Today I share with you my pick of the most beautiful villas to visit in Lake Como – surely one of the top things to do when traveling to this magical corner of Italy!
Ah, the villas of Lake Como. They are simply incredible! Ever since ancient Roman times, these beautiful estates and their wonderful gardens have drawn an impressive crowd, with some of its illustrious guests over the centuries ranging from aristocrats to artists and writers.
They greatly contributed to turning Lake Como into a glamorous destination, one where stunning landscapes, picturesque villages and gentle temperatures provide the ideal setting to relax and rejuvenate. As such, it’s no surprise that this lake continues to be one of the best weekend gateways from Milan.
Visiting the lake’s beautiful historic villas is a must on any trip to Como, but I appreciate that most of you guys have only one or two days to visit the area and need to prioritize, so I thought I’d share with you my favorite 3 villas. Each has something truly special about it, from stunning architecture to interesting family stories.
Villa del Balbianello, Lenno
I couldn’t write about the best villas of Lake Como without starting with Villa del Balbianello. Sitting at the top of a wooded promontory, in the pretty village of Lenno, this villa is undoubtedly one of the lake’s top attractions. It was built on the remains of an ancient Franciscan monastery at the end of the 18th century and originally served as the venue for the exclusive literary retreats of Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini.
In more recent times, Villa del Balbianello became the idyllic hideaway of Guido Monzino, an Italian entrepreneur and avid traveler who chose this splendid mansion as the place to preserve the memories of his adventures around the world (including being the first Italian to reach the summit of Mount Everest!). He gave the villa its current appearance, decorating the rooms with his extensive collection of maps, ancient art, books and exquisite furniture pieces. He also set up a small, fascinating museum in the attic to showcase pieces from his expeditions, including one of the dogsleds he used to reach the North Pole).
The old holm oak pruned into an unusual umbrella shape was also his idea because that way he was able to see the lake and the mountains from his desk. Now, the result is simply beautiful, but I can only imagine the acrobatics of the gardeners when this big guy needs its periodic pruning!
Villa del Balbianello is a photographer’s dream, as it’s full of fabulous photo opportunities around every corner. These include panoramic terraces overlooking the lake, romantic avenues lined with colorful blooms and statues, and a stunning loggia with arches covered in some beautiful Ficus repens.
Monzino, whose ashes are buried in the villa’s ancient ice cave, left the villa to FAI, Italy’s National Trust, whose members are working hard to keep the spirit of the place intact and take care of the gardens. Today, this amazing villa in Lake Como is open to visitors and has become a favorite of international movie directors, who shot here blockbusters like Casino Royale and Star Wars – Attack of the Clones.
You can reach Villa del Balbianello either by water taxi from the port of Lenno (weather permitting, €5 one way or €7 round trip) or by walk like I did. Now, here’s a tip: there are two paths leading to the villa. The one on the left is the shortest and easiest, while the other on the right, well… do it only if you like a good hike! Attracted by the idea of walking amid the lush vegetation, I chose the right one and ended up spending over 40 minutes in the woods, mostly uphill, all sweaty and stopping every five minutes with the excuse of admiring the landscape (when all I needed, in reality, was some oxygen). Surely not the most glamorous entrance…
For info regarding opening times and ticket prices, take a look at the official website of Villa del Balbianello.
Villa Carlotta, Tremezzina
Next on my list is Villa Carlotta, a classic all year round thanks to its impressive art collection. It’s located in a panoramic position right on the lakeshore, at the end of the village of Tremezzo.
The history of this villa dates back to the 17th century when the Marquis Clerici of Milan, whose family made a fortune as wool and silk merchants, commissioned it as his holiday residence on the lake’s western shore. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, the villa passed to Giovanni Battista Sommariva, president of the government committee of the Cisalpine Republic established by Napoleone Bonaparte in Northern Italy. It was thanks to his love for art that today we can admire prestigious works by Antonio Canova and Berthel Thorvaldsen inside Villa Carlotta.
In 1843, Princess Marianne of Prussia purchased the villa as a wedding gift for her daughter Carlotta, from whom it takes its current name. When Carlotta died prematurely, the mansion passed to her husband George of Sassonia-Meiningen, who was a passionate botanist and enriched it with a meticulously curated garden. Today the park is one of the highlights of the property, featuring over 150 varieties of precious flowers and trees, including two stunning citrus tunnels. Then, the Italian State confiscated the property during WWI and in the 1920s the Ente Villa Carlotta was established to manage it.
Gardening lovers will be amazed by the sheer beauty of Villa Carlotta’s gardens. They are so vast and rich that it feels like stepping into one of those enchanted woods we read about in fairytales. However, what struck me most was the incredible museum housed inside two floors of the villa. The ground floor is home to the villa’s grandiose art collection that includes prestigious artworks like The Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet by Francesco Hayez, the statue of Palamedes realized by Antonio Canova, and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s The triumphal entry of Alexander the Great into Babylon. There is also a faithful replica of Canova’s Eros and Psyche made by Adamo Tadolini, the artist’s favorite pupil. On the second floor (sadly closed at the moment) it is possible to see Princess Carlotta’s private apartments.
Consider using the ferry to reach Villa Carlotta, as it will be a truly memorable experience. The grandiose building will appear in the distance and will keep your eyes glued to the ferry windows as it slowly reveals its beautiful façade and front Italian garden. The staircases zigzag onto terraces.
For info regarding opening times and ticket prices, take a look at the official website of Villa Carlotta.
Villa Bernasconi, Cernobbio
The third place on the podium goes to Villa Bernasconi. I know this is perhaps the less talked about among the beautiful villas of Lake Como, but trust me, the story of Mr. Bernasconi is so fascinating.
Villa Bernasconi was built at the beginning of the 20th century for Davide Bernasconi, a pioneer in the development of the textile industry in Cernobbio. His company, Tessiture Seriche Bernasconi, became an entrepreneurial success of large proportions (it produced up to 18 thousand meters of fabric daily, exported all over the globe!) and greatly contributed to the town’s social and economic growth. Particularly attentive to the well-being of his workers, Mr. Bernasconi created dormitories and apartments for them and even opened a kindergarten, which continues to bear his name.
Visiting Villa Bernasconi is like taking a journey through the life of this enlightened entrepreneur. I particularly enjoyed exploring the room of memories, with a big dresser where each drawer narrates the story of the company through the memories of some of its workers… so precious!
What’s more, the villa was designed by architect Alfredo Campanini, a major exponent of the Lombard Liberty Style, who conceived it as a casa alla moda (fashion house) – a clear reference to Bernasconi’s activity. The unique exterior is embellished with numerous sculptures representing the life cycle of the silkworm.
Nowadays, Villa Bernasconi is considered to be one of the rare examples of Art Nouveau architecture in the area. The visit is made even more interesting by an innovative app that leads you through the itinerary sharing stories of the villa and its people.
For info regarding opening times and ticket prices, take a look at the official website of Villa Bernasconi.
That’s it for today, guys. Just remember that access to the villas may be restricted due to the coronavirus, so check out their websites before your visit.
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Ciao for now,