Milan is not really a place we have ever wanted to visit. Most reviews say it is an industrial city, not very pretty and not much to see. Although it is supposed to be one of the fashion capitals of the world, we’re not high fashion shoppers so that didn’t have much appeal. However when we realised that you can drive to Lake Como in about an hour and a half and the flights from Manchester were reasonably cheap, we thought why not give it a go!
Having spent an afternoon in Milan, the reputation of an unattractive, industrial city is a little unfair. Ok, so it’s not Venice or Rome but it does have some charm. Some of the central streets are very pretty with lovely cobbles and rustic buildings. The main square in Milan is Piazza del Duomo, named so after the beautiful and ornate cathedral at the Eastern end, the Duomo di Milano. There is also a picturesque shopping arcade with a lovely domed roof and designer shops.
The Duomo is the world’s largest gothic cathedral and made of stunning white marble. It took over five centuries to complete and is a hotchpotch of different styles. The craftsmanship and skill is spectacular.
On the morning when we visited, the Pope had been conducting morning mass so the cathedral was closed until about 3:30pm and the place was understandably heaving. We queued to get tickets (€11.00 each including entrance to the cathedral and stairs to the roof) but then had to queue again to enter the actual building, however, it was definitely worth it. The inside of the cathedral is vast with stunning gothic arches, pillars and lovely stained glass windows.
Despite the beauty of the interior of the cathedral, the highlight is definitely the trip up to the roof. The entrance for the roof is on the left hand side as you are facing the front of the cathedral from the square. There is a lift up to the top but we opted to walk up the spiral stone staircase consisting of approximately 900 steps! Once you have got your breath back, the view from the top is stunning. You can’t actually see much of Milan but you get to see all the intricate arches and stone work which forms the cathedral’s roof.
Unfortunately, as we have opted to stay in Lake Como, we didn’t get a chance to do any shopping, which is supposed to be fabulous, or get tickets to see the Last Supper. NB. If you do want to see the Last Supper, book your tickets in advance – they sell out about 3 months in advance!
Due to the location of Lake Como, most of the locals in Milan holiday here. As we visited in the off season, the lake wasn’t as busy as we suspect it would be in the summer. The lake is absolutely beautiful. Surrounded by little rustic villages and vast mountains it is easy to see why Lake Como is one of the most popular in Italy.
Como is the closest town on the banks of the lake to Milan which makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations. The town supplies luxury silk to the big fashion houses in Milan, Paris and New York. As lovely as this sounds, unfortunately the outskirts of town are quite industrial, however, the old quarter (The Cittá Murata) is very quaint with narrow pedestrianised streets and pretty squares.
One of the main attractions is the Duomo which is situated in the Piazza with the same name. The exterior is a combination of gothic, renaissance and baroque styling with a lovely rose window, statues and gargoyles. The interior is just as pretty with stone carved and intricately painted ceilings. Entrance is free so worth a nosey around.
We enjoyed strolling around the streets and doing a bit of window shopping. The shops are really lovely and if you need a rest, there are plenty of places in the squares where you can grab a coffee or a glass of wine.
Also worth walk along the waterfront, past the Hotel Metropole Suisse to the funicular which climbs up the slopes nearby to offer a wonderful view of the lake.
We definitely recommend a visit to Bellagio. This little village is said to be the prettiest in Italy and it really doesn’t disappoint. The streets are cobbled with independent shops selling anything from silk scarfs to Christmas decorations and are lined with flowering plants.
Bellagio is definitely a place to wander round and get lost. We recommend a walk along the water front. The views are spectacular and if you walk down to the small grassed area and stone pier, there are uninterrupted views of the lake and the mountains.
Villa Carlotta is situated on the roadside between Tremezzo and Cadenabbia. The house was a wedding present from Princess Marianne of Nassau to her daughter, Carlotta, hence the name.
The house is painted in pink with a large fountain and gate in front. There are three sets of beautiful stone staircases up to the house but the gardens are the main attraction. The gardens are full of beautiful flowers including very rare camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas. There is also a bamboo garden, manmade waterfall, a citrus grove together with a lovely iron pergoda amongst the hedges with a few seats to stop and admire the view. Don’t forget to have a look in the fountains for frogs, fishes and terrapins! Entrance is €10 each.
Villa del Balbianello
South of Villa Carlotta near the town of Lenno and set off the main road is Villa del Balbianello. For those of you who like films, Villa del Balbianello has been used as the location for James Bond’s recovery at the end of Casino Royale and the lake retreat on Naboo in Star Wars Episode II.
Even if you aren’t a film buff, we would recommend you visit. It is a gorgeous building, the gardens are beautifully maintained and the views out over Lake Como are stunning. Originally the site of a 13th century monastery, the villa was purchased by the Italian explorer Guido Monzino who led the first Italian expedition to climb Mount Everest. On his death he left the villa to the National Trust of Italy. You can either take a short walk from the car park to the villa or take a swift speedboat ride through to the jetty at the front. We went on a Sunday and entrance was free but a donation to the National Trust of Italy was recommended.
Getting there: We flew from Manchester to Milan Malpensa with Flybe. Flights were roughly around £60 each return. We then hired a car from Avis for about £55.00. This included snow chains due to the time of year we went. We then drove to Milan (45 minutes) and Lake Como (1 hour 30 minutes). Most of the roads in Italy are toll roads so be prepared to pay (roughly €3.00 per car). They take cash and cards.
We got the ferry from Menaggio over to Bellagio. You can get the ferry from other places on the lake, but make sure you check the times. There are different timetables depending on the time of year you visit. It takes 20-25 minutes depending on whether the ferry stops off at Varenna (another pretty town that we did not have time to explore). A single ticket should cost €4.60.
Accommodation: We stayed in a little village near Cernobbio called Moltrasio. We found a lovely little apartment on AirBnB with a wonderful view of the lake. The road up to the apartment was very very narrow and winding but it was definitely worth it for the view. The apartment was the perfect size for the two of us and there was even a bottle of wine in the fridge which we enjoyed on the veranda admiring the view. https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/4525911
Food & Drink: Pizza AM (Milan) – Lovely quirky pizza place with brightly coloured walls. The pizza is made fresh everyday with beautifully fresh ingredients and it makes such a difference. The only meat they use is Anchovies but don’t let that put you off. The pizza is delicious and the staff are great. http://www.pizzaam.it
Gatto Nero (Cernobbio) – George Clooney’s favourite restaurant. High up on a hillside, the view from the restaurant is stunning. The food is absolutely beautiful and the staff are excellent. Be prepared for the bill though, it’s not cheap but totally worth it. It was our favourite meal of the holiday. http://www.ristorantegattonero.it/en-gb/home
Krudo (Como) – The Italians are known for their “Aperitivo”. Basically it’s drinks and nibbles before their evening meal. We stumbled across this place in a lovely square. The nibbles were lovely (meat, cheese, breads and olives) and were included in the price of your drink.
Riva Cafe (Como) – This place is very popular so be prepared to wait for a table. The atmosphere is great and the pizza is good but we’re not sure it was worth the wait (or the hype!)
Silvio (Bellagio) – A hotel based on the waterfront. Stunning view from the restaurant. The owner catches fish on the lake everyday and serves it in the restaurant. We weren’t a fan of the lake fish (too bony for our taste) but the pasta was beautiful. http://www.bellagiosilvio.com
Gelateria del Borgo (Bellagio) – you can’t go to Italy without having gelato at every opportunity. This place does plenty of flavours, all delicious. Try the pistachio – that was our favourite!
Tips: Hire a small car – the roads around Lake Como are very windy and some are very narrow. If you hire a 4×4 it’s highly unlikely you will be able to get up some of the roads.
Take warm clothes – if you visit when we did, it gets very cold in the evening. Also if you are planning on getting the ferry, it’s absolutely freezing! Take some gloves!
Try an Aperol spritz – this seems to be the drink of choice in Italy at Aperitivo time. It is a cocktail made with Apesrol and prosecco. It’s a bit of an acquired taste but very refreshing.