Lake Como beckons families with its spectacular waterfront set against scenic mountains — and keeps them coming back for its plentiful activities, relaxed vibe and bounty of restaurants and shops. While the lake is about unwinding and simply soaking up the local atmosphere (there’s a reason people from Milan have flocked here each summer for centuries), finding the right balance of things to do and downtime is key for families looking to enjoy its charms. Here’s a tried-and-true itinerary that will keep the whole crew smiling.
Take today to get a feel for life on the lake from your chosen home base.We suggest staying somewhere mid-lake, either near sleepy Tremezzo or on the Bellagio side, which enjoys more action. Walk down to the lakefront, have a gelato and ease in. Depending on where you are staying, the little tourist Trombetta train (which runs on the Tremezzo side and in Bellagio) can be a fun option for exploration.
It’s easy to make the most of your time on Lake Como with minimal fuss, thanks to the extensive and well-run ferry system. There will likely be a pier within walking distance of your accommodations, so grab a timetable and embark on a visit to one of the beautiful waterfront towns. Cernobbio has gained notoriety in recent years due to famed resident George Clooney; it is also home to the luxury property Villa d’Este and boasts an enviable waterfront, shops and restaurants. Argegno is a typical lake enclave with shops, restaurants and a lido. Adventurous families who don’t mind heights will enjoy taking the tiny cable car up to Pigra for fantastic views.
The hamlet of Lenno offers a cute waterfront, a lido and a few restaurants. Go for the morning and then enjoy lunch outside (Trattoria Santo Steffano is a favorite). Afterward, grab a gelato at La Fabricca del Gelato and snap a few pictures before hopping back on the ferry. Tremezzo is anchored by Grand Hotel Tremezzo, which lures visitors with its stately presence and iconic orange-colored awnings. There are only a few shops in town, but there are several restaurants and a surprisingly majestic public lido/park, where you can always find kids playing soccer or taking a dip in the lake.
Menaggio, a busier town north of Tremezzo, offers quite a few shops as well as restaurants and bars. If you are renting an apartment on the Tremezzo side, Menaggio also offers a larger grocery store (rather than the more common alimentari, which carry fresh fruit and staples). For a change of pace, check out the rustic lakefront mini-golf course.
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Bellagio is considered by many to be the jewel of the lake; don’t leave without seeing it. You will be charmed from the moment the ferry pulls in and delighted by the cobbled and flower-studded lanes that wind up the hill. Bellagio is the spot to shop for souvenirs and local treasures, so leave ample time to wander. If the kids start to balk at the uphill slope, just duck into one of the plentiful shops for a gelato, such as Gelateria del Borgo. Grab lunch or dinner on the patio at Bilacus or a pizza downstairs at Barchetta, which also has a lovely restaurant upstairs for a nicer meal.
Varenna is another picture-postcard hamlet. Key sites at this stop are the 13th-century San Giorgio church and the house and lovely gardens of Villa Monastero. For nature-loving families looking for a place to hike, there is also the Greenway dei Patriarchi.
TIP: The first three stops are on the west side of the lake, Bellagio is on the peninsula in the middle, and Varenna is on the east side. Plan your sightseeing schedule accordingly.
The towns around the lake that have lidos offer easy access to a beach (often with chairs, cabanas and food/drink), as well as being a gateway to water sports. If there isn’t a lido nearby, some hotels will allow you to pay a day rate to access their pool or beach.
Kids will be thrilled to take a motorboat out on the water and help chart your own course. You’ll enjoy some of the best vantage points of Lake Como’s picturesque scenery, and you can rent boats for as little as two hours. Boating licenses are not required unless you are piloting a craft for more than six people. Find a calm spot, power down and swim in the lake, or just bring some snacks and enjoy a picnic.
TIP: The lake conditions get windier the farther north you head from Bellagio, so it’s easiest to head south.
Other options, depending on the town, include stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking and paddle boats. Families can also arrange a water skiing or tubing excursion.
There are several famed villas and gardens dotted around the lake. The settings are simply stunning and make for jaw-dropping photos, but when the kids’ patience for that runs out, the grounds are also an ideal place to burn off a little steam or a shady haven to rest. Choose one of the following, and if time and interest allow, do another villa on a separate day.
Accessible by private boat or a 20-minute walk from Lenno, Villa Balbianello is the stuff of legend. Its scenery may look familiar, as many famous movies have been filmed here — like James Bond’s Casino Royale and the wedding scene of Anakin and Padme from the Star Wars franchise. Make time for the 1-hour guided tour (in English) of the amazing interior, with extensive collections on display from explorer and mountaineer Guido Monzeno, the most recent owner. If you’re walking from Lenno, wear comfortable shoes, as the path is uphill.
Villa Carlotta enjoys its own ferry stop, and its beautiful multi-tiered gardens draw visitors from near and far. Take in the plentiful botanical specimens, arboretum, waterfall, topiaries and peaceful nooks. Afterward, you can walk to nearby Tremezzo for a snack or lunch.
The entrance to the Villa Melzi gardens lies down a tree-lined white pebble path from the Bellagio car ferry pier. Visitors will enjoy the waterfront vistas, the small pond and cavern, an Instagram-worthy cupola and reflecting pond, and the plentiful botanical beauties on display. A favorite spot for a leisurely lunch in an ivy-covered pergola can be found just outside the garden on the Loppia side at Alle Darsene (be sure to make a reservation in advance).
Tiny Isola Comacina, accessible by water taxi or public ferry, is the only island in the lake. In the 12th century, the island was at the center of a bitter fight in the war between Milan and Como, when the Bishop of Como declared that anyone who came there would die a violent death. It was deserted for centuries, but Restaurant Isola Comacina was built after WWII, and lunch or dinner here is a must. The restaurant enjoys amazing views over the lake and has been serving guests its famed set-menu family-style feast for more than 50 years, complete with a fire ceremony to ward off the curse of the island. Make sure to plan ahead for this one, which requires reservations and is cash-only. It’s worth it.
Essential advice for making the most of the area with all ages >
The lake truly leaves families spoiled for choice, and visitors could spend weeks exploring its plentiful villages. Pick a new destination today or cast your sights farther afield.
Como, at the base of the lake, serves as the business and commercial hub of the region, with amenities including department stores and a train station. In our experience, families get more enjoyment from exploring the pint-size towns around the lake, but Como may be on your radar. If heading here, make sure to take one of the high-speed ferries rather than the local ferry to save time.
If you are keen to add another country to your stay and have access to a car, Switzerland is only a short drive north. The Swiss city of Lugano (roughly an hour’s drive from Tremezzo) offers plenty of luxury shopping — think watches and chocolate — and a gorgeous lakefront in its own right. This is definitely a bigger excursion, but the area does have a distinctly different vibe and you can easily park and explore for the day on foot.
Depending on your departure timing, use today to fit in anything that you haven’t had a chance to do. Perhaps you feel like touring an additional town or villa, or maybe the kids just want to swim in the lake. Take this chance to check off any last desires before you leave.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Amy Andrews.
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