It’s impossible not to be smitten by Bellagio’s waterfront of bobbing boats, its maze of steep stone staircases, red-roofed and green-shuttered buildings, dark cypress groves and rhododendron-filled gardens.
Like the prow of a beautiful vessel, it sits at the crux of the inverted Y that is Lake Como; the Como and Lecco arms of the lake wash off to port and starboard.
Wander out of the old town centre to Punta Spartivento and gaze north up the third arm towards the Alps. In Roman times, Pliny had one of his favourite villas here. Bellagio is hardly a secret.
On summer weekends, foreign tourists are overwhelmed by hordes of day trippers up from Milan. Try to come midweek if you want a modicum of peace. It makes a nice base for ferry trips to other locations on the lake, in particular Varenna, on Lake Como’s east shore.
Thanks to its position, its temperate climate and its shape, Bellagio can be chosen and remembered with pleasure for holidays of a very different kind, from the quiet ones on the lakeside to the sports ones around the peninsula.
Despite being close to the mountains, Bellagio has the fortune of a Mediterranean climate that has encouraged the growth of olive trees and gives life to the great spring blooms of azaleas that attract fans of flowers from all over the world. Among the most famous gardens visited: Villa Serbelloni – Rockefeller Foundation, with plants from all around the world, Villa Melzi whose park was created by the same architects of the Gardens of the Royal Villa of Monza, both in Bellagio.
The Bellagio area is also ideal for sports holidays. On the lake you can practice sailing, water skiing, kayaking and rowing, while trekking and cycling routes wind through the promontory, with breathtaking views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Close to Bellagio is located the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Ghisallo (protector of cyclists), home to a museum with relics of great champions.
What to do in Bellagio
Bellagio is one of the most attractively-situated of the lake resorts, and it is a pleasant place to ramble. Passenger ferries stop alongside a tree-lined waterfront. Across the road is a lovely arcade where cafes and restaurants afford shade and shelter from the elements. This is a good place to come for an aperitivo or after-dinner drink. Walking to the right as you disembark from the boat, you’ll find more ‘touristy’ cafes – the types of place where you can sit in the afternoon on a lakeside terrace with a big fancy ice-cream and watch the boats passing by. A little further along in this direction you’ll pass the car-ferry departure point, the historic Hotel Grand Bretagne which is currently abandoned and falling into disrepair, and then reach a pretty lakeside promenade.
From the central waterfront, stepped and cobbled lanes rise up the hill in a tight little network separating the lakeshore from the town’s main street, Via Garibaldi. This is a pretty lane where you’ll find more shops, cafes and also Bellagio’s main town square, Piazza San Giacomo, or Piazza della Chiesa. The square is dominated by the town church, the Romanesque Basilica di San Giacomo, which is worth a visit for its frescoes and statues. Externally you can admire the attractive bell-tower and elegant apse. On the opposite side of the square is a medieval tower, once part of Bellagio’s now-disappeared defences. The fountain in the centre of the piazza is said to have been originally commissioned by a resident Englishman for his garden to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Walking from the piazza past the church and out towards the tip of the Bellagio promontory, you reach a viewpoint, park and little harbour at Punta Spartivento, where the lake divides. Heading in the other direction from the square, Via Garibaldi passes the main entrance to Villa Serbelloni and reaches the town hall (Municipio). At this point a paved footpath (signposted) leaves the road and heads towards Pescallo, about ten minutes’ walk away. Pescallo is an enchanting little fishing hamlet looking out over the western Lecco branch of Lake Como, on the opposite side of the promontory to the main settlement of Bellagio. There’s a restaurant with tables right on the water’s edge, and although there are one or two hotels, the atmosphere here is low-key, charming and miles away from the smart, touristy world of Bellagio.
From Pescallo, following the ‘Bellagio suburbs’ walk suggested by the tourist office pamphlet, you pass by some agricultural ruins ripe for renovation, then the imposing, empty Villa Giulia and its dramatic ‘Vialone’. This is a wide grassy path cleared by an early owner of Villa Giulia, in order to give his house views over both branches of the lake. At the far end of the Vialone you can head left down to another waterside settlement, San Giovanni, where local teenagers sun themselves on the harbour wall and where the little town square is decorated with a ‘grotto’ constructed by the local priest in the 1950s as a shrine to the Madonna of Lourdes. There is also a rather specialist museum at San Giovanni, dedicated to navigational instruments (the Museo degli Strumenti della Navigazione). Back in the direction of Bellagio, the next little fishing harbour is Loppia, where you can see examples of the historic local lake boats. Try to get a glimpse of the old village church, now enclosed in the private grounds of Villa Trivulzio Gerli. The route back to Bellagio lies through the gardens of Villa Melzi one of the two most iconic Villas on Como Lake together with Villa Serbelloni.
In the tourist season you may see a little tourist train (trenino) tootling by; this takes a 20-minute tour towards the hamlet of San Giovanni. It’s not a hugely scenic route as the roads don’t run along the lakeshore, but it is fun, especially if you are travelling with children. The departure point is indicated by a notice-board, near the car-ferry jetty.
Where To Stay in Bellagio
Bellagio itself is quite small and it’s not as easily accessible as Como or Cernobbio, but once you get there, its location is perfect for sightseeing. This is the main reason why I list Bellagio as one of the best places to stay in Lake Como. Set right in the middle, at the point where Lake Como splits (the lake has a reversed Y shape), Bellagio is an ideal place from which to explore the entire area. A good network of passenger and car ferries provide easy access to all the other towns and villages of Lake Como.
$$: Hotel Du Lac