Planning your first trip to Italy

If you are starting to plan your first trip to Italy,  you’ll be spending lots of time daydreaming about which cities to visit and where to stay.

 

About to climb the Duomo and Bell Tower in Florence.

 

Whether you want to visit the romantic Amalfi Coast, Tuscan countryside, Italian lakes, or ancient ruins of Rome, Italy has it all.  As your travel dates get closer, you may start to have some questions about how things work and local customs.  Below are some practical travel tips for any first timer to the country.


TRANSPORTATION


My mom thinking about whether she’ll be mustering up the courage to drive around Rome.

BY RAIL. Trains are a common form for transportation in Italy. Whether you book a ticket ahead of time or buy one at the station (which is very common), check to see whether it is a high speed train like the EuroStar, a local train that stops at every town. You can get from Rome to Naples in about an hour on a high speed train or 3 hours on a local. If you plan to travel by train, beware of strikes which can shut down the entire grid for a few days.

BY CAR. When I’m not staying in a city, I usually rent a car to get around. You can book cars ahead of time on the typical websites.  Most cars available for rent in Italy are standard transmission.  If you need an automatic, make sure you specifically select it as a required feature.  If renting a car, look for the signs that say “Car Hire”.  The first time I saw this I mistakenly assumed it was for a taxi or driver. Italians drive on the right side of the road, like most European countries. Driving on the major highways is pretty similar to driving in the US except there is no dilly dallying in the passing lane. If you aren’t passing someone get back over to the right lane or you will likely have someone blowing their horn at you to move out of the way. Be prepared for some windy roads and crazy roundabouts, but between a GPS and your smart phone, you should be just fine.  I always like take a small paper map as back up too.


CURRENCY


I can still remember trying to calculate the exchange rate for Italian Lira on my first visit to Florence. Today, Italy is part of the EU and the Euro is the official currency.  This is convenient if you are planning to visit other countries in Europe during your stay. I usually bring a nominal amount of cash with me and then use my ATM card and credit card like I would here in the US. ATMs are typically stocked on Mondays, so if you leave arrive during the weekend, its good to have some cash on hand as the ATMs may run out of cash at some busy locations. You can go to your local bank and order Euro for free or a small fee. Before leaving, contact your bank and credit card companies to notify them of the dates you will be traveling in Italy to make sure they note in their systems to avoid any possible holds on your account for fraudulent activity, and ask for any special international numbers you can call if you need assistance while abroad. Check out the exchange rate before you go too. The Euro was tending exchange much higher than the US Dollar for a number of years (for a while, $1 Euro was close to $1.30 US Dollars) but the two have evened out a little bit over the last couple years (now, closer to $1 Euro equals approximately $1.10 Euro).


TELEPHONE


Ask your cell phone carrier about what plan makes the most sense for you. The majority of cell phones from the US will work in Italy, but they will be much more expensive for to use in Italy unless you get a temporary international plan. Most carriers will let you upgrade your plan for your month of travel and then let it drop off again the following month. Check your monthly usage to estimate what you will likely need for your trip. Some carriers are now offer unlimited texting with international plans, which is a great alternative to spending an arm and a leg on minutes you might not use. Many apps run in the background of your phone, so I typically turn roaming data off and/or set my phone to airplane mode unless I need to access it.

Mapping functions will also use a lot of data. A few years ago my husband refused to get the international data on his phone. One morning in San Remo he went across the street to bring the car around to the front of the hotel, but had to circle the block because of a series of one-way road.  Unfortunately the GPS was with me in the lobby.  About 30 minutes later somewhere close to Monaco he finally gave in and turned on his phone to find his way back, to the tune of somewhere near $400.  Lesson here – don’t scrimp on the plan, it will pay off.

Also, Italian’s answer the telephone by saying “Pronto”.


CAFE


Italians don’t drink large volumes of coffee, its generally smaller and stronger.  They don’t linger around in coffee shops all day enjoying one extra large minty mochachino chocolate chip milkshake after another. Italian coffee is he real deal. It is stronger than anything in the US, and is more comparable to US espresso than coffee. If you want an authentic Italian coffee experience, stand at the bar. Depending on the shop, you either call out your order and then walk to the register to pay, or pay first and bring your receipt to the bar to pick up your order – watch what other folks are doing and take their lead. You will hear the lots of clanking of tiny spoons in small coffee cups as all the locals stand at the bar quickly knocking back their shots in 30 seconds or less. If you chose to sit down at a coffee shop, the prices can be a little more expensive. Also important to note, a coffee shop in Italy is called a “Bar”, so you can tell all your friends you hit the bar every day by 8am on vacation.


YOUR SUITCASE


At the Belmond Villa San Michele in Fiesole, overlooking Florence.

There are those people that shop on vacation, and those people that shop for vacation. Which are you? Italy is well known for famed fashion houses like Versace and Ferrigamo. While you don’t need to be high fashion to go on vacation there, don’t dress like you are going to a Disney World for the day. Personally, I think it’s fun to dress the part and try to fit in with the locals. There are few hard and fast fashion rules, but if you are picking between two outfits and can’t decide, opt for the one that is more dressy. Also, Italians often seem to dress like it is 20 degrees cooler outside and you will see natives walking around donning puffy ski jackets when it is in the 60’s. A few gender specific tips:

UN UOMO– Gentlemen wear pants more than shorts, even in warm weather. If you opt for shorts, try to steer clear of athletic shorts from Nike and opt for dressy ones. A few button down shirts are always good in the suitcase, along with a smart blazer or jacket. Fitted men’s pants are even more common there in the US, and if you really want to dress the part, embrace the man scarf and consider picking up a pair of red pants.

UNA DONNA. Somehow Italian woman have a superpower where they can dash across a cobblestone streets in stilettos like they are wearing running shoes. This has always fascinated me. I reserve my high heels for limited jaunts to and from restaurants in the evenings. In the cooler months, opt for stylish and comfy boots for day walking, and in the summer a smart pair of sandals are a great option. In warmer months, a sundress and a pair of sandals will do the trick for most any occasion; however, some churches and cathedrals still require women to cover their shoulders for modesty, so bring a scarf or cardigan along.


BAMBINOS


Playing in the garden at the Belmond San Michele in Fiesole.

Last summer we took our eight month old son on a trip to Italy. Lots of people thought we were crazy, but I encourage anyone interested to do it!  Italians are family oriented and love babies and children, often going out of their way to interact and engage with your child. Last summer we were whisked to the front of the line of the Duomo in Florence after the security officer found out we had a baby in our party, and when Max threw up all over the silk table cloth and fancy place settings at Belmond San Michele, everyone there was gracious and helpful in a way I totally didn’t expect! A few little tips to make traveling in Italy with little ones a bit easier:

– Plan a smart itinerary. If you have little ones, plan a more low key trip with time built in for running around in grassy areas and to just chill out. 10 hours a day in museums is tough on anyone!

– If you have a long flight there, try to avoid lengthy drives the day you arrive. I learned that lesson after packing Max back into a car seat for a drive from the Milan Malpensa airport to Florence following a 10 hour flight from Miami to Milan. He was a good baby, but that was one tiring drive!

– Most hotels will have cribs or pack and plays for rent.

– Consider renting a small apartment so you have a kitchen to make life a little bit easier.

– There are lots of cobblestone streets and stone paths, so bring a stroller that’s up to the task.  Some of the inexpensive umbrella strollers can be pretty difficult to push. Consider taking something a bit more durable. We also found it to be easier some days to just wear the baby carrier, especially when going through a busy marketplace or climbing stairs.

– Be aware that many public restrooms don’t have changing tables, so be sure to pack a changing pad and change your little one standing up, on a bench or on the floor.

– Let them try gelato. Max was a huge fan!


PARLO ITALIANO?


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The Roman Forum in, you guessed it, Rome.

You don’t have to be an expert in speaking Italian to travel to Italy. In larger cities, many people speak English, but that number dwindles as you travel to smaller towns and the countryside. Italians often speak with passion and many hand gestures. Learning a few key words and phrases before you leave will help you get around a better, and I think it makes things more fun!  I’ve generally found that as long as you make an effort most Italians are happy to help you practice. There are lots of Italian apps available for smart phones when you need them, but learn a few key words and phrases before you go so you don’t have to look like Clark Griswold with your pocket translator in European Vacation. For starters:

  1. Yes – Si
  2. No – No
  3. Please – Per favore
  4. Thank you – Grazie
  5. Hello – Ciao
  6. Hello (answering telephone) – Pronto
  7. Goodbye – Arrivederci or Ciao
  8. You’re welcome – Prego
  9. Sorry – Scusi
  10. I don’t understand – Non capisco
  11. How many? – Quanti?
  12. How much does it cost? – Quanto costa?
  13. I am – Io sono
  14. Let’s go – Andiamo
  15. Very good – Bravo
  16. Where is it?/Where? – Dov’è?
  17. My name is… – Mi chiamo …
  18. Good morning or Good day – Buon giorno
  19. Good evening – Buona sera
  20. Good night – Buona notte
  21. How Are You ? – Come Stai ?
  22. I would like – Vorrei
  23. Wine – Vino
  24. Red – Rosso
  25. White – Bianco

 


DINING


Don’t miss exploring the Mercado Centrale in Florence.  In addition to the vendors downstairs, they have a huge food court upstairs!

One of my favorite things to do when visiting Italy is to go grocery shopping. The cheese, meats, wine and pasta are all as good as you dream about, and then some. Even the sandwiches in the gas stations are delicious! But a few quick pointers will help you navigate the local customs.

– Traditional breakfasts are usually pretty light, consisting of espresso or cafe latte and some type of pastry. At hotels you will find more larger buffets with meats and cheeses.

– For lunch, grab a sandwich (“panini”) or piece of pizza.

– No early bird specials here.  Most Italians eat dinner later in the evening. Many restaurants are open from noon to 4pm, and then closed until dinner around 7pm.

– Traditionally, Italian dinners are ordered in courses, consisting of antipasto, first course of something like pasta, salad, or soup (“primo”), second course of a meat, fish or vegetable (“secondo”), desert (“dolce”), coffee (“caffe”), and to cap it all off, a Disgestivo. No worries though, you can pick just one thing from the menu to order.

– When you order water, specify whether you want regular/still or sparkling water. “Con gas” (with gas) means sparkling water, and “Sin gas” (without gas) means still water. They will bring you a bottle for the table.

– The house wine is usually amazing. Red wine is “Vino Rosso” and white wine is “Vino Bianco”.

– Tipping isn’t standard in Italy as in the US, so you don’t need to necessarily include the standard 15-20% tipping protocol that you would in the US, however, no one would be offended if you wanted to tip a good server a few Euros for good service.

– Be sure to try the food of the region when you are visiting, and the gelato and pasta will be great regardless of where you are headed!   You’ll find more hearty meats in northern Italy, more seafood by the coast, truffles in the Piemonte region near Turin, prosciutto near Bologna and Parma, limoncello along the Amalfi Coast, gelato (in the north) and sorbetto (in the south), and Naples is the birthplace of pizza.

– Try some paprika flavored Pringles, they are my favorite snack!


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Just around the bend from Positano on the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy.

If you need help planning your dream vacation to Italy to savor the best of la dolce vita, check out the travel planning services of Travel Italian Style for authentic and personalized experiences in Italy.

Lake Como 101

Quite simply, Lake Como is my favorite place on earth.

There is no way words can capture the breathtaking moment when you drive over the pass and gaze down at the sun sparkling off the lake like glitter, gently highlighting an ethereal mist hovering over the valley. You lose count of the warm hued stucco and stone villas donning tile roofs nestled along the shoreline, steadily climbing the base of the Alps looming above, eventually just turning into little speckles.  All the while palm trees, pine trees, bougainvillea and wisteria draped trellises decorate the landscape so that it somehow seems unreal, like illustrations from a Dr. Seuss Book.

Just, wow.

 

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I recommend Lake Como, also known simply as “Lario”, as a must see stop to anyone visiting Italy. I love to help others plan their visit, so it only made sense to capture it here.  Below I’ll break down Lake Como 101 by:

  • HISTORY
  • GETTING THERE
  • WHAT TO DO
  • WHERE TO STAY
  • WHEN TO VISIT
  • BOATS AND FERRY TRAVEL
  • RESTAURANTS


HISTORY

About a one hour drive north from Milan you will find Lake Como (or Lago de Como in Italian).  It is located in the Lombardy region of northern Italy just minutes from the Swiss border. Lake Como is approximately 30 miles long north to south and is shaped like an upside down letter “Y”, dividing the lake into three legs, with the famous village of Bellagio located directly in the middle of it all.  The southwestern leg of the lake is the most populated area with the more villages, extravagant villas and resort hotels than the other areas of the lake, while the northern end of the lake is much less populated and known for water sports such as sailing and windsurfing. At the base of the south western shore you will find the 2000 year old walled city of Como, which is the largest city on the lake and a world famous producer of extravagant silks. Traveling from Como north on the western shore of the southwestern leg you will find the other key villages of Cernobbio and Tremezzo, with Bellagio in the center of it all.


Throughout the ages, Lario has hosted famous inventors, artists, world leaders and royalty. If you drive along the lake you will travel over the remnants Via Regina which was created as part of a trade route for the Roman Empire.  During the Renaissance period Leonardo de Vinci traveled to the lake for inspiration. Later, Lario would attract poets Byron and Shelley, and leaders like Winston Churchill who would retreat to it’s shores to paint. In 1945 Mussolini and his mistress were captured and killed in the town of Giulino located along the lake as they attempted to flee to Switzerland.

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In more recent times folks like Gianni Versace, Richard Branson and George Clooney have owned homes on the lake, and and Silvio Berlusconi has likely thrown a few parties in his villa. Royalty and Hollywood glitterati have been vacationing along these romantic promenades for ages, including Price Charles and Princess Dianna, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable, and more recently visitors like Madonna, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Cindy Crawford. I could keep going, but I think you get it, this place is kind of a big deal. Now you have to get here.

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GETTING THERE

Milan Malpensa (MXP) is the best airport to access to the northern lake region of Italy. Within an hour of grabbing your suitcase off the carousel, you can be enjoying your first glass of wine at Harry’s Bar in Cernobbio.  The train runs directly into the city of Como, but if that is not your final destination you will have to take a ferry or taxi your final destination.  

I prefer to rent a car so I can navigate have maximum control over my schedule and stop to take a photo whenever I please.  You will see signs reading “Car Hire” at the airport, where you can pick up your rental car on-site.  Don’t worry, the steering wheel is on the left side, but be sure to ask for an automatic if you aren’t familiar with a standard shifting car.  While the major highways are pretty comparable to what we you will find in the US, be prepared for traffic circles, narrow roads and tight switch backs as you near the Alps which can take some getting used to.

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If you drive, call a private car for you if you plan to have a few glasses of wine with your dinner.  It’s relative inexpensive, let’s you enjoy the scenery, and get through dinner without worrying about getting home safely.  Plus, you may end up with George Clooney’s driver…

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WHAT TO DO

You could spend a week just lounging lakeside watching the ferries pass you by, or if you are always on the go there are tons of sites to keep you busy.

  1. VILLA CARLOTTALocated in the village of Tremezzo, Villa Carlotta is one the most well known estates on the lake, boasting over 70,000 square meters of gardens that you can tour (word to the wise, don’t take a stroller if you have little ones, the terrain is pretty rugged and full of stairs).    Before leaving Tremezzo, also be sure to check out the beautiful promenades of Teresio Olivelli Park (which is free!). 
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    Front façade of Villa Carlotta.

     

     


     

     


  2. VILLA BALBIANELLO: Likely the most noteworthy villa on the Lake, you may recognize Villa Balbianello  from scenes in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones  and Casino Royale,  and the charming movie A Month by the Lake depicting the lake in the 1930’s (worth watching for the beautiful scenery alone).  Built in 1787 on the site of Franciscan monestary, this villa was a residence of the Vistonti family, but later fell into disrepair until US Official Butler Ames purchased and restored the villa after World War I, and in 1974 it was purchased by explorer Guido Monzino, who furnished it with memorabilia from his expeditions and upon his death left the property to l’Ambiente Italiano (the National Trust of Italy).  Today you will find the grounds filled with happy tourists taking photos and it is a popular site for (very expensive) weddings.  You can reach the villa by ferry or a rather lengthy hike out onto the peninsula. The days of the week and times the Villa Balbianello is open to the public varies each season, so be sure to check the website in advance.

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  3. CERNOBBIO: Just northwest of the town of Cernobbio, this town dates back to the 12th century and is the gateway to towns on the western shore of the lake.  One of the streets through the town is so narrow that traffic only runs one way, and is regulated by a stop light.  There are a host of cute shops, some of my favorite restaurants and bars, and yet another beautiful promenade where you can find the perfect bench to scarf down your favorite gelato as you watch the ferries pass by, or perhaps even jump aboard one.  If you have a chance check out beautiful Villa Erba (site of scenes from the movie Ocean’s 12 and Gwen Stefani’s “Cool” video), as well as the stunning Villa d’Este to grab a drink and walk the gardens.

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    Looking up at Cernobbio from the promenade and ferry stop.  Harry’s Bar is the middle of the three buildings in this photograph.

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    Villa Erba

     

     

  4. BELLAGIOYou will find the shores of the charming town of Bellagio teaming with busy tourists hopping on and off ferries all day, as this is one of the most visited sports on the lake.  This is the place to go shopping for your Como silk ties, leather goods, olive wood cutting blocks and Italian art.  The streets are fun and winding, but it is also teaming with steep stairs so be wary if you have trouble getting around or are traveling with strollers.  I enjoy coming for the afternoon, shopping for a few hours, enjoying a bite to eat and the cheery flowers along the shore.

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    The winding paths of Bellagio.



  5. COMO: The town of Como is where the train station is located, and is the most metropolitan city along the lake with the largest population.  You can find hotels and reastaurants at slightly more reasonable prices here as well.  Perhaps slightly less romantic than it’s cousins along the southwestern shore due to its real city feel, it is only a short ferry ride away from those cozier towns. Take a ride up to Brunate on the Funicular between Como and the hilltop village to catch some stunning views of the alps!

WHERE TO STAY

  1. VILLA D’ESTE:  Located in the town of Cernobbio, Villa D’Este is where celebrities like Springsteen, Madonna and Bono stay when visiting the lake.  Originally established as a convent in the 1400’s, this site was converted to a luxury hotel for nobility and the bourgeoisie in 1873.  The grounds are stunning with a beautiful stone mosaic as the centerpiece of the gardens, and a swimming pool that is actually floating upon the lake. The rooms typically start somewhere near $1000 a night and go up from there.  If that is a bit out of your budget try to stop for dinner or a drink so you can still take in the sites.
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    Beautiful gardens of Villa D’Este.

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    Luxurious interior of Villa D’Este

     

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    Floating Pool at Villa D’Este

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    View of the main building at Villa D’Este from the water.

  2. GRAND HOTEL TREMEZZO: With a price tag a bit less shocking than Villa D’ Este, Grand Hotel Tremezzo  hotel boasts a floating swimming pool from which you can see the shores of Bellagio almost directly across the lake.  The hotel is next to Villa Carlotta, and is an easy ferry stop away from several towns.thumb_Munich and Lake Como 509_1024
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    Hotel pool at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo

  3. RELAIS VILLA VITTORIA: I love to pretend that I have my very own villa on the lake, and this small hotel makes that very easy.  I hesitate to share Relais Villa Vittoria  as it has very few rooms, but it is simply perfection.  You can eat onsite, or a few nearby restaurants in the town of Laglio, but if you are staying here I suggest that you rent a car to make it easier to get around.  It’s only minutes to Cernobbio and Como to the south, and I head north a few miles to the charming town of Argegno to catch the ferry to Bellagio.  This has been included as one of Travel and Leasure’s best new small hotels in Italy and its a great deal for the money.
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    View of Villa Vittoria from the water

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    Get one of the rooms with a balcony, it is worth it.


  4. GRAND HOTEL IMPERIALELocated in the town of Moltrasio, Grand Hotel Imperiale is in a great location on the southwestern shore just north of Cernobbio.   The hotel grounds are pretty big, so be sure so specify when making your reservation if you will be in a lakeside building or across the street with garden views.  With onsite restaurants, pool and it’s own diving board into the lake, the onsite amenities are pretty great but be prepared that while clean, the interiors could be updated a bit.  The prices here are really reasonable though, especially in summer months, and you can rent your own boat right across the street.
  5. OTHERS: While still pretty pricey, the eastern shore of the southwest leg of the lake gets a bit more shade, so you will get a bit more bang for your buck at the upscale Casta Diva and Villa Lario.  In addition to the hotels above, if you are traveling with a large group, want a villa of your own, or have little ones and just need a kitchen and some separate bedrooms, there are also a fair number of vacation homes, villas and apartment rentals available online.

WHEN TO VISIT

I think the best time of year to visit is in the summer when you can drink in the sunshine and zip around the lake all day in on a boat, but the crowds and prices understandably increase during that peak season. June can still be a little chilly and tends to be a bit more rainy than July or August. If you are more interested in drinking in your favorite Italian red and exploring the towns, restaurants and shops, the spring and fall seasons are also delightful and much less expense. May and September are great months to visit. While this area is at the foothills of the Alps, it is not a ski area so many hotels, restaurants and bars close down from November through February.

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Sitting lakeside at the dock at Villa Regina Teodolinda in Laglio

Just spotted your run of the mill funicular for a residence in Laglio while on my morning run (wow!)


 

BOATS AND FERRY TRAVEL

Spending a day or days on the lake is a must-do here, and its the best way to see the sites in a short period of time and the only way to truly appreciate the majestic mountains, gardens and villas the decorate the landscape.  Your three options are (1) travel by ferry, (2) hire a boat with a driver, or (3) rent your own boat by the hour.

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Ferry pulling up to the port in Cernobbio

Navigating the lake via ferry is pretty easy, and each ferry stop will have an up to date brochure with daily schedules.  Schedules and the number and location of stops will vary from season to season, so be sure to check before you go.  More popular ferry stops are in the towns of Como, Cernobbio, Menaggio, Argegno, Tremezzo and Bellagio, but there are many other smaller stops that operate with less frequency.  In some larger locations like Bellagio you can also find car ferries, but those are more limited.    If you are trying to catch the last ferry of the day from any stop, get to the port a little early to ensure you have a good seat.  When choosing a ferry, keep in mind that there are both slow steamer type ferries (which are more common) and hydrofoil type boats between key ports like Como and Bellagio that are much faster – depending on how far you travel there can be hours difference up and down the lake.  Look at the departure times as well as the arrival times at your intended destination to make sure you chose the right boat for you.

The following links will direct you the ferry schedule for each company:

Most ferries include interior and exterior seating, and I almost always opt for sitting outside so I don’t miss a thing.  Many ferries have small cafe’s where you can purchase snacks and coffee, and feel free to bring along a bottle of wine to enjoy along the way (its allowed here).

Ferries are by far the most economical way around the lake – you can buy tickets from one stop to the next, round trip tickets, or buy a daily pass for unlimited stops.

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View from Villa Regina Teodolinda, which is used today widely as a destination wedding location, but is available for rent on occasion

Your second option is to hire a boat taxi around the lake.  Although this can get pretty costly if you aren’t traveling with a larger group that can split the cost, it is something that you should do at least once if you can.  Your driver can usually pick you up directly at your lakefront hotel for maximum convenience, and you can tailor the length of your tour and what you’d like to see.   The guides will teach you about the history of the lake, who owns which villa, and will take you to see sites like a hidden waterfall in an obscure little nook of the lake.  This also allows everyone in your party to enjoy the trip, and have a few cocktails along the way.  Check with your hotel and they will likely be happy to help you make arrangements, but I’ve also included a link to one of the companies HERE. This will likely cost you a few hundred dollars for a couple of hours, but once you learn more about the lake you will be ready to hit the lake on your own.

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Views from Laglio on my morning run

The third option for lake travel is renting your own boat.   I wouldn’t make Lake Como your first attempt to captain your own boat, especially with the large wake that’s common from the ferry traffic, but if you are used to navigating around lakes on your own at home this is completely doable.  This is a cheaper alternative to having a boat taxi, and you have the ability to go to the sites you want to visit.   In Italy, a person must be 18 years or older to rent a boat, and you must have an Italian boating license to rent any craft over 40.8 HP.  Translation – unless you happen to have an Italian boating license in your back pocket your boat is going significantly slower than some of the other traffic our there.  My favorite place to rent a boat on the lake is Nettuno Boat Rental in Moltrasio because it is smack dab in the middle of the southwestern shore. (And even with the big ferries, lots of folks are out on the lake in kayaks and paddle boards too, and many hotels have them on site for use during your stay.)

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BIG TIP HERE:  Remember to lather on sunscreen during your day on the lake- its easy to forget with the lake breeze cooling you off and the water reflects lots of sunlight!

GEORGE CLOONEY

It’s not unheard of to catch a glimpse of George Clooney, Rande Gerber and Cindy Crawford cruising the winding roads surrounding the lake on their Harley’s, although I have yet to be so lucky. With a mild obsession with George Clooney tucked under my belt during my first visit to Lake Como back in 2008, I determined that I would figure out which villa was his.  Turns out, Villa Oleander is difficult to locate and every boat captain, car hire or local will happily point it out to anyone who is interested. You can pretty easily snap photos of the stately cream colored villa from your ferry, boat hire or walking past in town, but please be respectful that this is someone’s actual home.

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Villa Oleander from the lake, most every captain will proudly point it out as if it is their home

Be careful not to hang around too long thinking you may get a shot of the world famous star because (1) I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be walking out his back door if a random person he doesn’t know is lurking awkwardly around outside with a camera in tow (would you?), and (2) there are actually local ordinances enacted that make loitering in the area surrounding his villa illegal following some pretty terrible paparazzi constantly swarming the area in the summer months. See it, snap a photo if you so choose, and move on by. And don’t worry, you still have a shot bumping into George when you go out to dinner at night, he’s often out and about.

RESTAURANTS

There are countless restaurants on and around the lake, but below are a few personal favorites that I’m sure to visit every trip:

  1. HARRY’S BARHarry’s Bar is located along the promenade near the ferry stop in the town of Cernobbio.  This is a fantastic place to sit and enjoy a nice afternoon drink as you watch kids running down to the nearby park with a melting cone of gelato in their hands.
  2. EL GATTO NEROEl Gatto Nero is a do not miss.  This restaurant is also located about half way up the mountain from the main traffic circle in the town of Cernobbio and it offers the most spectacular views of the lake from high above. The food is as spectacular as the view, and features many fish, fowl and other meat dishes which can be much welcomed after lots of pasta (but their pasta is great too!).  Be sure to call ahead for a reservation.thumb_Italy 2009 450_1024
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    Views from El Gatto Nero are as good as the food

     

    BIG TIP HERE: El Gatto Nero is one place where I’d recommend hiring a driver or taxi for dinner.  You will be driving up some crazy switchbacks until you reach the restaurant, at which time a guy in a car will greet you and zoom up the mountain instructing you to follow him.  You will chase him up the mountain in the car until he instructs you where to parallel park in a teeny space along cliff with low stone walls on the one way road, and then wait to drive you back down the mountain to the restaurant.  Basically think valet parking but you park your own car.  In any event, you will spend most of dinner thinking about how you will squeeze out of the impossible space on the cliff, find a place to do a 3 point turn on the one way switch back road, and make it back down the mountain… HIRE A DRIVER! Your hotel will be more than happy to call for the reservation and driver, and you won’t be sorry. 

  3. GIARDINO CERNOBBIO: If you want something more low key with fantastic pizza right on the main drag in Cernobbio, try Giardino Cernobbio.

    Giardino’s happily accommodating our son Max when he was 8 months old for dinner.  Italians love babies and will happily host even the crankiest of little ones graciously!

  4. LA LOCANDA DEL CANTIERE:  Finally, La Locanda del Cantiere is located in the town of Laglio a short walk south on Via Regina from the Relais Villa Vittoria, where you can enjoy the most amazing pasta with mushrooms when in season

 

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I have dreams about this pasta.  I was told it was out of season when we visited last year in June and was so bummed!  I have had it in August in September, but other than that I have no idea when “in-season” is.  Best pasta I will likely ever have.

 

SOME OTHER FAVORITE PHOTOS

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Reading a book and enjoying a bottle of wine on a dock in Laglio

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Pretty town of Argegno, slightly less touristy than many.  One of my favorites on the lake.

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View from my balcony at the Villa Vittoria in Laglio.

Looking out onto the lake from the Villa Regina Teodolinda in Laglio.

Discovering Street Art

We went on our first family vacation to Italy last summer with our 8 month old Max, so I started the trip with a pretty limited agenda. Somehow we are lucky enough to have the world’s happiest baby who was completely content that first day being pushed over the bumpy cobblestones in the Florentine streets, observing hustle and bustle of the tourists, vendors and mopeds zipping about the streets, and listening to so many new sounds.


I briefly studied abroad while in law school in Florence, but I had not been back for years.  My husband had never been to Florence with me, so not knowing if Max’s demeanor would change (it didn’t), I wanted to take advantage of Max’s generous mood that first day and attempted to hit all of my “must do” items in the city.  Anyone who has ever been to Florence knows that is impossible, but I was determined to try.

Late in the afternoon I decided that my husband Matt had to try what has been dubbed by many as the BEST gelato in Florence at Vivoli.  Vivoli is pretty close the general area where the Ponte Vecchio is located, and I had vague memories of where to find it, so we wandered the nooks and crannies  of the tiny streets behind the Piazza Signorina for a bit for it before I finally pulled out my iPhone to help me find the rest of the way there.


When we finally arrived, I ordered up my layers of limon and fraggola goodness, and I was correct in remembering that the gelato at this place was out of this world!  Unfortunately because I got lost and we took forever to get there, Max fell asleep and missed his first authentic Italian gelato experience.


As we wandered back toward the crowds of the Ufizzi gallery down yet another narrow path, I was intent on capturing the light on the buildings with the afternoon sun peeking through just right.  A ray of light caught my eye and I noticed a small dove on one street sign and what appeared to be an elephant on the other.  I thought they were so unique and snapped a quick shot before running to catch up with my husband who was graciously pushing our baby over yet another bumpy cobblestone street.


Because I take what seems like a million photos a day, and in fact took well over 2000 photos during that trip, sometimes they get lost in the shuffle.  Last night I was showing my trip photos (yes, all 2000 of them) to my mom and I came across that photo of the signs.  I couldn’t believe I had forgotten about it and immediately grabbed it to share on Instagram last night.  I tried doing a quick internet search for things like “dove art street sign”, but nothing popped up so I uploaded my photo anyway and went to bed.

I woke up this morning to see that someone recognized this street art and tagged the artist, Clet Abraham.  After some early morning online searches, and some articles on the Daily Mail and the Guardian, I learned that this French born classically trained artist lives in Florence and has been sneaking around cities across Europe altering street signs in the middle of the night, in the hopes of both entertaining those around him and discover the signs reflect on how people can blindly obey orders.

I’m so glad that by accident I stumbled upon this artist, and only wish I had known more about him before I went back to Florence this summer. What a fun it would have been to go on a scavenger hunt for his work while wandering the streets of the birthplace of the renaissance. It’s like the more sophisticated version of searching for hidden Mickey’s at Walt Disney World!  If you would like to see more of his art, search for #Clet on Instagram and you will see a whole host of his work.  Next trip to Florence, I’m adding one more activity to my agenda!

So your family won’t have to wander like we did, here is a list of the Top 10 Gelato Shops in Florence!  And don’t worry, Max finally got that gelato in Lake Como 🙂

Best Little Dress

I have always been of the opinion that you don’t have to break the bank to create a great outfit. Case in point is this fantastic dress that I purchased at Old Navy in June to go on vacation in Tuscany with my husband and baby boy.
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A friend once told me that some people shop on vacation, and others shop for vacation. I always do the latter, and this summer was no exception. That being said, I also wanted to get some pieces that didn’t make me want to cry if my little dude threw up on me or threw his veggie pack all over the place.

I bought this dramatic red dress from Old Navy for under $20, and accessorized with my go to Burberry sunglasses, and a necklace and neutral cardigan/jacket from Anthropologie. The sweater went with everything in my suitcase and was washable too.

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DRESS Similar Old Navy Dress | CARDIGAN Similar Anthro Sweater | NECKLACE New Favorite Necklace from Anthro | GO TO SUNNIES Burberry