One of the most luxurious way to appreciate the outdoors in Northern Italy is in the Italian Lake District. With a shimmering lake in front of you and the pre-Alps around you, visitors have all the beauty of the outdoors, with all the comforts of high-class Italy. Dotted by tiny towns along the banks, there’s no lack of cafés, bars and fancy restaurants to frequent along the lake. Most only think of Como when they think of the Lake District, but it’s a mistake. Como is great, but its prestige, fanciness and size dampen the lake experience for me.
All the atmosphere, all the best views and all my favorite memories are in Varenna.
Varenna is on the opposite bank from Como, in the Province of Lecco. Founded in 769 by fishermen, it was allied with Milan and then actually destroyed by Como, a rival. Now, it’s a vibrant town built right along the banks of the lake. Brightly colored houses sit crammed together, built on a narrow strip of land between the mountain and the water. Steep paths or steps up the mountain lead further into the town and away from the lake. Walking the alleyways that make up the streets of Varenna feels more like sneaking down private pathways than strolling down city lanes. Varenna is minuscule, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in charm.
The biggest draw is the lungolago or pathway that hugs the lake. The waterfront path is as long as the entire village and makes for a lovely stroll day or night. Restaurants, artisan shops and gelaterie dot the pathway. I suggest a quick gelato break on some of the stone steps facing the lake during the day, then keep an eye out for a table with a view where you can have a relaxing aperitivo in the evening. Get a spritz and enjoy the lake. Go slow. Varenna is small, you’ve already arrived.
What to Do
It’s not so small that there’s nothing to see, however. Most often, my favorite part about small towns is simply the opportunity to stroll, relax, enjoy and not have a strict itinerary that big cities sometimes require. That said, there’s nothing that seems more hidden, more off-the-beaten path in the Italian Lake District (it’s well touristed, after all) than a trip to Castello di Vezio. Perched on a cliff directly above Varenna, the Castello is more of an ancient fortress. If you’re able to make the perilous drive straight up the mountain – and, of course, find parking – you’ll find yourself wandering among tiny houses among the rock. Though the fantastic atmosphere and lack of life might make it seem fake, be considerate, because those are actual houses with actual people.
Olive trees line the hill leading up to the Castle. Though parts of the Castle are from WWI, today it houses a falconry. There they breed, grow and train owls, falcons and other birds of prey.
Maybe you don’t care about falcons, but if you’re able to make it to a show, you’ll see these beautiful birds soar out over the lake. Below you the olive trees grow, wildflowers bloom between the cyprus trees and you know that Varenna is there too, wedged between you and the lake. Castello di Vezio is one of the best views of the lake in the area, and it’s certainly unique.
If you want more Castello di Vezio, check out my photo essay of the castle here. For those that don’t have a car, you can in fact hike up to the castle. Though I think it’s worth it, be prepared for quite a steep hike that will take at least thirty minutes.
Varenna also has two botanical gardens tucked in Villa Monastero and Villa Cipressi, as well as a museum dedicated to the Lariosaurus and a Middle Triassic sea reptile, apparently.
Marco and I live closer to the Lecco side of the lake, so a big draw to Varenna (and drawback to Como) is that it is closer to us. We’ve gone so often, actually, that we’ve perfected the outing.
The perfect Varenna itinerary (and beyond):
Personally, no Varenna itinerary is complete without a quick stop in Lecco to get a slice of focaccia from the best focacceria in the area, but I know that not all people will be driving, nor coming from Varenna, nor interested in testing out all the focaccia’s in the city since I for sure won’t be giving you the name of mine (Actually, I don’t remember it, as soon as I get to Lecco my feet follow my stomach with no mention of a name.)
After, visit the Castello di Vezio. If it’s open and the weather is nice, find a way to get up to the Castello. Hitch a ride (honestly, I doubt anyone would pick you up but you could try!) or take the hike and check out the falcon show. Hours, price and directions can all be found here.
Now it’s time to explore Varenna. Walk until you reach the lake, from there you can’t miss the pathway along the lake. Follow the lungolago. Pretend to eavesdrop on all of the German tourists, shop the “artisan” shops, get an ice cream or a drink and relax. You can walk the entire length of the town in 15 minutes, so there’s no rush here. When you’re ready, head back to the pier and take the ferry across the lake to Bellagio, Varenna’s conspicuous yet elegant neighbor.
From here you’re free to choose where you want to end your night. Continue your ferry ride across the lake to Como for dinner, or return to Varenna to explore the restaurants dotting the narrow streets. I have no experience staying the night in Varenna, but I’m sure there are plenty of hotels to choose from there as well as in Bellagio and Como.
The entire itinerary is doable even without a car, simply by train and ferry (with how difficult it is to find parking, it’s probably better), and the order of events can easily be moved (perhaps you’re coming from Como), but the itinerary remains timeless. Varenna is a jewel along the lake that the Italians and Germans have known about for decades. Everyone should enjoy the town’s panorama at least once.
How to Get There
First of all, let’s get something straight: Lake Como is one body of water that happens to be called by two separate names. It’s large enough and Italy is fractious enough that this works out fine. Shaped like an upside-down Y, the Como side is on the left, Lecco on the right and the point where the two meet is Bellagio. Varenna is just 12 miles northwest of Lecco and 37 miles north of Milan. Trains run directly from Milan to Varenna (the station is called Varenna-Esino). They take about one hour and cost about 7 euro. Trains from other stations will likely go to Lecco, but you can easily change trains in Lecco to get to Varenna.
Another option is to come from another big town around the lake. Ferries run continuously from several towns on the lake, such as Tremezzo, Como and Bellagio. Tickets are around $7 for passengers, and a bit more if you want or need to bring a car. Varenna’s pier is on the north end of the village (but honestly, the town is so small you can’t miss it). Have fun!
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