I’m disinclined to like a city that gave its name to a Las Vegas casino. But after a couple of afternoons prowling its steep streets, I’ve gotta admit — Bellagio is pretty nice. For the best Lake Como experience, I still prefer home-basing in Varenna, which feels a bit more real and less pretentious. But a targeted side-trip to Bellagio is well worthwhile.
Bellagio feels bold and confident. It knows that it has the lake’s glitziest cachet. Its pastel-hued grand hotels stretch out along a lazy lakefront with boat docks, trees, flower boxes, overpriced cafés, and piles of visitors.
On a sunny day sandwiched between gloomy ones, hordes of impatient travelers (eager to hop to the next town) meet each arriving boat. While the published boat schedules are nearly impossible to decipher, and the docks can be jammed, somehow it all just works…like everything in Italy. Key strategies: Assume a boat is going to your destination sometime in the next 30-60 minutes. Your job is to ask anyone who seems knowledgeable what time it leaves, and where it leaves from. Don’t wait until the last minute to buy your ticket (since they can’t be bought on board, and long lines can jam up the ticket windows). For a full day of lake-hopping, I splurged on the €15 all-day pass. Cost-wise, I basically broke even, but it saved me loads of time (and, probably, several missed boats while waiting in ticket lines).
While all of the lakefront towns have steep steps leading up from the waterfront, Bellagio’s have more class — they’re wider and more manicured, dressed up with lush flowers, draping ivy, and chichi wine bars. Yeah, I can see why this place is so popular.
Bellagio’s old town is fun to explore, but eventually you’ll need a break. From the promenade — clogged with fancy hotels, designer sports cars, and too many tourists with too much money — a row of carefully cultivated plane trees lures you for a tranquil lakefront stroll.
If you don’t have enough time or interest to ride the boat to some of the famous villas (like the Villa del Balbianello or the Villa Carlotta), just walk to one of the only slightly less stunning gardens near Bellagio or Varenna. For example, the Villa Melzi Gardens, a scenic 15-minute walk from downtown Bellagio, provides a good sampling of lakefront gardens, without the crowds or hassles of the more famous ones.