The funny thing about the city of Como in northern Italy is that many travel guides recommend outside from the city and sailing around Lake Como, rather than staying in a city that I have learned to love on my own for its beauty, size, history and cuisine. Yes, you can board a tour boat and visit all the wonders of Lake Como – the charming towns of Bellagio and Tremezzo, the funicular to the mountain town of Brunate – but Como itself is full of plenty. of things to do and see.
Easily accessible by train from Milan, Como has never been overrun with tourists (who use it as a base for exploring the lake), and its manageable city center is laid out largely along rectangular lines, with streets spotlessly clean and restored buildings that include modern monuments that are quite unusual in major Italian cities. There is little Baroque in Como, and its magnificent cathedral is the last of its kind in Gothic style with Romanesque motifs, dating from the late 14th century.
It is a very attractive pedestrianized town, lying flat by the lake, with a wide Piazza Cavour flanked by beautiful buildings, including the best and most modern in the city. Vista Palazzo Lago di Como Hotel and the old one Swiss metropolis, although aesthetically compromised by the grotesque banality of the Hotel Barchetta Excelsior. Here’s the obvious starting point, either from the train station or, if you’re coming from the north, through the city’s Porto Nuovo gate, which looks a lot like a painting by De Chirico.
Como was home to Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), the inventor of the electric battery and someone who is widely regarded as one of the city’s favorite native sons. You can visit the places associated with the scientist on your own, including the classical high school Volta High Schoolnear the door; Volta’s house on Via Volta; the Volta Museum on Viale Marconi, built in 1927, where the first version of the electric battery is located; the avant-garde Monumentdesigned by architect Daniel Liebeskind at the bottom of Diga Foranea; Volta’s tomb is in the village of Camnago Volta; and the Lighthouse of the Volta in Brunate, designed by Gabriele Giussani in 1927.
The city was once the center of the architectural style called Italian Rationalism, developed in the 1920s and 1930s on the basis of the principles of functionalism for which a building should clearly reflect the purpose for which it was created without much fulfillment. Such structures around the city include the Camerlata fountain by Cesare Cattaneo and Mario Radice in 1936; the innovative and influential Sant’Elia Kindergarten (1937) by Giuseppe Terragni with its glass wall bringing light into the classrooms; the War memorial in reinforced concrete designed by Antonio Sant’Elia and built by Giuseppe Terragni; worth the detour is the Casa del Fascio, built in 1936 as the headquarters of the Fascist Party (now a law enforcement building) that embodies restraint and poise of Italian rationalism, which stands out from the rest of the old, mundane buildings in the neighborhood.
Something of that same sense of order and spatial dynamics can be found in the shopping streets behind the main Piazza and the existing old medieval walls. There are wonderful food stores, bakeries and cafes, as well as some very special clothing stores dedicated to local designers, including darling Il Girotondo degli Angeli for infants and children on Via Cinque Giornato. Tessabit, with two stores, offers clothing for men and women at moderate prices, and for the high end there is Franca Roncoroni on Via Varesina, while Wolford on Via Indipendenza sells exquisite lingerie; for housewares and home decor, see Dep on Via Carcano. There are, of course, international fashion chain stores also in the city center.
A while ago I wrote about places to eat in Como, so let me just jot down a few names here: The best alta cucina in the most beautiful place of the lake is at the hotel Vista Palazzo Lago di Como Sottovoce, where chef Stefano Mattara works wonders with local ingredients. Chef Carlo Molon makes an interesting visit to Kincho out of town at Sheraton Lake Como. My favorite trattoria is Osteria Gallo, nestled in Via Vitani, where the di Toma family has been perfecting traditional Lombardy cuisine for over 37 years, such as braised pork and sweet prunes and chestnuts. And if you fancy a good pizza, take a stroll in the pretty blue and white Napule Pizzerias (there are two), where “Papa” Umberto and his three children, Ciro, Antonio and Katiuscia, have a great reputation in town and rightly so.
The lakes of northern Italy all have their own appeal, but for me the city of Como expresses the best of classic Italian beauty and modernity, and for its calm, sparse tourist crowd and sophisticated locals, this is a place where you can avoid the frenzy elsewhere as Italy returns to normal.