Two days in the Italian Lakes
If you only have a few days in the area, one of them should be spent exploring Lago di Como. The roads around the lake are twisty and narrow, and the drive from Como to Bellagio is more scary and exhausting than it is fun, so ferries are highly recommended for touring the lake. The drive from Locarno through Lugano and along the shore of Lago di Lugano, while beautiful, will more than satisfy most drivers' tastes for winding lakeside roads.
Near the ferry stop in Cadenabbia is Villa Carlotta, lakeside villa splendour at its finest and most opulent. The manicured gardens are evocative of a bygone era and are arguably more stunning than the villa itself. If you are a gardening fan, particularly one with a taste for rhododendrons, a stroll through the garden alone is worth the price of admission.
It is hard not to love Bellagio. It has long been called the pearl of Lago di Como, and the description fits perfectly: it is compact, beautiful and flawless. If you have been to the casino of the same name in Las Vegas, strike those images from your mind - there is no comparison. The village is isolated on a narrow point of land in the middle of the wishbone-shaped lake, so the easiest access is by ferry from Cadenabbia, which also provides the best views of the village.
As with many of the lake towns, the restaurants along the waterfront are charming but not the best and are often overpriced, so it pays to explore the steep alleys to find some of the gems the village has to offer. Try Ristorante Bilacus on Via Serbelloni, which has a beautiful outdoor patio with views over the village and serves a pappardelle with wild mushrooms that has yet to meet its equal.
After exploring Bellagio, take the ferry over to Varenna on the eastern shore of the lake. Varenna is comparable to Bellagio in terms of beauty and is often unjustly ignored by visitors. The village has an unusual way of looking like it springs directly from the lake with buildings clinging to the steep rocky cliff like boxy pastel barnacles.
If you have brought your car across on the ferry, take a short drive to the nearby 13th-century Castello di Vezio with panoramic views of the lake and falconry exhibitions in the afternoons.
After taking the ferry back to Cadenabbia, have dinner on the lake at Cucina della Marianna where the menu changes theme on a nightly basis (vegetarians will enjoy Thursday, the "Gardens" menu). The waiters somehow manage to elegantly ferry the food from the restaurant across the street while avoiding (or completely ignoring) the cars speeding along the lake road, providing an unintentional element of dinner theatre. Once your food (and waiter) has safely made it to you and you are sipping your wine as the lights turn on across the water in Bellagio, hopefully you will agree that it was a perfect 48 hours in the Italian Lakes. A stay at George Clooney's villa might have made it more perfect, but there is always a next time.