If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I love visiting villas.
Whenever I go somewhere, I always make a point of finding interesting historic villas – and possibly beautiful gardens – to visit. One of my favorite houses in Italy is Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan while one of the quirkiest and most eclectic ones I visited recently is Villa Grock in Imperia, not far from where I live.
So, when my husband and I decided to go somewhere near Lake Como for our September holidays, the first thing I did was research beautiful gardens and villas to visit while there. Finding such places at Lake Como is quite easy since there are quite a few historic houses open to the public there. Actually, the problem was that we didn’t have enough time to visit them all!
Villa Carlotta seen from the garden
We stayed in a mountain valley near the west side of Lake Como, so I picked two villas that are on that part of the lake: Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, and Villa del Balbianello in Lenno. As I said, there were more houses and gardens that could be visited in the area but unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time. However, I am super happy with the two I picked because they were honestly pretty impressive.
But let me tell you more about these two historic villas at Lake Como.
The first one we visited was Villa Carlotta. We went there early in the morning and it was a really good choice because there weren’t many people around. It was late September, so maybe it was a less crowded time, but I had expected many more people to be there. When I got in and I saw that it was basically empty, I couldn’t believe my eyes!
me enjoying the scenery at Villa Carlotta
Villa Carlotta is mostly famous for its incredible botanical garden, which is part of the Grandi Giardini Italiani network. The villa is impressive and hosts a collection of works of art and temporary exhibitions as well. The villa was built in 1690 by the Marchese Clerici – the first name of the villa was in fact, Villa Clerici – and was bought in 1801 by Gian Battista Sommariva, an art collector who enriched the house with pieces coming from his personal collection, transforming it into a museum and a place where intellectuals like Stendhal and Flaubert would spend their time.
In 1843 the villa was bought by Princess Marianna of Nassau, who then gifted it to her daughter Carlotta, hence its current name. During World War I, since the owner was a citizen of an enemy state, the property was acquired by the state and is now managed by an authority that takes care of the museum and the gardens.
the beautiful garden overlooking the lake at Villa Carlotta
Only a part of the house is accessible to the public and, even though the structure is amazing, what I enjoyed the most were the views from its windows: you can see the garden below overlooking the lake and the mountains in the distance and it is honestly quite breathtaking. The botanical garden is huge and full of plants coming from different areas and climates: there is an Italian garden, an English and a Japanese one, with a small bamboo forest.
They say that the best moment to visit Villa Carlotta is in April, when the azaleas and the rhododendrons are in full bloom but I was there in September, when very few flowers were in bloom, and I enjoyed it very much anyway. I highly recommend not missing it if you are in the area, especially if you are a plant and flower enthusiast.
the garden at Villa del Balbianello
On the same day, we also visited Villa del Balbianello, which is not that far away from Villa Carlotta. Villa del Balbianello is even more breathtaking and impressive than Villa Carlotta – it is possibly the most beautiful house and garden I have ever seen – but the atmosphere is way different. It is more famous, more crowded, and definitely fuller of Instagram opportunities than the other one, which means that there are people taking pictures and selfies at basically every corner.
I do not have anything against tourists – I am one myself and I enjoy being one! – but I don’t like it when people do not take the time to try to understand what they are seeing. I had the feeling that people were there just for the unbelievably beautiful scenery but couldn’t care less about what that place was – if you see what I mean. I found it a bit sad because Villa del Balbianello has an interesting history as well.
a detailed view of Villa del Balbianello
The villa was built in 1787 on a Franciscan monastery by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini, who would spend his summers there and where he invited many intellectuals to gather and spend time together. After his death, the villa had many different owners and was then abandoned for more than thirty years. In 1974 it was bought by Guido Monzino, heir of the family who owned the Standa, a famous Italian chain of department stores.
Guido Monzino was a renowned explorer: he organized the first Italian expedition to Mount Everest and the first Italian expedition to reach the North Pole. He wanted to turn Villa del Balbianello into an Italian hub of geographic research and the house is full of relics coming from its expeditions. Monzino died in 1988 and left the villa to the FAI, which takes care of preserving the villa as it was when Monzino was alive.
the breathtaking view of the lake seen from Villa del Balbianello
Villa del Balbianello is a very famous movie location: scenes from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Casino Royale have been shot there, among many other movies. As I said, the villa is very crowded and since it is mandatory to book the visit, I highly recommend buying the ticket in advance, especially if you plan to go there in high season. Yes, it will be crowded but it will be absolutely worth it because the garden and the views are truly magnificent!
By the way, what is your favorite place on Lake Como?
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