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Travel Diary: Lake Como, Italy

Each town in Lombardy’s premier resort destination yields new discoveries, from gastronomy and upscale shopping to lakeside swims and intriguing architecture.

Day One: Como

Shaped like an upside-down Y, Lake Como has its major hub — the town of Como — at the tip of its western branch. Because the lake’s most famous and arguably most scenic towns (Bellagio, Menaggio, Varenna) are found in the middle of the Lake Como, where the two branches meet, many visitors skip right over Como’s sights, using the town as a mere way station. So I found its charms surprising.

The lakefront itself bustles with activity — hydrofoils, seaplanes and ferries are always coming and going — but exploring a bit inland is even more worthwhile. For some reason I expect the town to be industrial and nondescript, but it is quite lovely; one pedestrian-only piazza follows another, and the narrow streets and covered loggias that break off from the piazzas are flanked with trattorias and high-end shops. Piazza del Duomo, its stone floor in a herringbone pattern, is anchored on its east side by the gothic Como Cathedral (built between the late-14th and 18th centuries), while the west side is lined with festive cafes.

I end the day in the adorable garden at Bar Della Terme with a dinner of prawns and avocado, a bowl of rose-colored rhubarb tagliatelle with DOP Ligurian pesto and stracciatella cheese, and an insanely rich chocolate gelato.

Day Two: Villa Olmo

The day is brilliantly sunny, so I’m itching to check out one of Lake Como’s lidos. There are few “beaches” on the lake, but in true Italian style, you can head to one of the waterside pool clubs (lidos), which are fun to experience even if your vacation club villa already features a private pool, like the stunner at Villa Pendido. I walk along the lake and reach Lido Olmo in less than half an hour. It’s a pretty spot, overlooking the hills on the other side of the lake, the lawn dotted with red-and-purple striped chairs and umbrellas. I buy the required swim cap, pass under the automatic shower, and then I’m swimming laps alongside Speedo-wearing Lombards.

As it happens, Lido Olmo sits beside one of the lake’s most famous villas — Villa Olmo, so after my workout and a quick pizza at the pool bar, I stroll the villa’s formal gardens, with their mounds of topiary, circular flower beds, and Roman-style statues set along the broad pebbly paths.

Days Three to Five: The Center of Things

Touring the lake by boat is a quintessential, unmissable experience. You can do it either speedily, by fast hydrofoil, which skims above the water (but, due to the speed, you must sit inside), or the slow ferry (which I prefer, time permitting, so I can sit on the deck). To reach the middle of the lake is to appreciate that it’s the center of the action, with Bellagio positioned at an enviable spot at the fork and Menaggio and Tremezzo on the left bank.

Indulge in Italy's culinary delights
Dining al fresco is one of life's greatest pleasures

Bellagio, the town with the best name recognition and an ideal spot for a luxury European vacation, is the place I buy gifts, specifically fine silk scarves and items featuring millefiori (i.e. a thousand flowers), a glasswork technique that results in tiny, multicolored bursts of floral shapes. Lunch in Tremezzo at Giacomo al Lago is a true treat: The setting on the water is beyond compare, and I’ve never had gnocchi that rivals Giacomo’s super-savory version with langoustines, shrimp and squid.

For me, Menaggio is the town with the most appeal, the most Italian character. I’ve felt this way since the first time I visited Lake Como and tried the artisanal gelato at La Fabrica del Gelato. The waterside Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi quickly gives way to Via Calvi, a lane that points to St. Stephen’s Church, but along the way I linger not only at the aforementioned gelato shop, but I pick up local soaps as gifts. I note that lasagna is on several menus. In southern Italy, I never order it because the version I’ve seen looks like it’s offered to placate tourists, but the northern version is divinely rustic, with flat noodle sheets all-but spilling over the plate. As my last day on the lake wanes, I step into St. Stephen’s to admire the baroque interior and fresco-covered naves, contemplating whether to take the fast or slow boat back to Como. Slow, I decide.