Lake Como (CNN) — Forget the Amalfi Coast, Capri and the Riviera. The hottest destination in Italy these days is Lake Como. About an hour's drive north of Milan, the region has an unbelievably picturesque setting that includes lush greenery and lakeside historic villages framed by the backdrop of the Italian and Swiss Alps. Travel around a bit more, and you'll find ornate centuries-old villas, elaborate gardens brimming with fragrant flowers, tiny churches and endless scenic walks and hikes. Welcoming locals enthusiastically share their culture and traditions with visitors.
Many blockbuster movies have been filmed in Lake Como, including "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones," "Casino Royale" and "Ocean's Twelve," and while the area has always attracted tourists, it has more recently become synonymous with glamor and luxury.
According to Andrea Grisdale, the owner of IC Bellagio, a Lake Como-based travel company selling luxury trips to Italy, part of the change has to do with the spring opening of Mandarin Oriental, Lago di Como. "You have this super high-end brand with a loyal following open an incredible property so, of course, the jet-setters want to come," she says.
Given Lake Como's waterside setting and relaxing vibe, most of the luxury hotels have a beach destination feel not out of place in the Caribbean.
"All of a sudden, Lake Como is the place to be," Grisdale adds.
There's also the George Clooney effect. The actor bought the 18th-century Villa Oleandra, in the town of Laglio, as a vacation home back in 2002 and has spent an increasing amount of time there in recent years. Clooney's cadre of famous friends frequently visit, and their pursuits, thanks to prying paparazzi, are splashed across tabloids all over the world.
"Clooney has done incredible publicity for the lake and brought its chi-chiness to another level," says Grisdale.
A Clooney sighting isn't a guarantee on a Lake Como vacation, but a good time might as well be.
Here are Lake Como's top attractions and reasons to plan a trip to this corner of the world.
The lake aside, Grisdale says that Lake Como's biggest appeal is the collection of small towns, including undiscovered gems that have seen nary a tourist. "They all have a lot of character, but each has its own atmosphere and feel," she says. "The locals often speak in Italian dialects to each other, and visiting is a very authentic experience of the region."
Bellagio is the most touristy and can get crowded, but it is full of vibrant restaurants and bars as well as local boutiques selling chic fashions.
Argegno, half-way between Bellagio and Como, is more under the radar. The River Telo runs through it and is home to Santa Anna Church, an 18th century structure known for its original frescoes. If you make a day of exploring the various villages, Grisdale recommends taking the cable car from Argegno to Pigra, a small hillside town with amazing views of the lake and the mountains beyond.
The private Villa Cima is part of the Villa d'Este property.
The small town of Cadenabbia, set on the side of Monte Crocione, is the place to get those dramatic shots of the Alps. The villas here, such as Villa Margherita and Villa Collina, date back to the 17th and 18th centuries and are the stuff of movies.
Lenno, in contrast, is set along the water and has several scenic walking paths. It's also where the cool crowd comes to sunbathe, dine and drink at Lido di Lenno, a beach club-slash-restaurant serving contemporary Italian cuisine and killer cocktails. The quieter Lezzeno is another lakefront village lined with walking paths, both hilly and flat; come here for the serenity but definitely not the scene.
Tourists can spend several days exploring the villages. Grisdale recommends seeing a few a day and concentrating on one part of the lake. "The area is spread out, and the roads are narrow so it can take a while to get from one point to the next," she says.
You can hire a guide, along with a car and driver, for your excursion or visit lakefront villages such as Lezzeno and Bellagio by hiring a private boat through your hotel, travel agent or a water sports center.
The star of a visit to Lake Como is -- no surprise -- the namesake lake. Starting in the spring and through the fall, visitors can enjoy activities such as boating, paddle boarding, jet skiing (a Clooney favorite) and kayaking. Swimming is also a popular pastime (though the water can be uncomfortably cold outside of July and August).
There are a bevy of water sport options; if your hotel doesn't offer what you're looking for, just head into town.
Prefer to stay on dry land? Travelers come to Lake Como from around the world just to see its gardens, and they can be visited from spring to fall. Similar to Villa d'Este, most are on the grounds of historic villas. The region is lush with greenery, both sprawling and intimate; during the peak summer season, beat the crowds and the heat by visiting early.
The star of a visit to Lake Como is, naturally, the lake itself.
Villa Carlotta, next to Grand Hotel Tremezzo, built by a marquis from Milan in the 17th century, has an expansive park with shaded paths, a bamboo forest and themed gardens. The Italian garden, for example, has fountains, citrus trees, camellias and trimmed hedges.
Villa Balbianello's gardens are full of sycamore and pine trees, and in spring and summer, azaleas and rhododendrons are in full bloom. These sloped gardens are a fantastic viewing point of the lake, and it's here where George Lucas filmed the scene of Queen Amidala's wedding from "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones."
Villa Monastero has terraced gardens with more than 1,000 species of plants and flowers. Visitors will also find many exotic species including palm trees from Africa and the Americas and agave plants from Mexico. The citrus groves and dedicated camellia garden are particularly picturesque.
Set along the lake in Bellagio, Villa Melzi Garden, is full of sculptures, a water lily pond, Japanese cedar and maple trees, towering hedges and cypresses.
Get on your feet
Lake Como is for relaxing, hiking, kayaking and enjoying some of Italy's most beautiful villages.
Lake Como is an explorer's dream, and a wellness movement here is slowly gaining traction. "There are dozens of walks and hikes you can do, ranging from gentle flat walks along the lake to full-day treks in the mountains," says Grisdale.
The tourist offices in Bellagio and Como have a list of all the options, but there are a few quintessential walks that tourists should consider.
Local tour companies, such as IC Bellagio, offer hiking guides for any walk, and some hotels do, too. Mandarin Oriental, for example, has a hiking concierge who can arrange for picnics on any excursion, complete with wine and caviar.
Como to San Primo is a more than 15-mile walk that requires a reasonable level of fitness, but Grisdale says it's her favorite in the area and a must if you love the idea of a great workout combined with spectacular views.
The walk begins in Como where you take the funicular up a slope to reach the town of Brunate. From there, you walk through a series of small towns and can savor one "wow" panorama after another. Refuel along the way by stopping at one of the many refugios or mountain huts and tucking into a local lunch of cured meats and polenta topped with mushrooms.
End in the village of San Primo, above Bellagio, where you can call a taxi or arrange a transfer through your hotel.
The Lake Como Greenway is a leisurely six-mile walk that winds through medieval towns and past historic villas and churches and scenic gardens. It starts in the village of Colonno and involves walking on Via Regina, an ancient road that connected Como to the Alps.
Noteworthy sights along the way include groves of olive trees, the medieval center of Sala Comacina, Villa Balbianello and the Romanesque church of Santi Giacomo e Filippo, from the 12th century and full of original frescoes. The stroll ends in Tremezzo.
The Valtellina slopes hike isn't physically challenging, but it is far lesser known than the two above. The 3.5-mile trek starts in Mello, a town at the base of the Italian Alps and about an hour's drive from Bellagio.
The marked trail passes by miles of terraced vineyards, through a cool forest and along mountain ridges overlooking snow-topped peaks. You'll likely pass farmers tending to their vineyards. If you're lucky, you'll even get invited in for a glass of wine and taste of mountain cheese.
IC Bellagio offers a lavish version of this hike: You're transported to Mello by helicopter where a local winemaker greets you and leads you on the hike. There are a few stops along the way including one in the middle of a vineyard where another winemaker leads you through a tasting of his whites and reds.
At the end, your host will treat you to lunch in a rustic farmhouse. The spread of local specialities includes wholewheat pasta with cabbage, potato and cheese and rosemary-roasted chicken with lemon potatoes.
Stay a while
The Mandarin Oriental is the new kid on the hotel block in Lake Como and the one generating all the buzz.
Given Lake Como's waterside setting and relaxing vibe, most of the luxury hotels are akin to resorts typical of beach destinations such as the Caribbean. In fact, according to several hoteliers in the region, some of their guests don't venture beyond the property for their entire stay.
These places to hang your hat are pricey, but if you've got deep pockets, they're often ranked among the top hotels in the world. And if you don't, they're worth visiting for a meal, an aperitif or a pretty little stroll.
Our top picks
Mandarin Oriental, Lago di Como is the new kid on the hotel block in Lake Como and the one generating all the buzz. Its main building, Villa Roccabruna, dates back to 1799 and is the former home of the famous opera singer Giuditta Pasta, who lived there in the early 19th century.
Her house was a gathering spot for artists and singers, including the composer Gaetano Donizetti. Story has it that he finished his world-famous opera, "Anna Bolena," here.
The hotel's 21 rooms and 52 suites are spread among nine villas, and its gorgeous botanical gardens have more than 50 species of plants and flowers such as camellias and magnolias. There are two restaurants, including the elegant L'Aria, serving Mediterranean dishes with a modern twist. The spa (which includes a Finnish sauna and steam bath and a Himalayan salt room) is the best on the lake and a must for wellness seekers.
Albert Herrera, the senior vice president of global product partnerships for the luxury travel network Virtuoso, is a frequent visitor to Lake Como and recently stayed at the Mandarin. He describes the property as "magical." "It's got that rare combination of history and contemporary appeal," he says. "It's revitalizing a tried-and-true destination."
Villa d'Este is Lake Como's grand dame luxury property. It was built in 1568 as the summer home of a cardinal and turned into a hotel in 1873. The 152 rooms are divided among two buildings and decorated in a traditional Renaissance style.
You can't come to Lake Como and not walk Villa d' Este's more than 60 acres of stunning gardens, with their endless amount of trees and flowers including jasmine, wisterias, hydrangeas and pansies. They're a visual feast and a fragrant one, too.
This year, the property redecorated Villa Cima, a private villa that dates to 1815. Loro Piana is behind the elegant, clean aesthetic that includes cashmere-covered headboards, sofas and chairs and velvet, silk and linen everywhere.
Il Sereno is Lake Como's first contemporary luxury hotel and the sister property to the chic Le Sereno, in St. Barts. Owner Luis Contreras worked with celebrated Milan-based designer Patricia Urquiola to create the understated aesthetic, which maximizes views of the lake from every vantage point.
The 30 spacious, waterfront rooms, for example, all have floor-to-ceiling windows and terraces. Also, the 60-foot-long freshwater infinity pool is suspended over the lake. A meal at the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant, Berton Al Lago, which serves unfussy Italian cuisine using local ingredients such as lavaret, a lake fish, in a seaweed broth, is a treat.
Il Sereno is Lake Como's first contemporary luxury hotel and the sister property to the chic Le Sereno, in St. Barts.
Grand Hotel Tremezzo is run by the De Santis family and enjoys a favorable location facing the charming town of Bellagio. Its 90 rooms are decorated in a Belle Epoque style and decked out in sumptuous reds.
Amenities include three pools, five restaurants, including a spot serving thin-crust pizzas, and expansive hillside gardens with tennis courts. As of this year, the hotel has partnered with the renowned Florence beauty brand Santa Maria Novella, which offers a sleep ritual massage using lavender flowers.
VISTA Palazzo Lago di Como occupies a Venetian-style 19th century edifice overlooking Lake Como and the city of Como's majestic Piazza Cavour, the gateway to the medieval old town. With just 18 accommodations, the intimate property conveys the sense of staying in one of Lake Como's fabled waterside villas built by Italian nobles.
Owner Bianca Passara's family has played a major role on Como's hospitality landscape for four generations, and her connections make it possible for the concierge staff to offer unique excursions such as visiting local artists in their homes.
In the storybook village of Lezzeno the boutique, family-owned Palazzo del Vice Re is a labor of love. A former aristocratic palace that's been restored to include all the modern conveniences, this is the place to stay if you're seeking ultimate relaxation and pampering.
Want to learn how to prepare authentic pizzas and pastas? Sign up for one of the property's cooking classes.