Lake Como is one of the most enchanting places you can choose for your holidays. It is no coincidence that on its banks, overlook historic villas of surprising beauty and elegance, representing true masterpieces of architecture between the 16th and 19th centuries. They are all surrounded by beautiful gardens, which during the flowering period seem to have come from the painting of an artist, who wanted to pay homage to a land that is generously laced with magnificent and rich specimens of Mother Nature.
The estates that are part of these impressive buildings sometimes keep very rare plants from all over the world. There are numerous villas that can be visited around the area, some of which have also been transformed into important accommodations.
As in the past, Lake Como is well-known today for being a destination that attracts wealthy people who can afford to live in one of the picturesque coastal towns or buy one of the many villas for sale. Owning a house here means carving out your own personal corner of excellent tranquility, with a view that extends over the dark green waters, which reflect the dense woods on the slopes of the Pre-Alps, almost blanketing over them like a carpet.
Lake Como and its villas, some of which still hold the heirs of those who built or bought them, have become a popular destination for international tourists, especially those belonging to the show biz world, who consider this place to be a privileged destination. However, this does not mean that access to this magnificent land is limited to a lucky few, in fact, anyone who wants to admire the pomp and attention to detail, both in the construction of the exterior and interior of the structures, as well as the gardens can witness its beauty firsthand. Many of the most important villas have been acquired by local authorities, which have turned them into priceless cultural centers.
Many love to view the breathtaking scenes of the villas and gardens directly from the lake, while some choose to embark on a boat that shuttles between the banks and offers a privileged point of view of the picturesque scenery. The sheer brilliance of these structures remains unmatched, let’s embark on a virtual tour of some of the most beautiful villas of Lake Como namely; Villa Balbianello, Villa Melzi d’Eril with the Gardens, Villa Fogazzaro, Villa Carlotta, Villa Monastero, Villa D’Este, Villa Pliniana, Villa Serbelloni with the Park, Villa Olmo, the Botanical Gardens of the Hotel Villa Cipressi and the Garden of the Valley.
Villa del Balbianello
Villa Balbianello stands on the extreme tip of Dosso di Lavedo and its development gently follows the natural slope, which leads to the underlying shores of the lake. It is spread over 6 floors and includes in addition to the Villa, the beautiful Loggia, the Ice House, the Casa del Custode, the Casa Bosco, the park and the Serra. It has been named “Balbiano”, after a much more extensive estate which is not too far away and is owned by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini. Its construction dates back to the end of 1700s, when there was already a small monastery dedicated to St. John, which was skilfully incorporated into the building. Here the cardinal spent the last years of his life, welcoming prelates, friends and illustrious men of letters. He built a well-stocked library, the music room and a cartographer’s room, overlooking what is considered the most precious architectural find of the villa: the Loggia, which offers a breathtaking view of the lake.
After the cardinal’s death, the villa became property of several wealthy people, each of which left a sign that was added to the beauty of the Villa. Giuseppe Sepolina, an anti-Austrian patriot, hosted Silvio Pellico, while the next landlady, the Marchioness Costanza Anna Luisa Trotti Arconati, had among her visitors Manzoni and Berchet.
The last owner, Guido Monzino, partly restored it, enriching it with a collection of art that is still visible today and with relics of his expedition, which led him to climb Everest in 1971. Other finds relate to trips made by the same in the middle of the world. Since 1988, Villa Balbianello has been donated to the FAI, which has transformed it into a museum house.
The villa, like many of those on the lake, has a small port built using a natural inlet, with a staircase leading to the upper levels. A famous line written in French: “Fay ce que voudras” which translates to “Do what you want” can be viewed as one begins to approach it.
The garden, which can be considered a park because of its size, has been developed without a precise scheme. The shape of the stony ground did not allow it to be inspired by Italian or English gardens. However, it is populated by centuries-old trees, such as plane trees cut into the shape of a candelabrum, holm oaks, cypresses, magnolias, and canphors. The hedges are extremely well-kept with rhododendrons and azaleas standing out in the spring.
In the cartographer’s room there are a series of maps, some of which belonged to Monzino, while the library boasts of more than 4 thousand themed books on expeditions to the North Pole and mountaineering. Among the most valuable works, lies a collection of Flemish tapestries, sculptures from Africa, furniture in English and French style as well as the paintings on glass.
Villa Melzi d’Eril and its Gardens
Villa Melzi d’Eril was built according to a project developed by architects Giocondo Albertolli and Andrea Appiani and was completed between 1808 and 1815. This was a period of great political and social happenings and the Vice-President of the Republic, Francesco Melzi D’Eril, commissioned what is considered one of the most shining examples of neoclassical style today, as reflected by its apparent simplicity. The building rises to the south of the picturesque center of Bellagio, surrounded by its monumental gardens, which deserve to be visited for their exemplary care and naturalistic richness. The estate follows the shores of Lake Como for about 800 meters and the whiteness of its facade manages to illuminate this part of the lake mirror.
The entrance to Villa Melzi d’Eril is decorated by an avenue that is lined with trees. The construction of the same garden required massive containment walls in front of the beach and the monumental staircase. Above it, there is a large panoramic terrace surrounded by 4 statues of lions which offers a stunning visual space when viewed from across the lake. There are several works that can be admired on the outside and, among these, you can see Egyptian statues and a gondola that comes directly from Venice and was brought here by Napoleon himself. In the gardens there is a precious family chapel and the Serra, which was once used as an orangery, but has been transformed into a museum in the present day. Inside it are decorations which appear to be made by Canova, it seems that the entrance door of the ancient Melzi house in Milan that was transported here is in fact attributable to Bramente. The interiors of the villa, which can be visited from March to October contain, among others, a hall of honor frescoed with the Parnassus, in homage to Francesco Melzi, an ancestor who was a pupil of Leonardo Da Vinci. Important changes were made to the original style by the last owner of the family, Joséphine Melzi d’Eril Barbò, influenced by D’Annunzio’s style.
The gardens are a sumptuous example of how rare plants can be combined with secular trees – the grounds are embellished with exotic specimens of giant rhododendrons and azaleas form real woods, while the hedges are enriched by camellias. These are classic Italian gardens designed by Luigi Villoresi, which today represent a part of the villa much appreciated by visitors, who are able to immerse themselves in its tranquility and timeless beauty.
Villa Fogazzaro Roi
Villa Fogazzaro was the summer residence of the famous writer and author of Piccolo Mondo Antico and is located on the western and Italian shore of Lake Lugano. Its construction dates back to the 1800s and still preserves the atmosphere of the bourgeois family of the time, who came here to spend the summer. Antonio Fogazzaro called it “the place of the soul”, for the intimate and deep feelings that this pleasant place evokes.
Today, the villa is open to the public from March to October and it is possible to view the rooms and gardens with a guided tour lasting about an hour. Villa Fogazzaro was donated to Fai, while the responsibility of its upkeep has been entrusted directly to the great-grandson of the illustrious writer, Giuseppe Roi. The place is evidently picturesque, between the terrace, the hanging gardens, the narrow gallery and the fragrant plants, which between spring and summer make the stay even more pleasant. In the various rooms you can admire objects and personal effects of Fogazzaro, which recount an intellectually prolific period, such as the one in which he wrote “Miranda”. Visitors can also notice a plethora of family photos in the villa, which puts a personal touch to the visit while arousing deep interest at the same time.
The villa also hosts receptions for important events, such as weddings, as it represents a very chic and coveted setting for married couples. The style is soberly elegant; even thought its size is not comparable to some of the grand villas on Lake Como, its location between the mountains, the woods and the lake is fascinating because it helps in the formation of one of the most enchanting natural landscapes of Ceresio.
Villa Carlotta is one of the oldest structures overlooking Lake Como, in fact it was built in 1690 on commission of the Marquis Giorgio II Clerici. In the beginning, the residence took its name simply from the locality of Tremezzo where it stood and was a tribute to the success of the family business. The villa was eventually passed onto the owner’s nephew, Antonio Giorgio, who dispelled his entire heritage, even though he managed to commission works by Tiepolo and other famous artists, still visible today at the villa. The latter passed it to a cadet branch, where it ended up being given as a wedding gift to the Sommariva.
Gian Battista Sommariva was a friend of Napoleon Bonaparte, while the villa ended up with distant relatives of his wife, the Saxonian family Meiningen and Duke George II, an aesthete who possessed a tremendous passion for art, theatre, music and poetry. It was during this period that the Villa changed its name as a tribute to his wife Carlotta, who unfortunately died after only 4 years of a true marriage of love, which very rare for times where weddings were traditionally a union of families.
The villa has been developed in neoclassical style despite the era of construction, as it was revisited by the owners about 200 years after the laying of the first stone. Seemingly sober, it represents an example of how the building can be enhanced with skilful architectural combinations, such as the monumental staircase, the central arches and the frieze on the top. Only 2 of the 3 floors can be visited and preserve important works of art famous in almost half the world. Among these there are some paintings by Francesco Hayez, sculptures and statues of Canova and valuable period furnishings. The garden of the villa is characterized by a riot of azaleas, as there are at least 150 different varieties, which in spring offer a unique flowering show. The entrance of the villa is priced at 5 euros.
Villa Monastero is named so, because in the eleventh century there was a female convent here, which was closed in the 16th century, while the historical residence was built only in the 19th century. What now faces the shores of the lake is actually the result of various interventions, which have followed one another over the centuries and led to the overlapping of styles. Accordingly, the current building is a culmination of these gradual modifications. Around 1550 the villa was bought by the Mornico family, who managed to keep the property for over 3 centuries. Due to various vicissitudes and changes in ownership, the villa known which is also known as “Leliana”, took its current name. In 1939 it was donated to public bodies in order to create a house of extreme elegance.
The villa is located in Varenna on the western shore of Lake Como, at a level almost equal to that of the waters. This gives the building a very unique view, where the lake seems to be an integral part of the building. After various events, which saw it passed onto different owners, it is presently managed by the province of Lecco which has aided its development into a cultural and tourist attraction. It is, in fact, one of the most visited sites in this area of the lake and also houses a museum and an exhibition space. There are 14 rooms open to the public, and in one of these rooms a conference room has been set up, which is occasionally a venue for meetings, seminars and themed seminars, which allow visitors to appreciate the charm of Villa Monastero. Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize winner in Physics, held his lessons in this historic building and every year the Italian Physical Society organizes its courses here, to maintain this illustrious teaching tradition. The villa is an exclusive setting to be used as a reception hall for weddings and ceremonies.
The botanical garden surrounding the residence covers an area of about 2 square kilometres and is visited by thousands of visitors in the summer season. Inside, there are not only rare plant species, but also exotic and indigenous plants of great beauty. The complex, which belongs to Villa Monastero, also offers schools the opportunity to carry out educational activities by organizing workshops, seminars and educational games. Exhibitions of contemporary and internationally renowned artists are also held here occasionally.
Villa D’Este is certainly one of the most loved and well-known lakeside villas, which proudly stands as a globally renowned 5-star hotel. The villa’s complete construction took more than 50 years, which demonstrates its complexity as well as the richness of its interior and exterior decorations. Villa D’Este’s development was commissioned by Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio in 1568, who intended to spend his holidays there. Over the centuries, the property changed ownership several times, until the costs of its management became extremely high and began to scare prospective buyers. In 1873, in order to prevent it from falling into ruins, a group of courageous businessmen formed a consortium for its purchase, transforming it into a luxury hotel frequented by the most illustrious personalities of all time.
Even today the Hotel Villa D’Este is frequented and coveted by protagonists of the show biz world, Hollywood actors and crowned heads, such as the Windsors and the royals of the Principality of Monaco. The luxury that distinguishes Villa d’Este is rooted in its sumptuous Italian gardens that not only fascinate but also surprise visitors. In the villa, there are 152 rooms which are divided into 2 pavilions: that of the Cardinal with 125 rooms and that of the Queen with 27. All the rooms have been furnished with extreme taste and refinement, comprising of antique furniture, elegance and all the comforts you can desire. The materials used are silk, velvet, marble and the same works of art found inside the villa are an added value to a building of rare preciousness.
Many of the rooms in the villa overlook the lake which guarantees a romantic and dreamy view. Villa D’Este boasts of a highly sought-after floating pool, while its extensive gardens hold one of the most intriguing golf courses in the world, which guarantees exciting competitions due to a high level of difficulty. The golf course is set amongst pine, chestnut and birch woods and is decorated with secular plants and flowers of every color. Its immaculately trimmed hedges and precious floral specimens show that it has been guarded with the utmost care. The villa also offers tennis courts, squash courts and a gym with an adjoining spa, to promote the physical wellbeing while nurturing the spirit. It is a place which records the presence of innumerable amenities, and also has an extensive number of personnel that are engaged in its management and reception of guests.
How to reach: Villa D’Este
This villa is one of the oldest built structures on Lake Como. An evident missing space can be observed when witnessing the villa from across the lake due to the thinning out of the Pre-Alps which have been literally torn from the water. This causes Villa Pliniana to appear as if it is almost floating and enhances its beauty even more. It was built in 1573 and has been transformed into a luxury hotel by its last owner. The hotel has several suites to choose from that provide a view of the lake mirror.
Because of its extraordinary architectural beauty, the villa offers a scenic location for photographic services and weddings. It consists of 4 floors with an elegant central loggia open at half height which has been crafted in Doric style. The whole complex of Villa Pliniana is in Renaissance style and its name is due to the presence of a plaque with a letter written on it that Pliny the Elder sent to Licinius. Below the villa also flows a source of water, which crosses the rocky part and eventually harmonizes with the waters of Lake Como.
Many important historical figures such as Rossini and Bellini have stayed in the villa. The piano which they used for their compositions still stands in its place in the villa to this day. The interior is embellished with antique furniture, portraits from the 1600s and stunning marble. The garden surrounding the villa has a small hermitage in its upper part; the gorgeous space is laced with old trees and a plethora of rhododendrons that attract thousands of tourists in the spring, who love to observe this phenomenon. It is certainly one of the most luxurious historic villas on Lake Como.
How to reach: Villa Pliniana
Villa Serbelloni and its Park
Villa Serbelloni is located right on the village of Bellagio and is in an elevated position with respect to the lake itself. Due to its location, you can admire a breathtaking view, which comprises of all 3 branches of the large body of water. The feeling that the mountains embrace the villa is one of the most fascinating views that you can be in awe of. The structure was built between the 16th and 17th centuries which gave it a sober but incisive neo-classical style in its architectural expressiveness. In reality, it stands in place of a defensive castle, which was a fortress built by Galeazzo Visconti in the second half of the 1300s. Of that fortress remains only a tower, called Sfondrati, whose name derives from the family to which the villa was passed onto in the following centuries.
The interiors of the villa are characterized by large frescoes, splendid works of art and coffered ceilings. Visitors arrive up here from a road that starts from the village and reaches the entrance of the majestic Park. In 1788 the property was passed onto the Serbelloni Dukes, who embellished its interiors and English gardens from an aesthetic point of view. Famous people such as Flaubert who stayed at the residence, defined it as a place where “one would like to live and die”. It also served as an abode for Alessandro Manzoni, Tommaso Grossi and Giuseppe Parini. In 1905 the villa was transformed into a hotel and in 1930 it was bought by Princess Ella Walker, wife of Prince Thurn und Taxis. In 1959 donated, the villa was donated to the Rockefeller Foundation, which periodically meets and holds meetings there and is also responsible for taking care of the property.
The Park of this historic residence on Lake Como is the only part that can be visited from April to November. It is marked by a succession of tall trees, including the precious rhododendrons, but also pines, elms, firs, oaks, myrtles, holm oaks, junipers, firs and conifers. There are also orange and lemon trees, which due to the rather cold climate during the winter can be considered a rare sight to witness in the area. Rather than a garden, it could be called a forest, due to its expansiveness and for how thick the trees are. As you admire the view, you can also smell the fragrant and colourful roses surrounding the area, while the upper part of the Park of Villa Serbelloni which is decorated with large palm trees and rows of cypress trees, acts as the crown of this charming residence.
Visit and tourist info: Villa Serbelloni
How to reach: Parco di Villa Serbelloni
The villa takes its name from the presence of a centenarian elm, which stood here when construction work began in the eighteenth century but has been lost as of today. The neoclassical style of the residence reflects the fact that it is Simone Cantoni’s project, who also worked on the organization of its Italian gardens that are not very extensive but are known for their symmetry and composure.
Villa Olmo is of monumental dimensions which make it appear as if it is a small palace to visitors. It is spread over 3 floors and the front facing the lake is characterized by the presence of a center that holds a series of columns, which overlook a portico with 5 arches. On the top there is a loggia on which there are a series of statues and the frieze of the Visconti family. It was, however, Innocenzo Odescalchi who wanted the realization of this vision. The symmetry that immediately jumps to the eyes when looking at this residence is inspired by the ideal beauty theorized by Winckelmann in those years and that is why its geometries and proportions are so dominant.
The architectural result is reflective of an extremely elegant and luxurious complex. Even in its sobriety, Villa Olmo in the course of its history, similar to other period residences on Lake Como, had several owners and saw the passage of important personalities including General Bonaparte and his wife Giuseppina. The poet Ugo Foscolo also stayed here, and after the villa passed from the Odescalchi to the Raimondi family in 1824, the Emperor of Austria Ferdinando I also visited the residence, together with Marshal Radetzky and the Prince of Metternich. In 1859 Villa Olmo was the centre point for the love born between Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Marquise Giuseppina, who later became his wife.
The interiors of the historic residence are characterized by dozens of rooms and halls of representation, including several beautifully frescoed halls that feature mythological themes. The villa also preserves a 92-seat theatre that boasts of impressive acoustics. About a century after its construction, Villa Olmo was renovated with respect to its style, but the stables were demolished, leaving free rein to the imagination of the artists, who dedicated themselves to embellishing it with stuccos on the ground floor and with the arrangement of the park. The construction of the theatre is also from this period.
The park of the residence is characterized by the placement of carefully modeled trees and manicured lawns, which open with a view of the lake and the mountains that surround it. Inside you can admire a small temple in classical style, whose construction is attributed to Visconti di Modrone. The view of the lake is bordered by a balustrade made of stone, with a central staircase that runs down the water. Among the flower beds there are several statues, which depict mythological deities and a monumental fountain with a bronze sea monster in the center. At the end of the 19th century the property, after being passed by Visconti di Modrone, underwent restyling, which led to the reconstruction of the stables and the demolition of 2 side wings in order to bring out the central body of the villa.
Since 1925 Villa Olmo has become the property of the Municipality of Como, which has transformed it not only into a museum house, but also into a hub of cultural attraction for the whole of Lombardy. The famous exhibitions that were held in the halls of the residence are famous, including that of Picasso in 2005 and of Magritte the following year. The periodic congresses and events that are held here open to the public, the splendid rooms that are decorated with great taste. The lower floor can be visited for free during the summer.
Visit and tourist info: Villa Olmo
How to reach: www.villaolmocomo.it
The Botanical Gardens of Hotel Villa Cipressi
Villa Cipressi with its captivating Botanical Gardens is located in Varenna, on the eastern shore of the lake. The complex was built between the fifteenth and nineteenth century. In 1980 the whole property was bought with the collaboration of local inhabitants of the lake center, who stood united and developed an association, which still manages the villa and its gardens, under the patronage of the municipality of Varenna. The complex has been transformed into a renowned resort since then, after a careful restoration which took place about 40 years ago, which essentially aligns the origins of the Risorgimento with the current needs of the guests.
The botanical gardens of Villa Cipressi offer an enlightening and educational experience for visitors who can admire the very rare species of plants that embellish the whole park surrouding the historic residence. Exotic plants alternate with those of the Mediterranean, favored by the same microclimate of the lake, which leads to the spectacular seasonal flowering of the terraced gardens, interspersed with columns, statues, stairways and magnificent panoramic views. All botanical species are marked with a plate, proving that the floral variety present in the location are of great value and therefore, must be protected. Despite the position of the lake in the area of the Pre-Alps, availability of water and the pure air has made it possible to grow the plants which are present in the Botanical Gardens of Villa Cipressi. Some of the plant species that are worthy of note include the American agave, which spontaneously flowers here, the strawberry tree also called the Patriots’ Plant, the cypress, the araucaria, the myrtle, the diospyr and the tamarisk.
Depending on the seasons, some plants go through a flowering period, which can be seen from the end of March to October each year. Visitors are guided through a botanical path that crosses the ancient gardens and allows them to admire the architectural beauty of the works in it and of the villa itself.
Visit and tourist info: Villa Cipressi
How to reach: www.visitlakecomo.it/villa-cipressi
The Garden of the Valley
The Giardino della Valle is located a short distance from the perimeter wall of Villa d’Este and its origins are rather ambigious. In the 1980s a stubborn lady named Ida Frati wanted to turn what was a real landfill into a pleasant place, beautiful enough to visit and bask in its rich greenery. Her ironwill in transforming these lands into something aesthetically relevant has transformed the Giardino della Valle into a place of great tourist interest, as well as botanical masterpiece.
Over the years, she has also founded an association of the same name which operates as a non-profit, intended exclusively for maintaining the aesthetics and health of plants, treated so lovingly by “Grandmother Pupa”. It took several years as one can imagine for the garden to come to life and manifest itself in all its beauty. Today it can be compared to an oasis of tranquility which is the fruit of relentless commitment and passion that this incredible woman has for nature. In the bosom of the garden, you will not only meet children, grandparents, parents, teenagers, but also artists, photographers, musicians, poets and intellectuals.
This sweet lady, even dragged along some of her friends to complete her mission, and recovered all those plants that were abandoned by the municipality, as well as the benches overlooking the lake, which have since been rearranged, repainted and made usable again. Today they are located along the path that has been created within the gardens, between the flower beds and the aquatic plants of the small pond, where the goldfish also live. The route also includes bridges, steps, climbs and descents, small wooden works of art and which add to the splendour of the views overlooking the lake.
Every year, starting from May, the Gardens of the Valley come alive with appointments, cultural shows and initiatives which take place in collaboration with the municipality of Cernobbi. The garden acts as a venue for International Childrens’ Day celebrations that take place every year, during which many shrubs are planted in addition to the ones that were born the previous year.
Visit and tourist info: Il Giardino della Valle
How to reach: www.ilgiardinodellavalle.it