I had high expectations of Lake Como. For years, a showreel had played through my mind: soaring mountains and deep blue waters lapping at stony beaches. Terracotta-coloured towns clinging to cliffs. Yachts and ferries criss-crossing a seemingly endless lake. Oh, and a certain Mr Clooney swanning about.
I’d seen the postcards, coffee table books and movies. Could the reality match the Como of my imagination? Would the kids enjoy the villas, churches and small towns we hoped to visit? Would they appreciate la dolce vita? To all questions: a definitive yes.
Lake Como was even more beautiful than I had imagined – a surreal, shocking sort of beauty that requires quiet moments and endless gazing to fully appreciate. It’s the best family holiday we’ve ever had: a combination of relaxing time by the water, ferry rides, exploration, villa and garden visits, and eating out.
It was surprising to see how much my kids delighted in the Italian way of life (hello, siestas!) without many structured activities. They were awe-struck by the lavish Italian churches – the statues, stained-glass windows, gold and marble. Each visit we lit a candle and prayed for safe travels and different family members (mind you, at a few euro a pop this gets costly after a while. These churches aren’t silly!). They delighted in the surprises around each corner: a fountain that you could drink from! A mosaic-tiled footpath! Statues of lions on gates! An orchard of lemon trees! And ALL the gelato!
As we flew out of Milan, my six-year-old turned to me and said, “Mummy, I want to live in Italy when I’m a grown up”. Me too honey, me too. Now to find a villa near George… Read on for my top picks when visiting Lake Como with kids.
Where to stay in Lake Como with kids
Location is important in Lake Como, especially if you’re travelling with kids. The lake is huge so I recommend a base that’s frequented by high-speed ferries and buses. The town of Como, at the southern tip of the lake, is too far way from the action in my opinion – even a high-speed ferry can take 25 minutes or more to get to Bellagio and other towns in the middle of the lake. I recommend staying in or around Bellagio (probably the most popular choice), Varenna or Tremezzo.
When searching for accommodation, I had a few criteria: a pool, access to the lake, good views, and space to spread out for our family of five. I looked at large hotels and smaller B&Bs, but quickly ruled these out (two separate rooms was not an option; interconnecting rooms were exorbitant).
In the end, we chose a self-contained apartment that was part of the new Filario Hotel & Residences in Lezzeno, just outside Bellagio. Opened in early 2015, these modern two- and three-bedroom apartments have a balcony with 180-degree views of the lake (some with private terraces), plus the complex featured a stunning infinity-edge pool and a private lakefront beach. Swimming in the pool was one of the highlights of our trip (just look at that view!); we found the lake too cold and rocky for the kids. There’s a restaurant at the hotel, plus a pizzeria and a convenience store just down the road.
What to do in Lake Como with kids
Our days fell into a leisurely rhythm that started with breakfast in the apartment, an excursion in the morning followed by lunch, then relaxing by the pool in the afternoon. Dinner was usually eaten in, often with leftovers we’d taken from lunch (love a doggy bag). We happily filled our seven days in Lake Como, including a complete rest day in the middle. Our favourite things to do were:
One of the most popular towns on the lake, Bellagio is filled with classic Italian scenery – earthy-toned villas, cobblestone laneways, fountains, churches, and charming balconies filled with geraniums. Pick up one of the leaflets with a guided walk from the tourist information office – we found the basic Bellagio walk (2-3 hours) more than enough to see the major sights and get our bearings. Walk down to the belvedere for wonderful views to all parts of the lake, visit the main churches and stop off for a gelato or two along the way. Window shop along Via Garibaldi and meander up and down the steep laneways to admire the fountains, cafes and statues. Getting lost is recommended. Suitable for strollers, although it gets bumpy on the cobblestones.
// Villa Melzi & gardens, Bellagio
On the outskirts of Bellagio, Villa Melzi and its gardens are the place to let the kids run off some steam. You can’t enter the villa itself, but there are some beautiful vantage points and photo opportunities along the waterfront. Just don’t picnic on the grass!
Adults – 6.5 euros. Children under 12 free. Not stroller friendly.
Varenna was probably our favourite town on the lake. Smaller than Bellagio, it’s situated on a promontory made up of a number of little bays and inlets in which swans and sailboats jostle for water frontage. There are plenty of wonderful cafes and restaurants, so choosing where to eat will be the biggest challenge of your day. Be sure to walk the “lover’s walk” or passabile along the lake to stunning gardens and villas – Villa Monastero and Villa Cipressi (enter through the hotel of the same name).
// Villa Monastero, Varenna
Centuries-old yet lovingly maintained, lakeside Villa Monastero was once a Cistercian convent dating back to the 13th century. The botanic gardens are the highlight now, with cypress and yucca trees framing the lake and mountains beyond. and Kids will love running along the manicured paths and terraces.
Adults – 5 euros. Children 13 and under – free.
// Villa Carlotta, Tremezzo
A home to aristocratic Italian and European families for centuries, the grand Villa Carlotta is worth a visit for its magnificent gardens (many believe they are the best on the lake). My kids loved exploring the different nooks in the garden – look for the azaleas and camellias as well as waterfalls, ponds, bamboo and cacti gardens. The villa itself is small and has just a few rooms showcasing art and furniture. There’s a good cafe (see below) and gift shop, too.
Family ticket – 20 euros.
// Villa Balbienello, Lenno
You’ve probably seen Villa Balbienello on the big screen – it’s been featured in movies such as Star Wars and James Bond. Even if you haven’t, it’s worth visiting for the incredible views and manicured gardens. Framed by enormous cypress trees, the villa’s gardens are also home to a vine-covered loggia, masses of hydrangeas and sculptures around every turn. If you arrive by ferry from Lenno, it’s a good half-hour uphill walk so it might not be for littlies. (My Mr 3 was piggy-backed two-thirds of the way.) There’s no cafe so bring snacks, although water is available at the gift shop. You can also access the villa directly via a water taxi.
Garden entry – 8 euros (adults) and 3 euros (children 4-14 years). Gardens and villa – 15 euros (adults) and 7 euros (children). Access to villa is only by guided tour. Not stroller friendly.
// Hotel Villa Aurora Sports Club, Lezzeno
A local favourite, the Hotel Villa Aurora is a must visit for family-friendly water sports. Swim, jump on the water trampoline, ride kayaks, relax on floating lounges, go waterskiing, aqua-tubing or paddle boarding – it’s all here. Make a day of it and have lunch at the neighbouring restaurant (see below). Not recommended for toddlers and children not confident in the water.
Accessible by bus from Bellagio. Adult entry – 3 euros.
// Lido di Lenno, Lenno
A private lakeside beach, the Lido di Lenno has one advantage over other lakeside spots: white sand. Sure, it’s been shipped in, but if you fancy a few hours of swimming, lounging under gazebos and making sandcastles, this is your place. There’s bar service and a full restaurant, too.
Adult entry – 5 euros. Suitable for confident swimmers only.
Where to eat in Lake Como with kids
// La Grotta Pizzeria Ristorante, Bellagio
Packed with locals and tourists alike when we visited for lunch, La Grolla does well-priced pizzas and pasta, as well as local specialties. Servings are generous and the service is welcoming towards families, even those who devour a zillion grissini at one sitting and ask for more (not mentioning any names). It’s tucked up a secluded laneway so is less touristy than other places in Bellagio.
// Hotel Villa Aurora, Lezzeno
Ask locals where to eat or what to do in Lake Como with kids and this hotel’s name is sure to come up. As well as the sports club (see above), the hotel has a lakeside restaurant that serves wood-fired pizzas and local seafood specialties. Service is friendly and kids will enjoy watching the waterspouts below. Don’t miss the tasting plate.
// La Fabbrica del Gelato, Lenno
Our favourite gelateria of the trip, La Fabbrica del Gelato has all the classic flavours plus a few unusual ones. There’s a rotating icy pole machine (I need one of these) and fabulous ice cream cakes, all made on the premises. Treat yourselves (or bribe the kids) upon returning from Villa Balbienello.
// Cafe Antica Serra, Villa Carlotta, Tremezzo
Amid the gardens of Villa Carlotta is this spacious cafe set in a centuries-old greenhouse. Panini, salads, cakes, and coffee are all here, plus there’s plenty of room outside for the kids to run around. Kids menus available.
// Red & White, Tremezzo
Located along the main promenade with lake views, Red & White is a family-friendly cafe with reasonably priced pizzas, sandwiches and pasta. (Tip: there’s a pharmacy next door if you need to stock up on any supplies.)
Via Portici Sampietro, 18
//Hotel Helvetia, Lezzeno
Sit out on the balcony of this cheap and cheerful pizzeria and admire the views while you sip your glass of house wine and eat margherita pizzas (from 5 euros). The lake fish with artichokes and olives was one of the simplest dishes I ate during our stay, but it was one of my highlights. There’s a garden and a path down to the lake that kids can explore if they’re not keen on sitting around.
How kids are welcomed
Children are an ice-breaker in Italy – everywhere you go the locals are keen to chat to kids, sneak them a lolly and help you with a stroller or suitcase. Not long after we arrived at Milan airport, there was a staff member chatting to my girls and complimenting them on their shoes (only in Italy!). Bus drivers, waitresses, ticket sellers, even buskers – everyone smiled and made the kids feel so welcome. Any attempts to speak Italian were warmly encouraged.
How to get to Lake Como
The closest international airports are in Milan – Malpensa, Linate, and Bergamo. Como can be reached by train and bus, but if you’re coming from an airport with kids and luggage I think a private transfer is the way to go. We booked one here.
If you’re on a train from another part of Europe, head to Como railway station. From there, you can catch a bus, taxi or ferry to wherever you’re staying on the lake.
// I wouldn’t recommend using a car to get around Lake Como – have you seen the narrow roads and the way Italians drive? The ferry services are fast and efficient, as are the buses. Plus, many towns don’t offer much in the way of parking.
// Look for convenience stores/small grocers called “alimentari” – these are the place to stock up on fruit, snacks and meal provisions.
// Grab a bus and ferry timetable when you arrive (these are available as booklets at tourism information offices or a ticket office called a “biglietteria“). It is much cheaper (almost half the cost) to buy tickets before you get on the bus – look for these at bars (sometimes called a “tabaccheria”).
// If you’re planning on doing four or more ferry trips in a day, consider buying a family day pass. Unfortunately there are no weekly passes.
// Always check the age requirements of children’s tickets – on transportation and at many attractions, you don’t have to pay for kids under five.
// Looking for your daily gelato fix? Keep an eye out for gelaterie that display a sign saying “proprio produzione” or “produzione artigianale” which means it’s made by the owners themselves.
// Hiring your own boat or water taxi is a luxury – there are plenty of places along the waterfront in Bellagio you can do this. Or for a cheaper option, look for the boat hire companies in Menaggio and Varenna. For a rough estimate, you’re looking at
Best time to visit Lake Como with kids
Lake Como is a summer holiday destination – in winter, many of the attractions and restaurants close down or operate at limited times. You may want to avoid August, which is probably the busiest month as it’s school holidays in Italy. June/July is the best time to visit Lake Como with kids as you want to be able to swim and enjoy the lakeside lifestyle without feeling chilly. The shoulder months of April/May and September/October are also a good time, although not quite as warm.