What to do at Lake Como if you aren’t a billionaire

*Note: This post is about a trip I took in September. No one should be traveling farther than their local grocery store right now.*

After a week in Milan, Colin and I were both itching to get out of the city to someplace more scenic. In the interest of keeping things simple, we decided on Lake Como, which is a one-hour train ride north from Milan.

Now, Lake Como is perhaps best known for its rich and famous regulars, like George Clooney. Colin and I are (surprise!) neither rich nor famous. We just wanted to see the lake, do some hiking, and enjoy a few days away from the urban hustle and bustle.

As it turns out, there’s quite a lot to do in Lake Como on the cheap! I decided that we’d stay in the tiny town of Varenna, which is about halfway up the eastern side of the lake. I picked Varenna mostly because of the ease of getting there by train from Milan and the proximity to outdoor activities.

Specifically, what sold me on Varenna was the discovery of a trail called the Sentiero del Viandante. The route apparently dates back to the Roman empire, used to connect Milan to Switzerland, and now stretches for 45 km along the eastern lakeshore. From Varenna, you can walk either north to Bellano or south to Lierna. Just up the hillside from Varenna is the Castello di Vezio, an old castle that hosts falconry demonstrations in the afternoons.

So, on Saturday morning, Colin and I caught an early train from Milan to Varenna-Esino (buy tickets at the station for 6.70€ each, then board a train toward the destination Tirano). The walk from the Varenna station into the center of town takes maybe 15 minutes, and it’s all along the lakeshore. We stopped at a waterfront café for lunch, then checked into our Airbnb and put on our hiking shoes.

We decided that we’d walk from Varenna to Bellano, first stopping at the Castello di Vezio for the 3:00 pm falconry demonstration. The entire walk takes about 2-3 hours, which meant we could get to Bellano by early evening, take the train back to Varenna, and still have time to freshen up before a respectable 8:00 Italian dinner.

Admission to the castle is only 4€ per person, and once you’re in, you can stay as long as you’d like. The castle ruins themselves are small and don’t take much time to explore, but the views of the lake are stunning and there’s a nice garden to sit in. Plus, there are eerie ghost sculptures alluding to a former queen that supposedly haunts the castle.

And, more importantly for Colin, there are lizards! Colin caught this one while waiting for the falconry demonstration and showed it to some Italian kids sitting nearby. Neither of us understood what they were saying, but their shrieks and laughter made it clear that they were probably not aspiring herpetologists.

The falconry demonstration was definitely worth waiting for, even though it was in Italian so we understood nothing. The birds were beautiful to watch as they soared over the lake.

After the demonstration, we decided it was probably time to start walking. We didn’t have a route map since the tourist information office in Varenna was closed for siesta by the time we got there, but from looking online, it didn’t seem like a detailed map existed anyway. Luckily the route is pretty well marked with orange signs, so it was never too difficult to figure out where to go. Some parts of the path meander through the woods, and some parts follow roads through small villages. It wasn’t exactly hiking, but it was scenic.

Sure enough, the walk took us less than three hours. It wasn’t strenuous so you could definitely do it faster if you wanted (and we did see a few trail runners!), but with views like this, why would you want to?? Does George Clooney know he can get these views for free?

We finally arrived in Bellano in early evening and made a beeline for the beach. It was far too cold to swim or even wade, but we peeled off our sweaty socks and sat on the sand anyway. When we were ready to head back to Varenna, we caught the train towards Milan and five minutes later disembarked in Varenna. (Pro tip: If the ticket office at the train station is closed, as it was when we got there, you can buy a ticket onboard. Save yourself the panic of running around trying to find a kiosk or somewhere to buy a ticket. You will not find one. Thank you to the kind soul who eventually mentioned that we could just get on the train and buy one onboard if a ticket agent came through, which of course didn’t end up happening.)

The Sentiero del Viandante was truly the highlight of Varenna, and if we’d had more time, we probably would’ve taken it south another day. Unfortunately, the next day the weather was gray and windy, so we used the time to get some work done (I submitted my job application!) and explored the cafés and gelato shops in town. Varenna is small and touristy enough that we did have trouble finding places to eat dinner without reservations, so after a totally mediocre dinner at one of the few places with availability on Saturday, we decided we’d just eat super early on Sunday to beat the reservations crowd. That ended up being a GREAT idea, and I highly recommend it, as long as you’re willing to put up with raised eyebrows from restaurant owners who have to dust off a table for you when you mention that you’re ready to eat at 6:00 pm. We slid into a cozy, hole-in-the-wall restaurant and had the most delicious, unrushed meal of our trip, all before the rest of the tourists even finished their aperitifs. And then, during actual Italian dinner hour, we found a gelateria and took our cones to go for a moonlit walk along the lake.

So there you have it—budget-friendly, beautiful Varenna! Colin and I only stayed for a weekend (our priority was having plenty of time to spend in our old neighborhood in Paris), but that was long enough to take in the fresh air and lake breezes. Not enough time to run into the Clooneys, though. I guess they hang out in more exclusive locales.

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