World’s most glamorous lake is Europe’s new ‘it’ place

World’s most glamorous lake is Europe’s new ‘it’ place
Shutterstock via CNN
Located in the region of Lombardy in Northern Italy, Lake Como has attracted celebrities for decades.

Forget the Amalfi Coast, Capri and the Riviera. The hottest destination in Italy these days is Lake Como.

About an hour’s drive north of Milan, the region has an unbelievably picturesque setting that includes lush greenery and lakeside historic villages framed by the backdrop of the Italian and Swiss Alps. Travel around a bit more, and you’ll find ornate centuries-old villas, elaborate gardens brimming with fragrant flowers, tiny churches and endless scenic walks and hikes. Welcoming locals enthusiastically share their culture and traditions with visitors.

Many blockbuster movies have been filmed in Lake Como, including “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones,” “Casino Royale” and “Ocean’s Twelve,” and while the area has always attracted tourists, it has more recently become synonymous with glamor and luxury.

According to Andrea Grisdale, the owner of IC Bellagio, a Lake Como-based travel company selling luxury trips to Italy, part of the change has to do with the spring opening of Mandarin Oriental, Lago di Como. “You have this super high-end brand with a loyal following open an incredible property so, of course, the jet-setters want to come,” she says.

“All of a sudden, Lake Como is the place to be,” Grisdale adds.

There’s also the George Clooney effect. The actor bought the 18th-century Villa Oleandra, in the town of Laglio, as a vacation home back in 2002 and has spent an increasing amount of time there in recent years. Clooney’s cadre of famous friends frequently visit, and their pursuits, thanks to prying paparazzi, are splashed across tabloids all over the world.

“Clooney has done incredible publicity for the lake and brought its chi-chiness to another level,” says Grisdale.

A Clooney sighting isn’t a guarantee on a Lake Como vacation, but a good time might as well be.

Here are Lake Como’s top attractions and reasons to plan a trip to this corner of the world.

Village appeal

The lake aside, Grisdale says that Lake Como’s biggest appeal is the collection of small towns, including undiscovered gems that have seen nary a tourist. “They all have a lot of character, but each has its own atmosphere and feel,” she says. “The locals often speak in Italian dialects to each other, and visiting is a very authentic experience of the region.”

Bellagio is the most touristy and can get crowded, but it is full of vibrant restaurants and bars as well as local boutiques selling chic fashions.

Argegno, half-way between Bellagio and Como, is more under the radar. The River Telo runs through it and is home to Santa Anna Church, an 18th century structure known for its original frescoes. If you make a day of exploring the various villages, Grisdale recommends taking the cable car from Argegno to Pigra, a small hillside town with amazing views of the lake and the mountains beyond.

The small town of Cadenabbia, set on the side of Monte Crocione, is the place to get those dramatic shots of the Alps. The villas here, such as Villa Margherita and Villa Collina, date back to the 17th and 18th centuries and are the stuff of movies.

Lenno, in contrast, is set along the water and has several scenic walking paths. It’s also where the cool crowd comes to sunbathe, dine and drink at Lido di Lenno, a beach club-slash-restaurant serving contemporary Italian cuisine and killer cocktails. The quieter Lezzeno is another lakefront village lined with walking paths, both hilly and flat; come here for the serenity but definitely not the scene.

Tourists can spend several days exploring the villages. Grisdale recommends seeing a few a day and concentrating on one part of the lake. “The area is spread out, and the roads are narrow so it can take a while to get from one point to the next,” she says.

You can hire a guide, along with a car and driver, for your excursion or visit lakefront villages such as Lezzeno and Bellagio by hiring a private boat through your hotel, travel agent or a water sports center.

Lake life

The star of a visit to Lake Como is — no surprise — the namesake lake. Starting in the spring and through the fall, visitors can enjoy activities such as boating, paddle boarding, jet skiing (a Clooney favorite) and kayaking. Swimming is also a popular pastime (though the water can be uncomfortably cold outside of July and August).

There are a bevy of water sport options; if your hotel doesn’t offer what you’re looking for, just head into town.

Prefer to stay on dry land? Travelers come to Lake Como from around the world just to see its gardens, and they can be visited from spring to fall. Similar to Villa d’Este, most are on the grounds of historic villas. The region is lush with greenery, both sprawling and intimate; during the peak summer season, beat the crowds and the heat by visiting early.

Villa Carlotta, next to Grand Hotel Tremezzo, built by a marquis from Milan in the 17th century, has an expansive park with shaded paths, a bamboo forest and themed gardens. The Italian garden, for example, has fountains, citrus trees, camellias and trimmed hedges.

Villa Balbianello’s gardens are full of sycamore and pine trees, and in spring and summer, azaleas and rhododendrons are in full bloom. These sloped gardens are a fantastic viewing point of the lake, and it’s here where George Lucas filmed the scene of Queen Amidala’s wedding from “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.”

Villa Monastero has terraced gardens with more than 1,000 species of plants and flowers. Visitors will also find many exotic species including palm trees from Africa and the Americas and agave plants from Mexico. The citrus groves and dedicated camellia garden are particularly picturesque.

Set along the lake in Bellagio, Villa Melzi Garden, is full of sculptures, a water lily pond, Japanese cedar and maple trees, towering hedges and cypresses.

Bellagio Water Sports, Via Sfondrati, 1, Bellagio, 39-340-39-49-375

Water Experience Center, Via Alle Rive, 28, Como, 39-031-225-5831