Varenna from above
Ferries run frequently from Varenna to Bellagio, Mennagio and down the western shore of the lake. One good day's adventure is to take the ferry across to Villa Carlotta, explore the fabulous building and grounds, and then wander up the Via Statale along the shore until you find a restaurant that looks appealing for lunch, preferably with a great view of the lake.
After lunch, a short stroll up the Via Statale (or back down to Villa Carlotta if you're feeling less energetic) will take you back to the ferry for trip across the lake to Bellagio and an afternoon exploring the high-end shops and the historic city.
Approaching Bellagio on the ferry
For the evening, return to Varenna and wander down to the Bar il Molo on the waterfront for cocktails. If you've settled in, dine at the Bar il Molo, or choose one of the small nearby restaurants on the water for fresh lake fish or, perhaps, lasagne bolognese.
We've stayed at two hotels in Varenna, each with its own unique personality. Hotel Eremo Gaudio extends up a hill with fabulous views from the top rooms, but is not for everyone, and the TripAdvisor comments reflect this - people love it or not. Hotel Villa Cipressi is an elegant complex of buildings and gardens on the lake, with stunning lake-level views, and is convenient to the restaurants and shops in town.
View from our room at Hotel Eremo Gaudio
From Varenna, one can hike up into the hills and across the ridges to nearby towns. The views from the top are spectacular and the train along the shore runs frequently to bring you back. The trails are not well marked, leading to interesting adventures and diversions, but it's hard to get lost with the lake almost always in site.
Lake Como from the hills
Lake Como is always a great stop if you are passing by. The trains from Milan or Switzerland (arriving at the Como station) are convenient and the ferries cover the lake with schedules that encourage exploration and new discoveries each trip.