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The Most Beautiful Villas on Lake Como You Can Visit

11 March 2024
by Regan Hofmann
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Step into the glamour of Lake Como’s past when you tour these grand villas. 

Secluded and pristine, Lake Como has been a favorite Italian retreat for millennia, attracting wealthy types who want privacy, space, and beautiful views. The Y-shaped lake in the northern Lombardy region, about an hour north of Milan, first thrived under Julius Caesar, who named the lake Larius (a name you’ll still see about the lake region today) and made it a popular destination for powerful Romans. Over the centuries to follow, powerful families and politicians built themselves lavish villas on the lake’s shores, simultaneously showing off their wealth while creating a private space for pleasure. 

The lake’s extravagant villas became a tourist destination in the 18th century, when European elites began taking the “Grand Tour” of Italy’s picturesque sights. Artists like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Franz Liszt, and Lord Byron were inspired by the contrast of these stately villas against the wild nature of the Alps. Towering colonnades, manicured gardens, and gleaming marble shine from the edge of the lake.  

One of the best ways to see these gorgeous structures is from the lake, as the grandest villas were constructed to show their best face to the water. But to get a taste of Lake Como life in days gone by, make sure to take time to tour around at least one or two of these grand buildings, many of which are now open to the public as museums or hotels. Be sure to check visitor hours and restrictions before planning your visit, as some are only open on select days or times, or only by guided tour.  

Villa CarlottaVilla Carlotta

Via Regina, 2, Tremezzina 

This stately 17th-century residence-turned-art museum was built by Milanese politician Giorgio Clerici II as a monument to his power as president of the Senate. Its next owner, Gian Battista Sommariva, added the garden that make this villa one of the lake’s most stunning today, spanning nearly 20 acres of citrus trees, 150 varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas, English roses, and more. Inside, art works from mostly 19th-century artists including Canova and Hayez are on display, as well as the perfectly preserved apartments of Princess Charlotte of Prussia, who lived here in the mid-19th century. 


Villa d’Este

Villa d'Este

Via Regina, 40, Cernobbio 

Originally built in the 16th century for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, this villa was a meeting point for politicians and thinkers during his lifetime, but fell into decay after his death. Eventually revived, it was converted into a five-star hotel in 1873, which it remains to this day. While a stay here is the height of luxurious villa living, non-guests can still visit to sip an aperitivo on the terrace at Bar Canova, enjoy the green marble-lined spa, or simply stroll the 25-acre grounds. In addition to the gorgeously landscaped gardens, you can visit the mock fortresses built by one owner, a Napoleonic general, so he could stage his own battles, and the mosaic-lined grotto complete with a 17th-century statue of Hercules casting Lichas into the sea.


Villa del BalbianelloVilla del Balbianello 

22016 Tremezzina, Province of Como 

It’s easy to see why this graceful, airy 18th-century estate is one of the lake’s most visited destinations; you might recognize the covered loggia, cypress trees, and manicured gardens from Casino Royale or Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones. Built for Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini, this uniquely placed villa is surrounded by water on three sides, jutting out into the lake itself. Inside is a museum dedicated to the collection of previous owner Guido Monzino, an eccentric millionaire, explorer, and alpinist, showcasing antiques and artifacts from all over the world as well as the equipment used for the first Italian expedition to Mount Everest. Book your tickets in advance, as the number of daily visitors allowed here was recently reduced from 2,000 to 1,200.


Villa MonasteroVilla Monastero 

Viale Giovanni Polvani, 4, Varenna 

The nearly mile-long garden of this villa fringes the lake’s shore with flora from all over the world: African and American palm trees, citrus, and fragrant oleander, among others. Originally established as a convent in the 13th century, it was converted to a private residence in the 17th century and renovated over the following years, leading to a charming overlap of styles and eras in the art and architecture of the house. Indoors, a museum showcases the constant evolution of the property over nine centuries, while the sprawling botanical gardens are primarily thanks to one owner, German industrialist Erich Walter Jacob Kees. 


Villa BernasconiVilla Bernasconi 

Largo Alfredo Campanini, 7, Cernobbio 

Away from the lakefront but no less spectacular, Villa Bernasconi sits in the center of the town of Cernobbio as a monument to the region’s history as a producer of fine silks, commissioned by a local textile magnate. Built in the expressive art nouveau style of the turn of the 20th century, its exterior is richly ornamented with a relief of mulberry leaves, silkworms, and moths, along with a banded pink floral mosaic. The museum inside is innovative and interactive, using historical artifacts and multimedia content to illustrate the history of the local silk trade.


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