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A gazebo at the Villa d'Este, a luxury villa with Renaissance roots on the shores of Lake Como in Cernobbio, Italy (Photography by Massimo Bassano)

Insider’s Guide to Lake Como

Italy’s third largest water body and one of Europe’s deepest, Lake Como has drawn vacationers for two millennia with its lucent waters, mountain landscapes, and Mediterranean climate. Visitors today enjoy lakeside parks, historic villas, and shopping in one of the world’s silk-design capitals. Here’s a brief primer on how to make the most of your time in this magical region.

> When to Go:

Sunny, hot summers bring high season—and high rates. Better bets: spring and fall, with pleasingly mild weather (though May can be rainy), fewer visitors, and lower rates.

Spring means asparagus season, celebrated with a popular festival in the town of Tremezzo. In September and October, look for feste centering around locally prepared salami, cheeses, roasted chestnuts, and wines.

> Where to Stay:

Built in 1568 as a residence by a cardinal born in Cernobbio, the Renaissance-style Villa d’Este in the town of Como has played a leading role in local doings under a succession of high-profile proprietors, including a ballerina, a marquis, and a princess of Wales.

Added on to over many decades, the property began a transformation into a luxury hotel in 1873, soon earning the title “Hollywood on Lake Como.” Among its many notable guests: Mark Twain, Giuseppe Verdi, Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, and Madonna. Guests choose from 152 individually decorated rooms and two villas. A 25-acre par includes paths and themed gardens.

Looking for lower wattage? Try one of Como’s 19th-century villa hotels, such as the 94-room Palace Hotel, part of which occupies the grand Palazzo Plinius; the Hotel Villa Flori, right on the lake; and the smaller (14 rooms and suites) Hotel Villa Giulia, overlooking the water. Most rates include breakfast.

For affordable apartment-style digs, consider Residence Haus Bethusy in Bellagio or Residence Diaz, in Como.

> Where to Eat:

It’s hard to find a bad restaurant on Lake Como; even better, many come with lake views. The top choice of Lorenzo Carcaterra, author of Traveler feature “Lake Como: A Love Story“: “a meal at the half-century-old Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, the sole establishment on Lake Como’s only island.” Diners tuck into a five-course set menu that includes fish and wedges of Parmigiano cheese.

Also a favorite, in Cernobbio, is Il Gatto Nero (“black cat”), where local olive oil and herbs flavor such regional dishes as risotto with duck ragù.

Crotto dei Platani has perched over the lake in Brienno since 1855, making it the area’s oldest eatery; family-run and occupying one of the last traditional cellars in the region, it specializes in fresh lake fish and Italian wines.

Known for an elegant setting in a 19th-century garden villa in the town of Como, Ristorante Navedano makes up for an absence of lake views with its stylish preparations (scallop ravioli, venison) at equivalent prices.

Find simpler surroundings and fare at nearby Il Solito Posto (“the usual place”), serving homemade pasta since 1888.

Mountain food—buckwheat noodles, venison polenta—rules at La Genzianella, a woodland chalet that overlooks both branches of the lake.

> Don’t Miss:

Historic Villa Carlotta, in Tremezzo, for its trove of sculptures by Antonio Canova, garden park, and romantic history: It was a wedding gift from Princess Marianne of the Netherlands to her daughter, Prussian princess Charlotte.

The Villa del Balbianello, in Lenno, for its dramatic lakefront site and mountaineering artifacts gathered by onetime owner (and 1973 Mount Everest climber) Guido Monzino.

In the engrossing Educational Silk Museum in Como, the science and history of silk come alive.

> Travel Trivia:

  • Alessandro Volta, inventor of the first electrical battery (from which we get the word “volt”), was born in Como.
  • Italy’s shortest river, the seasonal Fiumelatte above the town of Varenna, flows for only 820 feet. Among those once eager to find its source: Leonardo Da Vinci.
  • Dictator Benito Mussolini was shot to death in the town of Mezzegra while trying to flee Italy in 1945.

This piece, reported by National Geographic Traveler staffers Jayne Wise and Christine Blau, accompanied a feature article penned by Lorenzo Carcaterra entitled “Lake Como: A Love Story.” Both first appeared in the magazine’s June/July 2015 issue.