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Italy’s Lakes Region: Insider’s Guide

by Wendyperrin.com | February 2, 2021

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Italy: Andrea Grisdale of IC Bellagio.

Trusted Travel Expert
Andrea Grisdale

Armed with decades of experience in Italy (she lives on Lake Como) and the vast list of contacts in her little black book, Andrea can open the doors that are closed to most people (not, alas, George Clooney’s) and satisfy almost any request. She interviews travelers in depth to gain a thorough understanding of their travel fantasies, preferences, and pet peeves, and uses that knowledge to craft an itinerary that pairs you with the perfect hotels (often off-the-radar boutique options), activities, guides, and even drivers. A bilingual former guide herself, Andrea knows every time-saving trick for seeing the most famous monuments while also squeezing in the hidden gems. She and her team have the clout to pull strings and ask for favors at Italy’s best hotels, and they have a track record of coming to the rescue 24/7 should the need arise.

WOW trips start at $1,200 per day per couple (twice that for peak-season travel that includes 5-star hotels, private transport, and guided experiences). Andrea charges an additional $300 planning fee and usually a 30% advance deposit. In case of cancellation, the fee and deposit are non-refundable but may be credited toward a future trip.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel

The Grand Hotel Tremezzo, on Lake Como, is an Art Nouveau waterfront palace as elegant today as when it opened in the early 1900s. The Deluxe Lake View rooms have the most stunning vistas and are the same size as the junior suites, yet much more affordable. Andrea’s travelers get to visit the kitchen with one of the owners of the hotel to help the chef make the signature Torta Valentina dessert, a chocolate and almond cake that the chef will adorn with the guest’s name. It’s a rare behind-the-scenes peek at this extraordinary property that you won’t forget.

Located on a hill above Bellagio, Hotel Belvedere is a family-run place that has welcomed guests for over 100 years. Revel in lake views from the well-landscaped grounds and many of the rooms, or enjoy the pool, two chic restaurants, and spa.

Overlooking lovely Lake Garda sits LeFay Resort & Spa, a luxury eco-resort focused on guests’ wellbeing. The spa has six saunas, five relaxation areas, and a wonderful infinity pool that merges with the horizon. The large park includes a running circuit, a fitness trail, and a therapeutic energy garden. Andrea’s travelers get a free upgrade, early check-in, and late check-out when available.

Restaurants the locals love

Osteria il Governo, in Lezzeno on Lake Como, is a small and simple place that serves wonderful fish dishes. The owner is passionate about local history and will entertain you with stories from the past, while the chef mixes the stylish cuisine of his native Milan with traditional Lezzeno recipes to make every meal a feast.

Ristorante dell’Hotel Verbano, located on the southern tip of Fishermans Island on Lake Maggiore, serves a fabulous lunch with a spectacular view overlooking the Borromean Gulf. The lake-fish dishes are the top choice, though the pastas are also worth considering. The hotel runs water taxis to and from Stresa in the evening—though the boats may not run in bad weather.

In Careno, one of the smallest and most quaint villages on Lake Como, you’ll find the Trattoria del Porto, which serves simple but good local food. You can come via the main road between Como and Bellagio, but it’s more scenic (and fewer steps) to arrive via the lake. Trust the owner, who will decide for you what you’re eating and drinking when you arrive—and ask him to show you inside the beautiful little 12th-century church of St. Martino in town.

Meal worth the splurge

Il Piccolo Lago, on Lake Mergozzo, between Lake Maggiore and Lake Orta has earned two Michelin stars for serving dishes equal to its divine setting. Start your meal with an aperitivo in the kitchen. During cooler months you can enjoy the fireplace; in summer, the terrace is the only place to be.

What to See and Do

Don’t miss

The best way to enjoy the lakes is from the water itself, whether aboard a private charter, the public boats, a self-drive vessel (you can rent one under 40 horsepower without a license), or even a kayak. Being out there will give you the best idea of what the lakes are all about and how people here live—not to mention give you views of some beautiful properties that aren’t visible from the roads.

Lake Orta: This small tranquil lake just west of Lake Maggiore is one of the most pristine in the region and was immortalized by both Balzac and Nietzsche, yet it is often overlooked. Stroll past the Baroque and Romanesque buildings that line the shores, get lost in the maze of alleyways on St. Giulio Island, or spend a day swimming, kayaking, and hiking through the palm and olive trees on the island’s forested hillsides.

The slow drive between Lake Maggiore and Lake Como via Lake Lugano takes longer than the highway and requires using car ferries, but it travels through gorgeous valleys and market towns and past chocolate factories and other fun diversions. Most people take the fast route and miss it all.

The Franciacorta wine region, which is well located between Milan and Lake Garda; Franciacorta could be described as an Italian Champagne. There are many osterias and trattorias in the area that serve older traditional dishes, and a beautiful hotel called L’Albereta, in the town of Erbusco not too far from Lake Iseo.

Don’t bother

Going to Milan for everyday shopping: Many people visiting the Lakes Region head to Milan to buy souvenirs and casual clothes. But the stores along the main thoroughfares sell high fashion, leaving most visitors empty-handed and disappointed. Unless you’re looking for fashion with a capital F, stick to stores in the local towns of the Lakes Region and you’ll be sure to find what you’re looking for.

However, do go to Milan to enjoy some of the best people watching you will ever enjoy, great restaurants, a fun art district, the world-famous Last Supper painting, some amazing architecture, and access to some of the best tailors you will ever find.

Molly, Bellagio, Aperitivo Italy

Molly, Bellagio, Aperitivo, Italy. Photograph courtesy Andrea Grisdale

Hidden Gem

With stunning views of Bellagio and Lake Como far below, the peaceful, rustic Rifugio Martina is worth every step of the steep 20-minute hike from town (the owners will pick you up and drop you back at the nearby parking lot if you prefer not to walk). Leave the crowds behind and tuck into some cheesy, garlicky polenta or other simple, hearty mountain fare while also savoring the quiet and the vistas.

Cheap Thrill

For a real change of pace, drive to Switzerland for the day. You can reach San Moritz in under three hours from Menaggio, on Lake Como, through spectacular alpine scenery on a route that runs alongside verdant valleys and massive glaciers. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you spot your first pair of lederhosen.

For those staying on Lake Orta and Lake Maggiore, enjoy a day trip up majestic Monte Mottarone: Take the cable car from Stresa and once at the top, revel in the 360-degree panoramic views extending across the Italian Lakes to Monte Rosa. If you wish, you can walk back to Stresa following quiet country lanes through dense forests and across picturesque meadows.

Bragging rights

Exploring the lakes on a gorgeous, classic Riva Aquarama speedboat. Your English-speaking captain will pick you up in one of these mahogany beauties favored by the local elite for a lakeside tour that will reveal the many magnificent villas and gardens that are hidden from view on land.

Andrea can also arrange for you to step into local life by joining a local Maestro d’Arte Italiana in the wonderful setting of the Villa Melzi’s gardens in Bellagio. Enjoy an al fresco master class in painting or in sculpture, creating your own work of art under the supervision of the maestro and a souvenir of an afternoon you won’t soon forget.

Federico Sangalli—renowned designer of made-to-measure garments, wedding dresses, and the innovative Light My Night collection made with optic fibers—will open the doors of his celebrated Milan atelier to select visitors. In this behind-the-scenes experience, you will witness first-hand how haute couture fashion is made; Andrea can also arrange a private fashion show in the style of the 1950s.

 

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Best Times to Go

May, June, September: Weatherwise, these are perfect months at the Italian lakes, with mild temps both day and night and just enough rain to keep the many public gardens bursting with color. Local festivals are common, and the many Milanese families who decamp to their lake homes for the month of August are only around on the weekends.

Worst Times to Go

Mid-January through the end of February: The weather is cold and icy and most hotels and restaurants are closed, creating a ghost town atmosphere (you may find just one restaurant and bar open in smaller towns). Public boats and buses run on a drastically reduced schedule.

If you are not a lover of the hustle and bustle, avoid summer public holidays and Sundays from mid-May through August, when the area is busy with day-trippers and Milanese visiting their second homes.

Biggest Rookie Mistakes

Thinking that the Italian Lakes (Orta, Maggiore, Lugano, Como) are all the same—they are all very different and each have a story to tell.

People expect that the mountains will be cold so they pack winter clothes even in spring, summer, and fall. The fact is that most lakes are only about 700 feet above sea level and temperatures are mild to warm, so there’s no need for down jackets and fleece vests!

Renting a luxury SUV or other large car upon landing. Driving the narrow, winding lakeside roads to your destination is nerve wracking and no way to start a vacation. Remember to rent something small. Better yet, let Andrea arrange a private transfer to your destination and then have a small rental car delivered to your door.

Word of Warning

Many hotels in Italy are now required to add a City Tax, which goes directly to Town Hall. Even if your stay has been prepaid, you’ll be charged this fee (typically up to five euros per person per day) at check-out.

You are free to take a plunge in any lake; many have dedicated swimming areas. If you’re going to be out in the open, bring a buoy so that boats will spot you—and check public boat timings and routes before setting out.

Some bars will charge you double (or more) the regular price to enjoy drinks/snacks seated outside or add a supplement because they have live music playing. Be sure to ask, unless you don’t mind paying extra.

In an attempt to avoid paying taxes, some businesses say that they will not accept credit cards for any charge exceeding 30 euros. This practice is illegal, though still somewhat common.

Airport Intel

For Lakes Mergozzo, Orta, and Maggiore, fly into Milan Malpensa (MXP).

For Lake Lugano, fly into Milan Malpensa (MXP) or Lugano (LUG).

For Lake Como use Milan Malpensa (MXP), Milan Linate (LIN), Milan Bergamo (BGY), or Lugano (LUG).

For Lake Garda use Milan Linate (LIN), Milan Bergamo (BGY), Verona Villafranca (VRN), or Venice (VCE).

When traveling to Lugano, Orta, Maggiore, or Como, it is not necessary to spend the night in Milan: The transfer times between the lakes and airports are usually shorter than between the lakes and Milan.

Don’t Forget to Pack

Binoculars to take in the beauty all around you.

A swimsuit so you can fully enjoy the lakes (and a swimming cap, which is required in public pools).

Comfortable shoes; heels are a nightmare given all the cobblestones and steps.

You’re required to carry a photo ID at all times in Italy. Bring your driver’s license or some other form of photo ID so you don’t have to carry your passport with you all day every day.

Instagram Moments

The sun setting on the ancient basilica on tiny Isola di San Giulio, on Lake Orta, as you approach or leave by boat.

The view of Lake Garda and the surrounding mountains from the terrace of the Lefay Resort.

The upper (historic) city of Bergamo Alta as the sun sets.

Driving in the early morning between Bergamo and Lake Garda, through the Franciacorta wine region, as the sun rises.

If there’s a heavy evening storm, don’t despair: Your reward will be clear skies and incredible views for miles and miles the next morning.

The Souvenirs

A bottle of local olive oil from Azienda Agricola Agnelli Sancassani in Lake Como or a bottle of Braulio, a digestif made in the Bormio area north of the lakes and available everywhere. Or Swiss chocolate from the Alprose Chocolate Factory in Lugano.

Reviews

A highly accomplished chef...

Ellen Salwen | October 28, 2021

He invited us to unlock the door...

Lynn Savarese | October 12, 2021

Highly recommend this service....

Rob Bartholomew | October 18, 2021
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