Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ten Attractions in Varenna - Lake Como

Varenna from Bellagio
Following on from my previous post about places where you can eat outdoors in Varenna, here are ten of the main attractions that we found during our time there:

1. Villa Monastero – From the main piazza (which is free of through traffic), if you walk along the road going south you will soon come to the Villa Monastero and gardens. This is a gorgeous lakeside villa with extravagant gardens; the slopes are quite steep in places.Villa Monastero was built in the early 13th century and was a Cistercian convent dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. We spent more than five peaceful hours strolling around the alluring, lavish gardens with rare Mediterranean and tropical plants and flowers. It is a photographic paradise and famed for its citrus trees. There is another lovely café here called Al Monastero where you can have a break for lunch in stunning surroundings. You can also tour the villa, furnished with Renaissance pieces, baroque lounges, Louis IX furnishings and Gobelin tapestries. There is a long lakeside promenade, with paths and terraces set against a beautiful mountain backdrop. See their website for further information:

Villa Monastero

2. Castello di Vezio This partially ruined castle at the top of the hill dates back to the 7th century was allegedly founded by the Lombard Queen Theodolinda. Starting from the main piazza there are signs that lead you along a steep mule track up to it. We took about 45 minutes to reach the castle, through woodland, past wildflowers, cats, butterflies and an olive grove. Once you arrive, you can walk across the drawbridge and climb to the top of the tower for a breathtaking 360˚ view of the lake, the town below and over to the Bellagio headland. Up here you can also meet a falconer who breeds birds of prey such as: barn owls, buzzards and hawks. He holds falconry displays at weekends and you can admire astonishing flights during good weather.For further information see

Castello di Vezio

3. The Lovers' Walk begins at the departure point for ferries, boats and hydrofoils to a stretch of the lungolago past a small harbour area to a line of lakeside restaurants, pretty shops and gelaterias. It reminded me of the Via dell’Amore in the Cinque Terre - a scenic walkway which clings to the rocks and it is flat and comfortable to stroll along. It is lit up beautifully at night. On the waterfront is a lovely promenade with hanging willows, cypress trees and wood-planked pedestrian bridges.

La Passerella
The Lover's Walk

4.Villa Cipressi is situated in an enchanting position on the shores of Lake Como with a beautiful and rich botanical garden containing towering cypress trees, flowering azaleas, rhododendron, magnolias and wisteria. The Villa Cipressi is converted into a hotel and looks like a gorgeous place to stay or have a wedding reception. The botanical pathway winds through centuries-old gardens with five terraces of luxuriant vegetation that reach down to the lake. Fine sculptures are scattered throughout the manicured compact gardens; it is much easier to get around than the gardens of Villa Monastero. From the lovely restaurant right on the lake shore you have heavenly views of the lake.

Gardens of Villa Cipressi

5. Fiumelatte: you can get to this little frazione of Varenna from Piazza San Giorgio on a lovely path about 1km from the town. It gets its name (river of milk) from the shortest river in Italy, which is only 250m long. The river flows for six months a year, a cascade of bubbling white foam. It springs from a cave in the rock that has had several famous explorers including Leonardo Da Vinci. There is a lovely delicatessen to the right of the river called 'La Bottega di Fiumelatte.'

6. Churches. The large Romanesque Parish Church of San Giorgio in the main piazza has three naves and twin aisles and was consecrated in 1313. Its façade is embellished by a large fresco portraying Saint Christopher, to bring luck to passing travellers.  The most precious work of art inside is the coloured stone Deposition of Christ. There are also 14th and 15th-century frescoes and polyptychs by Como-based artists. The church was restored in 1957. On Good Friday there was a procession leading from this church with stops at various Stations of the Cross dotted around the town. The impressive belltower chimes on the hour and half hour (but not during the night)!
Chiesa di San Giorgio

Good Friday in Varenna

The Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista is tucked away in the corner of the old town centre. This tenth-century church is the oldest in Varenna and one of the first to be erected along the shores of Lake Como. The building is well-preserved, typically Romanic in style, although the paintings and frescoes that embellish it are from the fifteenth century. It is always open and worth having a look inside.

Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista

Interior of Oratorio San Giovanni Battista
The Chiesa Santa Maria delle Grazie is a 17th century church overlooking the main piazza. It has a Baroque interior, a wooden altar, polychrome wooden statues and paintings from the 16th century.

La Chiesa Santa Maria delle Grazie

7. Art Studios. Varenna has a little artist’s community. The Gallery Roberto Butta has gorgeous paintings of Lake Como and offers a world-wide delivery service.

The DeMaria Studio D’Arte has a permanent display of original oil paintings for Paul Demaria Guaitamacchi collectors worldwide.

Annamaria Rivolta and her daughter Francesca Porro have beautiful pastel watercolour paintings and give painting lessons too. You can find them at Contrada Pirelli, 6.

8. Exploring Varenna's many quaint narrow lanes and alleyways.

Charming alleyways in Varenna

9. The Ornithological Museum is located inside the tourist information office near Villa Monastero and the main piazza. It contains 700 species of labeled stuffed birds displayed on several floors, which you can examine up close. On the top floor there is also a large stuffed polar bear. This is a fun place for children and nature lovers.

10. Ferry and boat trips from Varenna to other towns on the centre lake make Varenna a perfect home base for visiting the entire lake. When taking the ferry back from a trip to Bellagio you’ll have great views of the town, wedged on a promontory under the mountains. Along with the brightly painted houses, you can admire the parish church and the castle at the top of the hill. As the town sits on the eastern side of the lake, the light is spectacular at sunset and covers everything with a warm golden glow.
Sunset in Varenna

We spent the first three days of our week in Varenna exploring all there was to see in the town and then gave Bellagio, Menaggio, Bellano and Tremezzo (home of Villa Carlotta) a day of their own. Varenna is the perfect place to slow down, to relax and breathe more deeply; a place where the beauty of the scenery takes centre stage.

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Have you been to Varenna? What would you include as a must-see here?
Further reading : Where to Eat in Varenna


  1. Carissima Nora, thank you very much for your fabulous post!
    I've devenitely fallen in love with Varenna! I'd like to visit it next Easter.
    Tante belle cose!

  2. Thank you Tatiana! I hope to be back in Varenna next Easter too. It is a lovely time of the year to visit with pleasant weather and all the flowers in bloom.

  3. I've never been, but now I really want to go! Thank you for all the great info.

  4. Thank you Janie! Your posts on Lucca, Garfagnana and Arezzo make me want to go there!