Glamorous retreats from a bygone era
The beauty of Lake Como’s shores has left few uninspired across the ages. Our aesthetics might change as decades pass by but there are things that humanity has considered beautiful centuries ago just as they do now. The green covered majesty of the Alps reflected on the surface of Lake Como’s glacial waters is one of those perfect example of immortal splendour that no generation left unnoticed. Some of the history’s elite even had the means to raise stately homes on the steep shores of this paradise. Those villas and their gardens have since become legendary and are now a part of “the Como experience”, just as much as the lake’s natural grandeur and its chic little towns.
There are many such imposing homes (and their surrounding gardens) dotted around the lake. Some have become museums, others hotels and some are still in the possession of private individuals. (Yes, George Clooney and his famous Villa Oleandra being one of them). In fact we stayed in Argegno at one of this historic villas, now converted into nice apartments. It surely adds to the experience of being on lake Como.
You know we are madly in love with villas, palaces and gardens so we surely visited some of them (unfortunately not Clooney’s :)). Here are our top 5 picks that we really recommend seeing during your stay in Como.
Villa del Balbianello in Lenno
Probably the undeclared star of all is Villa del Balbianello, made famous by the movie Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, as it was used for the set of princess Amidala’s secret wedding to Luke Skywalker.
Even without any Hollywood references, Villa del Balbianello is a truly remarkable place. Towering above the tip of Dosso d’Avedo small peninsula, she unravels her magnificent terraced gardens as you pass her by boat. .
Everything about Villa del Balbianello is elaborate and well thought-out. From its perfectly maintained lawns to the masterfully crafted balconies that open towards the lake and from the neatly trimmed shrubs to the magnificent statues that guard her.
As you walk around the property, getting closer and closer to the shore, the villa treats you with a wonderful mixture of breathtaking panoramas, manicured greenery and exquisite displays of art, all misted in delightful scents.
In certain parts the gardens and the villa still retain a bit of the feel this place used to have, back until 1787, when it was still a 13th century Franciscan monastery.
You can spend hours at Villa del Balbianello and still not get enough of its gardens. We strongly suggest you don’t rush through it. Take your time, enjoy every scenery, take a look at all the artwork here and mostly just let the atmosphere of this very elegant place draw you in.
- Villa del Balbianello is now under the care of FAI (National Trust of Italy) and HERE is the official link to their website.
- If you reach Villa del Balbianello by car you have several parking lots on Via delli Artigiani in Lenno (and around) – just above the peninsula that houses the villa. From there you will have to walk for about 20 minutes until you reach the entrance. The little road is very pretty passing through cobbled streets and a small forest, but it could be tiring for some. Just bear that in mind.
- If you would like to reach the Villa on water, you can drive to Lido di Lenno and then take the Villa del Balbianello shuttle that will drop you off on the villa’s dock.
- Villa del Balbianello is listed on Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens)
Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo
Close to Villa del Balbianello, just on the shores of Tremezzo, there is another impressive villa: Carlotta.
Quite different from the other places on this list, Carlotta has a truly unique feel. On one hand, out of the five villas mentioned in this post, here you can find the largest collection of displayed art, with works signed by Canova, Adamo Tadolini and many others. On the other hand, its domain starts off just in front of the villa with a perfectly manicured Italian style garden, continues with large slopes of rhododenrons and azaleeas and finishes into a wonderfully lush, jungle-like little forest – the likes of which we have never seen in any palace or villa during our European travels.
Its 300 years of glamorous ownership and the sad story of princess Charlotte of Prussia (Carlotta) – who received the villa as a marriage gift from her mother – only to enjoy it for a couple of years, as she died in childbirth at the age of 23, give this place a truly personal feeling to the experience of visiting it.
At Carlotta you sense a bit of elegant disorder of the planting groups within the garden, giving it a more natural feel. Formality gives way to authenticity and the whole place is much more a botanical garden rather than a place of noble promenade.
Once you reach the deeper ends of the gardens you will surely forget where you are. Bamboo groves and luxurious plants will truly make you feel you have been transported into the midst of a true jungle, crisscrossed by beautiful pathways.
The art inside Carlota is truly remarkable and you actually get to feel the atmosphere of how the place used to be, when it was inhabited by its aristocratic owners. You will find statues, paintings, sketches, calligraphy and also authentic furniture on display.
- Villa Carlota is under the care of Ente Villa Carlotta and you can find its official website HERE
- Villa Carlotta is right on the shores of Lake Como and it can easily by reached either by car or by boat (Tremezzo).
- Villa Carlotta is listed on Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens)
Villa Melzi in Bellagio
If Balbianello is renowned for her Hollywood connections, Melzi is famous for the celebrated town that houses this villa. Bellagio, a name that became synonym with glamour and luxury and has lent its sonority to some of the world’s most exclusive hotels and clubs.
While other villas proudly dominate the grounds they were built on, Melzi is a wonderful example of neo-classical architecture that was meant to blend perfectly in the hilly shore. So much so, that if you don’t intentionally focus your attention on her, you could easily get distracted by the wonderful domain that surrounds her, and you could almost forget there is a stately home there.
The domain is relatively flat or with easy slopes, making it a very relaxed walk and not so demanding for people with walking impairments. It boasts several themed areas such as: the Oriental garden, the Moorish Kiosk, the Plane-tree drive, the formal terrace, a chapel, a bamboo grove, greenhouses, and a small museum inside the old Orangery.
The domain itself is not very large but it truly makes for a wonderful walk, at least. You can spend a little more time here just enjoying the atmosphere, as the views across the lake are quite remarkable.
- You can find the official website of Villa Melzi HERE
- Villa Melzi can be easily reached by car or ferry to Bellagio. From the ferry terminal there is a 15-minutes walk towards the entrance. The gardens stretch along the shore.
- Villa Melzi is listed on Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens)
Villa Cipressi in Varenna
Varenna has been considered by many as the prettiest town on Lake Como. Not only is it a charming place to visit in itself, but Varenna also gracefully houses two of the beautiful villas and gardens on this list.
Cipressi is a villa with a lot of bragging rights when it comes to her 800 years of history. Although the villa, as we can see it now, was built mainly between 1400 and 1800, the Serponti family owned a property there as far back as the 12th century. After being successfully owned by prestigious families, she was bought in 1980 by the Municipality of Varenna and is now being run as a 4-star hotel (so yes, if you want to experience the luxury of living in such a place, you can book rooms at Villa Cipressi).
Even though it is an active hotel, you can still enjoy its amazing botanical garden.
The real value of this garden (besides its obvious beauty) is that you can enjoy plants from all across Italy in a single place. Built to showcase the national bio-diversity, this superb garden will treat you with sights and smells you will surely cherish forever.
You can immediately notice the fragrances. The mix of freshness and floral scents is quite remarkable, and it unveils in different notes as your progress through the garden.
Our favourite highlight of Villa Cipressi was for sure its panoramic promenade. Perched a little higher on the slope, you get the most amazing views of the lake and its mountains as they unfold away into the horizon. Even if just for these magnificent sights and a visit to Villa Cipressi is surely worth your time.
- The Hotel’s website (for both booking rooms or information about garden tickets only) you can find HERE.
- You can easily reach Villa Cipressi by either car or Ferry to Varenna. If you reach by Ferry, there is a 10-minutes walk towards the villa. Bear in mind there are some stairs to climb across the city.
- Villa Cipressi is listed on Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens)
Villa Monastero in Varenna
Last on this list but clearly not the last at charm is Villa Monastero. Situated a stone-throw away from Villa Cipressi you can easily do both of them one right after the other. That is how we did them, and we found Monastero’s gardens to be just as beautiful as all the others we have seen.
Originally a Cistercian convent (that still lies beneath the present building), Monastero was transformed during the 16th and 17th centuries by the Mornico family. Again during the 19th century there were redecoration efforts invested in the villa and the garden, giving us the beautiful Ecclectic style we can see today.
Besides the 1000 species of plants and trees you can find at Monastero, all the decorations, the artworks, the different areas are truly stunning and you can really feel here the glamorous atmosphere of its bygone days, when it served as a home for its rich owners.
I must admit the garden of Monastero has a special place in my heart. I am truly in love with the scent of citrus. Bergamot is my favourite, but anything “citrusy” really appeals to me and Villa Monastero has a wonderful section of the garden dedicated to all sorts of citrus species. I will never forget that amazing smell the moment I entered it and made me lingered there for quite some time.
With its little temple, Camelia garden, Wisteria collection, pool of water lilies, small museum and of course my beloved citruses, Villa Monastero is surely a place I would strongly recommend to anyone visiting Varenna.
- You can find Villa Monastero’s official website HERE
- You can easily reach Villa Monastero by either car or ferry to Varenna. If you reach by ferry, there is a 10-minutes walk towards the villa. Bear in mind there are some stairs to climb across the city. The villa is very close to Villa Cipressi.
- Villa Monastero is listed on Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens)
The placement of all five gardens on Google Maps
For us the mix of gardens, art, history, old-world glamour and amazing scenery is the quintessential recipe for a wonderful experience. We would love to hear your thoughts, impressions and memories from places such as these.
Until next time, Happy Lives and Joyful Journeys everyone!