Lake Como, the wishbone-shaped lake in Northern Italy surrounded by a countryside dotted with Medieval villages, has been the summer vacation destination of choice for aristocrats and wealthy Milanese families for over 500 years. It’s easy to see why: Waterfront villas cascade down the hillsides of the green mountains that surround the lake; the clear blue water offers a forgiving place to try out waterskiing and wakeboarding; and towns like Como and Bellagio offer fashionable shopping as well as traditional and new wave Lombardy cuisine. July and August mark the high season, but in September the humidity and the crowds are delightfully absent, the temperature is still warm, and the air is crystal clear. September and October are also when the well-heeled congregate on the lake for glamorous events like the Formula 1 Grand Prix race in nearby Monza; the Trofeo Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni sailing regatta for vintage and classic boats (September 18–20); and the Pommery Golf Cup and Gala hosted by the Menaggio & Cadenabbia Golf Club and Hotel Grand Tremezzo (October 17–18). Food lovers, too, can rejoice in autumn at the lake, with restaurants showcasing seasonal delights like pumpkin, truffle, and local wild mushrooms. Here’s where to eat, sleep and spa in the destination during its most appealing season:
WHERE TO SLEEP
A favorite of Empresses, Queens and aristocrats, Villa d’Este is the place to channel your inner blueblood on Lake Como. The villa was built in 1568 as the summer residence of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio and had a variety of owners before it was transformed into a luxury hotel in 1873. The villa is surrounded by 25 acres of gardens-the lower portion dates back to the Renaissance—and is filled with topiaries, camellias, jasmine bushes and cypress trees. The hotel offers 152 guest rooms but for more privacy and luxury the elite look towards two 19th century private villas furnished with antiques, velvet curtains and marble bathrooms including Villa Cima built for a Count and Countess in the early 1800s. Villa d’Este’s Sporting Club underwent minor refurbishment this year including a refreshed ladies relaxation room with new sauna and Turkish bath. Adventure takers should know, guests of Villa d’Este can obtain a private pilot license through Aero Club Como, Europe’s only seaplane flying school. Via Regina, 40; 39-03/134-81; villadeste.com.
The Grand Dame
The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni’s impressive location at the tip of the promontory in Bellagio affords it stunning panoramic views of the lake and the mountains. The neoclassical villa was built as a private home in 1853 and turned into a luxury hotel just 20 years later. While it’s refurbished each year during an annual winter closure, the interiors reflect nobility’s tastes during the mid to late 1800s. Coffer ceilings are frescoed with floral patterns and rooms feature antique Persian carpets, crystal chandeliers from Murano and Imperial-style furniture. The 14th Trofeo Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, a sailing regatta sponsored by the hotel, takes place September 18–20 and is the time to see dozens of vintage wooden sailboats cruising the lake. It’s all capped off with a gala dinner in the hotel’s bronze and crystal chandelier festooned Salon Reale. Via Roma, 1; 39-03/195-0216; villaserbelloni.com.
The Sleek Stay
The new Filario Hotel & Residences—located in a former wire factory—offers a nice contrast to the historic palazzo hotels on Lake Como. It has a modern cut stone façade, custom-made furnishings by local craftsmen in Cantù, and a bistro restaurant serving classic Italian cuisine. Each of the 21 rooms and apartments has a terrace and Frette bed linens. The hotel helps guests become immersed in what they describes as the real Lombardy, offering experiences like a nighttime fishing trip and private vineyard tour. But if you’d rather stay put, Filario has a beautiful infinity pool and a private beach, a rare spot of sand on the lake. Strada Statale, 583; 39-031/914-035; filario.it.
WHERE TO EAT
Dining on Lake Como has improved greatly in recent years thanks to the addition of market driven restaurants like The Market Place (Via Borsieri, 21/A; 39-03/127-0712; themarketplace.it ) in Como. The simple restaurant adorned with bottles of wine and cartons of fruits and vegetables serves a tasting menu that might feature squid ink pasta and lamb loin with parsnips. In Bellagio, Silvio (Via P.Carcano, 10-12; 39-03/195-0322; bellagiosilvio.com) a restaurant and hotel that has been around since the early 1900s, specializes in fresh seafood from the lake. Fishermen go out daily, and hotel guests are invited to see them cast their nets for fresh perch and lavarello, a small white fish and at Alle Darsene di Loppia (Via Melzi d’Eril, 1; 39-03/195-2069; ristorantedarsenediloppia.com), a restaurant next to the dock in Bellagio. The best seat is under the leafy pergola out front where you can enjoy handmade pastas such as gnocchi with veal and fresh mushrooms, and fresh fish like John Dory with grilled peaches.
WHERE TO SPA
Valentina De Santis, whose family bought the Grand Hotel Tremezzo in 1975, was appointed CEO in 2013 and since then she’s been transforming the historic property into a less stuffy luxury property that appeals to younger, affluent travelers. The latest part of the hotel to get the treatment is the 18th century villa adjacent to the main Palazzo that has been reimagined as Lake Como’s most sophisticated spa. The 10,000 square foot T Spa includes an infinity pool with hydromassage beds, a grotto, a nail salon, ESPA treatments, and a white Lasa marble Hammam Suite with a domed ceiling, rainfall shower and vitality pool. A champagne bar, a woodfired pizza restaurant and a spectacular floating swimming pool give the hotel unique appeal. Via Provinciale Regina, 8; 39-03/444-2491; grandhoteltremezzo.com.
WHERE TO SHOP
The Milanese are some of the most fashionable folks in the world, so it makes sense that when on vacation, they want access to the same level of style they find in the city. New boutiques continue to open on meandering Via Vittorio Emanuele II in Como, but the most chic may be A.Gi.Emme, which opened as a boutique selling fabrics, perfumes, and garments in 1957. While the ethos is the same today, high quality investment pieces, the brothers who own the company have expanded on this idea with four separate boutiques Man, Woman, Kids and Urban, a specialty shoe shop. The boutiques stock brands from around the world and Italy including tailored pieces from Aspesi and Italian knitwear from Massimo Alba perfect for slipping on in the evening as temperatures become more fall-like. Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 4; 39-03/126-4211; agiemme.com.
Art with a Message
Como is the home of Italian street artist Mr. Save the Wall, aka Pierpaolo Peretta, due to his preference for doing his art on brown paper or cardboard rather then defacing public spaces. He famously planted a flower in a pothole in Como to call attention to the degradation (it was fixed in a matter of days). This kinder, gentler approach to street art has gained him fans around the world, but his artworks, done on a variety of mediums, in his studio in Como offer sharp critiques of society and the Italian government. One of his most famous works is large painting on brown paper of Michelangelo’s Pieta, depicting Madonna holding an Italian flag rather than Jesus, symbolic of Italy’s fall from being a world power. Other works are more hopeful like Peter Pan followed by Wendy, John and Michael each carrying a tool to help restore the nation to greatness. Visit his gallery and studio space in Como for a chance to see and purchase his art, which is highly collectible. You can also commission a one of a kind piece from him on brown paper, cardboard or canvas.Via Giovio, 5; 39-03/124-3325; savethewall.it.
Many of the villas on Lake Como are still owned by wealthy families but a few are open to the public. Villa Carlotta (Via Regina, 2; 39-03/444-0405; villacarlotta.it) in Tremezzo, a former marquis’s mansion built during the 16th century, is a museum that houses artworks and sculpture by Antonio Canova. A 20-minute ferry ride away in Bellagio visitors can stroll through the grounds of the Villa Melzi (Via Lunglario Manzoni; 39-33/9457-3838; giardinidivillamelzi.it) built in the early 1800’s for the Vice President of the First Italian Republic during the time of Napoleon. The meticulously manicured gardens draw elements from around the world and include a Moorish gazebo, Japanese garden with a water lily pond and even towering American Redwood trees.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni; Courtesy The Marketplace