I had to dig around to find out how to get to Lake Como easily and cheaply, only to discover the Milan to Varenna train trip was my answer.
In the hope we can save someone else the hassle of figuring out how to see Lake Como and Bellagio in a day trip from Milan, details are here.
Why take the Milan to Varenna train route to Lake Como?
We’ve been lucky enough explore various parts of Italy previously. Rome is excellent, as are Florence, Siena and Tuscany. I didn’t know my way around this area though. I’d been inspired by a colleague at work who suggested getting around Italy by train. On planning a week away in April, Cooper and I chose an itinerary of Milan to Verona to Venice.
Lake Como is close to Milan, fashion and business capital of Italy. We knew we’d be flying into Milan, and didn’t want to miss the Lakes region.
At first I considered a guided day tour to Lake Como. It’s a viable yet expensive option. Most of these day trips are about ten to twelve hours long – that’s a big day.
We settled on taking the train from Milan to Varenna, a village on the shores of Lake Como, because:
It’s an easy trip from Milan Central station, just over an hour
It’s inexpensive at just over €6 each way
Taking the ferry to Bellagio from here is easy and inexpensive
Varenna is also a pretty little town on the lake.
How to book and board Milan to Varenna train return
Our tickets were booked through thetrainline.com. I have the Trainline app on my phone that stores the tickets for display at the station or on board.
You’ll book from Milano Centrale (Milano Central station) to Varenna-Esino station.
I booked our fares for specific leave and return times. But, we just missed our train on the Sunday morning and staff said it was fine to take the next one, scheduled an hour later.
Our experience with Milan and Varenna train stations has been that they’re not very well signed. Platforms and trains can be hard to identify. If you’re taking the Milan to Varenna train return trip, give yourself time to get it right.
As we encountered a rainy day, we decided to go back to Milan an hour early. The trains going back are not signed well either. Additionally, they weren’t running to time. Little did we know, the day to follow this, the train to Verona ended up departing ten minutes before our stated ticket time.
At Varenna, we got on the wrong train. In a panic we got off at the next stop, a deserted platform. Fortunately we could walk back to Varenna in about twenty minutes along the lakeside.
It’s not a big deal, but double check and give yourself time.
Why Lake Como?
Lake Como is the third largest lake in the lakes district of Italy. That is behind Garda, which you can spot on the train ride to Varona, and Maggiore. It’s 46km long and at its widest is about 4.5km.
Imagine, snow capped mountains and a mystical body of water, home to centuries-old history and celebrities from near and far. Ferries glide in and out of hills that look like islands rising out of the deep blue. Pink and yellow buildings are tucked together along the bottom edge of the mountains. They’re divided every now and then by an ancient church steeple. Other homes line sections further up these hills. Their views must be marvellous, one can only imagine.
It’s all so pretty, almost looks like they’ve been drawn on. A real life oil painting on a canvas that’s kilometres long.
Roads, rail and tunnels are carved into sheer rock cliffs. Sculpted gardens are set along the waterfront with their Roman statues and water fountains. Little birds dance along cafe tables hoping for crumbs. Dogs chase ducks as clouds float down from the sky. The air is fresh and the world at peace. It’s as lovely as I imagined, and you’ll want to visit here too, trust us.
Exploring Varenna on a day trip from Milan to Lake Como
Varenna is situated in the Lombardy region. It’s very pretty and conveniently is only a five minute walk from Varenna train station. The village is picture-postcard beautiful with sweet winding alleyways and waterfront dining.
It’s easy to wander up and down the hills and along the lake’s edge, although wear comfortable shoes because the stairways are long and steep.
The option to travel from Milan to Varenna on the train proved a happy escape from the bustle of Milan. Even though we had a rainy day, the place was beautiful – worthwhile.
Getting to Bellagio from Varenna
Many people say Bellagio is the gem of lake Como. It’s a pretty village jutting out into Lake Como and is included on most day trip itineraries to Lake Como from Milan. It’s popular for cobbled lanes and elegant buildings.
It was our intention to visit Bellagio on our day trip from Milan via Varenna. By the time we arrived though, it was pouring rain so we chose to explore Varenna instead. No regrets.
There’s plenty of questions and some confusion on Tripadvisor about how to get to Bellagio and when the ferries go.
Most information is difficult to understand as it’s in Italian and the official website is hard to navigate. Take it from me (I like to be organised), don’t worry at all about it.
The ferry costs about €5 each way, and runs every 30 or 40 minutes. It’s slightly less frequent in winter, but the ferry terminal is manned and there’s plenty to do in Varenna while you wait to board.
The ferry dock taking you on a short trip to Bellagio is on the waterfront about five minutes from Varenna train station. You can’t miss it. If the day is clear, you’ll be fortunate to see gorgeous views of the colourful buildings on the hills surrounding the lake.
Questions or comments…
I hope this answers any of your queries or concerns about how to do a self-guided day trip on the train from Milan to Lake Como.
Varenna is a lovely option for its views, ease and style. It’s really simple to get to and from Bellagio. We spoke to the ferry team to clarify this. The train (if you don’t miss it) is comfortable and quick. A paid tour costs a fortune and hours out of your day. Even if you don’t go to Bellagio, Varenna is a beautiful glimpse into the tranquillity that is Lake Como. Despite rain and a number of missed trains, this day out was close to perfect.
On this week long trip, we travelled across the country to Verona and Venice on the train. Click the links to find out more.
Got questions or a tip to add? Let us know in the comments below
We want to help you get your Venice facts in order. Is it magnificent and marvellous or hot and crowded? There’s facts you need to know about Venice before you go, which may make or break your visit. I was totally converted on my second trip. It’s why I want to highlight important travel Venice facts that will help you make the most of your experience.
Venice was our last stop on a self-guided train trip across Italy for one week, beginning in Milan. Our highlights included a day trip to Lake Como; rail to Verona and then to Venice. Click the links to read more about those destinations, and read on for more facts about Venice.
Travel Venice facts
5 facts for starters, about the city…
Venice is built on over 1 million wooden stakes.
There are 118 islands that make up Venice, linked by over 400 bridges (about 70 being private) over more than 170 canals.
In 1608, the Council of Ten approved wearing masks only during the Carnevale in February. Breaking this law meant enduring punishments that ranged from two years in prison to public beating and binding to the ‘pillar of shame’.
Sadly, Venice is sinking at the rate of 1 to 2mm per year.
The population of Venice has decreased from 120,000 to 60,000 in the last 50 years. Apparently Venice could be a ghost town by 2030 with only tourists visiting by day. A sad thought for Venetians, who perceive this level of tourism to be totally unsustainable. So, for us as the travellers, be grateful for the time in the city – seems a lot of sacrifice has taken place for us to enjoy it all.
The weather can be wet or hot, timing is important
If you can be flexible in your travel planning, the top travel Venice fact to work with is that the best times to go are April, May, June, September, and October.
Summer in Venice can be scorching. The first time we visited back in August 2011, we were tired from being on a non-stop tour and drained by the heat. April was near close to perfect though. Venice can also be very wet and flood. The flooding gets to the point where visitors need to buy Wellies (rubber boots). Even waiters in fancy restaurants need to, to get by serving customers seated outdoors.
It doesn’t really matter what time of year you go, Venice is a magnet for people. Main attractions like the Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Square and along the Grand Canal are swarming with people – travellers, tour groups, cruise ship stop-over passengers – throughout the day.
During the famous Carnevale in February, the streets get so crowded that distances which would usually take ten minutes to walk might take up to an hour to reach. Our Airbnb experience walking tour guide, Roberto, told us that the city actually constructs lanes, so it’s one way walking to a certain destination, and one way back.
Find a good deal on Airbnb and stay centrally. We were just a couple of minutes walk from the Rialto Bridge. This meant we could get up and go exploring first thing in the morning. Not only was the light lovely, but we weren’t battling crowds to get from A to B.
Additionally, if you want to visit the museums, go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to beat the queues.
Fab Venice fact – some great experiences are FREE
One of the best travel Venice facts that our Airbnb hosts shared with us was to do with the unmissable free view available from the top of Fondaco dei Tedeschi.
This historical building is situated on the Grand Canal, very close to the Rialto Bridge. It’s seen many uses including being used as a trading post for German merchants, a post office during Mussolini’s time, and a customs house under Napoleon.
Today it’s a luxury shopping mall, but at the top you can experience breathtaking rooftop views. It’s absolutely worthwhile, and it’s free, but you need to book your spot.
Venice facts: Gondola rides need-to-know
A gondola ride ranks highly on most travel bucket-lists, but it can turn out to be very expensive. Know before you go:
– A gondola ride costs around $90
– Typically lasts about 40 minutes
– Your Gondolier knows what they’re doing; they all have to pass extensive training to represent the industry in Venice
– Gondolas hold six people so you can share the ride and split the cost
– Sunset or night rides are spectacular, but you’ll pay more for that experience
– Avoid booking through an agency or hotel, you’re likely to pay extra fees
– Talk to the Gondolier about any requests you have for places to see, and consider skipping the crowded Grand Canal
– Wear sunscreen and a hat during the day.
Local water bus options offer cost-effective travel adventures
If a gondola ride is not within budget, try taking the #1 vaporetto down the Grand Canal instead. It’s like the local ferry and for just over €7!
To and from Santa Lucia train station, or the airport:
If you’re coming into Venice from Santa Lucia train station or the Marco Polo airport, be careful of people coming up to you offering to take you to the water taxi that goes into town. These are quite often private services that cost much more than the public ferries.
Look for route number 2 that does the journey between Santa Lucia railway station and St Mark’s Square, making only five stops including Rialto Bridge, where we got off to meet our Airbnb host.
The Alilaguna ferry will take you to and from Marco Polo airport. We got on near the Rialto Bridge and it cost about €15 one way, and the ride was just over an hour.
You will get lost
The streets of Venice are a maze, and you will get lost. But that’s absolutely fine. Don’t worry, just give yourself time to get places if you happen to have an appointment or need to meet a walking tour.
Google Maps led us into quite a few walls, so don’t rely on it. It’s helpful for finding general direction though, and recommendations on where to find a beer or food.
If the prospect of wandering the streets like a pro (and out of tourists’ way) is appealing, we’d highly recommend you engage a guide for a couple of hours. Roberto from Airbnb Experiences was excellent! His Walk, Eat and Drink in Venice tour took us through charming back streets we’d never have found, and showed us there’s much life away from St Mark’s Square. Contact him directly for details or to arrange a bespoke trip if you like.
Authentic dining options may be hard to spot
When in Venice you want to find yourself a local Bacari. This is a bar that serves wine and typical Venetian snacks. These snacks are referred to as cichetti, which generally means savoury snacks or small side dishes. We learnt more about this on our walking tour, referenced above.
A trip to Italy means eating gelato, especially if the weather is warm. But there’s plenty of inauthentic expensive tourist options you should avoid. It’s always good to support the genuine producers.
Basic rules of authentic gelato are:
Look for the gelato being stored in metal tubs, preferably with lids; plastic tubs are a no-no.
Quality gelato will not have vibrant colours because the aim is to make it with a high proportion of natural ingredients and very little (if any) added colouring.
If the ‘gelato’ is piled up high for display and doesn’t melt it means it’s high in vegetable fats and emulsifiers – it’s not the real deal.
Seasonal fruit flavours are a good sign, anything wild resembling Baskin & Robbins is probably not gelato, but something else, like ice-cream.
Not always, but for the most part, the real gelato is sold away from tourist hot-spots. We found a lovely authentic one in Verona that fits all the criteria here, and it was cheap, unlike rip-off options we’ve seen in Florence and Venice.
There’s much more to see
We’ve not had the chance to day-trip from Venice yet, but we plan to, which is why I’m linking ideas in here.
Let me know in the comments what else you’d recommend.
– The islands, including Murano and Burano, are apparently incredible. Have a read here for a summary on each, and why you should visit.
Travel in Venice: safety, packing and payment advice
Our final tips
Cash or card?
There’s a lot of markets and smaller vendors who require cash payments so do have some on you. Most places take cards though.
We felt safe, but always use common sense in crowded places. Thieves operate in these areas in all big cities. Pay attention to your surroundings, don’t carry things in your pockets, and don’t lose focus because you’re distracted by your phone! We’d suggest ignoring people who try to sell you things on the street too.
Pack light. The streets are old, you’ll walk a lot and the ferries are crowded. The last thing you’ll want is to be hauling a huge suitcase along! Shed your stuff, you won’t need half of it anyway.
Got questions or tips? Please do let us know in the comments below…
It’s a special year for me, so I requested a week long trip to celebrate, which is how Milan to Venice train travel became a ‘thing’ this April.
Why the train?
A friend inspired me to explore Italy by train. She highlighted that it’s relatively inexpensive (see thetrainline.com) and stress-free compared with driving. Many of Italy’s major cities are connected by rail. The reason we were talking about this in the first place, is that when we visited Tuscany, we drove, and it was stressful.
My friend was simultaneously travelling with her family by train, between Rome, Florence and Venice. It was easy.
Our Italian affair this April began at Milano Centrale Station, so we might explore this fashion capital that’s been dazzling visitors for years with its design-led initiatives and stunning structures.
When planning our week in Italy, I had a destination in mind. It was actually somewhere that inspired Shakespeare, Verona. So, I took a look at what was accessible from London, and came up with Milan to Venice.
I studied a map and researched flights. We could fly into Milan from London City Airport (✔) and come back from Venice to Stansted Airport (✔). What to do in between then?
Milan to Venice train travel, touching over in Varenna (Lake Como) and Verona, the wish-list destination. Perfecto 👌 About two nights in each location would do the trick. Never enough time, but a start.
How to travel Milan to Venice on the train
If you’re based in the UK, several searches come up on Google when you’re searching for Milan to Venice train options. Italia Rail is one such option. But, Trainline pulls everything together just fine, as far as I’m concerned.
I booked our trips individually on Trainline:
Milan to Varenna for a day trip to Lake Como, about £25 for a day return for two people.
Milan to Verona, to stay for two nights, around £25 for two of us to travel one way. The trip was about two hours.
Verona to Venice, about one hour train journey, costing approx £20 for two of us to travel.
Using the Trainline phone app, I stored our tickets and they were easy to retrieve and show on the train upon request.
Important to note:
I booked our train fares in advance. Closer to the time of travel, it turned out some of the train times were altered slightly. If we’d not arrived at the station early and double-checked the schedule, we may have missed one of our trains which left ten minutes prior to what we had on our ticket. Give yourself time and check schedules on the ground.
Milan to Venice: the highlights
The Milan to Venice train trip and week away in Italy was pure magic.
Verona and Venice are particularly wonderful. Click the links to read our travel guides.
We utilised Airbnb for accommodation – Italy is notoriously expensive in this area. Airbnb together with travelling on the train kept our costs down, and our experience was indeed stress-free.
Train travel in Europe is a treat because of the scenery. We lavished in everything from the snow-capped Alps to little farming villages, vineyards, horses, chickens, ancient churches and glimpses of northern Italy’s great Lakes.
Milan to Venice on the train is an excellent option. If you have time, there’s many spots to stop off at. Next time around I’d love to see more of Lake Garda and the town of Padua, another inspiration to Shakespeare.
Got tips or questions? Let us know in the comments below
It’s my birthday this month. A special one. I’m still getting my head around the number of years I’ve been on this earth, but am making the most of it with an Italian adventure which I’ll link here on the blog.
Milan is famous as being one of the top four fashion destinations in the world, alongside Paris, London and New York. We hit the town during Design Week so the place was buzzing with creative energy and business goings-on.
If you’re keen to include Milan on your travels, be aware that accommodation – like many places in Italy – is expensive. We chose to stay in an AirBnb in a family’s home to save money. Our accommodation was within walking distance to Central Station and about half an hour’s walk from the Duomo (or ten minutes metro ride). This proved to be quite a good distance from the main attractions for us.
The city is much bigger than we expected, with some of the main areas being quite far apart. Milan’s metro is easy to use but the signage is lacking compared with London.
We relied on the kindness of strangers for a guide on where to get off and which direction to go in. Average cost of a metro ride one way is €1.50 and the ticket machines have an English option so not too hard to figure out.
Duomo (Milan Cathedral/ Duomo di Milano)
First stop on your Milan travels will inevitably be the incredible Duomo. This gorgeous Gothic cathedral took six centuries to build. It’s decorated with more statues than any other building in the world – 3400 all up, including 135 gargoyles. It’s made of marble and strikes an imposing figure in the centre of Milan.
You can pay to go inside, as well as climb up stairs or take an elevator to the top for a view over the city. Be prepared to queue and have patience with all the selfie-takers.
Even if you hang about outside, you can appreciate the view in the square and people watch for free.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Helpfully this is positioned right next to the Duomo. It’s Italy’s oldest active shopping mall and renowned as being one of the most beautiful in the world. Many European shopping malls were modelled around this striking place. The gallery is named after Italy’s first king, and it boasts high-end luxury shopping set a four-story double arcade – not for the faint-hearted.
All shops in this mall must have gold signs on a black background – fully branded style.
The place is expensive so be careful where you sit for food or a coffee! It’s free to explore though, and really is very beautiful – probably the most beautiful mall we’re likely to ever see.
Another attraction just a couple of minutes walk outside the Galleria is Lunini’s. It’s famous for deep fried pizza dough. Panzerotti comes from the word pancia, Italian for stomach, which is why the dough comes in a belly-like shape, and offers a variety of fillings.
It’s not expensive but it is popular and you’re likely to have to wait in a long line to be able to try it. The place is sometimes closed in the summer months.
Aperitivo – happy hour with a twist
This is the Italian version of happy hour. Normally when you go to a restaurant you buy a drink and study the menu. In Milan after about 6pm if you find the right place, you pay anywhere from €8 to €10 for a drink (like wine or a cocktail) and you can enjoy a buffet feast for no extra! This blog explains the tradition.
Aperitivo is supposed to be a way to encourage an appetite before dinner, but we simply found it to be a cost-effective way to enjoy a drink and a meal. Well, that was until we found Mono Bar just up the road from where we were staying. The place was recommended on Google for its range of food on offer at the bar (agree, it was great). Their Long Island Iced Teas are addictive and 80s pop/dance soundtrack very enjoyable.
A top spot for Aperitivo is Navigli along the canal that features inspired links to Leonardo Da Vinci, find out more here.
We really wanted to get over this part of the city on our Milan travels, but it was a good half an hour train ride away from us, and as it was cold and wet during our time in Milan we chose to leave it for next time.
Day trip to Lake Como
Milan is a cool city with lots to do, but it’s busy with tourists and can be quite overwhelming. Lake Como is a tranquil escape, with fresh air and stunning scenery. You can take an organised tour here, but we designed a self-guided itinerary that was inexpensive and thoroughly enjoyable, even in rainy weather. Find out more here
As with all big cities, Milan has plenty on offer. Do your research before you go so you don’t miss museums and attractions that are to your own taste and budget.
After our two night stay, we took a train to romantic Verona, setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Verona is about two hours train ride from Milan, and Venice on the other side of that which was our last stop on this week in Italy.
Do you have questions, or tips to add for a trip to Milan? Let us know in the comments below
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