Lake Como with Kids
So usually I’m a good travel planner, and I’ve learned a lot about how to plan our trips from what we’ve liked in the past. This summer the criteria in the back of my mind for our annual month in Europe were:
- Three or four destinations max
- A longer stay at one destination
- A kitchen for that longer stay
- A return to Italy and Greece
I put out my search on Facebook and some friends suggested Lake Como for the Italian destination. I had only been once, backpacking around with a friend 17 years ago, and my wife and kids had never traveled there. It seemed perfect – Italian with lots of day trip options (by ferry), and villas were reasonably priced. I decided to spend the first half of our trip there. We would unpack and relax and live the Italian lake life for a couple weeks.
For a base I chose Cernobbio. It’s routinely listed as one of the prettiest towns on the lake, and one of the premier hotels in northern Italy, Villa d’Este, is there, so I assumed there would be a decent tourism infrastructure.
I chose wrong.
Two Weeks in Cernobbio
Two weeks was too long. Our kids were bored in Cernobbio after two days. Yes it’s pretty, but there’s virtually nothing there. We had a wonderful villa and a kitchen but couldn’t find a single place within walking distance to even purchase milk. There was one small (high end) food store a few minutes from the villa, and that was good for some of our needs, but we had to take the ferry to Como just to get groceries.
Day Trips Around Lake Como
We quickly developed a schedule of where we wanted to go to escape Cernobbio. Como became a regular destination, and we took the ferry over every other day (ferries leave every half hour and take roughly 15 minutes). In addition to the grocery store, Como was fun to walk around and had excellent restaurants for lunch, and it had a playground with a fountain. It was in the high 90s every day, so the kids loved playing in the fountain.
We also did a day trip up the lake to Bellagio and Varenna, and then another trip to just Bellagio. Both are almost two hours away by ferry. We liked Bellagio a lot and had a couple of excellent lunches in town. Varenna is charming, and there’s a pebble beach there that the kids liked, but there’s not a lot to do. Bellagio and Como are more active.
The Lake Como Steamboat
Coming back from Varenna on our first trip we were waiting for the scheduled ferry when an old-fashioned steamboat docked. The ticket guy yelled out “Cernobbio” so we hopped on. Great decision! We learned that the steamboat travels around the lake on Thursdays and Sundays during the summer. It was faster than the normal ferry, far more comfortable, and a lot more interesting for the kids. And our normal one-day ferry tickets were good for the steamboat. So we planned our return trip to Bellagio on a Sunday to take advantage of the same return trip by steamboat.
Switzerland is only a couple of miles away from Lake Como. One day my son and I looked at Google Maps and determined that we could actually walk to Switzerland in less than an hour. So we set out from the villa with passports and water and started walking. It was almost all uphill (something that 2D Google Maps doesn’t make clear) but we made it. We needed all of the water but not the passports – it’s an unmanned border crossing, marked only by a line, a stone marker, and a fence to keep cars from going back and forth. We hopped over (literally) to the Swiss side, walked around for a few minutes, and then headed back to the villa. How many times can you say you walked to another country?
But then we decided to do it right and go to Lake Lugano for a day. We took the ferry into Como, walked 15 minutes to the train station and took the roughly half-hour train to Lugano. We really enjoyed the lake. We ate lunch in town, took a pedal boat out onto the lake, relaxed at the beach for a while, played at a playground, got gelato and overall really enjoyed the town and the lake. A caveat: everything is roughly twice as expensive as right across the border in Italy.
We did everything above in the first week. We didn’t want to repeat it a second week, and without a car our day trip options were limited. Sure we could continue to take the ferry around the lake, and I did a lot of research and got suggestions from friends, but the thought of a 2+ hour ferry ride to go somewhere and hike in the hot sun with complaining kids and then have to take the ferry back just wasn’t appealing, and most of the other towns are even sleepier than Cernobbio. So we bolted. I booked a last-minute hotel in Florence (the excellent Palazzo San Niccolo which had a suite for 5 available), we packed one bag, and we took the train from Como to Florence for five days. Best decision we made all summer! We’ve spent a lot of time in Florence before but the kids hadn’t been back in two years. They loved seeing all of their favorite places. We returned to our favorite restaurants and discovered new ones. We did a great artisan gourmet gelato stroll and made gelato. We saw friends. And I walked around at sunrise a couple of times, even taking the kids with me once. It was an excellent five days and made up for the letdown of Lake Como.
What We Would Do Different
If we went back, we would base out of the town of Como. With the train station right there we would have had more day trip options, and per my above comments we liked the town a lot and there are actually grocery stores! And we would only go for a week.
The ferry stops running fairly early in the evenings, so we were never able to eat dinner anywhere but in Cernobbio (or at our villa). We had lunch though all around the lake. Our favorite restaurants:
Ristorante Trattoria Nisciolano. Several websites say that they open at 6pm, so we walked over for an early dinner one night. They actually open at 7pm, but they welcomed us in an hour early and we had the restaurant to ourselves! Excellent food and service in an outdoor courtyard.
Gran Fuoco. Our first night we stumbled upon this take-out pizzeria. Excellent wood-fired, inexpensive pizzas.
Natta Cafe. Easy to find and one of the top-ranked restaurants in the city on TripAdvisor. Everything was excellent.
Vintage Jazz. An excellent lunch outside in a square. Both our Italian dishes and our burgers were great.
Ristorante Terrazza Barchetta. Probably our best meal anywhere around the lake. The pesto gnocchi, curry shrimp gnocchi and lake perch are amazing.
Ristoro Forma & Gusto. Our second trip we ate at the pizza restaurant right below Ristorante Terrazza Barchetta. More casual but just as good. Excellent pizzas.
I need to do a blog post on our favorite restaurants in Florence. I list several on my Top Spots page, but there are so many more that we love. This trip our favorites were:
MammaMia. Always our first stop and our last stop. Consistently excellent food and service, despite the touristy location. Get the spinach and the coccoli.
Irene Firenze. One of the best restaurants in town. A little more formal than other places, but the service and food are always exceptional.
La Buchetta. Just across the Ponte alle Grazie from our hotel, it’s one of our new favorite restaurants. Probably the best cinghiale we’ve had in Florence.
La Beppa Fioraia. We looked at TripAdvisor and chose the closest restaurant to our hotel with the best reviews. We loved it – a great outdoor setting, perfect food, and even a cat. It was crowded with locals and we barely managed to get a table, so call for a reservation.
Where We Stayed / Finance
We paid 400 Euros a night for our villa that slept 8. We didn’t love basing out of Cernobbio, but the villa was excellent, and it was only a few minutes’ walk to the ferry terminal. The housekeepers live right next door and kept the villa clean. They even had food waiting for us when we arrived, and brought over dinner our last night. There’s a view of the lake from the top floor.
In Florence we stayed in the Belvedere Suite at Palazzo San Niccolo. I received a media rate, but their normal rates for that suite are 240-280 Euros a night. That’s half what we’ve paid elsewhere in Florence for two connecting rooms, so it’s a great option for a family of five.
Meals in Italy averaged 100 Euros each, but went as high as 140 Euros with drinks and desserts. Our day trip to Switzerland was higher. Irene Firenze was a splurge, but is always worth it.
We paid 20 Euros or so total to travel to and from Como on the ferry. It was roughly 60 Euros to get a family day pass to head to Bellagio and Varenna.
Photography Note: If my photos on this post look different, it’s because I only had my iPhone with me 95% of the time. The photos are a little more vivid and a little less detailed than normal, but it was really nice not carrying a larger camera around. Well worth the tradeoff.