Lake Como: the top things to do in Varenna

Varenna in Lake Como

A trip to Lake Como, one of the Italian Lakes, is fabulous. There’s lakes, mountains, and beautiful towns and villages to explore. 

One of the best places to visit is Varenna, a small picturesque town on the eastern shore of Lake Como.

If you’re looking for a couple of days away in a picture postcard place that is easy to get to, then I’d say you need look no further than Varenna. Or you could day trip here from Milan – it’s an easy hour by train from Milan’s central station.

Read on for information on why you should put Varenna on your list of places to visit, the best things to do in Varenna and it’s main attractions. I’ve also included some practical information to help you plan your short break or day out here. 

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Where is Varenna?

Varenna is one of the towns you can find on Lake Como, one of the lakes in northern Italy. It is only a few kilometres from the Swiss border.

It is around 85 Km from Milan which makes it an easy short break if you fly into one of the city’s airports.  

Its proximity to Milan also means that it’s possible to day trip here if need be.  You could either drive, or take a bus or train.

Check out my post a 2 day itinerary for Milan which includes Varenna as one of the top days out from the city.

You can also book an organised tour that takes you Varenna and other towns on Lake Como.  

My visit to Varenna

I stayed in Varenna for two nights and had a wonderful time.

Here are the reasons I think it’s one of the towns on Lake Como worth putting high on your list. You’ll also find an outline of the best things do in Varenna on your short break or day trip.

It’s breathtakingly beautiful

To say Varenna is breathtakingly beautiful is an understatement. When we caught our first glimpse of the lake from the ferry terminal, it was impossible not to stop and stare at its beauty.  

There were small boats bobbing up and down and mountains towering in the background.  

The ferry port in Varenna Lake Como, with a ferry in dock
The ferry port in Varenna

I’d expected this. You know a place must be beautiful when the rich and famous have houses in the area (George Clooney has a house in nearby Laglio).  

But even I, with my love of lakes and mountains, was lost for words.

But, as we soon discovered, there was more to come. We made our way along a small flower covered walkway that hangs over the lake edge (this is known as ‘Lovers Walk’). Turning the corner, we came across the main and arguably even prettier, part of Varenna.

Arranged around a small circular bay, there are cafés, restaurants and small boutique shops here.  This includes several gelato shops selling delicious, including vegan, Italian ice cream.  

One of the bays in Varenna
One of the bays in Varenna

There are more small boats moored along the waterfront ready for hire. People sit alongside the lake shore dangling their feet into the cool and pristine water and watching the families of ducks frolicking and swimming alongside.  

They are overlooked by beautiful rustic houses and large cypress trees that stand like sentries in the terraces above the water. These can be reached by steep steps that wind up away from the bay.  

At sunset, it’s really quite magical. There are plenty of places to sit and soak up the atmosphere and watch the sun go down (you can also go on sunset boat trips for another view of the sun setting on the lake).

There’s also a small quaint piazza – the Piazza san Giorgio – a few minutes’ walk away from the water via small narrow streets.  At the top end and across the road, there is the small 14th century church of San Giorgio.

The church in the square in Varenna
The church of San Giorgio in the square in Varenna

It’s easy to get to

When I was researching a trip to the Italian Lakes, I was doing this on a time budget (we had a maximum of 2 nights to stay here). This meant that I needed to find somewhere that was easy to get to.

So for me, one of the advantages of choosing Varenna was how quickly we could get there.  

We flew into Milan Linate airport and then made our way to the central station.  From here it was just a one hour direct train ride directly to Varenna.

Alternatively, you can book a tour that will take you to Varenna and other places.

This tour takes you from Milan to Varenna, Como and Bellagio. It’s a full day out that includes private boats between the different places and sightseeing in each.

You can explore other tours here.

It’s a great place for a relaxing leisurely break 

Our short break inevitably centred around the lake: walks along the shoreline and treks uphill to vantage points that offer amazing views of the lake, the mountains and scattering of towns and villages below.  Things that make you appreciate the natural beauty of the area.

We didn’t swim in the lake, but there were plenty of people doing this!

It’s the perfect place to slow down, relax, and adopt a much healthier pace of life.  However, even with a slower pace of life in mind, there are a few key things you could do with your few days or day out on Lake Como.  

Read on for the top things to do in Varenna.

Top things to do in Varenna

Visit the beautiful Villa Monastero

The first place I’d recommend visiting is Villa Monastero and its beautiful botanical gardens. 

We reached the villa via a short stroll through Varenna’s winding, cobbled backstreets and crossing the town square, the Piazza san Giorgio. It’s then a short walk to the villa.  

Having paid our entrance fee, we meandered down the steep slope. This was lined with deep red roses in full bloom when we visited. We then reached the lakeside and the main building. 

This was once a nunnery but is now a conference centre and museum, complete with a small café.  The spot is surrounded by beautiful gardens with ornate fountains, statues and pillars.  

Part of the garden at Villa Monastero - one of the things do in Varenna
Part of the garden at Villa Monastero

You get panoramic views across the lake here which allow you to look back on the town.

It’s a lovely, peaceful place to visit with plenty of areas to sit and relax and get away from the world.  The fact that there seemed to be relatively few tourists when we were there made it wonderful.

You can either visit independently as we did (the entrance fee was not expensive) or book a tour that includes this as part of it.

Sail over to Bellagio

After our amble through the gardens in Villa Monastero, we headed to the ferry port.  Here we took the ferry to Bellagio, another charming town just across the water.

This is definitely worth visiting if you have the time. It’s about a 15 minute trip on the boat.

A view of the town of Bellagio on Lake Como
Bellagio, Lake Como

Bellagio is one of bigger and more touristy towns on Lake Como. Its feels much more glitzy and glamorous than Varenna. You only have to take a look at the expensive, convertible cars driving around the town to realise this.  

It’s definitely worth a visit and there are many more shops and restaurants to choose from here. It’s a great place to wander around, with its cobbled streets and narrow alleys in the old town that lead away from the wide-open boulevard on the waterfront. 

One of the streets in Bellagio, Lake Como
One of the streets in Bellagio, Lake Como

Had we been staying longer, we would definitely had hopped across for an evening meal and cocktails overlooking the lake.

Climb to the Castello di Vezio

Varenna also has a small medieval castle – Vezio Castle – perched high on the hill above the town. To get here, you can take a path uphill from Villa Monastero. This was a strenuous 30 to 40 minute walk up a steep rocky hill.  

It would therefore not be suitable for anyone with mobility issues.  There is, however, a small café at the top for refreshments and if you need a comfort break.  

There is a small fee to enter the castle but the breathtaking views of Lake Como are worth it.  

Views from the castle in Varenna across the lake
Views from the castle in Varenna

You can also see some birds of prey in the grounds. If this interests you, check the website for the dates and times when they have falconry shows.

Note the castle is only open between March and 1st November and closes if it is raining.

Visit other towns on Lake Como

While on a visit to Varenna, if you have the time, take the opportunity to experience other beautiful places on Lake Como. 

If you don’t have a car to hand, you can do this either by boat or train or by booking an organized tour.  

Boat trips to other towns on Lake Como

Cadenabbia on Lake Como
Cadenabbia on Lake Como

Boats go from the ferry port to a number of different towns around the lake (click here for more information on ferry services).  

There are two types of boat you can take from Varenna.

The ferry from Varenna 

There is a ferry service connecting four towns in the centre of the lake: Varenna, Bellagio, Menaggio and Cadenabbia.  You’ll find there’s easy access to these places by boat, and as the journeys don’t take much time, you can easily pop over to one or two on a short break here.

From Varenna, a trip to Bellagio takes 15 minutes and the same to Menaggio.  Cadenabbia is 30 minutes away.  

You can buy individual tickets for these journeys. There are also one-day and six-day passes that give you unlimited travel.  Additional charges apply if you want to take a bike or car/motorbike onto the ferries.

The hydrofoil from Varenna

Hydrofoils connect Varenna to over 10 other towns on Lake Como that are situated beyond the more central area of the lake.  Essentially they run from the town of Como at one end of one ‘leg’ of the lake to Colico at the other end.

Base prices for the journey are the same, but there is an additional charge for the hydrofoil speed service (all of which stop at Varenna). 

There are eight or nine hydrofoils stopping at Varenna on weekdays. Sometimes intervals between these can be long, so check timetables before heading to the port.

Trains to other towns on Lake Como

If boats aren’t your thing, you can catch trains to nearby towns on Lake Como, such as Bellano and Lecco.  It takes around 15 minutes to reach Bellano and around twenty five to Lecco.  

The train station is just a few minutes uphill from the centre of Varenna and has a lovely little coffee shop if you need to while away time waiting for the train.

Click here for train timetables and information on costs.

Combine it with a trip on the panoramic Bernina Express

The Bernina Express train
The Bernina Express train

If you’ve read my post on my trip on the Bernina Express train, you’ll know that it’s easy to combine a visit to Varenna with this.

Click here to discover tours that combine visiting Lake Como with a trip on the Bernina Express.

We stayed for two nights in Varenna before catching the train to nearby Tirana, a small town on the border with Switzerland. We then embarked on an absolutely amazing 122 km journey through some of Switzerland’s most breathtaking and spectacular scenery.

We ended our journey by connecting to a train to Zurich (see my post on Zurich and for free itineraries for short breaks here).

If you like trains and wonderful alpine scenery, you’ll love this!

Some of the scenery you ride through on the Bernina Express train
Some of the scenery you ride through on the Bernina Express train

General information on getting to Varenna

The nearest airports to Varenna are in Milan.

Milan Bergamo is around 50 km away. Milan Linate and Milan Bergamo are just over 60km away.  

If you’re coming only to visit Varenna, then flying into one of these airports would be best.  

You could, however, combine a trip here with time in other northern Italian cities. Turin is around 155km away and Verona is just over 140km away.

It is also not that far from Lugano, another beautiful lakeside town – this time in Switzerland – that is also a great day out from Milan (see my post on a recent trip here).

If you fly into Milan, it’s between an hour and a quarter and an hour and a half by car to Varenna.

If you’re using public transport, you need to make your way to the central train station. 

Linate airport is closer and takes around thirty minutes via train. It is double this from Malpensa airport and longer from Bergamo (the fastest being around one hour and twenty minutes).

From the central station, the train goes directly to Varenna-Esino station.  This takes just over an hour, and once you hit the mountains, the scenery is stunning. 

A short walk downhill from the station takes you to the ferry port from where you can walk around the rocky outcrop on a flower covered pathway to the main part of Varenna.

Where to stay when you visit Varenna

When we visited Varenna, we stayed at Divina Vita Bed and Breakfast, in one of the apartments above their restaurant, Bar Il Molo.  It’s situated just a stone’s throw from the lake so in a prime location right by the water.

We loved it.  I have to admit that it was a little noisy at night. With the windows open, you could hear the voices of people eating and drinking on the outdoor terraces.  

However, it was more than made up by being served breakfast every morning while sitting outside by the lake with the beautiful views here. The following image was our view!  

Our breakfast view!

Breakfast was just perfect. At this time of day, the town has not quite woken up and so everything was a little deserted. 

We had the spot pretty much to ourselves and so whiled away our time listening to the water lapping onto the shore.  I can’t think of a much better way to start the day.

If you prefer being away from the main hustle and bustle, there is the Hotel Du Lac.

This is a bit further away from the lake’s shoreline, but it does overlook it. We visited at sunset. It was a particularly nice place to have a pre-dinner drink and watch the sun go down.

Other places to stay include the Hotel Villa Cipressi, and the Hotel Royal Victoria.

Things to do in Varenna: other ideas for European and UK short breaks

If you visit Varenna, I hope you enjoy some of the wonderful things to so here. For other ideas for short breaks in Europe, take a look at some of my other posts:

You can read other posts here.

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