As a Los Angeles native who has rubbed elbows with my fair share of celebrities, I found myself imagining Lake Como, Italy, as any cliche-skeptical American might: an overrated luxury resort town that had only gained international attention when George Clooney bought a villa there in 2002. But this cynic stands corrected.
The truth is, Lake Como is like heaven on earth. It is a gleaming gem in the center of Italy's crown jewels. Capturing the region's unparalleled beauty and narrowing out which attractions to highlight is a real challenge, and over the course of six days this past June, I had a life-altering experience and fell in love with the city and its community.
Above: Author Vic Gerami at Villa d'Este
Como is more than a lake. It offers ancient Roman architecture and history, as well as majestic gothic and renaissance cathedrals and churches, gorgeous mountains that ring the lake, world-class museums, local wineries, and some of the best Michelin three-star restaurants in the world. It's like Disneyland for foodies, nature lovers, history buffs, connoisseurs of world-class art, and those who want to escape into a tranquil and serene paradise.
The lake is located in northern Italy's Lombardy region, about 52 miles north of Milan, close to the Swiss border. It is Italy's third largest lake and one of Europe's deepest. At 56-square miles, the lake is shaped like an inverted letter "Y," surrounded by dozens of ancient towns along its shores. Each quaint village has its own rich history, distinct characteristics, and unique charm.
Above: Villa d'Este at Sunset.
Since the days of the Roman Empire, Lake Como has been a popular retreat for nobility, aristocrats, and the affluent. In fact, Julius Caesar reportedly had the walled city constructed, and famous Roman lawyer Pliny the Younger built a villa here. It has attracted artists and tourists alike. Despite its continued popularity with celebrities and elite travelers today, Como is still affordable, even for budget travelers.
LGBTQ travelers will find it equally accessible and friendly. One local summed up the community's attitude toward queer folks: "Why does it matter? Everyone is the same." The locals are some of the most hospitable people I have encountered, and they embrace LGBTQ residents and travelers alike.
The lakeside Hotel Villa Flori's (HotelVillaFlori.it) restaurant, Raimondi, offers a variety of vegetarian menu options, but when the friendly chef greeted me in person and learned I was vegetarian, he insisted on creating a special meal just for me. It was wonderful, as was the peaceful ambience in which conversations didn't have to compete with background music.
You could spend a month in Como and never run out of activities, but during your visit you must take a boat out onto the lake to experience its grandness and beauty. Budget travelers can take a half-day ferry from the town center. The ferries stop at various villages around the lake, so you can disembark for a bite, visit local attractions and boutiques, or simply sit at a cafe and enjoy the view. You can also rent a private boat with a tour-guide, who will take you to villages of your choice and tell you their history, significance, and major landmarks. Lake Como Travel (LakeComoTravel.com) offers information about both public and private boat services.
Above: Il Sereno offers a custom-built boat for lake excursions.
I chartered a private boat and guide through Tasell Company (Tasell.com), which took me to see one of the lake's most popular villages, Bellagio, which offers and abundance of delightful shops, restaurants, and cafes. We also visited Villa La Gaeta in San Siro, also known as the James Bond Villa, where Casino Royale was filmed (as well as scenes from Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones). You can rent one of the Villa's apartments or visit the James Bond Museum (007museum.com).
Another unbelievable experience worth every penny is booking a seaplane tour through Aero Club Como (AeroClubComo.com) to see the region from the sky while the pilot points out major landmarks and historical sites.
There is no shortage of museums in the area, but one worth a visit is Museo della Seta Como (Educational Museum of Silk, MuseoSetaComo.com). The museum provides unexpectedly compelling exhibits that reconstruct the silk manufacturing process with a historical and educational approach. Guided tours are available and one can also purchase unique souvenirs.
Also, visit Villa del Balbianello (VillaBalbianello.com), where additional Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones and Casino Royale scenes were filmed. The villa was originally built in the thirteenth century and is famous for its elaborate terraced gardens that are open to the public and are among the most exclusive and luxurious wedding spots in all of Italy.
Above: The Infinity bar at the Vista Lago di Como
At the southern edge of the lake is Como's town-center, where you'll find Vista Palazzo Lago di Como (VistaLagodiComo.com), a small but elegant boutique hotel with breathtaking views of the lake and stunningly beautiful rooms. Its bathrooms are works of art, lavishly designed with Italian marble and the finest materials. Vista has an "infinity" rooftop restaurant, bar, and cafe with awe inspiring views. Being on the property makes you feel that you are staying in your own luxurious private villa.
Five-Star Villa d'Este (VilladEste.com) in Cernobbio is the grand-dame of Lake Como, and worth splurging on. Villa d'Este is the most luxurious and exquisite hotel in Como with a park full of rare flowers and a jaw-dropping Mosaic House available for rental. The property was commissioned by the governor of Tivoli, Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, in 1550, and features a magnificent home (now the hotel) set in a spectacular 25-acre park. Herb Caen -- a journalist famous for his love of San Francisco, a city he exalted as Baghdad by the Bay -- once said of Villa d'Este, "The precise location of heaven on earth has never been established but it may very well be right here." I couldn't agree more.
I had my final dinner in Como at Villa d'Este and my meal was especially prepared by executive chef Michele Zambanini. My mouthwatering vegetarian meal was served by multiple servers whose comings and goings were timed with military precision. Moments after I asked a server if I could bother him to take my low-battery iPhone to the hotel's concierge to charge, a portable version appeared table-side, so I wouldn't have to bear the inconvenience of being without my phone for even a minute.
Amazingly, Como hasn't yet been spoiled by the arrival of major international corporate brands. You won't find a Starbucks here, Uber is illegal, and most resorts are privately-owned and family-operated. The one exception is Hilton Lake Como (LakeComo.Hilton.com), a very tastefully understated and beautiful luxurious hotel built a year ago on Como's western front. Blending well with the city's aesthetic, the hotel chain refurbished a former silk factory building, utterly transforming it into a sleek and modern property with an infinity rooftop pool, sky bar, and comprehensive health, fitness, and spa facilities. The continental breakfast is a jaw-dropping feast and the hotel is very conveniently located close to the town center.
Sleek and sexy Il Sereno hotel (SerenoHotels.com) opened in 2016, designed by renowned Spanish architect Patricia Urquiola, who formerly designed for brands Louis Vuitton, Baccarat, and Missoni, among many others. The all-suite hotel is a minimalist masterpiece, built on centuries-old arches, with a warm and welcoming flair. Urquiola used stone, wood, and copper as the main elements, seamlessly weaving the hotel into Como's architectural aesthetic.
Il Sereno offers panoramic views from every inch of the property, including its 60-foot freshwater infinity pool that hangs suspended over the lake, and a luscious sundeck that screams pool party. The hotel is modern and chic but still authentically Italian. Urquiola didn't just design the building, she also commissioned the building of three custom boats, now available to guests for travel around the lake. You only need a basic driver's license to operate one.
Above: Grand Hotel Tremezzo
The Grand Hotel Tremezzo (GrandHotelTremezzo.com), family-owned since 1910, is absolutely incredible. The property is stunningly beautiful and welcoming from the moment you step out of the boat that delivers you to the dock, which doubles as a magnificent deck. Adjacent to the deck is a floating pool, one of the hotel's three pools, which literally floats on the lake and moves a bit as you swim in it. A very large bar is the centerpiece of the veranda, serving guests as they sunbathe, swim, and take boat excursions.
Many of Grand Hotel Tremezzo's rooms feature gorgeous views of Lake Como, Bellagio, and the surrounding Alps. The rooftop suites are known to attract A-list stars and include butler service, terraces, and their own hot tubs. Hit the wine cellar for intimate tastings, enjoy wood-fired pizzas in the hotel's lush gardens, or stroll Villa Carlotta (VillaCarlotta.it), with more than 75,000 square feet of famed botanical gardens and a museum of art.
The hotel is part of Preferred Hotels & Resorts (PreferredHotels.com) "Preferred Pride" program which donates a percentage of its bookings to LGBTQ organizations. Grand Hotel Tremezzo's general manager, Silvio Vettorello, is a proud gay man and very active in the local queer community.
Como has a great deal more to offer than I can name here. There are annual celebrations with fireworks, fashion shows, music and food festivals, street markets, and much more. Lake Como's official tourism office (LakeComo.com) can help you plan your own trip so you can fall in love with this amazing place yourself.