Magical Moltrasio: Lake Como's best-kept secret
The Sunday morning silence was broken by the sound of church bells from the village square below. The dawn air through the open windows was fresh and cool, a welcome reprieve from the tropical temperatures of the night before. A rich aroma of coffee from a neighbouring home came wafting through our room, as birds sang noisily in the trees above. From the terrace, the early morning sun had cast a golden glow on the village of Moltrasio below. The great expanse of the lake spread out into the far distance as a blue haze lifted from the surrounding mountains. And so it began: the start of four glorious days with friends on Lake Como.
After a traditional Italian welcome, courtesy of our airport transfer driver who wound his way at great speed up the narrow uphill streets to Moltrasio, we arrived at our home for the next few days – the fabulous Villa Genia overlooking the village and the lake.
The whitewashed house with jade shutters was picture-perfect, its terrace surrounded by trees, plants and brightly-coloured flowers. An ivy-covered seating area provided much-needed shade for al-fresco dining, but best of all was a private pool. The villa sleeps six with three bedrooms (two double and one twin) and four bathrooms, and is available to book here though booking.com. The view below is from the balcony.
Moltrasio is a small port and village on the south-west branch of Lake Como. In contrast to tourist hotspots like Bellagio, Varenna and Menaggio, it has a laid-back vibe with a distinctly local feel. Inordinately pretty, the village comes in two parts: Piazza San Martino is its historic heart with a maze of tiny winding streets meeting at the church, while the second part centres around the harbour with a series of cafés, bars and hotels along the lake front. The two are linked by the ancient street Via Fratelli Recchi. And lots and lots of steps.
Lake Como is situated at the foothills of the Alps, close to the border with Switzerland. Like all of the towns dotted around the lake, Moltrasio benefits from the dramatic Alpine location - make your way to the panoramic observation point at Via Verde for some truly jaw-dropping and expansive views. The tranquil blue waters of the lake are surrounded on all sides by beautiful mountain scenery and abundant rich green forest. Set into the hillsides are numerous tiny towns and villages, their striking red roofs adding a pop of colour.
One of the main points of interest in Moltrasio is the Cascata del Torrente Pizzallo, a waterfall that cascades down a rocky gorge and flows through the village. Also of note are the houses built on top of, or incorporated into, the side of a rock – an interesting example of architecture adapting to the natural environment.
The Church of San Martino and Sant’ Agata stands at the heart of the village, its imposing bell tower dominating the landscape. Historical records date the church to 1207 but there have been significant additions in the 16th and 17th centuries. Pop inside to see the unusual smiling figure of the Madonna with child.
As you’d expect considering the location, the paths and flights of steps can be narrow and quite steep in places and the climb from the lake back up the village can be arduous at times, especially when you add a Campari Spritz or two to the equation, but the payoff is those wonderful views and the alluring distractions along the way.
Eating and Drinking
Cafe Bellini, Piazza San Rocco, 5
For pizza and drinks with a view, this casual little spot is hard to beat. With tables on a terrace overlooking the lake, it’s an ideal place for an aperitivo or two. Make sure to try one of their Neapolitan pizzas - the prosciutto and artichoke is particularly tasty. Good value too considering the location – pizzas start from €7, a Spritz or a cocktail will set you back €8 and a good bottle of Negroamaro is €20. It’s located on the ground floor of Hotel Posta, opposite the Moltrasio ferry stop.
Lake Como is beautiful at any time of day but never more so than in the evenings as the light starts to fade. The views from the terrace here at ‘blue hour’ are simply breathtaking.
Bar Centrale, Piazza S. Martino, 1
Situated right in the heart of the old town, Bar Centrale benefits from an idyllic location, opposite the church and with an outdoor seating area overlooking the lake. It’s a perfect spot for a night cap, as the lights of the villages opposite twinkle and cast reflections in the water below.
This is the place to come for your morning coffee and a sweet treat but it’s in the evenings that it really comes to life; when it’s packed with locals and the atmosphere is vibrant and buzzy. Staff are warm and friendly and they make a fine Campari Spritz. In addition to bar snacks, they have a small but delicious menu of salads, antipasto boards and sharing plates. The smoked trout crostini and Burrata pizza were particularly good.
Le Giuggiole, Piazza S. Martino, 3
You can’t come to Moltrasio without sampling an ice-cream from Le Giuggiole, an artisan gelateria in the centre of town. It’s so creamy and ridiculously good - I recommend the Pistachio and Amarena Cherry. Yum!
Day trips and boat trips
Moltrasio is a village that's made for enjoying life’s simpler pleasures: leisurely lunches, evening strolls and aperitivi with friends. If you fancy doing a bit of sightseeing, hop on a ferry to visit some of the larger, more touristed villages on the lake.
There are a number of ferries to the main tourist hotspot Bellagio throughout the day, some of which are direct, with connections from here to the other main towns and villages. Just be aware that some advance planning is necessary as ferries to smaller villages like Moltrasio can be infrequent, have a long journey time with many stops, and don’t run late into the evening - you may end up stranded on the other side of the lake. And if you actually manage to decipher the ferry timetable, you deserve a medal.
One of the most visited villages on Lake Como is the lovely Tremezzo, north of Moltrasio and approximately 1.5 hours by ferry. This elegant and upmarket seaside town is home to the beautiful Villa Carlotta, a 17th century Neo-classical villa overlooking the lake, surrounded by fourteen acres of gloriously colourful gardens.
Today the villa is a museum, whose collection includes works by renowned sculptors such as Antonio Canova. You’ll also find statuary dotted throughout the grounds.
One of the garden highlights is the Citrus Tunnel, where visitors are invited to walk beneath a canopy of overhanging lemons, oranges, grapefruit and bergamot. The scent is intoxicating.
The best vantage point is from the top floor balcony – here you can fully appreciate the estate in all its majesty, set against a mountain backdrop and with sweeping views across the lake.
Tickets €12 – adult
Villa Carlotta, Via Regina, 2, Tremezzina
It goes without saying that the best way to experience Lake Como is from the water so it’s worth factoring in a day’s boat rental. It’s the ultimate way to enjoy the landscape, feeling the wind in your hair and sun on your face as the clear blue waters of the lake open out before you, surrounded by some of the most magnificent scenery in the world.
Colourful houses in a hodge-podge of styles are characteristic of the many charming towns and villages on the lake shore. From a distance, it appears as though the buildings are stacked on top of each other, or slotted into each other like a jigsaw puzzle, carved into the side of the mountains and cliffs.
We spent an idyllic day navigating the western branch of the lake, following the ‘Green Route’ towards Bellagio (route maps noting places of interest were provided by the boat rental company). One of the first sites of interest in the ultra-classy Villa Oleandra in Laglio, also known as George Clooney‘s home.
Next up are the picturesque villages of Brienno and Argegno, while a little further on you’ll come to the tiny tree-covered Isola Comacina, surprisingly the only island on Lake Como. Almost entirely uninhabited, it is accessible to visitors using the public boat service or by water taxi.
Film buffs are in for a treat around the next bend - perched on a promontory stands the iconic Villa Balbianello, one of the most extravagantly beautiful villas on Lake Como and recognisable from the James Bond movie Casino Royale, as well as Star Wars Episode II.
It’s an extraordinary sight on approach; its lush green terraced gardens leading down to the water, its 18th century mansion surrounded by elegant cypress trees with the distant mountains as a backdrop.
Appetites sufficiently whetted by all that fresh air, it’s time to stop for lunch. Cross the lake to the lovely village of Lezzeno – one of the few places with proper docks to moor a boat – and nab yourself a table at the charming restaurant Aurora (reservations recommended).
As lunches go, this one was pretty much perfect, seated on a huge airy terrace with exquisite lake and mountain views.
Service was friendly and attentive, but the food was the real star of the show. The seafood dishes were absolutely sublime including a fresh and citrusy ‘Lake scallop’ gratin, huge juicy prawns and a whitefish paté with warm croutons. Oh my!
Other standout dishes were the Spaghetti alle Vongole, the Parmigiana di Melanzane (best one ever, to quote my holiday companion…) and a Burrata salad with basil and strawberries that simply burst with flavours in your mouth. A pale Sangiovese rosé was the perfect accompaniment on a hot day. It’s a fabulous restaurant, with simple food cooked to perfection. Excellent value for money too.
Hotel Ristorante Aurora, Frazione Sossana, 2 - 22025 Lezzeno
Back on the boat, your journey continues south towards the postcard-perfect village of Nesso, one of the most photographed spots on the lake. It’s not hard to see why - it’s incredibly picturesque with its brightly-painted buildings standing alongside a dramatic gorge and waterfall, linked by an attractive stone bridge and surrounded by greenery. Expect to see a LOT of Instagram action as people pose and posture on top of the bridge.
During the summer, the lake is warm like a bath and the lure of its turquoise waters can be hard to resist. Luckily there are a number of natural coves to pull into for a quick swim. We enjoyed ringside seats to some old-fashioned Italian entertainment as groups of teenage boys and girls worked hard to impress each other by diving off some particularly vertiginous rock formations into the water.
Before crossing the lake for the last time, look out for the picturesque town of Torno, directly opposite Moltrasio.
Nettuno Boats are an independent boat hire company operating from the pier at Via Bellini in Moltrasio. They were professional and easy to deal with, and our six-seater boat was spacious and comfortable. No license necessary.
Hourly and day rates are available here
Nettuno di Aquilini Nicolò, Via Vincenzo Bellini
There is only one main supermarket in Moltrasio - Micromercato Moltrasio - with limited opening hours. It's an artisan store where you can find fresh bread, cheeses, meats, wine, beer etc... The owners Paolo and Monica are extremely friendly and will take orders for next day delivery if you want to avoid hauling your shopping up a lot of steps. The nearest large supermarket is about 5kms away in Como: Bennett, Via Asiago, 2
Fly to either Milan Linate, Milan Malpensa or Bergamo with Aer Lingus or Ryanair
The towns on the lake are tricky to reach from the airport by public transport alone. If you don't plan on hiring a car, an airport transfer is a good option, especially if there are a few people to split the cost. The company below are reliable and efficient.
Airport taxi transfer: https://airportstaxitransfers.com/
€108 one way for 6 people - journey time approx 45 mins