Villa d’Este: 150 years of glamour on the shores of Lake Como

Zoe Gunn

12 May 2022

Revisit one of Italy’s grandest hotels as it celebrates a very special anniversary

12 May 2022 | Zoe Gunn

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ondon’s five-star hotels can lay claim to their fair share of star-studded guest books. The Royal family are famously fans of The Goring. Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra favoured The Savoy. The Ritz has hosted everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Mick Jagger. But this is London, where celebrities are obligated to stay for film premieres, concerts and awards ceremonies. It is not, say, a remote beauty spot in the Italian countryside an hour north of Milan.

And yet even a brief flick through the thick tomes that lay atop the check-in desk at Lake Como’s Villa d’Este will prove that, if you’re looking to indulge in some celebrity spotting, this is the place to be. Alfred Hitchcock made his first film, The Pleasure Garden, here in 1925; Elizabeth Taylor hid out in one of its palatial suites at the start of her affair with Richard Burton; and, more recently, Lady Gaga lived in its lakefront Villa Cima for a month while filming House of Gucci. Despite owning his own rather impressive home a little further up the lake, a certain Mr Clooney is such a regular at Villa d’Este that staff refer to him simply as George.

Doyen of good taste Stanley Tucci recently proclaimed it to be his favourite hotel in the world and, after spending a weekend here, it’s not difficult to see why. At Villa d’Este they do things properly.

Josephine Baker at Villa d'Este. Image: Foto Vasconi - Cernobbio 
Irina Shayk in the grounds of Villa d'Este. Image: Luigi e Lango

This is not the kind of place that trades in gimmicks. You will find no resident DJs around its famed floating pool or Instagram-friendly ‘moments’ festooning its lobby. Frankly, it doesn’t need them. There’s enough beauty and historic charm at Villa d’Este to fill a thousand social media feeds.

No, this is the kind of place where discreet, impeccable service (during high season the hotel operates a roughly 1:1 staff to guest ratio), fabulous views and top-notch amenities inspire the kind of loyalty most hotels can only dream of. Where couples come for their honeymoon and are so enamoured they return every year, eventually bringing with them children and grandchildren who in turn do the same. The kind of loyalty that means this year Villa d’Este will be marking 150 seasons of uninterrupted hospitality.

The Mosaic House

Designed by architect Pellegrino Pellegrini and built in 1586 as the summer home of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, Villa d’Este remained in private hands (including those of Caroline of Brunswick, who retreated here in 1815 after being banished by her husband King George IV) until 1873, when it opened as a glamorous resort for wealthy Victorians taking the Grand Tour.

When I stayed in late April, the hotel was just kicking off its anniversary celebrations with the launch of Villa d’Este Then and Now – an exhibition that guides visitors around the hotel grounds with archival imagery illustrating key moments in the resort’s history. Save for the addition of a spa and wellness centre, with tennis courts, indoor swimming pool, gym and Turkish baths, it’s a credit to the handful of families that have owned Villa d’Este just how well the urge to modernise has been resisted.

The celebrations will continue with the first in a series of elegant gala dinners on 28 June (the hotel’s official birthday) with highlights to follow including two themed evenings curated in collaboration with the nearby Teatro Sociale di Como and featuring performances by some of Italy's finest actors and opera singers. The year-long events calendar will conclude with a very special Christmas and New Year season, marking only the second time in history Villa d’Este has opened during the winter months – the first being to host a spectacular party to commemorate the turn of the millennium.

If you don’t manage to secure one of the hotel's gorgeous Renaissance-style rooms for these special events – priority, for obvious reasons, is going to the aforementioned honeymooners – Villa d’Este’s lauded restaurants and bars will be keeping the celebrations going throughout the year.

The Cardinal Suite

Aperitivo hour, which is taken very seriously here, is being upgraded courtesy of the launch of the hotel’s very own gin, made using lemons, chamomile and lake cane found around Lake Como. Villa d’Este’s team of world-class mixologists will also be shaking up a new cocktail every month inspired by some of the hotel’s most famous residents. Joining the already permanent Hollywood on the Lake (made using George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila), there will be a gin-based Tolomeo Gallio, designed to evoke the scarlet of the cardinal’s robes, and the Caroline of Brunswick Princess of Wales, which blends Pimm’s and Italian bergamot for a drink that is unexpectedly light and refreshing.

In the hotel's two restaurants, The Grill and The Veranda, meanwhile, executive chef Michele Zambanini has designed a range of tasting menus paying homage to past owners and former famous guests. Expect besuited waiters to deliver classics such as Risotto con Carciofi (a dish so good Frank Sinatra reportedly visited repeatedly especially for it), cuttlefish gnocchi and salt-crusted sea bass, before firing up flawless Crepe Suzettes tableside. Gents, you’ll have to dig out your jacket for dinner but, for food so good Elton John sent his private chef to train in the hotel’s kitchens, it’s more than worth it.

Of course, a hotel does not stand on the shores of one of Europe’s most dramatic beauty spots for 150 years without inviting competition. Indeed, from Villa d’Este’s terrace bar one can spy the Mandarin Oriental, while five-star rivals dotting the lakeside include the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Il Sereno and Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.

Thanks, in large part, to the mighty wealth of the Medieval Catholic church and a succession of Victorian owners heavily invested in scattering the 25-acre estate with fashionable follies such as mosaic gardens and cliffside chapels (now apparently a useful hideout for security during the hotel’s annual political conference), Villa d’Este is undoubtedly the grandest, most impressive and best situated of them all.

But why take our word for it when there’s a century-and-a-half’s worth of discerning celebrity guests who are more than happy to recommend?

Carrier offers seven nights from £5,385 per person based on 2 adults sharing a Double Deluxe Lake View room. Price includes breakfast, return economy flights with British Airways from London Heathrow, return private transfers, welcome bottle of sparkling wine and Fast Track Voyager service at Heathrow. Price based on departure 23 September 2022. Visit carrier.co.uk.