Long before George Clooney wooed Amal here, Lake Como’s bona fides as a romantic destination, immortalized both in literature and in the chronicles of great love affairs, went unquestioned. The lover-protagonists, Lucia and  Renzo, of the most widely read work in Italian literatureI Promessi Sposi, were from a fictional town near Lecco on the lake. The area’s extraordinary scenery caused many hearts to swoon, including those of such literary lights as poets Shelley and Wordsworth, who helped bring fame to the area in the early 19th century. (Wordsworth wrote of the region: “a treasure which the earth keeps to itself.”) In real life the famed composer, Franz Liszt, who had mega-celebrity status in his day, retreated with his mistress to Como, and Elizabeth Taylor went undercover here when she began her affair with the great love of her life, Richard Burton

With a setting that blends touches of Venice with Alpine splendor, Como continues to lure the world’s big names—everyone from Bill Gates to Richard Branson have stayed here (Branson owns the dreamy Villa la Cassinella), alongside the traditional devotees of the region, like the Milanese textile industrialists who manufacture their ethereal silks along the lake’s shores and vacation here spring through fall.

Como can be enjoyed at every price level and a good way to introduce yourself to the area (or savor it for the umpteenth time) is to take a walk along the Lungolago/Passegiata Villa Olmo, one of the lake’s most romantic pathways, and one dotted with neoclassical villas (for which the area is famous), built in the late 18th century by a who’s who of notable Italian families. The walk, affording some legendary views, runs about 1.5 kilometers from the Piazza Cavour to the Villa Olmo. (You can add another kilometer by strolling the “Chilometro della Conoscenza”—the “Kilometer of Knowledge”—which begins at the Villa Olmo.)

[Chilometro della Conoscenza from above, photo by: VillaComo.Eu]

From the Piazza Cavour in the heart of Como (before or after your walk stop by the Cremeria Bolla, nearby at Via Pietro Boldoni 6, for a coffee or heavenly dolce), head to the Viale Giancarlo Puecher, then turn on to the Passeggiata Villa Olmo for the lakeside walk. The first villa you’ll see is the Villa Carminati Scacchi. Considered a small dwelling for the region but with superb neoclassical proportions, this property, built in 1787, was home to a number of aristocratic families, among them the Carminati, nobles from Bergamo, and the Resta-Pallavacinos, aristocrats from Milan. In the 20th century, Giuseppe Scacchi, founder of a textiles firm and the grandfather of actress Greta Scacchi (Presumed Innocent), headquartered his business here. 

Next up is Villa Saporiti, an imposing dwelling grand enough to have hosted Napoleon and a Russian tsar. Built in the 1790s for Eleanora Doria, the marquess Villani, the villa, distinguished by a deep ochre facade studded with Doric columns and mythological statues, was sold to a noble of similar rank, the Marquis Marcello Rocca Saporiti in 1858, whose name remains associated with the dwelling (now owned by the town of Como).

 As you stroll on you will pass the Villa Gallia, one of the oldest residences on the lake, with roots dating to the 1500s. The present-day villa’s construction began in the 1600s, initiated by the abbot Marco Gallo, with ownership changing several times over the centuries. Baron Leonino bought the property and initiated a refurbishment in the late 19th century; the Crespi family, the villa’s next owners, completed the overhaul. They also added a garden, which today is much reduced in size, although it contains both ancient statues and new—a piece by Mimmo Paladino, once belonging to famed designer Gianni Versace, whose art collection was housed in his sumptuous Villa Fontanelle in Moltrasio, a short drive away. 

The opulent Villa La Gallietta, built in 1792, is one of the “Seven Sisters of Como (Sette Sorrelle di Como),” a cluster of magnificent dwellings constructed on the Western banks of the lake near the Church of San Giorgio during the late eighteenth century.  La Gallietta, owned by members of the noble Fossani and Sforza families, underwent a major restoration in 1830 and again in 2009. The sprawling 19,000 square foot structure, with frescoes by Andrea Appiani, a noted Milanese neo-classical painter, along with a vaulted ceiling and mosaic floors, is available for rent (it has seven bedrooms). A smaller three-bedroom apartment on the property can be rented as well. villagallietta.com

Walk on to the Villa Parravicini Revel, which was owned by Duchess Maria Visconti di Modrone, a member of the powerful clan that ruled Milan in the Middle Ages, and then by a much decorated Italian general, Count Genova Thaon di Revel, an important figure in the unification of Italy, whose descendant, Camilla Sossnovsky Parravicini, oversees the villa today. The sweeping ochre-toned structure is centered by a broad gable, showcasing the family coat of arms. Group visits can be arranged by writing to info@villeparravicini.it  The elegant interior and make it a popular event and wedding site. 

 As you pass the Villa Santis/Mondolfo, built on the site of a former monastery, notice the exterior’s Empire style, rare for a region whose homes were dominated by neo-classical design.

After the Villa Santis/Mondolfo you come to the end of the walk and Villa Olmo, considered by many to be the most magnificent villa flanking the lake, Villa Olmo was designed to welcome the great of Europe—Napoleon also came here, as did Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian military figure and nationalist. Marquis Innocenzo Odescalchi, working with Simon Cantoni, a famous architect of his time (he built Palazzo Serbelloni in Milan and the ducal palace in Genoa), commissioned the dwelling, devising a lavish interior filled with elaborate stucco work. The villa was subsequently owned by the Raimondi and Visconti di Modrone families. The exquisite Italian-style gardens bordering the lake are of recent vintage; those at the rear of the house date from 1829. Villa Olmo is open from 10 AM to 6 PM (check if there are exhibitions:  infocultura@comune.como.it) The park is open October 1 to April 4 from 7 AM to 7 PM; April 5 to Sept 30, from 7 AM to 11 PM daily. villaolmocomo.it/

If you want to take your stroll further, the Chilometro della Conoscenza (the “Kilometer of Knowledge”) begins at Villa Olmo and runs to the Villa Sucota.

[By Ilaria Spes (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

The path takes you away from the lake into the lush gardens of Villa Grumello and to the Villa Sucota, site of the Antonio Ratti Foundation (fondazioneratti.org), which houses an extraordinary textile museum. To book a tour: info@fondazioneratti.org; +39 03 1338497

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