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Surrounded by lush mountains, dotted with noble villas, and ringed with picturesque tiny towns, Italy’s Lake Como, as I discovered on a recent, first visit, lives up to all the hype. The pewter-blue water shimmers by day and glows at night. The air feels fresh and cool. And the shoreline towns are unspoiled, despite the area’s popularity.

For centuries, Italian aristocrats, royals, and artists flocked to the shores of this long, leggy lake, shaped like a headless running frog, to relax and recharge at their palatial estates. While many of these villas remain private—actor George Clooney owns one—several have opened to the public, either as museums or luxury hotels. Take Villa d’Este, for example.

Constructed in 1568 for Tolomeo Gallio Cardinal of Como as a private residence, this resort is one of the most opulent on Lake Como. The Grand Hotel Tremezzo, where I stayed, looks like a villa, but was built as a resort in 1910 for Bellagio-born Enea Gandola and his wife, Maria Orsolini. Set on 12 acres of flowering gardens, this majestic retreat has lavishly-decorated rooms, plush salons, multiple restaurants, three pools, and a spa sporting the only Hamman on Lake Como. Guests also have exclusive use of nearby Villa Sola Cabiati, built in the 16th century and transformed into a summer abode for the Dukes of Serbelloni in the 18th century. With two side wings, marble balconies, and arabesque gardens at the entrance, this neoclassical villa has opulent rooms in gelato hues of cream, pink, yellow, mint, and baby blue, all with their original furnishings, terrazzo floors, and ceiling frescos, which one can enjoy when hosting a private lunch, dinner, or soiree. The second floor, considered a museum, has gorgeous porcelain, art, and furniture to see, including the actual bed that Napoleon Bonaparte once slept in.

Next door to Grand Hotel Tremezzo, you’ll find Villa Carlotta built as a residence for the Marquis Giorgio II Clerici around 1690. The villa now functions as a museum and houses myriad sculptures, nearly 500 plaster cameos, and paintings, such as The Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet painted by Francesco Hayez in 1823. The villa’s garden has gained fame for its camellias, azaleas, and forest of rhododendrons, as well as rare plants.

One morning during my visit, I zoomed across the lake in one of Grand Hotel Tremezzo’s water taxis to see the 18th century Villa del Balbianello, built on the ruins of a Franciscan monastery for Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini. In 1974, the entrepreneur and mountaineer, Guido Monzino purchased the property, which upon his death became a museum housing Monzino’s original furnishings and memorabilia from his various expeditions, including to Mount Everest. The villa and its terraced gardens also have served as the backdrop for numerous feature films, including A Month by the Lake (1995) starring Vanessa Redgrave, the 2002 Star Wars Episode 11, and the 2006 James Bond remake, Casino Royale.

Beyond its cinematic appeal and gorgeous villas, Lake Como has long been known for its silk production. Pietro Boldoni Bellano was said to establish the first silk mill in Como in 1510. The area, with its cool air and abundant water, proved ideal for growing mulberry trees, the leaves of which silkworms transform into silk’s iridescent thread. While Como now buys the natural fibers from abroad, it still has 800-plus silk and textile manufacturers creating exquisite silk products. You can learn more about the history of Como’s silk production at the Educational Silk Museum Como in the town of Como, which sells silk products in area stores from famous Italian silk brands, including Clerici Tessuto, Frey, Mantero, and Ratti. Como also has beautiful architecture, such as the Late Gothic Como Cathedral.

Bellagio, only ten minutes by ferry across the lake from Grand Hotel Tremezzo, also has lovely boutiques, many tucked along the hilly, cobbled back streets selling silk, jewelry, lingerie, linens, shoes, more. It also has a lovely garden to visit at Villa Melzi d’Eril, built as a summer home in 1808 for Francesco Melzi, Duke of Lodi and Vice-Chairman of the First Italian Republic and friend of Napoleon. For a special place to relax and refresh, stop by Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni built in 1853 for a wealthy Italian family and now a lavish hotel that’s hosted such luminaries as Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Clark Gable. 

Indeed, Lake Como and its surroundings can feel right out of a movie, given the splendor of the villas and resorts. Yet, what’s so magical about visiting this Northern Italian region, is the relaxed ease it imparts, as boats and ferries ply the waters, locals and visitors stroll the streets, and the area’s natural beauty makes itself abundantly available at every turn.