Just a short bus ride from Florence up into the hills brings you to the town of Fiesole. The quick side trip lays fabulous views of Florence at your feet. The city is laid out before you as a marvel of the Renaissance in Tuscany that it is.
The first thing you see upon arrival is the Medieval Cathedral.
We spent the day exploring the ruins of the Teatro Romano an archaeological site that includes a temple, the Roman theatre and the Baths.
The Roman Theatre was built somewhere between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. The half-round ampitheatre allowed easy seat access and was used until the 3rd century A.D.
The thermal baths date back to the 1st century B.C. and included a Frigidarium to cool off after your hot bath, a Tepidarium which was the lukewarm space and a Calidarium the hottest water which was warmed by two ovens.
The Etruscan walls partially enclose the city of Fiesole and were a defense against enemies until 1125 when Florence conquered Fiesole.
After exploring the town on an insanely hot afternoon we walked partially down the hill to grab lunch at the Belmond San Michele. This is a very special property in the Belmond chain and again overlooks the city of Florence. It was well worth making a reservation to join them for lunch. The property is stunning and I cannot wait to go back so I can experience the property properly as a guest!
Remember when travelling get off the beaten track! If you can’t afford to stay somewhere plan to go there for lunch. No restaurant that I have ever visited denies non-guests lunch. Just make a reservation!
Did you know Lake Como is only about an hour’s ride from Milan? There are numerous grand villas that line Lake Como. Taking the slow ferry gives you a glimpse at a few!
Villa Balbianello in Lenno is one of the most scenic residences on the lake and is famous for its terraced gardens. It was originally built for Cardinal Angelo Durini and sits high up on a hill overlooking Bellagio and the lake. The Loggia Durini is a popular wedding venue. This location has made its way into a variety of movies like Casino Royale and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones.
Grand Hotel Tremezzo besides being a magnificent hotel has a floating pool! This historic property was recently renovated and very popular on the Lake. Enjoy the restaurants or the spa. Terrace dining has you looking over to Bellagio. While here be sure to stop next door and visit Villa Carlotta. Built in 1690 it features a lovely Italian garden. Again, if you are taking the ferry to Bellagio or Varenna you can hop off in Tremezzo to visit here.
Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is another lovely spot to stay, just lunch or grab a drink. The Villa was built back in the 15th century. The park is not part of the property and the Gardens at Villa Melzi are time better spent.
Villa D’Este originally had a female convent on this site but it was later demolished to make way for a private residence. It too has beautiful gardens. In 1873 it was converted into a hotel and it has seen the likes of many celebs!
If you visit Bellagio be sure not to miss the famous gardens of Villa Melzi. The gardens are open to the public but the 19th century neoclassical villa is not. It is said these gardens were a favorite spot for Franz Lizst, the famous composer and pianist and quite possibly where he wrote one of his most famous pieces, ‘Dante Symphony’. This Villa was built to be the summer residence of Francesco Melzi d’Eril, one of Napoleon’s men.
As you enter you come upon this serene Japanese inspired garden and the Grotto.
Next you encounter the Moorish Pavilion with its sculptures and cypress trees. A pretty spot to rest a minute or just hop out of the sun. The views both north and south are lovely.
Farther along towards the Villa is a lovely Plane (Plantanus x acerifolia) tree lined path with modern benches. A quiet spot to enjoy the views of the lake and the towns across.
Right in front of the Villa is the Terrace and Lake Landing. The columns frame the views toward the Swiss Alps.
As you wind your way around you link back to the beginning via a series of paths lined with specimen trees and statues.
This lovely village on Lake Como is known for its steep, narrow, stair lined cobbled streets with insane views of the lake. It is one of the most popular stops for tourists visiting the area along with the towns of Varenna and Como.
Bellagio is located at the junction where the “Y” shaped lake divides into two branches. Take it slow, walk around the lanes, stop for a spritz, check out the shops. Don’t miss Villa Melzi gardens or Villa Serbelloni or just walk out of town and explore. Be prepared though!!!! We did this and GPS didn’t work to well to get back into town and we really walked and walked and walked! Dead end after dead end.
The old town center faces the west branch of the lake and is lined with cafes and shops at one end is Villa Serbelloni.
Warning!!! Wear comfortable shoes as there are lots of stairs to access the higher part of the town.
In the center of town you’ll find Piazza della Chiesa and the bell tower of the Basilica of San Giacomo, a Romanesque church that can be seen from everywhere.
Even if you aren’t staying overnight you can have a very special lunch at many hotels. We walked out of town and stopped in at Hotel Belvedere with breathtaking views of the east branch. Lunch was incredible!!!! Hotel Belvedere overlooks the eastern branch of Lake Como and the views here are towards Lierna to the south and towards Fiumellate to its north. Either the dining room or the adjacent patio provide breathtaking views. Hard to believe we had the patio to ourselves while a few guests enjoyed the pool and sun deck. Many hotels welcome non-guests for meals. It is a way I have found to experience a locale I might not be able to afford. Also I don’t know about you but I hate hotel hopping! This kills two birds with one stone!
We took a day trip from Como via the ferries that run daily from Como. Bellagio is an easy day trip. The slow ferry takes 2 hours and makes multiple stops along the way and you can hop on and off to explore. There is also a fast ferry. We took the fast ferry back to Como late afternoon. Get to the docks early and make sure you are at the right one!!! Just sayin’! You might want to stop in Tremezzo to see Villa Carlotta or in Lenno to visit Villa Balbianello. There are many small lovely towns to explore.
While in Como check out the silk! Como is one of the best places to buy silk in all of Europe!
In upcoming blogs I will show you some other sights like Villa Melzi’s gardens and Villa Balbianello.
There are so many things and places to experience on Lake Como that I could go on and on! Here are a few more sites from the city of Como located only an hour by train from Milan and perfect spot to call home base for visiting the lake.
Basilica di San Fedele – Romanesque dates to 1120
Volta Museum-dedicated to the inventor of the electric battery
Travel to any town in Italy and you will find beautiful churches. The Como Cathedral as it is known, is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and dates back to 1396. Architecturally fascinating, it mixes Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque features. This is a very important Gothic church in Northern Italy. This Roman Catholic cathedral stands in the Piazza del Duomo a lovely spot to people watch, have a drink or just hang out!
The Cathedral features a Rose window and a very impressive green Rococo cupola dome. The main portal stands between statues of Como natives as well as sculptures of Adam and Eve. The exterior also has sculptures of five other saints. Near the Rose window you will see a statute of God surrounded by other statues.
The cathedral has ancient tapestries and paintings and is worth a stop inside.
The Coin department store near the Piazza has a cafe on the roof with lovely views of the Cathedral.
Lake Como sits near the foothills of the Alps on the Italian-Swiss border and is only an hour by train from Milan. The city of Como makes a great home base to visit the other major towns on this lake like Bellagio and Varenna but there are many special towns lining this lake. If you can, hop the slow ferry getting on and off checking out towns like Cernobbia, Lenno and Tremezzo.
When you are in the city of Como, Italy on Lake Como don’t miss the chance to ride the funicular up to the small town of Brunate which sits 2346′ above Como. Of course, if you are in no hurry you can hike up! The funicular opened way back in 1894. The breathtaking views of the lake and the town below can’t be matched anywhere! While there walk around or hike to the Volta Lighthouse for more outstanding views.
Sitting high on the hill is the Church of Sant’ Andrea Apostolo in Piazza della Chiesa. This quaint lovely church is another nice place to stop and admire the view.
Stay tuned for more from Lake Como! Did you miss Part 1? Lago di Como
If you have been to Como, Italy you couldn’t have missed the steel sculpture, a gift to the city of Como designed by Daniel Libeskind. The contemporary sculpture called “The Life Electric” dedicated to Alessandro Volta is located at the very end of the Diga Foranea pier. Day or night this is a lovely spot to sit and look out over Como, the funicular up to Brunate and the surrounding waterfront. The sculpture was designed to connect three of the five natural elements: light, wind and water highlighting the connection between the sky, the lake and the mountains which of course, typify Lake Como’s surrounding landscape.
The Cinque Terre can be found between Genoa and Pisa and is an easy train ride from Milan or Florence.
The 5 towns of the Cinque Terre are a UNESCO World Heritage Site stretching for 6 miles on the Italian Riviera but are very different from their glitzy neighbors. We will explore each of the towns as we go.
Many people who plan to visit these towns also plan to hike at least part of the trail so I’ll start there. Heads up- starting April 1, 2019 a new law takes effect banning hikers from wearing flip flops or face fines. This seems like a no-brainer to me since I had on hiking boots but we saw many people who probably decided on the spur of the moment to hike part of the trail and were not prepared either with the proper footwear, water, snacks, first aid for bees, cuts, etc.
Hiking trails are available from Monterosso to Vernazza to Corniglia. Recently the path has been closed between Corniglia , Manarola and Riomaggiore due to landslides so be sure to check if they are open. You can hike in either direction.
We hopped the local train from Santa Margherita Ligure, our home base, to Monterosso al Mare and hiked to Vernazza then after lunch grabbed a ferry to Manarola. Plan your time wisely! It was insanely hot when we were there in early September and we encountered quite a few hikers. Move over and let people who are quicker pass.
Don’t overestimate how much you can accomplish in one day! The hike is strenuous, no matter your age, and exhausting!
Don’t forget to enjoy each town you do visit remembering why you went there in the first place. This section of the Italian Riviera is breathtakingly beautiful but sadly, too much tourism, like in Venice, is threatening these gorgeous places. Be considerate and don’t ruin it for the next guests. The area is fragile and needs to be preserved for us all to enjoy. Goes without saying in my book!!!!
Make sure when buying your tickets for ferries or hiking that you are paying for the right thing. We were sold hiking tickets in Monterosso but after hiking about 15 minutes up a steep hill we were told at a checkpoint that we had the wrong tickets- more money and too late to turn back!
Be prepared as things run slowly here! Our train back was well over an hour late unlike the Trenitalia trains that run all over Italy. The local trains are not as prompt where the Trenitalia trains are very prompt!!! Don’t be late! No one will wait for you! Buy your tickets in advance is great advice!!
Your choices are limited for staying in one of the 5 towns for the most part so you might consider staying nearby and making day trips to the Cinque Terre and Portofino. Some towns to consider are: Santa Margherita Ligure, La Spezia, Levanto, and Rapalo. Leave the car elsewhere.
Monterosso al Mare
This town has a beautiful stretch of beach where you can just hang out and relax and then explore the town’s architecture in both the New town and the Old town or just start your hike.
This town is so picturesque with its beautiful natural harbor and tiny narrow cobblestone streets and cute restaurants flanking the small Piazza. Linger along the breakwater built only in 1972 that surrounds the harbor. Take in the sights in Piazza Marconi and watch the boats come and go as children play in the waters.
In case you didn’t hike in from Monterosso be sure to take a few extra minutes to find the narrow stairs that mark the start of the trail that lead you up to the most quintessential view of Vernazza.
The harborfront church of Santa Margherita is unusual for its east facing entry rather than the more traditional western orientation.
This town dates mostly from the 12th and 15th centuries. The color of the buildings are regulated (known as ‘Ligurian pastel’) MAGICAL!!!
Just like many parts of Italy the hillsides around the Cinque Terre are dotted with olive and wine vineyards. Be sure to walk uphill in each town to avoid the crowds of the waterfront.
Manarola is the last town we visited as it was already late and our train ride back was about an hour and then we were delayed another hour plus. The town seems to hang in a ravine and is relatively quiet. These towns all seem to hang on the cliffs like on the Amalfi Coast and Positano. Manarola is probably the steepest of the 5 towns. Be sure when there to head uphill out of the harbor area where the crowds are less dense. The hills here are also covered with vineyards and lemon groves. For lovely views late in the day head up the trail towards the town’s cemetery.
Sadly we did not have enough time or an extra day to get to Corniglia or Riomaggiore but here is some information on both. Next trip!
Corniglia is the only town not on the coast. Wine is still the lifeblood of this town as it was in ancient times. The hike from here to Vernazza is a challenging, hilly 1.5 hour hike. Check to see if the trail is open to Manarola before setting out!
Riomaggiore offers lovely views back on the harbor from the breakwater. Have fun just strolling from the train station down to the harbor. This town is very photogenic especially just around sunset.
(sorry I couldn’t get there this trip) here is a great shot by Kevin Mercier
Where is your next trip? My wish list is so long and made even more complicated by all the towns I really want to revisit. Hard to complain! See you in our next town 🙂
If you are planning a trip to Italy I have blogs on many towns some which I have visited 2 or 3 times often employing guides so I don’t miss the local highlights that most tourists miss. Guides are well worth the extra money. If it is pricey for you, consider some less expensive meals or forget the souvenirs to compensate. You won’t be sorry. Travel Agents who specialize in Italy can help you with guides, train and travel arrangements as well as affordable accommodations in convenient locations so you don’t waste too much time checking out your location.