Trains from Milano Centrale Railway Station leave every hour or two to Varenna and take just over an hour. They cost about 7 euros for 2nd class and about 11 euros for second class. I have found trainline.com to be a very good way to book European trains. From Varenna, you can easily take the ferry to Bellagio and Menaggio. They run more than hourly during the day, and cost about 5 euros. There are also ships and hydrofoils that will take you to virtually anyplace on Lake Como. There is a very scenic bus that will take you from Menaggio to Lugano if you want to see another lake and a bit of Switzerland.
Mary One-way fare from Milan to Como (whether Trenitalia from M Centrale or Trenord from M Nord Cadorna) is 4.80 euro. For accurate info it is always best to use the official railway site for each European country (almost all have English pages) rather than an agency such as thetrainline or Eurail, which may not have accurate data and may well charge fees on top of fares.
John According to the Trenitalia I see, one-way tickets from Milano Centrale to Vanenna,which is what I was talking about, are 6.7 euros. I asked for prices in dollars on trainline.com, and then estimated an exchange rate in euros, so I was off .30 euros. I have found that trainline.com (which used to be trainline.eu) has the same prices and information as the official Italian and French train sites, and they are much easier to deal with from the US. There is a very small surcharge on tickets they book, which is clearly explained. In this case it is .62 euros. They will notify you by email when the schedules come out with the best early prices for a train you may want to book in the future. I agree that Eurail doesn't always have the most complete information and prices.
Mary I missed Varenna...my apologies. I know all about the trainline: it exists in the UK too. But I've travelled extensively by train in almost all EU countries and can assure you that it really is best to use the *official* railway website for each country. If you must buy tickets online in advance (which is not necessary for the vast, vast majority of journeys) it's best to buy via the official website if offered (e.g. DB, OEBB, SBB, Trenitalia). I'd only ever buy from an agency (as opposed to at the station) if buying a ticket long in advance was absolutely essential (e.g.a sleeper). :-)
See my other answer for trains Milano Centrale Railway Station to Como. Milan to Varenna by train is pretty straightforward. Trenitalia operate the route. The station you need is Varenna-Esino, which is about 5 minutes' downhill walk from the lakeside and ferry dock and another 5 minutes or so into Varenna's centre Direct (that is, no-change) trains to Varenna-Esino leave from Milano Centrale and journey time is about an hour. Make sure you buy a two-way ticket from Milan (the ticket machine will offer you the option to do so). Unless things have recently changed Varenna-Esino does not have a ticket office and may not even have a ticket machine (it certainly hasn't whenever I've visited). It does have a validation machine so make sure you validate your return tickets to Milan before boarding. To get to Bellagio on the same trip just take the lake ferry from Varenna. No need to book tickets in advance: just buy them when you're there. The official ferry website in English has timetables: http://www.navigazionelaghi.it/risultati.aspx?lake=Como If you want to visit Bellagio on a separate trip you could take the train to Varenna in the same way, or to Lecco (worth a wander in itself) and then the bus from there to Bellagio. Bus timetable on this link (timetables from June are not yet uploaded): http://www.lineelecco.it/tpl/orari-invernali-18-19/ Or you could go to Como by train and take the lake ferry to Bellagio from there (timetables on link above)
Most definitely journeys to be made by train. Even if there is a bus service trains encounter no traffic hold-ups to slow the trip! First of all Milan to Como: Train journey time is around an hour though there are a few faster Trenitalia departures. Como has four railway stations. Three are served by Trenord and one by Trenitalia. It doesn't matter whether you take Trenord or Trenitalia trains (fares aren't much different, if they differ at all). It only matters which Milan station is most convenient for you to leave from and which Como station is most convenient to arrive at. Trenitalia trains leave from Milano Centrale Railway Station and Milan Porta Garibaldi railway stations and all arrive at Como San Giovanni station, a couple of minutes' walk from the historical centre and about 10 minutes from the lakeside. Trenord trains leave from Milan Nord Cadorna station, which is nearer the city centre than Milan Centrale. The best Trenord station for a visit is Como Nord Lago which, as its name suggests, is by the lakeside. Como Nord Borghi is in Como's centre but is a longer walk to both the historical centre and the lakeside. You can find train times and details for both (and fares for the Trenitalia trains) in English on the official Italian railway website below. Choose 'Milano tutte le Stazioni' as your departure point but you must choose your Como arrival station by name: https://www.trenitalia.com/en.html The Trenord site in English gives times and details for both and fares for Trenord trains: http://www.trenord.it/en/home.aspx Standard one-way fare is 4.80 euro for both Trenitalia & Trenord, though the few faster trains may be a bit more expensive. You do not need to book your tickets in advance. Just buy them on the day you go. Ticket machines have English language options and are very easy to use: some only accept cards but there are always machines which accept cash as well. There's no need to pay extra for first-class. Second-class is perfectly safe and comfortable enough. :-) Remember to validate (date-stamp) your tickets before boarding, using the machines on/near the platforms. There are on-the-spot fines for non-validation and inspectors do check. See photo for an example of a Trenitalia validation machine:
Andres Thank you so much Mary. A wealth of information beyond what I was expecting.
Andres Excellent links to the train timetables. I feel more comfortable now, knowing all this. I was thinking of doing a Viator tour, but I’m more of a person who likes to explore on his own.
Mary You're more than welcome! It's very easy indeed to use Italian trains. I'm late middle-age, solo female traveller with barely any Italian and I've used the trains loads on all my trips (including the routes you want). It just doesn't make sense to spend so much more money on a tour which won't allow you enough time to explore. Just make sure you're careful with wallet etc in and around major stations and *always* remember to validate your train ticket before you board! :-)