Varenna is a small town on Lake Como, Italy located about 60 km north of Milan. This picturesque town is coined one of the most beautiful on Lake Como and due to it’s short train ride away from Milan, can be great for a day trip or a homebase for a longer trip in the area.
The town of Varenna was just that for me on my recent trip to Italy last September – a homebase! What’s great about it is that there is a train station right in town, meaning you have easy access for coming and going. Where as if you stay in other towns around the lake, you will need to take a ferry once you arrive by train to either Como or Varenna’s train stations.
How to get to Varenna from Milan
The journey from Milan to Varenna is quite simple. Make your way to Milano Centrale Railway Station and purchase tickets to Varenna-Esino. There are about 14 direct trains that run throughout the day between these stations via Trenord. I booked my tickets in advance just to make it easy to hop on the train when I got there.
Varenna is a tiny town. You can walk everywhere and there really is no need for a car. In fact, with limited parking and narrow roads, driving is actually more inconvenient. There is also a ferry terminal that provides you with access to the rest of the lake if you decide to visit some of the other towns around Lake Como or spend a day village hopping.
Since the ferry system provides quick and frequent trips around the lake, it’s recommended to opt for the ferry over driving as it’ll be more efficient and quick.
To read my guide to village hopping in Lake Como, click here
Where to stay in Varenna
Lake Como is lined with bougie hotels, but naturally, they aren’t fit for most travel budgets. That’s why we opted for an Airbnb instead. Not only did it give us the option to cook some meals at home, but it also was significantly more cost efficient for our 4 nights we stayed. Since the town is small, there really isn’t a “bad area” to stay in. You’ll just want to make sure you are central (aka walking distance to the ferry terminal or main centre square) since the area is very hilly and you don’t want to be stuck walking or driving up and down hills constantly to get anywhere.
I highly recommend the adorable, local Airbnb we stayed in, you can book it here
Best places to eat
There are some fantastic restaurants right in Varenna. Unfortunately, when we traveled there at the end of September, there were a lot of restaurants taking mini holidays after their busy season and in turn, their restaurant was closed. Even though lots of places don’t take reservations in advance, you may want to contact them before your visit to ensure they are open. Varenna can be really busy even in the shoulder season, so you’ll want reservations even if you make them the day of.
Anyway, here are some highly recommended spots to grab a bite:
- Al Prato
- Il Caminetto: This spot is actually located outside of the main centre of Varenna but they offer a free shuttle service from the ferry terminal there and back. Book in advance! It’s worth it
- Il Cavatappi
- Osteria Quatro Pass
- Caffe Varenna: Especially great for aperitivo
- Bar II Molo: For aperitivo
Tip! You’ll notice that meals here happen earlier than in other parts of Italy. Make sure to plan accordingly as there were a few times we’d be ready for lunch at 2pm only to find most restaurants closed.
What to do
There are a lot of different things to do in Varenna but one of the most beautiful things is just walking around, exploring the side streets, and the views, and just enjoying a slow travel moment. Below, however, are some of the highlights.
Villa Monastero: One of the main historical and environmental sites in the area. Visit the villa itself which is now a museum, and/or the botanical gardens that surround it along the lake shore. When we visited, we only did the gardens and they were beautiful!
Castello di Vezio: A castle on a hill that overlooks Varenna and Lake Como. It’s really fun and beautiful to explore the castle and the views from up top. There are two ways to get there – the first is a steep cobblestone path that takes about 30 minutes from the north end of Varenna, or you can take a path adjacent from Villa Monastero that takes about 40 minutes. Expect both to be uphill and a workout.
Villa Cipressi: Visit the gardens of Villa Cipressi, a historical residence on Lake Como that is now home to a beautiful hotel and restaurant.
Hiking: There are some fantastic hiking trails around Varenna if you are looking for a workout with fantastic views. My go-to is to look at the different levels of hikes on All Trails because you can read reviews of the hikes, as well as see how long they are and how challenging. We opted for a great hike that was Bellano – Varenna via Cammino del Viandante but we did it backward starting in Varenna. We also took the train back from Bellano vs. hiking back.
Cooking Class: Any cooking class in Italy will be a good one because you don’t need me to tell you that the cuisine in Italy is next level. Varenna can be a great place to do a cooking class, especially on a rainy day. One that I really wish I was going to be able to fit in while we were there was at Il Caminetto. This restaurant I recommended above, it’s local and owned by the cutest couple. I can only imagine their cooking class is fantastic.
The Town Centre: The town centre of Varenna is super cute and home to the Church of San Giorgio which was built in the 14th century. You’ll also find cute restaurants and local stores here.
The best part about Lake Como is the village hopping via their convenient ferry system. Here are just some of the spots to go around the lake and nearby.
- Milan: Just under a 1.5 hour train ride away. Go for a day or a weekend!
- UNESCO Dry-Stone Wall Vineyards
Missultin: Fished in the lake from May to June, and dehydrated with salt before being exposed to the sun for a few days. Afterward, they are stashed inside a wood box called a “Missolta” with laurel leaves which they can be conserved in for a long time. They are normally served with polenta.
Polenta: Very common in the valleys around Lake Como, Polenta is cooked with tasty local cheeses, butter, garlic, and sage. You can find it on the menu as “Polenta Uncia”.
Pizzoccheri: Pizzoccheri Valtellinesi is a type of pasta, similar to tagliatelle and made with buckwheat flour. This is boiled together with chopped potatoes, savoy cabbage, and spiced with cheese and butter.
More information on the local food here
How much time do I need in Varenna? You can definitely explore Varenna in a day, however, if you want to see more of Lake Como it’s recommended you stay for at least 3 days in order to have time to village hop to other parts of the lake.
Where is the best place to stay in Lake Como? I did a lot of research on this and landed on Varenna. I was worried since Varenna was home to one of the few train stations around the lake it would be too touristy and built up but it wasn’t at all. Even without the train station, this would be one of the top towns to stay in. Bellagio also is ranked one of the most popular but expect to pay more for hotels there.
Can I do a day trip to Varenna? 100% of the train ride is just over an hour from Milan. Leave early in the AM and spend the day exploring the town before heading back to the city. I will say though, you’ll definitely wish you could stay for longer.
When is the best time of year to travel to Lake Como? The warmest, and driest months are definitely the summer (June-August) and you’ll see a few fewer tourists in the shoulder seasons (April-May, and September-October). However, you can visit Lake Como year-round, just expect if you go in the off-season some places may have limited hours or be closed.