The Italian Lakes: the name evokes romantic images of twisty roads and James Bond car chases, palatial lakeside villas owned by movie stars, a daring rowboat escape in A Farewell to Arms, and young Darth Vader in love. Luckily, you don't have to be a Jedi or George Clooney to enjoy what the region has to offer. The Lakes are best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, but if you only have two days to explore the area you can still cover a lot of ground and get a good taste of both the Swiss and Italian sides of the border.
Day 1: Lago Maggiore and Valle Maggia
Locarno: sitting on the northern tip of Lago Maggiore just over the border into Switzerland, Locarno has a pleasant mix of the rustic and the luxurious, the pace is slow and comfortable, and the natural beauty of the setting is tough to beat. With the mild weather, the palm trees, the pizzerias, the sunbathers tanning themselves by the lake, it can be hard to convince yourself that you're in Switzerland.
Apart from the annual Locarno International Film Festival in August when the town fills up and hotel prices skyrocket, Locarno is peaceful and an ideal place to do nothing but relax. On a warm summer day the siren call of sitting by the lake, dangling your feet in the water, eating pistachio gelato and watching the swans drift by is difficult, and perhaps foolish, to resist.
Santuario della Madonna del Sasso: Perched dramatically above the town on a steep cliff that looks in no way suitable as a site for a large church, the Santuario della Moadonna del Sasso is a must visit for a trip to Locarno. The views of Lago Maggiore from here are unmatched, and the yellow church set against the lake and mountains is the definitive postcard picture of Locarno. The church is easily accessed via funicular from central Locarno across the road from the train station. The walk isn’t especially difficult, but who can possibly resist a funicular? You can purchase a return ticket, but the walk down from the church is easy and pleasant and you can explore the numerous azalea-filled gardens, narrow stairs and twisting alleys of the old town as you work your way back to the lakeside.
Valle Maggia: In typical Swiss fashion, alpine grandeur is never far away. For one of the prettiest drives in the region, follow the Maggia River out of Locarno through the the idyllic Valle Maggia into the southern slope of the Swiss Alps. Literature fans may want to take a brief side trip to Tegna where the author Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) spent the last years of her life (her grave is in the Tegna cemetery). Continuing up the valley you're treated to broad meadows, towering waterfalls, colorful villages (any one of which is worth stopping to explore and may prove irresistible to photographers), and occasional roadside grotto restaurants open in the warm part of the year.
When the valley splits just past Bignasco, turn up the road into Val Bavona, where the world returns to the stone age. Houses, sheds, inns, whole villages — everything seems to be made of granite and traces of the modern world disappear. Stop at Ristorante La Froda in Foroglio for lunch (don't miss the polenta), snap a few pictures, and soak in the alpine landscape before heading back to the lake.
Ascona: On your way out of Valle Maggia, stop in Ascona tucked in a small bay just minutes from Locarno. The waterfront promenade is one of the prettiest spots for a stroll on the lake. When you're ready to kick your feet up for a while, snag a table at one of the waterfront cafes, re-energize with an espresso, and watch the world go by.
Minusio: Back in Locarno, as dinner starts sounding like a plan, stroll up the wide path that runs along the shore of the lake to Minusio. Duck through the small tunnel under the train track and emerge at Chiesa di San Quirico for a quick look around the church and gardens and then treat yourself to an unforgettable rustic meal among the locals at the nearby Ristorante Campagna, watching the sun set over the lake. After a big meal, a carafe of the jammy house wine and a postprandial grappa or two, it’s probably time to head back to the hotel and rest up for the next day.
Day 2: Lago di Como
If you only have a few days in the area, one of them should be spent exploring Lago di Como. The roads around the lake are twisty and narrow - the drive from Como to Bellagio is more scary and exhausting than it is fun, so ferries are highly recommended for touring the lake. The drive from Locarno through Lugano and along the shore of Lago di Lugano, while beautiful, will more than satisfy most drivers' tastes for winding lakeside roads.
Villa Carlotta: Near the ferry stop in Cadenabbia is Villa Carlotta, lakeside villa splendor at it finest and most opulent. The manicured gardens are evocative of a bygone era and are arguably more stunning than the villa itself. If you're a gardening fan, particularly one with a taste for rhododendrons, a stroll through the garden alone is worth the price of admission.
Bellagio: It's hard not to love Bellagio. It has long been called the pearl of Lago di Como, and the description fits perfectly: it's compact, beautiful, and flawless. If you've been to the casino of the same name in Las Vegas, strike those images from your mind - there is no comparison. The village is isolated on a narrow point of land in the middle of the wishbone-shaped lake, so the easiest access if by ferry from Cadenabbia, which also provides the best views of the village.
As with many of the lake towns, the restaurants along the waterfront are charming but not the best and are often overpriced, so it pays to explore the steep alleys to find some of the gems the village has to offer. Try Ristorante Bilacus on Via Serbelloni, which has a beautiful outdoor patio with views over the village, and serves a pappardelle with wild mushrooms that has yet to meet its equal.
Varenna: After exploring Bellagio, take the ferry over to Varenna on the eastern shore of the lake. Varenna is comparable to Bellagio in terms of beauty and often unjustly ignored by visitors. The village has an unusual way of looking like it springs directly from the lake with buildings clinging to the steep rocky cliff like boxy pastel barnacles.
If you have brought your car across on the ferry, take a short drive to the nearby 13th-century Castello di Vezio with panoramic views of the lake and falconry exhibitions in the afternoons.
Cadenabbia: After taking the ferry back to Cadenabbia, have dinner on the lake at Cucina della Marianna where the menu changes theme on a nightly basis (vegetarians will enjoy Thursday, the 'Gardens' menu). The waiters somehow manage to elegantly ferry the food from the restaurant across the street while avoiding (or completely ignoring) the cars speeding along the lake road, providing an unintentional element of dinner theater. Once your food (and waiter) has safely made it to you and you're sipping your wine as the lights turn on across the water in Bellagio, hopefully you'll agree that it was a perfect 48 hours in the Italian Lakes. A stay at George Clooney's villa might have made it more perfect, but there's always a next time.