In this special destination trip report, we will visit the lovely towns of Lecco and Varenna on Lake Como, which can both easily be visited as a day trip from either Milan or Bergamo.
The great lakes of Northern Italy such as Lago Maggiore, Lago di Como and Lago di Garda have long been a prime holiday spot among European sunbirds travelling to the sunny southern side of the Alps as well as overseas visitors from the US, China and Japan.
It is clear why these lakes are extremely popular with tourists. The scenery is drop-dead gorgeous, the towns along the shores pretty and in summer the waters make for a refreshing dip.
Although many travellers choose to stay their entire holiday on a campground or hotel along one of these lakes, it is certainly possible to get a taste of all the natural beauty on a day trip.
In this special destination trip report, we will explore the eastern shore of Lake Como (Lago di Como) – in particular the towns of Lecco and Varenna.
Why the Eastern shore?
There are two reasons why to opt for the eastern shore of Lake Como as opposed to its western shore. Although the western shore is beautiful too and has some equally interesting towns to explore, it tends to be more touristy.
The is not only true for the major city of Como on the south-western tip of the lake, but perhaps even more for the famous town of Bellagio, which is completely overrun by tourist hordes in high season.
Although the eastern shore gets crowded too in summer, the tourist numbers just feel a bit less. If you manage a visit in Spring or Autumn shoulder season, you are likely to be among a handful of tourists only to explore Lecco and Varenna.
Another major reason to opt for the eastern shore are the great public transport links and the ease of access from both Milan and Bergamo. We will take a more in-depth look into the transport options and how to reach Lecco and Varenna later on in this article.
If you travel from Milan or Bergamo to the eastern shore of Lake Como, then Lecco will be the first lakeside town on the railway line. Having around 50,000 inhabitants, Lecco is a sizable town and a major regional hub being the capital of the province of the same name.
The centre of town is just minutes away from the train station. The central street of Lecco is pedestrianised and connects several attractive squares full of outdoor cafes and restaurants.
Just a block away is the Lungolago, the lakefront promenade, which is popular with locals taking a casual stroll. The views over the lake from here are great and make a nice introduction of the scenery yet to come further north.
The Basilica di San Nicolò (Basilica of Saint Nicholas), located just a few steps away from the waterfront, is the most important church of Lecco and is well-worth a visit too.
From Lecco to Varenna
The railway line from Lecco to Varenna is especially scenic as it hugs the lakeshore for most of the time. From the train there are some great vistas over Lake Como, some picturesque lakeside towns, vineyards and the mountains.
After a short ride the pulls into Varenna Esino station, from where it is a 15 to 20 minute downhill walk to the lake and the actual town of Varenna.
With a population of just under 1,000 inhabitants, Varenna is not exactly a big town. Thanks to its charms and picturesque views, it is however one of Lake Como’s most popular destinations.
When approaching the lakefront of the town it is clear why. The cute buildings, appealing waterfront cafes and the views over the lake make Varenna truly special.
Especially when you visit in the shoulder season, such as early spring, the town feels quaint and cosy. Although the lakefront is arguably the most beautiful part of town, it is well worth to wander a bit around and to explore the backstreets as well.
If you don’t mind the steep climb up, there is a hilltop castle (Castello di Vezio) as well with sweeping views over the entire surrounding area.
As a small town, Varenna is not about blockbuster sights. It is all about pacing down a bit, to enjoy the lake and the views in solitude and to seek up the atmosphere.
There is no better place to do this than the outdoor cafes and restaurants on the lake. What is better than drinking an aperitivo with a glorious view over Lake Como? It certainly is the quintessential Italian experience.
The central square of Varenna is however not located on the lakeside but a bit more uphill along the main road. The square is lined with the most important buildings of the town such as the church and the post office.
During one of my visits to Varenna, I was lucky enough to walk up onto a sort of rally full of lovely (old) Italian cars.
One of my favourite sights on the eastern shore of Lake Como is Villa Monastero. Located just a few hundred feet south of Varenna, this is a beautiful villa built in eclectic Lombard style.
It consists out of a museum, conference centre and botanical gardens. A ticket to the botanical gardens costs 8 euro, while a ticket which also includes the museum costs 10 euro.
Although I did not visit the museum and thus am unable to comment on that, I can however say that the botanical gardens are just amazing and in my opinion one of the most scenic spots in the entire world.
It is just lovely to stroll through the extensive gardens built on multiple levels along the lake. Wherever you look, there are amazing panoramic views over Lake Como. If you walk to the far end of the garden, there are also great views back over Varenna. It’s well-worth the entrance fee!
There is a small cafe in the botanical gardens which does decent panini sandwiches and drinks.
With the visit to the botanical gardens, the Lake Como day trip slowly came to an end. If you do find yourself at Varenna-Esino station with time to spare until the next departure back to Milan or Lecco (for a change of trains to Bergamo) you should not despair.
The old station building has been converted into a lovely cafe, which makes for a great stop to drink another Aperol Spritz or beer.
From Milan, there are direct, cheap and frequent regional trains from the grand Milano Centrale station to Lecco and Varenna (listed as Varenna Esino on timetables).
From Bergamo, there is a train line running to Lecco – where it is an easy change of trains to Varenna. These trains are all operated by Trenord.
The line along the eastern shore of Lake Como is highly scenic too. Seating is free for all, so make sure you grab a spot on the left side of the train when travelling north.
If you want to visit Lake Como it is easiest to fly to one of the many airports in the greater Milan area. Flying to Linate Airport, Milan’s most central airport, or to Bergamo, the main low-cost airport of the region, is probably easiest.
Linate airport is just a few miles away from the city centre of Milan. There are direct buses linking Linate with Milano Centrale, with the bus ride taking just 25 minutes. From Milano Centrale, there are frequent trains to Lecco and Varenna.
From Bergamo Airport, the bus ride to the city’s train station is even short. Bergamo is connected by train to Lecco, where you can change trains to reach Varenna.
Milan Malpensa airport, the main international airport of the region and the only one which handles intercontinental flight. Flixbus reportedly operates the Malpensa – Lecco route, although the website currently doesn’t show a timetable.
If there are no direct buses, your best option is likely to go by train – which means you have to backtrack first to Milan and change trains there. Of course, a rental car is always an option as well and gives greater flexibility, although parking and navigating the narrow town streets can be tricky for those uninitiated to driving in Italy.
Read about other destinations!
In our trip report section, we have written multiple diary accounts of holidays across the world which can serve as an inspiration for your next trip. These trip reports include destination guides such as this article, as well as reviews of hotels, airlines and other modes of transport.
For example, our previous featured destination was the lovely Cycladic island of Serifos.