My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

The Milano Express

A striking contrast to much of Italy, Milan is the country’s time-is-money business and fashion hub. People like to describe it as “Germanic,” which is code for “organized but unfriendly.” But I think that’s too much of a swipe at Germany, which, in my experience, can be much friendlier — and much less organized — than its reputation.

Milan isn’t “Germanic.” It’s Milanese. And, let’s be frank, that’s not what most travelers are looking for. The city is less warm, colorful, romantic, evocative, and, yes, friendly than just about anywhere else I’ve been in Italy. Money talks here more loudly than elsewhere, and dressing casually makes you stick out like a pile of parmesan on a plate of seafood pasta. Consequently, most tourists either give Milan a miss, or hit it strategically as they zip through.

Much as I’d like to turn this conventional wisdom on its ear, after a few days in Milan, I’m convinced that a quick visit really is best plan. Don’t linger in Milan. Everything you want to see — the Duomo and its prickly rooftop, the adjacent Vittorio Emanuele II shopping gallery, Michelangelo’s final pietà in the Sforza Castle, and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper — can easily be squeezed into a few hours…if you’re organized and willing to rush. “Day Two” in Milan ranks pretty low on an Italian scale, and the “extra credit” sights aren’t worth the bonus points. I’d spend just one night. Or, if works for your itinerary, hit the big sights on your way between other destinations.

That said, the greatest hits of Milan really are pretty great. Here are some highlights, and some tips for making the most of your time.

Milan Piazza

Milan’s main square, Piazza del Duomo, is shared by its two most famous landmarks: the Duomo (cathedral) and the Vittorio Emanuele II shopping gallery. Stepping into this piazza, you get the “oh, wow” rush you’d expect… but that excitement is fleeting. The other buildings on the square are mostly drab (even the fancy ones), and the whole space feels soulless and a bit seedy. As a traveler, I favor public spaces that can back up that initial wow with some real substance. But this is not a square that tempts me to linger with a cappuccino.

Duomo Interior

Milan’s famous Duomo is simply massive. It can hold 40,000. And with Expo 2015 happening on the outskirts of Milan right now, it may just need to. I was impressed on this visit to see how smartly Milan is coping with the 20 million Expo revelers who are expected over a six-month period. Just a few days after Expo opened, the city already seemed to have things figured out. For example, many sights are open special extended hours. The Duomo, which usually closes at 7 p.m., is staying open until 11 p.m. for the duration of the Expo.

Milan Rooftop

The Duomo’s interior, while massive, doesn’t have much that sets it apart from other famous Italian churches. But the Duomo does offer one unique opportunity: Riding an elevator (or walking up the stairs) to the rooftop, where you can wander through a forest of frilly Flamboyant Gothic spires.

Galleria 2

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — named for the king who first united Italy in the 1860s — may be the most stunning shopping mall on earth. But few people come here to actually shop; it’s the city hangout, where tourists and the Milanese come for a genteel stroll, to nurse an overpriced cocktail of the local Campari bitter, or just to get out of the sun or rain.

Michelangelo Pieta

The main art treasure in Milan is Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (not pictured here, because pictures are strictly forbidden — and they mean it). And, while The Last Supper is certainly well worth seeing, it requires a reservation weeks in advance (more on that in a future posting). But a few blocks away is another, completely overlooked masterpiece by another Renaissance great: this final pietà by Michelangelo, who, at nearly 90 years old, was working on this sculpture when he died. Although unfinished, it still demonstrates the unparalleled mastery of Michelangelo. Displayed at Sforza Castle, it has recently been moved into this gorgeously restored old hospital, where it can really take center stage…with nowhere near the crowds you’ll find at other Michelangelos in Italy.

Overheard in Italy

I’m sitting at a kebab shop, detoxing from several consecutive pasta dinners, when three college-age American travelers plop down at the next table.

The earnest, bespectacled one pulls out his dogeared Rick Steves Italy guidebook and begins reading passages aloud to his travel partners. They roll their eyes, but humor him.

Hiding behind my kebab, I’m getting a huge kick out of this scene. First of all, I can totally relate. On my first big trip to Europe 16 years ago, I was the one reading Rick’s words aloud to my friends, driving them nuts, making them wish it would stop…if only it weren’t so helpful. And I’m loving the opportunity to eavesdrop on our readers in situ. Call it “market research.” Rick’s too famous for this trick, but my anonymity allows me to go incognito.

“You know, guys, we joke around about Rick,” he says. (Though I’m guessing that the joking is mostly across the table.) “But you gotta admit, this book is really useful.”

His friends, barely acknowledging the statement, go back to their side conversation, while Poindexter keeps flipping pages.

“Whoah! Check it out, guys,” he says, eager to get in some licks of his own. “There’s a nightlife section!” This elicits more rolled eyes about the notion that a guy famous for money belts and PBS pledge drives would have the nerve to write about nightlife. “Do you suppose that every so often, ol’ Rick throws on a pair of jeans to go clubbing?”

At this point convulsing with silent laughter — making it hard to remain anonymous — I try to tune out the conversation. But I can’t stop listening.

“Wait, maybe he doesn’t do that part himself. Let’s see who his helpers are.” He turns to the “Credits” page in the back of the book, with pictures of a half-dozen guidebook researchers…including me. Three feet away, I flash a little grin just in case he glances over.

“Uh, guys? I have some bad news…” I can see his gears working, as he crafts a perfect joke about how everyone working on this book is a huge dork. I steel myself for what’s coming next.

But then his voice trails off, as he surveys the faces who make Rick’s Italy book possible: Ben, an American thirtysomething who fell in love with Rome (and one of its women) and now divides his time between Italy and Edmonds. Virginia, who moved from Abruzzo to Seattle, earned her Ph.D., and now leads Rick Steves tours back in her native Italy. Trish, a can-do Southern California gal, foodie, blogger, and tour guide. Travel nerds? Maybe. But more important, they’re all brilliant, fun, vivacious people, with a passion for Italy, and for sharing it with travelers.

The joke never comes. I release the breath I’ve been subconsciously holding. We made the cut. Apparently our crew of researchers is just cool enough for this Millennial to let slide. The Rick Steves guidebook street cred is safe for another generation.

Either that, or he finally recognized my photo and didn’t have the heart to mock me to my face. Good call, kid. Maybe someday, you’ll be the one overhearing this conversation from the next table.

Bella Bellagio

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 OV

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.

Bellagio Dock 2

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).

Bellago Steps up

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 parkBellagio’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.
Bellagio Trees

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.

Villas and Villages on Lake Como

During my few days on Lake Como, the weather was erratic — stunning sunshine one day, socked in and drizzly the next, then sun again, then rain again — but I didn’t care. Somehow, mountain lakes are equally serene in any weather.

On most trips, I stubbornly solider on with my research duties regardless of the weather. But lately I’m experimenting with letting the forecast dictate my work. I try to do the outdoor stuff (hikes and boat rides) when it’s nice out, and save the drudgery (pounding the pavement to update hotels) for cloudy or rainy days. This worked like a charm on Lake Como, where I saved my “riding a lake boat from villa to villa” responsibilities for the nicest day.

There are plenty of days where my work really feels like work. But today, I’d have been happy to pay for the privilege. (Don’t tell Rick.)

Lake Como Boat

A variety of lake boats — which come and go every half hour — make it easy to connect Lake Como’s various villages and villas. While most travelers head straight up to the congested top deck, I prefer to stand in the lower area in front of the bridge, where the passengers board. Positioned here, you can move around easily for unobstructed views in both directions, and you get to observe the boat dockings up close. The deckhand generally tries to lasso the cleat as the boat approaches the dock. Success earns a smattering of applause from the other crew members (and any tourists who happen to notice). With a miss, the deckhand hangs his head and hauls in the soggy line to try again from closer range.

Lake Como Mountains

Lake Como Mountains 2

And every boat trip comes with a stunning cut-glass alpine backdrop. No matter which country you’re viewing them from — Italy, Switzerland, France, Austria, Germany, Slovenia — the Alps are equally majestic.

Lake Como Boat Dock

Even the docks on Lake Como have a certain canopied class.

Balbianello TreesMy favorite lakeside villa was the Villa del Balbianello. Reaching it requires a restful hike through a wooded park from the boat dock in the town of Lenno. Finally, you emerge from the woods into a wonderland of stoic cypresses and knobby plane trees.

Balbianello OV

The Villa del Balbianello is familiar to movie buffs (like me) as the place where James Bond recovered from a particularly bruising experience in Casino Royale, and where Anakin first kissed Padme (and later married her) in Star Wars: Episode II. Sometimes I’m tickled by cinematic connections, but in this case the beauty of the villa’s setting trumped any fantasy world.

Balbianello StatueBeing a stony statue, standing sentry at the Villa del Balbianello, may be an even better gig than mine is.

CarlottaSitting just across the lake from busy Bellagio, Villa Carlotta is more crowded than Villa del Balbianello. The interior — a gallery of Neoclassical sculpture — feels like a rerun of other Italian museums. But the sprawling gardens are a delight.

Carlotta Gardens

From inside the mansion, you can look out over the terraced gardens and across the lake.

Carlotta bushes

Villa Carlotta’s gardens are big enough to be dramatically varied, from a lush jungle canyon to this clever maze of giant azalea bushes — and all of it with million-dollar views over Lake Como.

Convalescing on Lake Como

After editing Rick’s writing for many years, I’ve noticed he uses certain words in a very particular way. For example, he reserves “convalesce” for a select few places. Lake Como is one of them. And after my nearly two weeks battling South Italy, some convalescence was exactly what I needed.

Traveling from Naples to Lake Como, I grappled with severe culture shock…without ever leaving Italy. In just a few hours — screaming past Rome, Florence, and Bologna on the bullet train — I went from the unbridled south to the mellow, almost Teutonic north. Stepping off the train in Milan, the sleek efficiency stunned me. I had just enough time to grab a designer yuppie sandwich (for triple the cost of a slice of Neapolitan street pizza) before hopping on my connecting train to Lake Como.

Arriving in the lakeside town of Varenna, I settled into the Hotel du Lac, a pristine Old World hotel with all the modern comforts. The hotel clings to a bluff just over the lake’s tranquil waters. Run with a polish and efficiency unusual in Italy, it feels vaguely Swiss…fitting, since I could see Switzerland from my lakeview balcony.

Set up in comfort for three whole days, I could feel my system decompress from the pressure cooker of Naples. Here’s a photo essay of the lakeside retreat of Varenna.

Varenna View
For decades, Rick has favored Varenna as the best home base for exploring Lake Como. Brassy Bellagio and well-connected Como have their fans, but after spending a few days here, it’s clear why Rick hangs his hat in Varenna.

Varenna Square

Varenna is just the right size for a relaxing vacation. It has a train station, a boat dock, a picturesque church crowning a tidy square, and two little grocery stores that specialize in made-to-order sandwiches for lakeside picnics.

Varenna Sunny Harbor

On a clear day, Varenna’s technicolor harbor lures sun-worshippers to watch the lake boats come and go.

Varenna Harbor

And even when it’s socked in, Varenna’s vacationers still enjoy chatting by the harbor. The town’s fancier, more expensive restaurants are tucked deep in the twisty lanes, but — conveniently — the two big lakeside cafés are affordable and functional. These places let you dine on €10 pasta with €10,000,000 views.

Varenna Steps

Varenna’s steep lanes climb up the hill from the harborfront. The town’s top gelateria provides cushy cushions on the stony steps.

Varenna Trail

Capping the hill over Varenna — a stiff 20-minute huff above the town square — an old castle provides views across the entire lake. Hiking back down into Varenna, you enjoy sweeping views of olive groves, cypress trees, and hamlets hugging the shoreline.

Missoltino

After a busy day’s hike, it’s time for dinner. When traveling, I have an ethic about sampling — at least once — whatever the local specialty is, no matter how gross it sounds. On Lake Como, locals still dine on what, at one time, was a “hardship” food (like lutefisk for Norwegian American immigrants, or salt cod for the Basques). Missoltino is lake fish that’s preserved by being salted and sun-dried. Weeks later, it’s rehydrated and served for dinner. It wasn’t terrible. But no matter how you dress it up with delicate grilled polenta cakes and trendy plating, at some level it’s still old fish. At a later meal, having satisfied my obligation to try missoltino, I ordered a delicious, fresh filet of lavarello (lake whitefish)…much better.

Varenna Lamp

As Varenna’s street lamps twinkle on, those characteristic stepped lanes are washed in vibrant colors.