A long weekend in Lombardy: Lake Como and Milan

by johnsmith

Produced in partnership with inLombardia

As the first sun rays of the day broke over the mountains and the crisp November air felt a hint of warmth, the colourful little villages of Lake Como, stacked up against the hillsides around me, lit up in golden hues. There’s no better way to start a long weekend in Lake Como than on the lake itself, bobbing around to sound of the gentle waves as your boat ambles between various little villages and towns.

At 7.30 in the morning, we were just a few tourists on the one-hour tour looping back to the main city on the lake, Como, but many others were commuting to work. I couldn’t help but feel slightly jealous that this was how each day heading ‘to the office’ began around the lakes of Lombardia.

For many people who head to Lake Como for a long weekend, the city of Como acts as a launching off point for one of the many boats that ferry visitors and locals alike to the smaller towns and villages that dot the lake.

Lake Como
Morning boat rides on Lake Como

Como, the capital of Lake Como

My arrival at Lake Como had coincided with sunset, so the little streets of ancient houses and medieval buildings were illuminated by the blue hour. Small shop windows were packed with displays of olive oil, limoncello and silk, a famed local product, while drinkers on outside terraces lingered in the light of the heater flames.

The Duomo of Como, with its intricate statues on the outside and interesting design of linking the town hall and church together, dominates the main square. With all the architecture of these three buildings from different time periods, it makes quite the impression. Down side-streets, you’ll find historical churches, theatres and overhanging wooden balconies from the old houses.

Being winter, and with a reduced ferry service running, the next morning would see me drive to the ‘pearl of Lake Como’, Bellagio. Checking in for the night to Hotel Metropole Suisse provided not only a relaxed luxury place to rest my head but an incredible location right alongside the water itself, where I sat admiring the view from my window until it was time for dinner.

Cocktails and cuisine in Como

There are many bars and restaurants in Como, ranging from tiny cocktail taverns with pianos and old artwork decorating the walls, through to modern dining in stylish settings. At Caffè Teatro, we settled into one of the back dining rooms in this deceivingly large yet intimate restaurants and launched straight into the red wine to warm the November Chill.

The food in Lombardia is more hearty than your stereotypical Italian cuisine and as beef tartare was prepared at the table, followed by Ragu pasta and grilled duck breast, the restaurant more than lived up to its theatrical name.

Without a doubt, my favourite part of being in Como was how easy it was to jump on the boats, and the next morning when we joined the one-hour loop service before departing to Bellagio, I, as I have so often before in Italy, felt myself leaving a part of my heart behind. If you ever plan on booking a trip to Italy, you would be a fool not to include Lake Como on your itinerary.

Admire the views in Brunate

Home to some of the first luxury hotels in the region, Brunate sits in a prime position looking down on Como city and Lake Como. For those looking to splurge and have a balcony view to be proud of, checking in to this high-end real estate is an option.

For those who want to admire the view like I, the Como funicular will ferry you up from Como every 15/30 minutes, depending on the season, and just moments from the funicular station you’ll find incredible vantage points and viewing platforms to admire this serene section of Italy from above.

The funicular costs around five euros for a return ride, and although the cars themselves have had a modern overhaul, you can still enjoy the history of the stations and tracks while in the waiting areas thanks to the displays on the boards.

Lake Como
Views over Lake Como from Brunate

Onwards to Bellagio and the Ghisallo Cycling Museum

Being winter and with fewer options to transfer to Bellagio, one of the famous and most beautiful spots on the lake, we drove rather than taking a boat transfer.

One of the bonuses of using four (or two) wheels to get around the lake is you can take in incredible views from above the lake, and genuinely get a sense of the scale. Being just a few kilometres from the Swiss border means often you are admiring two countries peaks, not only one.

One place well worth stopping on route to Bellagio is Magreglio, where a fantastic platform at the Ghisallo Cycling Museum offers you the first glimpse at Bellagio, and during the winter months, the snow-capped mountains make a beautiful contrast against the multicoloured facades of the villages.

Inside the Ghisallo Cycling Museum, you’ll find a history of cycling, especially within Italy, and a short tour will take you from wooden bicycles to some of the most famous bikes from modern-day cyclists. The nearby church is where people would gift their old bikes as donations, and while the chapel is still decorated with many of these bicycles, the collection had become so large the museum now accommodates many of these.

The pearl of Lake Como, Bellagio

Continuing down the winding roads to Bellagio itself, you’ll soon arrive at the tip of Lake Como, where the lake points into three directions from Bellagio.

With a hearty local meal at Bilacus restaurant under your belt, a relaxed environment specialising in the traditional local dish of Perch and rice risotto, you can wander the beautiful Bellagio streets and realise why this is known as the pearl of Lake Como.

During the winter months I know how crowded this popular destination gets from friends who have visited, but travelling Europe during the off-season, it was blissfully quiet which allowed for photos devoid of tourists but also meant many of the business were closed. Luckily, for ice-cream addicted self, we stumbled upon a gelato house more than happy to provide a creamy treat on a chilly day.

Don’t miss magical Varenna

Jumping onboard the twenty-minute crossing to Varenna from Bellagio, I found perhaps my favourite place I visited on the lake and one of my top hidden gems in Italy.

Lake Como
Beautiful Varenna in Lake Como

Varenna might not be the most popular destination, but I had been informed by a local friend it was the most adorable and wow was she right. As the boat slowly pulled up to Varenna, and the colourful buildings danced in the lake reflections, I was so glad I had taken the detour to visit here.

From the impressive castles and churches that lay higher up the mountainside to the coffee houses providing excellent views from the lakeside, my time in Varenna was spent wandering aimlessly, admiring botanical gardens, and hopping between coffee shops so I could pause and admire the view, cappuccino in hand. With fishers walking around and a real sense of a local village, Varenna stole the show for me.

Leaving for Lecco

The Varenna-Esino station offers fairly regular connections onwards to Monza and Milan, but I had one more stop I wanted to make it to on my long weekend in Lake Como, Lecco.

A larger city on the lake, Lecco is where you are more likely to find your highstreet tours and locals going around their day to day life, it was likely my least favourite stop on the lake, but it’s still worth a visit.

The tower of the church flanks the mains square, but the most magical part of Lecco for me was the views from the watered. In the blue hour of the day, the twinkling lights across the nearly flat water created a perfect reflection, and with such imposing mountains, it was the ideal way to end the day, of course, Aperitivo in hand.

Looking out from Lecco at sunset

The food of Lombardia

While pizza and pasta are of course staples across the whole country, the Lombardia cuisine is much more focussed on Risotto.

Throughout my long weekend in Lake Como and Milan, I had various risottos, usually with a saffron base but topped with different items, from perch to beef. Other treats included traditional stewed beef with Polenta, mouthwatering Tiramisus, beef capacious with generous toppings of truffles and small fried balls of meat and cheese, a real contender for finger snacks to the more famous Arancini.

Dining in Lombardia
Dining in Lombardia

When in the north of Italy, for those who drink alcohol, taking part in Aperitivo, sometimes called happy hour, is a must. For a fixed fee you can enjoy a drink of your choice, you’ll catch me with an Aperol Spritz or Negroni, and enjoy snacks supplied by the bar. These can range from fully stacked buffets to plates dropped on the table to share. Not as common in the south of the country, this is the perfect appetiser before heading to dinner.

The classics of Milan begin at the Duomo

Milan is a city known throughout the world for its fashion, and you can’t help but admire the sleek outfits as you stop into this bustling metropolises. Start your second part of the long weekend in Lake Como and Milan at the magical classics of the city, and in Piazza Duomo.

The Duomo Cathedral is a captivating view, and with more statues than any other church, and the impressive pink-hues of the Marble, you can stand in awe of its grandeur while pigeons dance throughout the square. To truly appreciate the six centuries that went into building the cathedral, and for some fantastic views of the city, head up to the terraces on the rooftop which can be accessed by life.

Milan Duomo

The Cathedral is different to most gothic architecture in Italy as it was a collaborative effort between both local and International architects and builders, and getting up close to the statues and detailing is the only way to see just how intricately put together the Duomo is.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and La Scala Theatre

Next-door to the cathedral is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which connects three of the most important monuments and buildings of the city through its walkways. This incredible shopping thoroughfare is not only home to various stores and fashion shops, but with its magnificent domed centre, steel and glass windows, and intricate artwork high above the golden-coloured pillars, it’s an attraction in itself.

Exiting the Galleria entrance opposite the Duomo will bring you to La Scala Theatre and while this building might now blow you away from the outside, the inside is splendid. Of course, the best way to appreciate this grand content hall is to book a ticket to a show, but if you are short on term or just not interested, the museum inside offers you not only a chance to explore the buildings history and previous uses but also to take a peek at the theatre.

If a show is in rehearsal you’ll only be able to look through the windows of the balcony, but if you luck out and can enter the magnificent space make sure you have your camera on hand because this is a theatre of red curtains and boxes, set against golden detailing, that would sit well on any Instagram feed!

The beautiful Library in Brera, Milan

Discover the beautiful Brera district

One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Milan is Brera, making it a must visit during your long weekend in Lake Como and Milan. From the traditional shop signs to the coffee tables lined up on stone streets against colourful facades, the small labyrinth of roads in Brera is a place well worth getting lost in.

Dipping into a courtyard of the art institutes you’ll be greeted by a giant statue of Napoleon, while a visit to the library here is a must. A working space used by those at the institute, the ornate wooden panelling, grand chandeliers and collection of old bound books is one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve travelled to.

With red-brick churches, plenty of small galleries and art shops, and of course opportunities to sample more Italian delicacies, the old and now somewhat expensive district of Brera was only beaten by one other area of the city for me, Navigli.

Explore the canals around Navigli

I’ve no idea how I missed Navigli on my first visit to Milan, but I’m so glad I discovered it this time. The city used to be a lot more linked together by canals and waterways than it is now, but the best concentration of those that remain can be found here. To get the perfect reflection shot though you’ll have to be patient, as the local rowing club practices up and down here.

While I’ve heard during the day, the canals are pleasant to look at, during the evening hours the area comes alive as bars and restaurants overspill onto the pavements and Aperitivo hour is celebrated in full swing.

Beyond the canals and cocktails, small courtyards hold beautiful secrets while UNESCO listed attractions lay open tot he public in the shapes of olden washing areas providing a throwback to how life would have been for those living in what used to be a poor area of Milan many years ago.

Continue to Castello Sforzesco

Something else I was somehow unaware of during my previous Milan visits is the vast fortress of Castello Sforzesco. Entrance here to the grounds is free, and the huge fountain at the forefront is one of Milan’s most impressive.

Inside the Castle, you can wander through the outside areas, see the now drained moats, and learn more about the history of the city. Constructed by the Duke of Milan in the 15th-century, the castle’s spot was before that a range of fortifications. Thanks to renovations and enlargements around the 1600s, at that time it became one of the grandest and most impressive citadels in the whole of Europe.

Park walks to the Triennale Museum

While I only indeed visited the Triennale Museum to enjoy the views from the terrace of the restaurant, Osteria con Vista, the museum/gallery space is quite the work of art.

The Triennale was opened in 1933 as a purpose-built design and art museum, and, as the name would suggest, initially it was meant to host the even every three years it is now a fulltime space showing a mix of rotating and permanent displays.

After enjoying a delicious set menu of carpaccio, traditional stewed beef and espresso with delicious petit fours of Italian treats, I ventured to the balcony to take in ‘New Milan’, a section of the city known as Porta Nuova, with the final part of the space opening as recently as October 2018.

Another side to the city, New Milan

While Milan and Italy, in general, are usually celebrated for the grand architecture, not many cities are renowned for their more modern skylines. In Milan, that is changing, as creative architects are coming together to bring a new lease of life to specific districts.

A walk along Corso Como, past its grand old gate and hidden courtyards would have taken you to abandoned warehouses and old train tracks a decade ago; now it leads you to the ultramodern buildings of Porto Nuova.

This new space in the centre of the city is home to restaurants and shops, but it also provides a green lung to enjoy picnics or coffees in the open air while admiring some of the most modern architectures in Europe. Vertical forests rise up two towers on one side of the park, which wooden beams surrounded dark black and glass buildings on the other. Traditional details, such as the famed Milan water fountains with their creature like taps, have been installed throughout this new build to bring old and new together.

At the heart of the development is Ratanà Restaurant, where inside the converted warehouse-like space you can find friendly service and more risotto, or opt to dine a la carte if the set menu doesn’t appeal. The restaurant was also the central meeting point for discussions with the locals who lived around the new area, as the construction companies kept residents in the loop of the development. As such, expect to find a more local crowd dining here than just your typical tourist establishment.

Art installations at CityLife
Art installations at CityLife

Heading to CityLife

Across the city and a short ride on the metro to the Tre Torri stop, CityLife is the second modern part of Milan to be completed, with the final building to open next year. Here three towers, leaning, spinning and making their mark on the skyline, grow up from the shopping mall and dining options below. White residential buildings are decorated with vegetation in abundance, although the main draw as a visitor is the art installations on display.

Around the CityLife development you’ll find some large artwork, and the less obvious, ranging from stars embedded into the floor of the development that were mapped out by a local child from when Milan was first built as a city, too multicoloured poles rising from the gardens which are an interpretation on the fluidity of gender. It’s not somewhere I would suggest going out of the way to visit, but if you are close by the changing programme of art may be of interest during your long weekend in Lake Como and Milan.

Of course, Milan is a vast city, and there is plenty more to discover, whether in the city or further afield in Lombardia, but if you only have three or four days to enjoy your long weekend in Lake Como and Milan, the above itinerary will undoubtedly keep you busy while enjoying the highlights. Oh, and have a slice of pizza for me while you’re there!

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