fabric from the loom. On Piazza Cavour, “In Seta” offers silk apparel and accessories from the biggest names in the fashion business, while Tessabit sells fashion-forward looks straight from the catwalk. Dep (near the Alessandro Volta statue) is a true design palace, offering housewares, furniture and beauty products with a difference. Follow your nose to one of the beautiful Beretta family bakeries (one right by the Cathedral!) for fresh baked breads, pizzas and pies, as well as the traditional Resta di Como, a sweetbread with candied citrus decorated with an olive branch.
6. Polenta and Panoramas
The mountains around Lake Como are a hiker’s paradise: easy to challenging treks, unforgettable scenery and the promise of a charming chalet offering hearty mountain fare along the way. While it’s not the lake’s tallest mountain (that’s Monte Legnone at 8500 feet!), Monte San Primo is the highest peak on the so-called Triangolo Lariano between the two southern branches of the lake and one of our favorite things to do in Bellagio. There are several ways to tackle this particular peak, ranging from simple and scenic to seriously strenuous, but the rewards are many: a panorama like no other, polenta prepared just like Mamma makes it and a great workout!
The easiest way to get to the top is taking the car to the rustic inn “Rifugio Martina” and braving the steep, challenging hour’s hike to the peak from there. Better yet, start in the hamlet of San Giovanni in Bellagio, enjoy about 4 to 5 hours of hiking to the peak and arrange for collection at Rifugio Martina – but not until you’ve had your fill of their delicious polenta uncia, a delightfully sinful regional dish made with coarse cornmeal and plenty of butter and garlic. For true adventure types, start in Como on the funicular railway to Brunate – known as the “Balcony of the Alps” – and make your way to Bellagio on a two-day trek that includes an overnight at a catered mountain chalet. The sweeping views across the lake and the Alps from the Dorsale del Triangolo hiking path is something you’ll never forget!
7. Jungle Raider Adventure Park
If you’re, looking for a family-friendly experience on Lake Como, look no further than the Jungle Raider park. Located about a half-hour from Bellagio in the hills of Civenna, this fun-filled adventure park has 5 rope and ziplining courses for kids of all ages. They range from the easily manageable Baby course for kids as young as 3 to the thrills and spills of the Tornado course for people over 160cm (about 5’ 2”). Besides the pleasant shade and scenic atmosphere of the forest, Jungle Raider gives everyone a real sense of achievement after completing a challenging course. Picnic tables and a small restaurant make it easy to refuel between courses, and there are pleasant wooded walks for those in your party who like to keep their feet firmly on the ground.
Jungle Raider also offers a range of guided group excursions. On the canyoning trip, you follow a local stream on foot and in the water, complete with abseiling and waterfalls, while the spelunking trip goes deep into underground caves, exploring stalactites and stalagmites along with subterranean lakes and daring “vertical caves”. Wetsuits, helmets, carabiners, ropes and harnesses are provided, bring your own nerves of steel! Or embrace your inner warrior in an Airsoft battle – a combat simulation game similar to paintball, but with biodegradable pellets instead of paint. They give you full-body camo, goggles and a rifle, but make note – you have to give it all back when it’s over!
8. Capturing Lake Como on Canvas
The professional artists at Abele Experientia Artis studio know that getting in touch with your creative side is good for the soul – especially when you are free from the daily grind on vacation! They offer a range of workshops for amateur painters, crafty kids and accomplished artists. At the start of each experiment, you’ll get to know your instructors and their work exhibited in the studio, before enjoying a master class in mixing pigments as painters have done for centuries. The Alchemy of Color workshop follows in the footsteps of the impressionists, painting ‘en plein air’ the unparalleled scenery of Lake Como. Night Reflections of the Soul is a unique nocturnal painting workshop by the light of a lantern while gentle waves lap on the shore. The Romantic Sculpture workshop takes place in the Abele Experientia Artis studio, using natural clay and traditional tools of yesteryear masters to create your three-dimensional masterpiece.
Abele Experientia Artis have something special in store for kids with creative tendencies from 5 to 16. The Kids Experience is a one-hour sculpture workshop, where they can create their own special souvenir of Lake Como using natural clay and simple wooden tools. In the Magic of Watercolors workshop, kids learn basic brush technique and clever tricks with this versatile medium to produce a masterpiece of their own making in just one hour. On request, the instructors can put together a tailor-made experience just for you!
9. Hotel Aurora watersports
Where can you find a great Italian pizza, a water trampoline and world champion water skiers and wakeboarders? At the Jolly Racing Club in Lezzeno – just ten minutes’ drive south of Bellagio! For a flat fee, visitors have access to the sun loungers and umbrellas, the stand-up paddleboards and kayaks, the trampolines on land and on the lake. For an extra charge, you can rent your own motorboat for a cruise around the lake or get Piero and his team to take you out wakeboarding, waterskiing or aquatubing. You’re in good hands with JRC’s instructors – they come from a family of champions! Piero was the captain of the Italian national water ski racing team and his brother Stefano won the world championships in 1995, while next-generation Giorgia won the European championship in wakeboarding in 2010 at the age of 12.
With all those watersports, you’re bound to work up an appetite – and it’s lucky that the restaurant next to JRC at the Hotel Aurora (run by the same family!) serves some of the best pizza in town. Former racer Stefano is also a champion chef – well known for his lake fish and pasta dishes, expertly crafted cocktails and indulgent desserts. And the view of the sun setting over the Grigne mountains across the lake makes everything taste even better…
10. Villas, Villages and Vino walking tour
Despite being one of the busiest and most popular tourist destinations on Lake Como, Bellagio has some hidden corners that are blissfully bereft of crowds. A great way to explore the activities Bellagio has to offer beside the shops, gelaterias and restaurants of the downtown area is to book a walking tour with a local expert guide. One of our favorites is the Villas, Villages and Vino tour that takes you to all of the so-called frazione, small hamlets or villages, that make up Bellagio town: Pescallo, once a thriving fishing village, has a laid-back charm with traditional boats bobbing in the harbor; Vialone makes a grand entrance with the neoclassical Villa Giulia; and ancient mule tracks take you to hilly Taronica for its rustic stone cottages and unparalleled views of both southern branches of the lake.
In San Giovanni, with its elegant baroque church of the same name, the walking tour veers into 18th-century Villa Crella for a well-deserved break. The owners have fascinating tales to tell of the painstaking restoration of the centuries-old villa, before taking a seat in the cozy wine cellars or on the panoramic terrace for a tasting of local wines. The wineries of the region, despite being less well known than their counterparts in Tuscany and Piedmont, produce some surprisingly tasty wines, such as Sorsasso in Domaso – a terroir praised by none other than Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD, Munciar from Terrazze di Montevecchia – a vineyard in the Montevecchia nature reserve between Lecco and Milan, and Valtellina Superiore from Fratelli Bettina – cultivated in a nearby alpine valley with some of Italy’s steepest vineyards. The tour ends with a visit to the ancient harbor of Loppia and a stroll through the meticulously landscaped gardens of Villa Melzi on your way back to the town center.