My in-laws came to visit us in Switzerland this summer from the States, and we wanted them to have a wonderful European experience. We needed a gorgeous place with stunning views, friendly people and delicious food.
Unfortunately Switzerland failed on the last two counts, so we headed south to Lake Como, Italy. You may have heard of it because George Clooney has a house there. But it’s much more than a playground for Hollywood’s eternal bachelor. It has pristine lakes and the Alps of Switzerland as well as warm Italians, manicured gardens and delicious regional dishes like osso bucco, homemade pasta and risotto. And, of course, there is Italian gelato.
It ended up being the perfect destination for our getaway. Here are a few of my favorites.
Where to stay: Bellagio
There are lots of cute little villages on Lake Como and the surrounding lakes, but we chose Bellagio, which sits on a little spit of land that juts out into the lake. It’s hilly and its coast is lined with ornate villas and beautiful gardens. Bellagio is big enough to have delicious restaurants, lots of gorgeous villas to visit and some nice hotels but small enough to wander on foot. And if you’re coming from Switzerland, as we were, it was much closer than the town of Como – just a quick ride across the lake in the car ferry from Menaggio.
We stayed at Villa Rosa, one of two apartments on the hill overlooking the Miralago Bed & Breakfast. The two-bedroom villa is completely updated, incredibly comfortable and a short walk from the main part of Bellagio. But the best thing about it was the porch and the amazing view of the lake and the mountains, as well as Villa Serbelloni, a gorgeous villa owned by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Cooking class at Ristorante Il Caminetto
My mother-in-law is a talented cook who loves to learn new tricks, so I knew no trip to Italy would be complete without a cooking class. It doesn’t take a genius to book a class at Ristorante Il Caminetto in Varenna. The TripAdvisor reviews for this restaurant’s cooking classes all raves, and after attending I can see why. Chef Moreno Maglia manages to both make delicious food and provide witty banter throughout the four hour class. The guy deserves his own cooking show on the Food Network. He told us how he started the cooking classes to supplement the restaurant business, even though he barely spoke English when he started. We met his wife, his mother and his granddaughter during the day. It felt like a family affair.
The day started with the best cappuccino we had in Italy and ended with a delicious meal of homemade tortelloni, baked chicken and risotto with lots of wine poured in between. Everyone came away full and happy.
Take a boat tour on Lake Como
One of the best ways to see Lake Como is from the water. Many of the stunning private villas – including George Clooney’s – are only visible from the shoreline and tooling around the sparkling lake on a clear day is fabulous all on its own. While there are plenty of water taxis you can hop from town to town, we decided to hire a boat and tour guide for a couple hours to give us the lay of the land.
Barindelli Taxi Boats picked us up in a beautiful vintage wooden speed boat and took us to see villas built by rich cardinals, featured in James Bond movies and owned by business tycoons. With the sun shining down and the wind in our hair, we felt like movie stars.
We spotted this stunner on our boat tour and knew we had to come back. Built by a rich cardinal and restored by a wealthy Arctic adventurer in the 20th century, the villa has lovely grounds, exquisite architectural details and secret passage ways. Sign up for the guided tour and leave plenty of time to roam the grounds and snap photos. It’s so beautiful you’ll likely see more than one bride and groom there for wedding pictures.
Buy olive oil at Vanini Osvaldo
We tasted Vanini Osvaldo’s extra virgin olive oil at our cooking class at Il Caminetto, and we were thrilled to find out we could buy it just across the river in the little town of Lenno. It’s a family-run business, and there’s nothing fancy about the shop (10 Via Silvio Pellico, Lenno). It’s just a few shelves of the one kind of olive oil in a few different sizes. They take cash and credit cards, and you’ll be in and out in five minutes with a tin of the good stuff.
Restaurants in Bellagio
Suisse: Oh, the irony. We leave Switzerland because the food isn’t up to snuff and end up eating in a restaurant called Suisse. And it’s amazing, both delicious and theatrical. I had a phenomenal simple pasta with goat cheese and sundried tomatoes that everyone else at the table had to try. My in-laws had a Barolo risotto that they adored. And the tables around us were wowed with lobster stuffed with pasta and fettuccine alfredo served from inside a hollowed out wheel of cheese.
La Pergola: This lakeside gem was just a few steps from our hotel. We popped in for lunch the day we arrived and were pleasantly surprised by the minestrone soup, the lake fish and the homemade pasta.