Testing The Water: Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni – Review

By Margaret Hussey

2 weeks ago

With spectacular scenery, great food and ornate villas, Lake Como does elegance well


Searching for somewhere to stay in Italy? Margaret Hussey checks into Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, an 150 year-old grande dame on the banks of Lake Como.

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Review: Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni

Bedroom with cream walls, ornate ceilings and a view of Lake Como

Plunging into the waters of Lake Como, we squealed in delight. It was our final day and we had plucked up the courage to jump in, spurred on by a heavenly few days of R&R at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.

Pulling open the curtains every morning, we had fallen in love with the view of the lake and mountains and everything this beautiful part of northern Italy has to offer. So swimming in it was a given, if not just for bragging rights, but also as a final piece of a picture-perfect trip.

Over 1.4 million people visit the fork-shaped Lake Como every year, and we came off season, managing to avoid the crowds of June to August while experiencing a mish-mash of weather. But that didn’t matter. There’s something very therapeutic about being by water – even when there were dramatic thunderstorms – while being cocooned.

Cocooned was the operative word at Villa Serbelloni. Our beds had 100 percent linen sheets with hand-sewn silk eiderdowns (Como is particularly known for its silk) and goose feather down. We were lucky to be in a suite with lake views – another bonus of travelling off season – and the interior was just as spectacular as the exterior. Our suite had gilt mirrors, a beautiful antique writing desk and textured wallpaper.

Elsewhere in the building there were grand staircases, giant chandeliers, more artwork than you could shake a stick at, and ornate frescoed ceilings with cherubs. I have never taken so many photos of ceilings or spent so much time looking up.

Lobby with a grand staircase, ceiling frescoes and chandeliers.

General manager Jan Bucher told us that, every year, they have teams of local specialists and artisans to repair and restore any missing gold leaf or faded paintwork. And 21st century touches have been added too, like solar panels and USB ports.

It’s all part of this hotel’s exceptional attention to detail. Its staff are super friendly, mainly local and a mix of different ages, and it has a real family feel. That’s in part thanks to Jan: his parents own the hotel and Jan spent many happy childhood days here. ‘What better place could you want to play hide and seek?’ he says.

The hotel celebrated 150 years in 2023, and you can still feel that sense of elegance and history – it has welcomed royalty, European nobility and Hollywood stars over the years. Winston Churchill stayed here, as did John F. Kennedy during his famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ tour in June 1963. (Both have suites named after them.) Look out too for the pix of Al Pacino, who filmed Bobby Deerfield here in 1977, and returned as a guest.

Tearing ourselves away from our room, we strolled into Bellagio – the hotel is just at the end of the town – to Villa Melzi and its impressive gardens. It’s said to have provided inspiration for the composer Franz Liszt as well as French writer Stendhal. The garden is a riot of colour, with everything from azaleas to rhododendrons, olive trees to maples. Take a peek at its chapel too to see the most intricate curtains made out of Italian black marble – they are breathtaking in their craftsmanhip.

Aerial view of Villa Serbelloni's pool, overlooking Lake Como

Melzi is one of a host of villas dotted around Lake Como, all remnants of a bygone era. There’s Villa Carlotta across the lake in Tremezzo, as well as Villa del Balbianello where Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Casino Royale were filmed, while in Varenna there’s Villa Monastero.

We hopped over to Varenna in a very stylish Riva boat – you can get it from the hotel’s jetty – or try the hop on/off ferries at Bellagio, which also go further afield around the lake, even passing by a certain George Clooney’s villa in Laglio.

Varenna is a great little spot for shopping, with lots of leather goods and brightly coloured handbags as well as delicious gelato. Go early in the evening when the daytrippers have left to enjoy a pistachio ice cream while the sun sets.

Restaurant with wooden chairs, white tablecloths and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake Como.

Food is obviously a big part of being in Italy, and back at Villa Serbelloni, we were spoiled for choice. We dined at La Goletta, the hotel’s more casual restaurant, where we went old school with lasagne and a bottle of delicious local red wine.

The other restaurant, Mistral, is more for fine dining. Headed by chef Ettore Bocchia – a huge name in Italy for his molecular cooking and gastronomic know-how – he uses the best local ingredients with a five-star twist. His seven course tasting menu is €250, but you can go à la carte with dishes like pasta filled with almond cream and black truffle as well as wild turbot cooked in sugar with potato foam. Ask for the nitrogen frozen ice cream too – it’s a real sense of theatre as they make it at your table. There’s also the American bar, with its cosy nooks and potent cocktails, as well as the La Darsena Terrace, a great spot to sit on a warm summer’s night.

Meanwhile, the Royal Hall is certainly the poshest place I’ve eaten breakfast, with chandeliers and waiters in beautifully starched white jackets. There is a good choice of dishes, from fruit to a very moreish cheese board with local gorgonzola and taleggio as well as waffles and food cooked to order, cutting down on waste.

Underground pool with white sun loungers.

Nourishment of a different kind came at Luce del Lago, the newly refurbished spa. There are two pools: one for adults and a children’s pool next door, as well as a steam room, sauna and tropical rain showers.

I had the Glamour treatment, which included a scrub, massage and face mask. The products are from Italian brand Mei Spa and are based on food ingredients like apricot, goji, turmeric and white mulberry. I felt as if my skin had had a gourmet meal too, slurping up everything it was fed. The hour and 20 minutes treatment costs €190.

After so much eating and relaxing, it was time to work off those calories. The hotel has a tennis court, outside pool, squash court (quite unusual in Italy) and gym. Its very charming manager Paolo took us on an hour’s power walk around Bellagio, to places like the former fishing hamlet of Pescallo. Paolo seemed to know everyone, joking with local restaurant owners and boat drivers, and was so engaging about life here, in both on and off season.

With so many visitors, demand for rooms in Como is high. The Ritz-Carlton is due to open in Bellagio in 2026 on the site of the historic Belle Époque Hotel Grande Bretagne, and The Edition is set to open its 145-room hotel in Cadenabbia in 2025, in an attempt to draw a younger crowd. We couldn’t help but be drawn back to the hug of Villa Serbelloni, with its magic combination of five star and homely.

Preparing for the journey back – I had come by train via London, Paris and Zurich, which takes about 14 hours in one go – I was sad to go but looking forward to eking out the views. The route takes in spectacular Italian scenery to cute Swiss chocolate box villages. (You can also come by train via Milan, just an hour away.)

Travelling this way, I was looking at maps, feeling happy that my degree of Italian and German was helping me navigate stations and order coffees, while appreciating how connected we all are. And what better feeling is there than that.

BOOK IT

Nightly rates at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni start from €705, with breakfast included. villaserbelloni.com

Margaret’s return train journey had a carbon footprint of 0.01 tonnes of CO2. ecollectivecarbon.com


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