I stand on the steps in an alleyway in Bellagio and lean over my very pregnant belly, trying to catch my breath. Quaint little shops line the stairway on either side, with hanging baskets outside their window, offering pizza, or wine, or beautiful painting. None of this impresses my toddler, however, who is on the hunt for nothing less than gelato.
“Up, Mama, up!” my daughter says as she continues to climb the steps, unfazed completely by the steep incline. She continues to climb, singing, “Gelato, gelato, where are you?”
If there is one thing I know about Italy, it is that gelato is never far. So I take a breath and keep climbing.
The current situation in Italy is very different from what I experienced in the summer of 2018, as our world faces the wave of this pandemic. I know I and so many others in the world look forward to the day when we are well and can open our doors and borders again. It is good for me to remember Italy as it was and how it will be when this passes.
Nestled into the mountains of the Lombardy region of Italy, Lake Como is the perfect vacation destination for nearly everyone. The lake, shaped like an inverted Y, is dotted with centuries-old towns, stone stairways, restaurants, beaches, and gardens. The region has enough romance to attract the honeymooner, enough hiking and water sports for the adventure seeker, and enough restaurants and wine choices for the food connoisseur.
I had wanted to go to Como for years, ever since I saw photos of it from a friend’s family vacation. I read about the gardens, ferry taxis and food scene in travel books, and looked at pictures of its lakeside villages longingly online. The way the mountains met the sea, the way the colors of the villages stood out against the deep blue of the water just felt so enchanting to me and I knew I wanted to experience it for myself one day.
When I finally had my chance to visit Como, I was seven months pregnant and had a 20 month-old-toddler in tow. It wasn’t how I had pictured myself first experiencing Como. We wouldn’t be hiking very far, nor would we be spending leisurely hours at gourmet restaurants. We certainly wouldn’t be sampling the wine menu. Would we enjoy Como with a toddler?
By the end of the week, we answered that question with a resounding “yes.” Lake Como is an incredibly family-friendly destination. We had so much to do during our week there that I didn’t want it to end. And yes, maybe the stone steps would have been a little easier had I not been pregnant, and the notoriously winding roads easier to navigate without a toddler in the backseat, but those glitches and difficulties were gateways to incredible experiences and memories made as a family.
Where to Stay
We rented a beautiful Airbnb in the Faggeto Lario region of the lake, conveniently located halfway between the popular towns of Bellagio and Como. The roads were daunting at first, curvy and quite narrow, but our confidence grew as the week went on. We chose this region because we could explore so much of the lake and its surrounding towns from our home base.
From our BnB, we could walk down 500 steps to a local swimming spot, where we swam with locals, chased our toddler around the pebbled beach, and enjoyed picnics of cheese and bread while watching a group of young Italians jump off the dock.
For those not wanting to drive or looking to stay in one place, Bellagio or Varenna would be ideal locations for families with small children. The train goes straight into Varenna, and the town is full of delightful walkways, hidden swimming spots, and good restaurants. Varenna is a little quieter than Bellagio, which might make bedtime easier to manage.
Where to Eat
Knowing where to eat out while at Lake Como was the biggest concern for me. As much as I would have loved to enjoy a long, leisurely meal at an Italian restaurant, that wasn’t an option with a squirmy toddler who liked to be on the move.
Luckily, there are plenty of family-friendly (and delicious) restaurants in the area. We had a delicious pizza at Pizzeria Lugano in Menaggio. We also enjoyed homemade pasta at Ristorante Aurora Lezzeno, a restaurant overlooking the water. The waiters there were so friendly to our daughter, checking on us and making sure we had everything we needed.
Our favorite way to eat and explore was picnicking our way through the towns. We would navigate a grocery store in Como, pick up meat, cheese, and some sparkling waters, and stumble through our clumsy Italian as we tried to pay for it. Then we’d eat on a pier, or a park space overlooking the water, and just relax while we ate and our daughter ran circles around us, chasing after the ducks.
Traveling to Lake Como with a toddler may not have been my ideal scenario when I first began dreaming of this trip, but now that we’ve done it, I can’t imagine going without her. Como provided a beautiful backdrop for our family to spend time together and make wonderful memories. There really is something for everyone.
What to Do
Aside from swimming as much as and wherever we could, our favorite activity in Lake Como was visiting the Villa Melzi gardens.
I was worried that a trip to one of the famous gardens in Como would result in a constant stream of “No, don’t touch that!” and “Please keep your hands away from the flowers.” Thankfully, our visit to the Villa Melzi gardens just outside of Bellagio was anything but. The gardens, first part of the summer residence of Francesco Melzi d’Eril, are full of large green spaces and walkways with stunning views of the lake, making for a lovely morning out. My daughter was able to run around to her heart’s content, and I could sit on a bench and enjoy the scenery. We spent an entire morning exploring the gardens and then having a picnic lunch overlooking the lake view we couldn’t get tired of.
As a family with a small child, we really enjoyed exploring the lake from the water with a ferry and boat tour. We were able to take the ferry from the stop outside our Airbnb to Bellagio, then Varenna, then Menaggio, all in one day. Our toddler was so entertained by the boat and what she could see from her seat, and they even have an indoor area with glass windows, so we didn’t have to worry about her running or falling over the railing.
We spent some time in Como, shopping and visiting El Duomo di Como, but our favorite city was Bellagio, otherwise known as the Pearl of Como. Big enough to be interesting but small enough to work your way around, the town of Bellagio feels like a step back in time. Full of promenades, shops, and courtyards, it’s easy to spend the whole day walking and watching street performers.
And that gelato? We found a delightful little gelateria at the top of that alleyway. My daughter smiled and said, “Ciao,” as she walked in, and I knew that the decision to bring her here to Italy had been a good one.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com