From Roman patricians to Renaissance noblemen, 19th-century heiresses to Hollywood stars, Lake Como has been the playground of pleasure-seekers from near and far for centuries. Lucky for us, the gorgeous villas they left behind still decorate our lake shores and no trip to Lake Como is complete without experiencing these historic gems. Some of the villas and their lovingly landscaped gardens are open to the public, while others are in the hands of the fortunate few and only viewable from afar. You could take the public ferry to ports at or near the villas or drive the scenic lake road, but we would always recommend a private cruise with a guide for maximum convenience and the added bonus of a bit of local Lake Como gossip and history.
Our tour starts on the landing stage outside the Palazzo in Lezzeno, crossing first towards Varenna, then working our way down the southwestern branch of the lake and pointing out highlights as we go…
Heading north from Lezzeno, the first villa we see is Villa Melzi, extending along the lake between the ancient harbor of Loppia and Bellagio. The lovingly landscaped gardens feature a romantic grotto, welcome shade from the plane trees and oriental gardens complete with a bamboo forest. The early 19th-century villa itself is not open to the public, but a visit to the charming family chapel is recommended – built in the neoclassical style, the chapel boasts stunning stucco decoration and the tomb of the villa’s original owner, Count Melzi d’Eril. The gardens are open to the public from March to October, check the website for details.
The cruise continues around the Bellagio promontory, where Villa Serbelloni (not to be confused with the Grand Hotel of the same name!) sits on its verdant perch. The estate, originally built in the 15th century, belonged to a series of noblemen before American heiress turned Italian principessa donated it to the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s to “promote international understanding”. The unparalleled location overlooks all three branches of the lake and offers 11 miles of paths through its botanic gardens featuring rare and exotic plants. Illustrious figures from the past and present have made Villa Serbelloni a hub of intellectual and artistic activity – from Leonardo da Vinci and Queen Victoria to the top artists, scientists and thinkers of today. From March to November, guided tours of the park are available at 11 and 3:30 (book through Promobellagio).
On the opposite shore, just south of Varenna, we can already see Villa Monastero on the shore with its arched windows and portico. Villa Monastero has a fascinating history, too – first as a convent for nuns fleeing fires on Isola Comacina, then a lakeside retreat for magnates in the iron ore business in the 16th century. After German businessman Walter Kees bought the villa at the turn of the 20th century, his additions in an eclectic neo-Baroque, neo-Classical and Belle Epoque mix became the villa’s star attractions. The final owner was Dr. Marco de Marchi, a famous patron of the sciences, who continued to cultivate exotic species on the terraces of the stunning botanic gardens. The villa is open to the public (see website for details) and hosts numerous scientific symposia and conferences.
Villa Margherita Ricordi
Cross the lake again at its widest point and head for Villa Margherita Ricordi in Cadenabbia. This striking yellow villa with its striped awnings once belonged to Giulio Ricordi of the Casa Ricordi music publishing and record label fame. Legend has it Giuseppe Verdi frequented the villa and even wrote parts of La Traviata here. It must have been in springtime – when the rhododendron and azaleas are in bloom, it’s truly inspiring! Today, the villa is available for private rental.
Heading south, Villa Carlotta announces itself from its prominent lakeside location. This late 17th-century palace in Tremezzo has attracted visitors from around the globe since the advent of the ‘Grand Tour’ in the 19th century, who lolled under its frescos and strolled its Italianate gardens. At their most stunning when the centuries-old rhododendrons are blooming, the garden has an unparalleled mix of man-made and natural beauty with mythological sculptures, exotic plants and panoramic lake views vying for your attention around every corner. Don’t miss the small museum of agricultural tools in a lovingly restored greenhouse – a reminder of the generations of green-thumbs who have toiled to make the garden what it is today! Check the website for opening times.
Villa del Balbianello
Continuing south to the Lavedo peninsula, you’ll pass the beautiful Grand Hotel Tremezzo, opened to great fanfare in 1910 for Grand Tour types from across Europe, and Villa Solo Cabiati, an 18th century palace with lovely gardens that is now GH Tremezzo’s exclusive event space. The leafy, hilly promontory jutting out into the lake is home to everyone’s favorite Lake Como photo-op, Villa del Balbianello. Arriving by boat at the landing stage of this bright yellow villa is a one-of-a-kind experience and many are the treasures to discover inside. From prehistoric art and artifacts to the world’s largest collection of reverse paintings on glass and 18th-century antiques to memorabilia of the eclectic owner’s ambitious arctic adventures. Outdoors, botanic curiosities like the evergreen ficus vines climbing the columns is paired with romantic statuary and well-tended trees to make a truly cinematic setting (just ask Anakin Skywalker and James Bond!) Currently operated by the Italy’s historic preservation foundation, the website has detailed information on opening hours and tickets.
From the Lavedo peninsula, the cruise continues into the Como branch of the lake. Seperated into three basins, the first or ‘primo bacino’ stretching from the promontory of Torno to the city of Como is particularly appealing. For centuries, this has been prime real estate for moguls and magnates, thanks to its proximity to Milan and the industrial hubs of Italy’s northern corridor. The result is a coastline lined with extravagant villas and manicured gardens – and some great stories about the jetsetters who have made this their playground.
Villa Fontanelle in Moltrasio once belonged to Gianni Versace; the supermodel-stocked parties here are the stuff of legends.
Villa d’Este, once home to Cardinals and Queens, is the grand hotel of choice on Lake Como. Its balustrades, grottos and fountains and acres of exotic and native flowering plants and trees make this elegant park truly a feast for the senses.
Villa Erba (where Clooney and Cassels banter in Oceans 12) was built by the Erba pharmaceuticals dynasty in the 19th century and was home to noted filmmaker Luchino Visconti (of “The Leopard” fame) until his death in 1976.
The 17th-century Villa Olmo by Como has a striking neoclassical façade and once hosted both Garibaldi and Napoleon. The city bought the estate in the 1920s, turning it into a conference center and home to the Centro Volta scientific institute.
The chalet-inspired Villa Troubetzkoy was built for an exiled Russian prince in 1850, who came to Lake Como straight from a Siberian labor camp!
Now a five-star hotel, CastaDiva Resort was once home to legendary soprano Giuditta Pasta, who welcomed composers Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti to her home in the 19th.
Among all of these historic properties, Il Sereno stands out as a cool, contemporary addition to the local villa scene. Old meets new in this five-story structure: the striking geometric pattern of wood, glass, stone and vertical gardens sits on an ancient stone dock.
Luxurios Villa Pliniana was built as a 16th-century retreat for an Italian count and is now a private villa and event space. When English poet Shelley stayed here years later, he called it “the most lovely that the eye ever beheld”.