Just south of the border with Switzerland, the Italian Lakes District includes Lago di Como, Lago di Orta and Lago Maggiore. Each of the lakes offers a truly exquisite setting amid mountains, lakes, hills, villas, abbeys and towns. We suggest no fewer than three nights in the area—if possible, avoid the tourist-choked summer season, especially the last two weeks of August.
In the town of Como, which continues to be a major production center for high-quality silk fabric, visit the Torre del Comune monument, the Duomo (a fine Gothic-Renaissance cathedral) and the 13th-century Broletto (once the city hall). Among the interesting small towns around Como are Tremezzo, strategically placed where the three branches of the lake meet (visit the cosmopolitan, flower-decked Villa Carlotta), and stunning Cernobbio, famous as the site of the Villa d'Este.
There are high-end resort facilities at Bellagio, a popular town on the edge of both Lake Como and Lake Lecco. As on the other lakes, steamers and vaporetti (water taxis) will whisk you to various points of interest, including beautiful villas and extensive formal gardens open to the public. Two that you shouldn't miss in Bellagio include Villa Serbelloni stretching up the hill from Bellagio with great views along the walking path, and Villa Melzi D'Eril, built along the lakeshore and one of the most exquisitely designed gardens in the area.
Nestled between Lake Maggiore and the Alps, Stresa is the largest, most tourist-friendly town on that lake. Originally a rustic village where the locals made umbrellas, it has become, in the past century, a popular summer resort. It may appear slightly on the rundown side, but the ambience and scenery more than compensate. You'll find good restaurants and cafes, shopping, parks, palm trees, pretty flowers and the garden and zoo at Villa Pallavicino.
From Stresa, you can take a boat to three small Borromean islands—allow time to see the 16th-century baroque palace, grottoes and the Borromeo Gardens on Isola Bella; the botanical gardens on larger Isola Madre; and the cobblestoned streets, handsome church and numerous cats on tiny, rustic Isola dei Pescatore (Fisherman's Island).
Stresa is also famous for its Settimane Musicali (a summer musical festival). Take along a sweater even during the summer, as nights can be quite cool in the area.
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