Winter Like A Celebrity On Lake Como: Villa d’Este – Hotel Review

By Juliet Herd

7 months ago

Christmas in Como? You can't beat it


Heralding a new era, the legendary Villa d’Este establishes a winter season at this traditional summer haunt of the rich and famous (including lakeside resident George Clooney). Juliet Herd reviews.

Read the C&TH Guide To Responsible Tourism

Hotel Review: Villa d’Este, Lake Como, Italy

When you’re told you’re staying at George Clooney’s favourite hotel on Italy’s Lake Como, you naturally half-expect him to pitch up on his private launch at any moment – even though high season is well and truly over. 

It’s not as fanciful as it sounds. 

While Clooney and wife Amal, who own a waterfront pile in nearby Laglio, missed this year’s spectacular Christmas lighting ceremony – which saw the majestic 16th century villa and grounds festooned in thousands of twinkling lights – they may want to consider bringing their six-year-old twins in the future. 

You heard it here first: Lake Como at Christmas is the new go-to destination for those in the know. It’s only the second year the legendary Villa d’Este has remained open for the festive season and it’s already setting a trend, with some of the other famous lakeside hostelries planning to follow suit next year. 

Occupying one of the lake’s most scenic and sun-filled spots, the hotel made history when it stayed open at the end of 2022 to celebrate its 150th season – proving such a success that it has introduced a new winter season. The place was heaving when I joined the festive fun earlier this month with almost full occupancy and a packed schedule of activities guaranteed to get everyone in the holiday spirit. 

Without the usual distraction of people watching – and there is a lot of it during the summer months with half of Hollywood seemingly making a bee-line for its shores – the area’s natural charm is allowed to take centre stage.

There’s something magical about taking a boat trip on one of the world’s most iconic lakes when it’s shrouded in mist and with no other craft in sight, and soaking up the history of ancient villas once belonging to some of Europe’s most wealthy and powerful aristocratic families. 

Nestled on the edge of the tiny town of Cernobbio in the foothills of the Italian Alps and less than an hour by car from Milan, Ville d’Este boasts its own colourful past. Built in 1568 as the Villa Garrovo summer residence for the Cardinal of Como, Tolomeo Gallio, it became the home of Caroline of Brunswick, Queen Consort to King George IV, in 1815. She promptly renamed it Villa d’Este and set about lavishing time and money on its expansion, including anglicising parts of the garden. 

Since being transformed into a luxury hotel in 1873, the property has established itself as the undisputed grande dame of the lake, with celebrities flocking through its elegant – and discreet – doors over the decades. Alfred Hitchcock made his first film, The Pleasure Garden, on the estate, while Elizabeth Taylor stayed in one of its palatial suites at the beginning of her affair with Richard Burton. More recently, Lady Gaga took up residence at the lakefront Villa Cima, one of four private villas in the grounds, while filming House of Gucci, and neighbour Clooney is such a regular that staff refer to him as simply ‘George’. He’s also a creature of habit, apparently, ordering the same dishes – tomato and buffalo mozzarella salad with prosciutto followed by three different risottos on one plate – on every visit.

Explaining the appeal of Villa d’Este, resident hairdresser Pierre Gähwiler, who has been tending the tresses here of the likes of Jennifer Leigh, Bette Davis and Zsa Zsa Gabor since 1950, says: ‘It’s like a Sleeping Beauty and now it wakes up. It’s a little bit out of time and never too touristic and still has this beautiful character.’

There are 152 Renaissance-style rooms divided between the main Cardinal Building and the Queen’s Pavilion, with each suite featuring antique furniture and paintings and opulent marble bathrooms. Guests can also rent one of the four private villas, including Villa Cima, which sleeps up to ten and boasts interiors by Italian fashion house Loro Piana. 

With the floating pool – the first of its kind on Lake Como – closed for winter, I found myself doing pre-breakfast laps in the Sporting Club’s indoor piscina, alongside a pair of elderly Italian donne, who chatted amiably to each other while doggy-paddling up and down. An underground passage takes you to the beauty centre on the first floor of the Cardinal Building, which offers massages, aesthetic therapies, wellness programmes, a sauna and a Turkish bath, although it is currently closed for upgrades. Hairdresser Pierre’s salon, filled with his own artwork and signed celebrity photos, has its own entrance off the main villa. 

Apart from the sheer beauty of the place – there are 25 acres of private gardens to explore, a mosaic-studded nymphaeum (a national monument) to marvel at, and breath-taking lake views to be enjoyed from the suites – there’s also plenty to do at this time of year. The hotel has introduced a ‘winter experiences menu’, which includes guided mountain hiking, cooking classes with its chefs (which feature panettone-making, of course), silk workshops in Cernobbio, and wooden boat rides around the lake. You can also commandeer a classic car to whisk you across the border to St Moritz for a day’s skiing, if you so wish.

We engaged in some quite challenging Christmas tree bauble decorating – hand-painting designs inspired by festive customs in northern Italy, with the help of two Milanese artists and co-ordinated by Elisa Carassai, editor of Sali e Tabacchi Journal, which explores Italy’s unknown rituals and traditions. 

Our reward was sampling jewel-like, hand-made chocolates in the pop-up chocolate room and dining at chef’s table in the 700sq metre kitchens of executive chef Michele Zambanini. His exquisite seven-course tasting menu featured beef tartare with truffle shavings, wafer-thin slices of amberjack fish, gnocchi fritto filled with fig jam, tuna tartare with tagliatelle and caviar, venison with chocolate sauce and Kobe beef from Australia, plus a fine chocolate and caramel log for dessert. As he worked, Trento-born Zambanini, who oversees the hotel’s three main restaurants, revealed how he once cooked for Clooney and his guest Barak Obama in a private suite with their families. ‘George wanted to order for Obama but he asked for the menu instead,’ laughs Zambanini, who added that the former president’s security detail made him taste the food first before serving his illustrious diner.

When not at chef’s table, guests can enjoy a blend of classic and contemporary Italian cuisine at La Veranda, overlooking the lake and gardens and with retractable windows that stay open throughout summer, Mediterranean fare at The Grill and light lunches at Sundeck by the hotel’s floating pool. There are 3500 prestigious bottles on the wine list and an astonishing 80,000 in the cellar, mostly Italian and French. It’s no surprise to learn that wine manager Alex Bartoli is aiming for Ville d’Este to be crowned the world’s best cellar within the next two years.

Make sure you give yourself time to wander into picturesque Cernobbio, a short stroll from the hotel, to visit the colourful Christmas markets and to take a spin around the lakeside ice-skating rink. There are stylish boutiques for window shopping and cosy cafes serving thick Italian hot chocolate and mulled wine. As Ville d’Este board member Carlotta Fontana, whose Italian family own the hotel, says of this newly created season: ‘We truly believe in it as we know that the destination has plenty to offer even during the winter period. It is not the Christmas of Villa d’Este but the Christmas of Lake Como.’

See you next year, George!

BOOK IT

Villa d’Este is open until 6 January 2024 and re-opens 28 March. Classic rooms start from €750 per night. villadeste.com