With a reputation as a luxury haunt of Hollywood A-listers, the Italian lakes aren’t usually the go-to choice for affordable holidays – but they could be if you follow our tips
The money-saving checklist is looking a bit grim. You haven’t booked early, and you don’t want to leave it late. You have drawn a blank on the less obvious budget-airline routes (Ryanair to Bergamo, easyJet and Monarch to Verona, and so on). You can’t visit in shoulder seasons – April and October may well be good months to grab a deal, but the kids are at school or you don’t want to dice with the dodgy climate. And you want to see the lakes at their best, not settle for the less bucolic stretches – the north of Lake Como, say, or south-eastern Maggiore – for the sake of saving money. And you definitely won’t settle for a humdrum campsite.
Where does that leave your planned budget trip to the lakes? Even taking all these factors into account, and with a little reshaping of your itinerary, it can still be done.
The name Como conjures up images of stone villages reflected in still waters, opulent, pastel-hued lakefront villas dwarfed by snow-capped peaks, and luminous mist clinging to the lake like a halo hovering over a renaissance saint. With its Hollywood A-list following (George Clooney has a lakeside villa here), Como has a rep as the luxe lake … but it also offers better budget options than its neighbours.
The city of Como itself is low on lakefront romance, especially as the remodelling of the promenade continues without an end in sight. Yet there is lots to see and do for very little (or free) in its charming historic centre. Nowhere encapsulates the city’s eclectic architectural heritage better than its cathedral. It took 350 years to build, and has a Romanesque bell tower, a gothic façade with pinnacles, pointed arches and an adjacent striped loggia, renaissance scallop niches and a late-baroque dome added around 1730 by Filippo Juvarra. The ensemble works, somehow.
The nearby Casa del Fascio is a masterpiece of geometric 1930s rationalism by Giuseppe Terragni, after whom it’s now officially named. Both are free to view. In fact, the whole centre is a delight to wander; another glorious architectural mishmash, Piazza San Fedele, comes alive during the evening passeggiata.
It is also cheaper to eat and stay in Como than in the resorts of the centro lago (middle lake). There are 50 tasty, hearty salads on the menu at La Vita è Bella (Piazza Croggi 4, +39 031 302667). They arrive on bin-lid sized plates, cost around €8 and there’s no cover charge. Como’s best budget beds are at In Riva al Lago (doubles from €49). Rooms are far from flash, but they are clean and functional and in a great central spot, a few paces from the lake.
From Como, ferries and hydrofoils depart to spots up and down the lake. The best value for a whole day’s unlimited hopping is the libera circolazione ticket, at €28 for an adult. Up to two under-12s go free with two paying adults; see navigazionelaghi.it. Jump off first at Lenno, a lakeside town known for its olive oil. At Villa del Balbianello, terraced Romantic gardens jut dramatically from a wooded promontory. (Kids might be excited to know this is the scene of the Naboo lakeside retreat in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.) And National Trust members get €4 off admission.
Further north, Bellagio is Como’s cachet town. The village nestles in a saddle between groomed hills that separate the lake’s southern forks. Grand harbourfront hotels in pink and peach and cream have a hint of art nouveau ironwork to cheer their 19th-century grandeur. But if you can’t afford Bellagio’s swank, it is hard to get a handle on what all the fuss is about the place. (And, frankly, if I had €500 to spend, I’d stay somewhere that sees fewer daytrippers.) Still, it costs nothing to walk 10 minutes out to Punta Spartivento – the point where the lake’s three branches meet – to visit Bellagio’s Romanesque church, or to sit in the shade along the lungolago admiring the natural beauty of this central riviera, called the Tremezzina.
Varenna, just a 15-minute ferry ride away, is better for the budget-conscious. Resist the pretty lakefront bars – you pay a couple of euros extra for the prime site. A short walk uphill is a little piazza overlooked by a 13th-century church. Its Albergo del Sole has the best budget food in Varenna, with pasta dishes from €5. For €10, you can have one of the lake’s signature dishes, spaghetti tossed with missoltino, preserved freshwater shad. Skip dessert and opt instead for a gelato made with natural ingredients at Gelateria Riva at Contrada dell’Oste 14.Nungwi Village
It is even possible to see the best of Lake Como in one busy day, using a budget base in Milan. Take an early train from Milan Porta Garibaldi to Como San Giovanni station (€4.55), then walk the sights of central Como en route to the dock. The slow boat to Varenna (€11.60 one way) calls at all the major lake villages, including Bellagio and the Tremezzina. After dinner, take the train from Varenna-Esino back to Milan Centrale (€6.45; see trenord.it for timetables). You’ll have seen the very best of Lake Como for under €23, plus spending money.
The opulent hotels and Liberty-style lakefront villas of Stresa don’t immediately scream budget holiday. Maggiore’s grand resort is on the prettiest stretch of the lake, looking over to the Borromean Islands and gardens of Isola Bella and Isola Madre, and beyond to the Alps.
You can squeeze a deal out of Stresa, however. First: August isn’t high season here – May and June are – so the top hotels sometimes offer discounts in high summer. The best year-round budget value in the centre is at Hotel Elena (doubles from €70). Rooms are simply decorated and spotless; request a balcony overlooking the lively piazza. If you are looking for lakefront hotels through booking websites, check on which side of the busy road the hotel lies. The wrong side will kill the view, and any romance, especially on a lower floor.
The Borromean Islands aren’t cheap to visit, but you save a little by booking Isola Bella and Isola Madre together (€18 instead of €24 individually). Better: flash a valid RHS membership card to tour them for free. One-way ferry tickets to the islands cost about €3 for adults, but Tomassucci Travel , opposite Stresa’s dock, are expert in finding deals. If you visit the three Borromean Islands in a set order, for example, you can save around €3 a head on standard day-hopper tickets.
There’s plenty of scenic walking around Stresa, including the gentle, waymarked 8km Sentiero dei Castagni (Chestnut Path) to Belgirate. (The train back runs roughly hourly and costs €1.50.) It’s also free to visit the Santa Caterina del Sasso hermitage, set into the cliffs on the lake’s eastern shore. It’s an atmospheric mishmash – stone Romanesque tower here, arched Renaissance porch there. Its frescoed church was built over many centuries, with the oldest part dating from the 1100s. The hermitage is barely more accessible now than it was back then, but does have a dock: a return ferry from Stresa costs €7. Arona’s ruined Rocca Borromea, destroyed during Napoleon’s invasion in 1801, is another freebie.
Not many tourists visit this small provincial city, and they are missing an affordable treat. Villa Panza (adult €9, four-14 years €5, gardens only €3) dates from Lombardy’s 1800s heyday, after Napoleon’s invasion, but its art collection reflects the unexpected metaphysical taste of its last owner, collector Giuseppe Panza. One wing is given over to haunting light installations by conceptual artists such as Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin and James Turrell. National Trust members get in for €3. The audioguide is essential, and free.
Beyond the suburbs north of the centre, the Sacro Monte di Varese (sacromonte.it) is one of the Unesco-protected “sacred mountains” of northern Italy. A cobbled path meanders to the summit of a lonely, lofty peak, passing elaborate baroque and neoclassical chapels. They were built in the 17th and 18th centuries as places of reflection, pilgrimage and prayer, and are decorated with frescoes by Lombardy painters or biblical tableaux. Get your timing right and all you’ll be able to hear is birdsong. Entrance is free, and the vast views over Lake Varese and the Campo dei Fiori wilderness are a bonus.
Varese’s pedestrianised centre is a charming place to spend an evening. There’s generally a bit of bar life along Via Cattaneo. I like Epicuro; the crowd is youngish and fashionable, and there are four or five beers on tap (mostly Belgian). I’ll forgive them the occasional One Direction track on the piped playlist. If you just want to watch the match, the bar at the Hotel Bologna is down-to-earth and lively. The same hotel has a dining room that looks like a trattoria plucked from central casting, right down to walls smothered in old photos. Food is traditional, dependable and affordable (three-course meal with wine, digestivo and coffee from €30 a head).
Tiny Lake Orta, a short drive from Maggiore’s south-western shores, has less bustle than its neighbours. At Orta San Giulio, the Piedmont region’s prettiest lakeside town, narrow cobbled lanes tumble down to the dock at Piazza Motta. It is a popular day trip, but most visitors stick around the the piazza’s crumbling, pastel-hued palaces: walk north along Via Olina as far as the road goes, and it quickly gets quiet. Follow the track as far as the lungolago and you can enjoy lake-meets-Alps views to match anything in Italy.
For a budget lunch, head uphill to Da Mario at Via Panoramica 26 (+39 0322 90425). Don’t expect culinary fireworks, but the likes of gnocchi al sugo di gallinella (with gurnard sauce) are fresh and tasty. At between €7 and €9, dishes are a couple of euros cheaper than in romantic spots in the centre. Parking in Orta is expensive (€2 an hour or €10 all day), so factor that into your budget. The bus from Stresa costs €3 each way – ride public transport to save the planet, but you won’t save much cash.
Just south of another less-visited lake – Iseo, on the way to Lake Garda – is the small Franciacorta wine region. Franciacorta is Italy’s Champagne, and can come with a price-tag to match. But at weekends you can visit leading cantinas, and taste their wines, for €6pp. Find more than 40 participating cellars at franciacorta.net/it/banner-apertura-cantine. For most, you need to book 48 hours in advance.
For a longer stay in wine country, try agriturismo Villa Franciacorta, a few miles from Lake Iseo. A family-size apartment costs from £450 a week, and they throw in a free cellar tour and tasting of their (excellent) fizz.Nungwi Village
• Donald Strachan’s rail travel was provided by International Rail (0871 2310790, internationalrail.com – see trenitalia.com for timetables. Donald is the co-author of Frommer’s Italy 2013, out now, priced £16.99. To buy a copy for £12.74 with free UK p&p call 0330 333 6846, or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk