7 Things to Do in Varenna, Lake Como’s Pastel Charmer

A scenic former fishing village, Varenna is one of the most charming spots along the eastern shore of Lake Como.

With its colorful houses, lakeside promenade, and gorgeous villas, Varenna is the perfect place to spend a couple of incredible days on the lake.

During one of my many trips around Northern Italy, I traveled to Varenna and spent three days exploring the small village and its surroundings.

Like many towns on Lake Como, it’s a popular tourist destination, especially in the summer, and it’s easy to see why!

White flowers in flower boxes on the edge of a passageway through Lake Como's lakeside walkways with a view to the colorful red, orange and yellow houses
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Although it’s a small village, Varenna offers a wide variety of activities and places to visit.

You can explore the charming town, enjoy good food, visit delightful gardens and villas, or even just kick back to relax at the beach. 

Keep reading to find the best things to do in Varenna!

Tips for Visiting Varenna

Colorful town and houses in red and yellow colors with green and blue shutters surrounded by foliage and trees

Varenna is one of the absolutely must-see places on any road trip around Lake Como.

At the same time, the village is easy to reach by train from Milan, so it can also provide a perfect escape from the busy city.

One thing to think about when planning your trip is that Lake Como is a popular tourist destination virtually year-round.

Locals from nearby big cities, especially Milan, often head to the lake for a weekend getaway. 

Of course, the village is even more popular in summer when many people want to escape from the city and enjoy the nature surrounding the lake.

If you’re hoping to visit Varenna in the summer, be prepared to pay higher prices for your accommodations, and expect big crowds. You may also want to book your accommodation in advance, so you have more choices. 

Villa Monastero gardens in Italy with pink flowers and pillar and view fo the town in the distance as well as the lake

Bottom line, while Varenna is an incredible summer destination, if you can avoid the peak months, I’d recommend it.

Spring and fall are generally better seasons for visiting most of the highly popular tourist destinations around Italy, and Varenna is no exception.

With that said, given Varenna’s location in the north of Italy, you should also consider that temperatures in winter, early spring, and late fall will be considerably colder. 

Although you could just stop for a day in Varenna and check out most of the main sights, I strongly suggest spending at least a night there.

There’s plenty of things to see and do, and one day may not be enough. 

One last tip: given the cobblestone alleys and many stairways around the village, I recommend packing comfortable shoes.

Things to Do in Varenna

view onto lake como from the pillared archway open-air window style viewpoint at villa monastero

Now that you’ve figured out your travel arrangements, it’s time to ask the real question: what should you actually do in Varenna?

From strolling around and enjoying beautiful lake views to visiting a gorgeous villa or hiking in the nearby mountains, Varenna certainly doesn’t lack options! 

Here are my favorite ways to spend one or two days in this wonderful village.

Explore the town.

an archway in the central town of varenna with view down to the lake from a viewpoint up on a hill

First of all, you’ll want to get familiar with Varenna by wandering around and exploring the narrow cobblestone alleys, stairways, and little squares.

The village is spread out over the side of a hill, offering scenic views over the lake and delightful little alleyways lined with colorful houses.

Be sure to check out the main square, Piazza San Giorgio, pay a visit to the lovely Church of San Giorgio, and stroll along the charming Via XX Settembre.

From there, you’ll find several alleys and stairways leading to the lakeside street Riva dei Marmisti.

the church in the main town area of varenna with a belltower with a clock on it

To immerse yourself in the local culture, you can explore small art galleries, souvenir shops, and cafés.

Stop for a drink at the renowned Bar Il Molo or enjoy a coffee at Al Barilott for an even more local feel.

Lastly, you can spend a few hours relaxing on one of the beaches in Varenna, like the small one at Contrada del Molo di Sotto, near Villa Cipressi, or the one just north of the ferry station.

As an alternative, you can get a lounger at Olivedo Lido and soak in the sun while sipping a cocktail.

Visit Castello di Vezio.

castle vezio with its distinctive ghost sculptures

The lovely Castello di Vezio is an imposing 12th-century castle standing on a promontory overlooking Lake Como.

While getting there requires a moderately challenging uphill hike, this castle is the best spot in Varenna to enjoy a gorgeous panoramic view of the lake.

The incredible medieval castle is surrounded by lush greenery, providing a peaceful setting to enjoy the view.

This gorgeous scenery alone is a good reason to visit, but there’s still so much more to discover — including its unique sculpture ghost installations.

You can also visit the castle’s dungeons, the tower, and the botanical garden.

Depending when you time your visit, you can often find temporary art exhibitions.

The castle is open daily from March 1st to November 1st, but during the winter, it’s only open on weekends when the weather is good.

Admission is pretty affordable — only a 5€ entry fee.

Stroll around the gardens of Villa Monastero.

view of the facade of villa monastero and some gardens in the varenna area of lake como

If you have time to visit just one place in Varenna, make it the gardens of Villa Monastero.

The villa is among the most important historical landmarks in the area, looking out over the lake and offering beautiful views.

Villa Monastero has a long history, dating all the way back to the 12th century when a monastery was in its place – hence the name.

During the 17th century, the monastery was transformed into a gorgeous residence. 

The current villa was renovated in the 19th century but thankfully this preserved the layout of the earlier residence.

You can access the interior and check out the 19th-century decorations and furniture.

The gardens of the villa monastero with purple flowers and small miniature palm trees with pillars and looking out onto the lake

While the villa’s interior is nice, if you ask me, the best part is the garden!

With beautiful statues, fountains, and manicured flower beds, the gardens are a perfectly peaceful setting for a leisurely walk.

The villa is open to visitors from the beginning of March to early November.

You can choose between just visiting the botanical garden or getting a combo ticket for the garden and museum. 

Walk the Passeggiata degli Innamorati.

lakeside street with red tunnel with foliage growing on the tunnel and boats in the harbor and candy colored buildings

Varenna has a lovely lakeside promenade extending all along the village known as Passeggiata degli Innamorati, or Lovers’ Promenade.

This charming pedestrian path starts at the pier of Varenna and ends in the town center.

The path is short, but packed with many scenic spots to enjoy the view and take beautiful pictures.

You can admire the colorful buildings facing Molo Riva Grande and the mountains on the opposite lakeshore.

Go on a hike.

small pedestrian archway bridge and stream and stone architecture and beautiful green forest everywhere surrounding the hiking pathway

If you’re up for a bit of physical activity, Varenna has convenient access to one of the most popular hiking trails in the area, Sentiero del Viandante.

The trail covers roughly 45 kilometers (28 miles), starting in Abbadia Lariana and ending in Piantedo.

From Varenna, you can walk the shortest trail north to Bellano, which takes two to three hours one-way, or opt for a longer hike south to Lierna.

You can hike out and back or catch the train on your way back to Varenna.  

Join a cooking class or dining experience.

Person in a Sicily cooking class creating tiramisu with whipped mascarpone, lady finger cookies and espresso or cocoa powder

If you have a bit of extra time to spend in Varenna and want to have a local experience, you can join a fun activity like a cooking class or a dining experience.

During the three hours of this pasta and tiramisu cooking class, you can learn to make two pasta types and the iconic tiramisu, then eat everything in good company.

If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, you can attend a cooking demonstration and just focus on eating during this dining experience at a local’s house.

This is the perfect opportunity to connect with locals while enjoying a delicious, home-cooked lunch or dinner.

Hop on a ferry to other villages.

The lakefront view of the Menaggio, with a large belltower, pastel colored houses in yellow and green tones, and a boat in front of the town promenade

Last but not least, if you want to spend several days on the lake, Varenna has convenient ferry connections to other villages, including direct ferry rides to Bellagio, Griante, and Menaggio.

Hopping on a ferry is the perfect opportunity to enjoy views of Varenna from a few different perspectives.

Ferry tickets vary depending on the destination, but they’re fairly affordable, starting from just around 3€.

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