The water is flat.
Before you embark on any biking activity on the lake make a mental note that Lake Como is hilly. Hills are everywhere. If you’re not actually in the lake, swimming, then you’re going to come across a steep uphill sooner or later. Even if you are a pretty regular cyclist you might be surprised by the inclines you find here. The first step in planning your ride should be where to rent an e-bike. Even if you’re sticking to relatively flat cycle paths you should consider this option, for the very reason that just a few metres of steep incline has the potential to put you in a foul mood! If you’re a seasoned rider this won’t apply to you, and in that case you’ll find some excellent bike shops to rent a zippy Bianchi road bike, make like an Italian, and fly around the lake immune to buses, campervans and cars. For the rest of us, you’ll want to make sure you’re renting an e-bike with a good battery and planning your route in advance to get the most out of your experience. There are some excellent electric bikes that make the uphills a breeze, even for someone with limited cycling experience. The same applies to cycle paths on the lake – there are options for everyone but it’s worth doing some homework before setting off.
TIP: In the summer months it can be much more pleasant to explore by e-bike than on foot. With the added speed you work up a great breeze as you ride, and the air is even cooler as you head towards the mountains.
The best branch of the lake for a bike ride.
Unlike other destinations in Italy, and Europe in general, Lake Como does not offer a well-signposted, continuous cycle path along the water’s edge, that would allow you to cycle multiple days (or even one day) protected from traffic, and in relatively easy, flat conditions. I’ve seen lots of images of carefree Europeans pedaling with dogs, kids and ice-creams on wide avenues where bikes and calm reign supreme. These images are not of Lake Como! This might seem like a drawback. It can be, especially if travelling with young children, but it is also one of the reasons why we love the lake as a cycling destination. There is a sense of authenticity, real adventure and fun as you go in search of the best back roads and tiny semi-abandoned hamlets.
That said, there are some well-maintained cycle paths that are suitable for a fun half day ride for everyone from the very occasional rider to the passionate cyclist. They can be found on the Como branch of the lake. Read on to discover the routes and which to pick based on where you’ll be staying.
OPTION 1. Menaggio – Porlezza cycle path: Consult maps here. The route is roughly 14 km along the old railway line. Explore the valley between Lake Como and Lake Lugano and ride through the nature reserve of Lake Piano. This is a rewarding, easy route that finishes right on the beach of Lake Lugano which is a fantastic swimming beach where the water is often calm. It is possibe to rent paddle boards and enjoy easy, safe paddling conditions all along the bay. Make time for a drink or ice-cream at the beach bar. TIP: Roughly 1km from Menaggio the cycle path meets the national road and continues without a designated lane for 100 m. This is to be avoided if you’re fearful of cycling near traffic. The route is mostly flat except for an initial climb with a few very steep ramps as you leave Menaggio. Both of the aforementioned sections can be avoided if you rent a bike from Bebike in Cardano.
OPTION 2. Menaggio – Sorico: Consult maps here. A fantastic ride of about 25 km including sections of the ‘Antica Via Regina‘ – the original Roman road around the lake. The easy, family-friendly sections of cycle path are between Dongo and Gravedona and again from Domaso to Sorico. TIPS: As you head out of Menaggio towards Acquaseria, there is a tricky intersection with a tunnel, fast cars, a pedestrian/cycle path that abrupty ends and then picks up again right on the main road with no protective barrier. It’s worth looking out for this point and taking extra precautions. In the area of Cremia the “cycle path” is on the narrow main road, delineated merely by the presence of paint markers on a road which isn’t wide enough for a shoulder. Bear this in mind when planning a ride with young children.
How to get there
If you are staying in the central lake area, for example in Varenna or Bellagio, and don’t have access to a car, the simplest plan would be to cross the lake by ferry to Menaggio. Menaggio is an excellent starting point – it is very well-connected by public transport, as well as being a pretty town worth a visit. There are regular ferries that take as little as 15 mins, and run from early morning right into the evening – consult the timetables here. Rent your bike and choose your route. Option no. 1 is logistically the simplest and easiest to follow with the least amount of time cycling on national roads. It also makes for a great active day out with swimming, cycling and paddleboarding all accessible from the same location with very little extra planning needed. If you choose to cycle option no. 2 remember that you will be on and off the cycle path. On your way back ie. cycling in the direction of Menaggio, you will be on the opposite side of the road to the cycle path (and the lake) making your return journey much less pleasant. It is possible to take a ferry and start cycling directly in the area of Dongo or Domaso but we recommend consulting the ferry timetable in advance because ferry connections are much less frequent.
Can you ride right round the lake?
If you’re used to cycling in close proximity to traffic, then you will have fun venturing off the cycle paths. Be mindful that the national road that runs right round the lake has a very narrow shoulder. While you may have the opportunity to cycle close to the lake at points, it isn’t the most relaxing option. You will encounter traffic because there is only one road so vehicles of all shapes and sizes are on the same stretch of road. This is a route that regular cyclists would consider doing on a road bike. As with many things in Italy, you need to have creative solutions and great local knowledge to find the most memorable corners of this area. Following the standard lakeside road isn’t the answer if you’re cycling less for sport and more for a fun exploration of the area.
Check suggested cycling itineraries carefully
Many cycle routes will have you heading off on what seems like a straightforward ride – until you find yourself on an old mule track, a hiking path, national roads or technical off-road Enduro routes. This is especially true in the case of gps route finders and often also tourist websites. Itineraries into nature reserves often change abruptly into stony, steep paths where you risk injury to yourself and your bike.
Lake Como was once dominated by farming and, believe it or not – smuggling. Smugglers would carry contraband goods in backpacks over the mountains from Switzerland into Italy and farmers would create tracks as they transported goods using donkeys and small carts. As a result, a network of extremely steep, stony paths was built up over the centuries, and still exists today. These “roads” will show up on Google maps and similar platforms. We can assure you, they are not roads!
Our advice is always to keep it simple – this area is so rich in history and natural beauty that you don’t need to venture very far to have a memorable experience. You also don’t want to waste your precious holiday time plodding up a steep hill unless you’re sure you’re going to get the best bang for your hard work!
Stick to the cycle path or opt for a guided tour
The lack of uninterrupted cycling infrastructure, and the hilly landscape of the lake mean that it’s worth taking some time to plan your excursion. Lake Como isn’t the ideal location for a cycling experience with young children. It is however a destination that has alot to offer the slow traveller looking for an adventure away from the obvious tourist choices. The lesser-known and more authentic side to this area can be explored perfectly on a bicycle. It is impossible to enter the small hamlets in a car, and often too steep and tiring to visit them on foot.
The never-ending selection of charming villages; the stunning high-altitude panoramas; the beautiful mountain roads; mountain restaurants; lakefront gelaterie; churches; olive groves – there’s no doubt that Lake Como is a cycle tourism paradise and should be explored by one of the best modes of slow travel – a bike. But consider making it an e-bike unless you’re here specifically for the hard climbs, Lake Como is a destination where local knowledge is crucial to transform a ride into a real-life adventure. We suggest sticking with an easily accessible cycle path and combining it with a refreshing lake swim. Otherwise, rely on a guide to take you seamlessly to the best hidden spots.