Ettinger travels back to the golden era of travel at Lake Como’s most magnificent establishment - Villa D’Este


An aperitivo on the terrace at the Villa D’Este has to be one of the most glamorous things you will ever experience. A barman in white tie presents you with your cocktail, and you sit back in your chair and take in the view - the sharp hillsides of Italy’s Lombardo region drop off into the lake and Riva’s shoot by transporting Como’s glamorous summer residents to various dinner locations. Then it’s time to settle in for some serious people watching – the great and the good (or just the very wealthy) from across Europe sip champagne and Campari, as their eyes dart around the terrazzo checking who is wearing who. Guests dress sharply for the aperitivo hour, and for dinner at the Veranda restaurant where a suit and tie are still compulsory (think elegant Italian suiting and understated cocktail dress). It is the ultimate Como moment, and one that transports you back to the golden era of glamorous European travel.

Villa D’Este has been a Como institution, ever since it was erected by Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio back in the second half of the 16th century. The grand golden building has evolved over the years  having been owned by, among others, a ballerina married to Napoleon’s top general and Caroline of Brunswick – who escaped to the lake after her marriage to George IV of England fell apart in advance of his coronation). In 1873 it was converted into a luxury hotel, catering to European aristocrats.

The magnificent main villa boasts a mosaic floored-ballroom with candy coloured chandeliers, a teal card room, and an onsite boutique and bar. All in all the complex extends to 152 rooms situated in 18th century landscaped gardens, complete with a grand mosaic wall, spa, sports clubs, bars, restaurants, and a variety of private catered villas peppered around the lake. It takes 330 staff to run in the place in the summer months and, unsurprisingly, the Villa often plays host to Hollywood VIPs ­– Madonna, Robert De Niro and Anthony Hopkins have all spent time here. George Clooney (who owns a Villa in nearby Laglio) comes for dinner with family and friends in the hotel’s low-key Grill restaurant during the summer months.

De Niro and Madonna favour the Cardinal Suite, an exercise in grand, Italianate interior design - red silks, brocade, Chippendale furniture, enormous marble bathrooms with steam-room like showers and, of course, one of only two prized terraces at the hotel. Other rooms display a fresher colour  palette, but all have the hallmark glitz and grandeur one would expect; this is not a place to visit if you like your schemes minimal. Corridors are lined with Este’s extensive art collection – the royal portraits of the first and second floors give way to Roman gods on the third, horses and hounds on the fourth, and the jewel of the collection is a Futurist portrait by Giacomo Balla takes pride of place in the chandelier-lit grand foyer.

Given the hotel’s history, Villa D’Este can very easily transport you to a bygone era; but which one is up to you! Imagine yourself a guest of the Cardinal, ballerina or the nearly-Queen of England. Or you can just relish in the old-school glamour (but 21st century standards) of this timepiece of a hotel. But, whatever you do, make sure you pack your finery.