Lake Como has long been a sought-after summer destination for its natural beauty and palatial holiday homes.
The most coveted spots are on the lakefront, where winding garden paths lead up to vast villas, and you will find what the Italians call ‘la voglia di vivere’ – the love of life. From the botanical curiosities cultivated over centuries, to the rooms displaying decades of decadent style, many of the properties in Lake Como are now museums open to visitors. The others are best enjoyed from a leisurely private boat tour around the lake. Whatever your invitation, here are the most beautiful villas to show up to this social season.
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Villa Monastero is one of the most accessible villas on Lake Como, whether you go by car or boat. Like many attractions in the charming Varenna, it has layers of history as well as charm. Eight centuries ago, Villa Monastero was a Cistercian women’s monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Coined as the ‘jewel on Lake Como’, it has slipped through many hands, its last owners being the De Marchi family who undertook extensive building and renovation work over time. In the 1930s, the property was donated to the State to become a cultural institution.
Villa del Balbianello
Pulling up to the beautiful promontory of Villa del Balbianello feels like travelling to another planet entirely. With over-the-top topiary and vines that creep curiously up the Loggia Durini, it’s no wonder this property was chosen as a filming location for Star Wars. The 18th-century mansion and its magnificent grounds are so seductive, they also starred in the 007 franchise. Given its celebrity background, its no surprise that this Lavedo villa has played host to several famed travellers, writers, scholars and travellers. A previous owner, Count Guido Monzino, filled the home with precious and peculiar collections from his own adventures, then bequeathed everything to the National Trust of Italy (the FAI). From maps and books, to furniture and travel tools, it’s all still arranged according to Monzino’s official will and whispered-about taste. The Museum of Expeditions even includes relics from his mountaineering exploits, including what helped him become the first Italian to climb Mount Everest. Villa del Balbianello’s panoramic views of the Lake, bordered by sculptural terraces, inspire a passion for adventure, and intrigue.
Villa la Cassinella
Next door from the Villa del Balbianello, you will see the equally enchanting Villa la Cassinella, which is only accessible by boat. You’ll know you are there when you see the striking cypress trees that look like candles arranged in the shape of a candelabra. Unquestionably one of the world’s finest and most exclusive retreats, the secluded private accommodation has a main Villa that beacons from its bright blue window shutters. Set over an impressive 30,000 square metre garden, enter the large foyer with old Siena marble and grand ornamental staircase, and up to the bedrooms where it sleeps up to 18 guests and comes with a full staff and personal butler who reside on the property offering twice daily cleaning with a turn-down service. Alongside the sprawling yet immaculate manicured garden, guests will find a private outdoor heated infinity pool overlooking the lake, with 22-carat gold reflective tiles.
The Villa Melzi has long attracted artists, poets and travellers, who have walked in each other’s footprints down its long lane of trees. Set between two branches of Lake Como – and closest to the bustling Bellagio – Villa Melzi the estate was created in the early 19th century for Francesco Melzi d’Eril (who was Vice-president of Napoleon’s Italian Republic and, later, Grand Chancellor of the Kingdom of Italy). But it was also built for the many distinguished artists, craftsmen, decorators and architects that contributed to the site of this rare beauty. Each element of the property was artfully arranged, from the subtle Neoclassical style of the Villa itself, to the abundant gardens, where azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias burst forth. While the Villa itself is not open to the public, the vast botanical gardens are a harmonious place to park up for the afternoon and dream.
Many will recognise Villa Balbiano as the ‘House of Gucci’, thanks to its leading role in the film. In reality – albeit a very glamorous reality – the palazzo was built by Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio at the end of the 16th century, before being embellished by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini a century later, namely for hosting the finest festivals, banquets and dances. Since then, each new owner has added to the splendour of the Villa. While we may wish these walls could talk, spectacular 17th-century frescoes make it seem so with displays of the most exquisite objets d’art and furniture of past centuries. As one of the largest private residences on the Lake today, it still delights guests who are lucky enough to host their own event here and stay at the exclusive accommodation. While Villa Balbiano is a seclusion of grandeur, others can still catch a glimpse of the distinguished destination while cruising by Ossuccio in a lake boat.
In the hamlet of Tremezzo, Villa Carlotta was built in the late-17th century by Marquis Giorgio Clerici of Milan and sold to Giovanni Battista Sommariva, who indulged himself in the arts. When Sommariva’s heirs sold the Villa to Princess Marianne of Prussia, who gifted the residence to her daughter Charlotte in the 19th century, the décor only became more decadent. But it’s the botanical specimens that are most admired today. Since 1927, Ente Villa Carlotta has dedicated itself to caring for the gardens. They are the most striking in spring, when its world-famous azaleas and rhododendrons flourish. Some of the Clerici family’s citrus grove still survive as lemon tunnels that seem to be made for the Instagram-age. The garden’s characteristics celebrate the philosophy of the Enlightenment, when humankind had mastery over nature.
The only villa open to the public in Cernobbio is the remarkable Art Nouveau Villa Bernasconi. The fashionable early 20th-century home has become a museum, but not in the traditional sense. It is designed to be an interactive multi-media, and at times multi-sensory, experience where guests can walk freely throughout the house and learn about its previous owners in their cultural context, including the Belle Epoque. Built for Davide Bernasconi, who founded the Bernasconi weaving mills, the rather extraordinary house characterfully reflects the interests and industry of its inhabitants, with depictions of the silkworm and the fruits of the mulberry plant on the building’s exterior.
Reviving the lost art of travel known as ‘villeggiatura’, while creating whimsical new memories, Passalacqua is a once-in-a-century hotel. Standing above the picturesque village of Moltrasio with acres of terraced gardens sweeping down to the Lake’s shore, this 18th-century Villa was once the home of the Counts Lucini Passalacqua. Throughout the years, it has welcomed esteemed guests, including Vincenzo Bellini, who composed some of his most famous operas here. Now, welcoming guests to stay overnight, these esteemed guests could be you. Each of the 24 boutique accommodations embodies the enviable lakeside lifestyle of Lake Como. Part of the De Santis family, who also own Grand Hotel Tremezzo, the greatest attention to detail and style has been given to this new address. From the grandiose Murano chandeliers to majestic old trees, considered to be some of the most well-maintained in all of Italy, Passalacqua is unparalleled. Encouraging guests to be creative and connected during their stay, villeggiatura life can include making ice cream with a gelataio and perfecting your volo shot on the bocce court.
Lead image: Villa Carlotta
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