While largely overlooked in winter, the colder months are a romantic season on Lake Como. From October to April, as prices drop and tourists depart for Italy’s southern coast, local life resumes in the dozens of villages that hem its shores. The harbors and squares lay empty, and feel miles apart from the flashy revels of summer—think tourists hovering over ferry bows for snaps of villas owned by Russian heiresses and American celebrities. The lake’s seclusion, an hour north of Milan at the foot of the Alps, makes it particularly appealing under a fresh coat of snow, especially for ski and winter sport enthusiasts who want to get away from the madness of Alpine resort towns.
The lake never freezes and is best explored by ferry. Visitors usually arrive by air through Milan, where they are then carried by train to Como’s San Giovanni station on the water’s southern tip. From there, unhurried ferries sail across the blue water, towards the steep hills to the north dotted with citrine and salmon colored villas, ready and waiting to be explored.
While most of the grand resorts are closed until spring, smaller hotels are open year-round and promise a more intimate stay. Just meters from the train station, Vista Palazzo Lago di Como overlooks the lake and is decorated in bold emerald and cerulean tones that mirror the natural splendor of its surrounds. (From $650 offseason/$900 peak). The Relais Villa Vittoria sits on the western shore in Laglio, where guests sip aperitivos on a garden terrace that stretches to the water’s edge. Once a silk production workshop, the 19th century villa features a Moroccan-style spa and just 12 airy, pastel-hued rooms (from $125 offseason/$250 peak).
Further from the sway of the boats, Airbnbs are often perched above the foothills of the villages and are more embedded in local life. From your window in the morning, you’ll spot shoppers returning from the town markets with baskets full of chestnuts and firewood. Prices start at $90 in the off season and $150 during the summer. Sara Luperto, who leases five properties in Bellagio that have been in her family for generations, says guests love the coziness of winter and the amenities of each space: balconies with panoramic views, full-service kitchens and, above all, fireplaces. “It’s a must,” she says. “I would never live in a home without one. I’m very romantic.”
Flights to Milan’s Malpensa airport run from NYC at $350 in the offseason and as high as $900 in peak season.
Why it’s Still Great
The change in season brings in a more mature crowd as locals ease back into their piazzas. The diverse landscape gives ample choice for winter activities, from skiing to hiking and the snow-covered Alps overhead. An antidote to city life, Luperto finds the lake to be a rustic, wintry escape. “It’s the perfect setting to come back to, have a nice glass of Italian wine, relax and leave all your problems behind.”
Prepare for the breeze on board ferries with warm coats and soft knits, but if you’ve forgotten anything at home, Moresi or A.Gi.Emme stock timeless Italian staples. For something more dapper, head to the many luxury boutiques (Armani, Jimmy Choo) sandwiched between gelato shops.
What’s On in the Off Season
Villa Tours and Art Galleries:
Tour the Villa Monastero in Verenna, a 12th century monastery turned noble’s residence surrounded by botanical gardens. Find some old world charm in Bellano’s La Ca di Radio Vecc, a tiny museum of old gramophones. Discover the lake’s silk trade history at Como Silk Museum and Fondazione Antonio Ratti. For more contemporary tastes, Como’s version of Bansky—Mr. Savethewal—displays street art painted on wood planks and other repurposed material in his gallery in Como.
Eating and Drinking:
Start the day with espressos at Café Monti in Cavour Square, then feast on fresh fish at Restaurant Momi in Blevio overlooking the water. Try the pizzoccheri alla valtellinese (buckwheat tagliatelle, cabbage, sage, potatoes and cheese) at Carillon Restaurant in Bellagio, a regional specialty that’s an unusual but hearty accompaniment to the chill. After dinner, head to Bar Rossi across the port for red wine and homemade tiramisu.
Skiing, Cycling & Hiking:
30 minutes from the lake, resorts in Valsassina and Valtellina are the local choice for skiing and snowboarding, while the trails of Mount San Primo are best for snowshoeing. Mount Sighignola is known for beginner’s slopes and stunning views of Lake Lugano over the Swiss border. If you rent a bike, the paths between Cernobbio, Carate Urio and Argegno are unmissable. For hiking, take the funicular from Como to the mountain village of Brunate for a mile-long trail that snakes 1,600 feet above the lake.
Spas and Wellness:
Warm up with a hot stone massage at Relais Villa Vittoria’s hammam spa, followed by a dip in the Jacuzzi overlooking the water. For a day trip, the Alpine village of Bormio just two hours north is home to the Bagni Vecchi (old baths), Bagni Nuovi (new baths), and Bormio Terme (the spa)—an ultra-lux wellness resort with mineral-rich thermal baths and hot springs overlooking the Dolomites peaks.
On some days the best thing to do is precious little. Meander at a leisurely pace, get lost along the cobbles, rent a Riva boat and set sail. Find a terrace and watch the boats glide into the port. Marvel at the views that have been immortalized in art for centuries, from the poems of Virgil to the screenplays of Hollywood.