Lake Como: Inspiring notables like Leonardo da Vinci and Winston Churchill for Ages
By Cindy-Lou Dale
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Lake Como is of glacial origin, dating back to the last Ice Age. It’s 146 km² in size and at its deepest point measures 410m – making it one of the deepest lakes in Europe.
It’s a place of glorious sunshine and gentle pleasures and has been the accepted retreat for wealthy folk since Romans first discovered it +2,000 years ago when, in 49BC, Julius Caesar sent 5,000 colonists to live there.
For centuries Como has been famed for its dramatic setting, fairy-tale villages, and now the catwalk of A-listers who own villas on the shores.
It’s also one of the world’s leading centers of silk production, with an interesting story pinned to its history in the production of silk.
It all began in 1400 when Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, decided to plant mulberry trees around Lake Como to feed the greedy silkworms. Their ingestion of mulberry leaves produced silk, which led to the production of silk garments.
Como’s silk is what Reims is to Champagne and Modena is to supercars.
In 1866 Como entrepreneurs founded a Technical Institute enabling future generations to learn the ancient craft of silk manufacture. The industry kept expanding as Como had built a worldwide reputation for silk excellence. In fact, their reputation had so peaked that Como became known as the Silk City, with famous brands like Mantero, Ratti, Clerici, and Frey, leading the industry with their silken treasures.
In the 1990s, Como became the world’s most important center for silk manufacture, attracting major couturier and apparel from New York City, Paris, and Milan.
In Como and its surrounding foothills, there are several hundred companies engaged in the silk and textile trade – manufacturing, printing, dyeing, designing, and selling – which employs tens of thousands of locals. Chances are if you own a silk scarf, tie, blouse, or dress by any big-name fashion house, the silk came from Como.
Reminders of Silk are Everywhere
Along the city’s main shopping street – Via Vittorio Emanuele II – designer boutiques showcase silken garments in their windows. On the main square – Piazza Cavour, a large emporium offers a profusion of silk products. And just outside the city walls in La Tessitura, is ‘Loom Café’, a former textile mill turned restaurant.
Celebrities here, celebrities there!
Lake Como has been the location of many a movie, including ‘Casino Royale’, ‘Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones’, and ‘A Month by the Lake’. For centuries, notables have been hosted in Como – Liszt, Bellini, Verdi, Stendhal, Wordsworth, Shelley, Sinatra, Hitchcock, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gorbachev, plus numerous Russian oil magnates and American business leaders.
Today a new generation of famous visitors and/or property owners have descended on the Silk City. George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Sadly, this gentrification brings with it the cost of increased traffic and dramatically inflated real estate prices – and just about everything else.
In and around Lake Como
While exploring one of the world’s most idyllic destinations you’ll see the crystalline water glinting between the spiked Swiss peaks on one side and the low-slung Lombard hills on the other. Ferries and fishermen ply their way across the lake’s glass-like surface, and at the water’s edge, small seaplanes fly in and out of the Aero Club.
Beautiful stone buildings line the city’s streets, that buzz with energy. There are markets selling local sausages, cheeses, gelati and olive oils, mimics and musicians on Piazza Duomo, and cafes are packed with locals.
- The handsome Neoclassical lakefront museum of Tempio Voltianois a tribute to the celebrated Alessandro Volta, the 18th-century physicist and inventor of the electric cell.
- Take the steep funicular up to the village of Como–Brunate. At the top, some 1,600 feet above the lake, are gorgeous Art Nouveau villas.
- In the quiet off-season, the village of Bellagio is a delight for its spectacular gardens, and steep stone alleys lined with shops that sell high-quality fashion, jewelry, and homewares. In summer, it’s a theme park.
- Take a walk through twenty acres of luscious grounds at Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo. There’s also a 17th-century house with sumptuous furnishings.
- The terraced grounds of Villa del Balbianello have been the backdrop to many a movie. On display are artifacts from around the world, collected by its last owner, the eccentric explorer Guido Monzino.
- In neighboring Varese, the Villa Panza is a major Modern and Contemporary art museum with spectacular hilltop gardens. Their art collection is renowned for its site-specific pieces by Turrell, Flavin, Wilson, and Wenders.
Lake Como’s Elegance & Taste
After all that activity, reward yourself to the sparkling evening lights reflected off the lake’s still waters from inside the glass-encased Terrazza 241 (www.terrazza241.it), the glamourous sky bar at the Hilton Lake Como. It’s ideal for informal dining and drinks, complete with live music – which adds to the stylish atmosphere.
Ask mixologist and bar manager, Vincenzo Sulmona, for one of his signature cocktails – the Smoked Negroni, and watch the theatre of its production. Then relish the gastronomic delights of Chef Alessandro Ramella.
His specialty dish: chunky spaghetti with a tomato and clam bisque – a concentrate of seafood flavors and aromas that packs a bunch, and learn why the Chef drizzles just a little over his homemade spaghetti. Then finish with one of their innovative Eat-Your-Drink desserts.
You may be tempted to stay the night as the heated rooftop infinity pool, cocktails, and live, mellow music might just keep you up there. Who knows which celebrity you might encounter, enjoying an Aperol spritz.
Hilton Lake Como
Following a full restoration, the 170-room Hilton Lake Como, pays homage to the Lombardian city’s past (and present) as a major silk center, as the hotel’s front-most building was until 1997 a silk factory.
The Hilton Lake Como opened in 2018; and as you’d expect from a high-end hotel, has all the bells and whistles that make it a pampering paradise, complemented with gourmet delights.
But what the other establishments of equal standing don’t have are the panoramic views over Lake Como through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Of course, it’s bright, stylish, and aesthetically pleasing, with a frontline multi-lingual professionally trained staff that man the whole operation.
The hotel’s clean minimal lines of glass and steel have been softened with contemporary décor in warm tones of brown, green, and blue, resonating the colors of the encompassing landscapes. Rooms and common areas are set around an inner courtyard. The entrance lobby opens to a Glass Cube – an all-glass lounge filled with leafy foliage which exudes a welcoming feel. All the furniture is locally made.
Double rooms start from €180.00 www.lakecomo.hilton.com
Lake Como on a B&B Budget
But don’t go thinking visiting Lake Como is only for millionaires. It’s within everyone’s financial reach.
Start by searching for accommodations on AirBnB (www.airbnb.com). Then narrow your search down by zooming in on the city of Como. That way you’ll be able to pick the location within your budget. Like ‘Casa Bella’ a fully equipped apartment in Varenna (on the quiet side of Lake Como), with its jaw-dropping views from the balcony.
Or the ‘Como Secret Garden’, an apartment in an old house, overlooking a hidden garden in the heart of the city of Como.