This is the fourth and final destination in the Northern Italy itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Northern Italy circuit are described in The Northern Italy Travel Planning post.
We departed Verona early on a Friday morning to make our way to Como. Nearly 3 hours of non-scenic Italian Autostrada were endured to get to Como. Some drives in Italy can be joyous, even on Autostrada – for example, the drive from San Remo near the French border to the Cinque Terre region was lovely, and interesting with scenery and road maneuverings to keep a driver well engaged. But this drive was rather monotonous, lacked scenery with the exception of unremarkable hay and corn fields.
The drive aside, I had the greatest expectation of Como on this trip – more so than the three other destinations – simply because it is so built up in the media, the travel sites, and even by word of mouth. In fact, I had such high expectations that I was hoping I wouldn’t be let down – especially given that we had toured Lake Garda while in Verona one afternoon, and I thought it was a lovely experience – even thought I could see myself as a resident there. So arrival came with great expectations, and anticipation.
The Como apartment was located in the heart of the old town, as a matter of fact too much into the center. I neglected to pre-plan for a parking garage as my initial stop upon arrival with the car. This is something I usually do to avoid driving to the apartment, unloading the luggage, then relocating the car to a garage.
At first, this doesn’t seem like something particularly bad, or even to be avoided, unless you can imagine what driving in the center of some European cities, towns, and villages might be like. There are roads that are unfit for two way traffic, but are legal for it, and are used regularly in that fashion – at speeds that would both amaze and induce fear to a non-European, but especially non-Italian (where maniacal driving is an art form).
And so I pulled the Alfa Romeo right up to the apartment building door, and boldly parked wherever the heck I wanted, as if I lived in the neighborhood. And I did have to negotiate tight little lanes that not only had two way traffic, but pedestrians as well. Our hostess advised to move the vehicle to a parking garage as quickly as possible to avoid a hefty fine for parking in the residents-only center of town. She even took a photo of my license plates to notify the authorities that I was a guest, and avoid the automatic fines produced through the camera system monitoring the center.
The apartment was lovely, roomy for a couple, had an excellent shower (important every day), and a refrigerator that was up to US standards in keeping things cold – nothing worse than not getting your beer or wine down to the right temperature in your domicile. And most importantly, the bed was very comfortable.
Walking around Como’s old town, just in front of our secure apartment building was pure immersion. It felt like we lived there, and we were part of the neighborhood. The old town was fluid with locals going about their daily lives, and lacked the density of tourism that denies any feel of immersion.
There were shops, restaurants, markets, and a beehive of activity as we explored right from our front door – and it had a small town feel to it. It would take only an hour or two to walk the entirety of the old town, even with a “smell the roses” kind of pace. The architecture is 400+ years old, with three lovely churches in the old part of town, but everything looked tidy and well-kempt. This gave me an overall excellent first impression of the old town, which continued as I spent more time exploring her.
The first opportunity for discovery is simply wandering around the old town of Como, inside its ancient city walls, randomly walking along narrow medieval lanes that are surprisingly vehicle accessible, and enjoying a gelato as the hour or two passes while taking in the scenery.
The other noteworthy discovery opportunity is the town of Brunate at the top of the 10 minute funicular ride. Restaurants and shops greet the tourist at the end of the funicular, along with an opportunity to take a 30 minute walk to the lighthouse, a waypoint on a much longer hike possible along the lake. There are grand views, and in particular exceptional views from the terrace and interior of the appropriately named Ristorante Bellavista, where we had a lovely, and relaxing meal as described in the Food Scene section of this post.
Lake Como Cruise to Bellagio
An excellent opportunity for discovery is hopping onto one of the regularly scheduled boat “navigations” to various parts of Lake Como, which allow for the exploration of a variety of towns on the lake, along with their majestic and historic villas.
A popular destination is Bellagio, a beautiful town in its own right, with excellent restaurants and historic villas. We had an exceptional meal with a view in Bellagio at La Punta, as described in the Food Scene section. Bellagio is a grand stop on the ferry system, taking tourists by the dozens on both a “slow” two-hour long, open-air type vessel, as well as an enclosed catamaran with a one-hour duration. While the catamaran is faster, it tends to be a hotter ride as the vessel is enclosed with little wind circulation. We spent five hours round trip to Bellagio, walking around a bit, and enjoying a fabulous meal. One could easily spend days exploring the various little towns dotting the lake by ferry. This is what Lake Como is all about.
La Punta in Bellagio
This is a beautiful restaurant with outdoor seating facing the water in Bellagio, about an hour boat ride from Como. Smoked fillet of Lavarello with toast, and caprese salad to start, grilled lake fish, and fried lake fish as main courses. The fried lake fish selection included an anchovy-like lake fish which was missing from the grilled plate as they are too tiny to grill. The fish was very fresh, and the variety was good. I highly recommend this restaurant for both the views in Bellagio, as well as the the dining experience.
Cucina di Elsa
This restaurant was recommended by our hostess, and was very close to our apartment in Como. It also received great reviews on TripAdvisor. Shrimp and octopus salad to start, we both ordered squid and shrimp as our main, and my wife ordered a mixed salad on the side. The octopus salad was actually quite exotic. It had, among other things, shaved almonds, fresh pineapple, avocado, cabbage and rocket salad in addition to the octopus and shrimp. A lot more than was described in English on the menu. The mix was a little unexpected, but it turned out to be an excellent combination of ingredients. The shrimp and squid were skewered, lightly rolled in breadcrumbs, and broiled – both very tender.
A restaurant at the top of the funicular with a fabulous view overlooking Lake Como. I thought I was going to buy an expensive, but mediocre meal and get a fabulous view overlooking Lake Como and its city namesake way down below. I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality and value of the meal we had. We ordered a charcuterie plate, and a cheese plate for starters to share, then fillet of perch with polenta each, and grilled vegetables to share for the main course. The charcuterie plate had six varieties of salumi and dried beef, along with thinly sliced fat. An excellent medley, with some a little spicy, some a little fatty – there was one variety that had a hint of liver to it, with an earthy flavor. The cheese plate had a very good array too – six samples from around the region, ranging from sharp, to pungent, and mild. Even the bread had an excellent assortment, with one type crunchy like paper-thin toasted focaccia – it was fantastic with the salumi and cheese. The Lake Como perch and polenta was an excellent blend of flavors, to my surprise. Honestly was expecting a tourist caliber meal with an excellent view and was very pleasantly surprised by the food. A highly recommended experience.
This restaurant was recommended by our hostess, a true example of local Como cuisine, and a good value. It is located just around the corner from the duomo on a quiet side street. Having been in Italy for 9 days without a pasta dish, I thought I’d try the linguine with octopus, fresh tomato, and potatoes as my first course. My wife ordered the Parma ham with melon. The linguine was simple, fresh, flavorful and an excellent first course. I particularly liked that it was not too al dente, something which upscale Italian restaurants tend to do with their pasta, and not to my liking. The melon was very ripe and juicy and tasted better than any melon we’ve had in the United States. I ordered the San Petro filets with potatoes and black olives. as I was in a fish mood that day. My wife ordered the Osso Buco with risotto and gravy. The osso bucco was tender, with the saffron risotto slightly al dente. The San Petro filets were very mild and tender. A nice last meal in Northern Italy, which was topped off with gelato and a walk around town as a light rain started to fall. I highly recommend this restaurant for the good ambiance, dining experience as well as great value.
Reflections on Como. I was concerned that my expectations of Como and its surrounding lake, were so high that I was in for a possible disappointment. My concerns were unfounded, because Como delivered on every level. The little town of Como was lovely and easy to get around, lacking the throng of tourism one might expect. The lake itself was a treasure, dotted with little towns and villas up and down its coast. This area would merit 2 weeks or more for a thorough exploration. And it’s definitely worthy of a return visit should I be traveling anywhere near this gem of Northern Italy.
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