Looking to go off the beaten track and discover some of Lake Como’s hidden charms? Our list of 10 Things to See on Lake Como is a sightseer’s smorgasbord, everything from natural wonders and sacred sights to art and (horti)culture. And if you need more information on any of these destinations, just ask the Palazzo staff to point you in the right direction. Buon divertimento!
1. Walking on Water
The lakeside village of Bellano sits at the base of Monte Muggio where the Pioverno River flows into Lake Como, about 6 miles north of Varenna. Over the past 15 million years, the river has slowly but surely slashed a natural ravine into the rock and left steep moss-covered stone walls in its wake. Visitors can stroll through the so-called Orrido di Bellano ravine on elevated walkways, enjoying the blissful shade of its steep stone walls and the gush of water cascading into the lake. Spare a moment to notice the unusual hexagonal tower at the entrance to the park, called Ca’ del Diavol in the local dialect. Was it so named for the demons in the top-floor frescos – or for the rumors that it was a site for satanic rituals?
2. Sacred Cycles
Cyclists speak of it in hushed tones and even ambitious amateurs have succumbed to it – the signature climb of the Giro di Lombardia in the triangle of mountainous terrain between the two southern branches of the lake. At 1800 feet above Lake Como, the Madonna del Ghisallo church marks the highest point of the climb and has become a ‘mecca’ of sorts for cycling enthusiasts. Its hallowed halls are decorated with pictures and signed jerseys of champions, an eternal flame burns to commemorate fallen cyclists across Italy and a number of famous bikes line the vaulted ceiling – most poignant among them the bent frame of Fabio Casartelli, an Olympian who died tragically in a crash during the 1995 Tour de France. Outside, the stunning views across the lake make the climb (even in the car!) worthwhile and a small museum is mainly targeted towards cycling aficionados.
3. Birds of Prey
Time travel is one of the thrills of Italian sightseeing and Castello di Vezio certainly does it in style. This 5th-century Roman fort turned medieval watchtower sits prominently above the lakeside village of Varenna, providing sweeping 360∞ views of Lake Como and environs. As so often in life, things this beautiful don’t come easy: the fairly challenging hike up from the ferry station in Varenna takes about 45 minutes or you could try your luck to find a space in the small parking lot. The best photo ops are from the turreted tower and the lovely grounds with gnarled olive trees and blooming plants, but the real excitement happens when the falconer unhoods his birds of prey. Castello di Vezio is a well-regarded training and healthcare facility for all manner of raptors, and the daily demonstrations send barn owls, buzzards and falcons soaring and diving to great applause.
4. The Mysteries of the Rosary
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003, the 9 Sacro Monte complexes of Piedmont and Lombardy were the brainchild of 16th and 17th century clerics looking to provide the faithful with an alternative to the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The complex in Ossuccio, nestled in pastoral countryside above Villa del Balbianello, is dedicated to Our Lady of Prompt Succor and was completed between 1635 and 1700. Accessible only on foot, visitors pass 14 baroque chapels as they climb the long road to the main church, each representing one of the ‘mysteries of the rosary’. Painted terracotta statues, ornate stucco decorations and elaborate frescos bring the bible stories to life, culminating with the ascension of Mary depicted in the Santuario Madonna del Soccorso.
5. The Baron’s Garden
The mountain road on the west banks of Lake Como leading from Menaggio to the Swiss city of Lugano passes through the hamlet of Cardano in Grandola. In the heart of the village stands a graceful villa with an elegant facade of local gray stone. This is the country home of Milanese architect Baron Bagatti Valsecchi, who has dedicated his life to maintaining the garden his father designed in the early 20th century. His father, noted horticulturist Pasino Bagatti Valsecchi, envisioned a garden that blends seamlessly into its striking surroundings and makes the most of the views across the Sanagra Valley to the distant mountains. As visitors stroll through the estate, they experience the Baron’s selection of native and non-native trees as well as clusters of colorful flowers, cleverly chosen to ensure that every season boasts its own blooms. Don’t miss the Baron’s collection of rare dahlias in late summer and the stunning views of the central lake area from the tower.
6. Como’s Answer to Banksy
When you’re in Como, look out for graffiti by local artist Pierpaolo Peretta aka Mr. SaveTheWall. As his name says, Como’s answer to Banksy paints his provocative and original artwork on cardboard and tapes them on the walls instead of defacing property (his version of the Ascent of Man goes from cave painting to ‘primitive’ graffiti to Mr. SaveTheWall!). Like many of his contemporaries, Peretta uses a cunning mix of stenciling and provocation to make people think and to challenge preconceived ideas. Some of his most iconic images, like the Pietà holding the Italian flag or the “Selfie ergo sum”, were exhibited at the 2015 Expo in Milan, but you can view them or even buy some prints and postcards at his Como gallery.
7. A Waterfall Three Ways
The village of Nesso lies to the south of Lezzeno, about an hour and a half from the Palazzo along the Strada Regia hiking trail. Like many Lake Como settlements, Nesso evolved into a vertical village rising from the lake shore to higher ground, but unlike others a deep ravine cuts Nesso in two, carved by the confluence of two mountain streams. While the locals were savvy enough to harness the waterfall for its spinning wheels and paper mills for centuries, tourists flocked to see them as far back as Leonardo da Vinci, who mentioned the falls in his Codex Atlanticus. There are three ways to experience the waterfall – and we think you should try them all. From Piazza Castello in the elevated town center you can look down on the falls from above, but you’ll have to climb 340 steps to get there! On the shore, a charming Romanesque bridge provides an ideal vantage point to see the falls from below. To get the full effect, however, we recommend coming to Nesso in a boat – the view of the charming bridge with the falls behind (an iconic image found in many paintings of Lake Como!) is second to none.
8. Ice Age Souvenirs
On a sultry summer’s day, it’s hard to believe that Lake Como and its surroundings were once covered in over 6,000 feet of ice. Evidence of that fact, say the geologists, can be found in so-called massi erratici, or glacial erratics. These boulders differ radically from the rocks native to the area and traveled hundreds of miles from their original location with the retreating glacial ice. There are several impressive erratics in the Lake Como area that are worth a detour. Pietra Nairola in the hills above Blevio has mysterious carvings that date back to prehistoric times and Pietra Pendula near Torno, which rests on a narrow limestone base, looks like a giant – and rather precarious – mushroom. Both of these are only accessible on foot from the well-marked hiking paths between Brunate and Torno. Pietra Lentina in the hills above Bellagio measures almost 100 by 30 feet and is perched on the side of the PIan Rancio road to Civenna (nice stop on your way to the Jungle Raider adventure park!).
9. Feats of Italian Engineering
Well known for its fashion-forward designers, flashy formula 1 racecars and celebrated opera composers, visitors to Italy are often unaware of the country’s contributions to the world of science. Prepare to be enlightened! Start with the neoclassical Tempo Voltiano on the Como promenade. Dedicated to pioneering physicist and inventor of the battery, Alessandro Volta, who was born in Como in 1745, it displays the maestro’s instruments and experiments. From here, stroll the promenade to the Funicolare station and hop on the train to Brunate. A demonstration of the skill of late-1800s engineers, this funicular railway was built to take the who’s who of Milan to the resort town Brunate – climbing 2400 feet in just 7 minutes! Once at the top, continue the climb on foot (about 30 minutes both ways) to the Faro Voltiano. This 95-foot lighthouse was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the great Volta’s death and provides sweeping views of the lake and the countryside – you can even spot Milan’s wedding cake cathedral on a clear day!
10. Art for Art’s Sake
The so-called tower of the arts in Bellagio is a cultural center in the heart of the old town that is fascinating inside and out. Located across the square from the Chiesa San Giacomo, Torre delle Arti is housed in a medieval stone tower that harks back to the 12th century, when Bellagio joined forces with Milan to trying to ward off the German invaders. Inside, there are four floors of exhibit space, each adding historical context to the mostly modern artwork with exposed stone walls and ancient timber ceilings. With everything from sculpture and painting to lace-making and model ships, the changing exhibitions showcase local and international artists as well as the area’s cultural heritage.