Inside Italy’s Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, The Ultimate Lake Como Retreat

Celebrating its 150th anniversary, the iconic five-star hotel buzzes with European luxury, Old World money, and a long Hollywood legacy.

The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni’s 72 rooms and 22 suites all feature unforgettable lake or park views
(Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)

“Welcome everyone!” Jan Bucher beams, opening up his tuxedo-clad arms to the grand lobby before him. “153 years ago exactly in this room, a Swiss company signed an agreement from the older owners, Mr. and Mrs. Frizzoni, and bought the Villa. In just three years, they built the South and the North Wing, and in 1873 the Grand Hotel opened its doors. And it was one of the first five-star luxury hotels in Italy.” 

Under the antique chandeliers, the neoclassical dining room of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni buzzes with European prestige, old world money from Lago Como and the surrounding lakes, and Italian celebrities. Hollywood luminaries Matt Dillon, Andy Serkis and Kevin McKidd clink champagne flutes nearby. 

“We thank you all for being here,” the young general manager continues. “It is such an honor and a pleasure to have you all with us.”

We’re all gathered here to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Villa Serbelloni, one of the finest “Grand Dame” hotels in all of Italy. There is nothing quite like this class of resort, the stately and venerable hotels that came to define luxury as the world segued into the modern age. You can find grand dame hotels in Bueno Aires and Hong Kong, Madeira and Mexico City. But there is something particularly singular about European examples that transport you to another age, a space of timeless elegance outside of class or income. They are an munificent gift to the senses—and the soul. 

The hotel’s stunning pool begs for a late-night swim (Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)

While there are other five-star hotels in Lago Como, as locals say, the Villa Serbelloni rests in a league entirely of its own—largely due to its location in Bellagio, one of the most romantic villages on these distinguished shores. Bellagio’s charm is so pervasive that when hotel magnate Steve Wynn built the crown jewel of his empire in Las Vegas, he chose this village as its namesake and inspiration.

The Villa Serbelloni buzzes with European prestige, Old World money, Lake Como luminaries & a contingent of Hollywood celebrities. 

Tonight the Bucher family has invited us all here to partake in their anniversary celebration, a family soiree that echoes how they’ve welcomed guests here in high style for four generations. And while the vibe is warmly intimate, the anniversary gala is also an eminently glamorous affair.

Chef Ettore Bocchia and the Michelin-starred team of Mistral (Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)

The evening begins with aperitivos by the lake, followed by a seven-course meal in the grand ballroom catered by Chef Ettore Bocchia, helm of the Villa Serbelloni’s acclaimed Mistral restaurant. With a palate shaped by his Emilia Romagna homeland, Chef Bocchia is considered one of the pioneers of molecular cuisine in Italy. Unsurprisingly, his menu earned the Villa Serbelloni’s flagship hotel a Michelin star in 2005.

After dinner we’re serenaded by famed Italian pop singer Noemi who brings the night to a climax. Despite being dressed in Oscars-level haute couture gowns and impeccably tailored Savile Row and Tom Ford tuxedos, revelers really make a carefree go of the dance floor. It probably shouldn’t shock that the man who played both Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar from Planet of the Apes has moves, but Serkis sure can dance. After dinner the group heads back downstairs for cocktails overlooking the moonlit lake.

While superb head bartender Alessandro Buonadonna shakes and stirs guests to happiness, we are all soon awash in a spectacular fireworks display over the water. The moment could not get more Great Gatsby if Leo himself was here, toasting us all with champagne glass raised high, glorious flowers of colors exploding behind him.

The moment could not get more “Great Gatsby” if Leonardo DiCaprio himself were here, champagne glass raised high, glorious flowers of fireworks exploding behind him. 

As we order another martini from Buonadonna, the patriarch of the Villa Serbelloni, Gianfranco Bucher, shares some of the hotel’s illustrious history with us. He reveals with pride how the hotel acted as an ad hoc hospital during the Great War, filling the rooms with nurses and wounded soldiers. And how during WWII the family used the Villa as a shelter for the persecuted fleeing the fascist regime in Milan and beyond—Jews, communists, intellectuals, and others. Despite its location in Italy, the Villa was under Swiss protection due the family’s citizenship, so Mussolini’s police couldn’t enter.

(Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)

The downstairs hallway leading to the spa is plastered with vintage celebrity photos, posters and memorabilia of the Serbelloni’s 150 years of rich history. Among them hang letters from grateful families they helped, thanking the Buchers for saving their lives. The hotel has now survived two global pandemics, and two world wars—and remains standing strong through it all.

Of course the hotel boasts gilded tales of glamour as well. The elder Bucher recalls meeting John F. Kennedy when the American president stayed at the hotel, revealing how the Secret Service installed a direct line to the White House.

John F. Kennedy greeting excited admirers when visiting the Villa Serbelloni (Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)

“I remember my father and I picking up the phone just to hear the operators on the other side speaking in American accents,” he smiles, reliving his cheeky prank calls. “Wondering who these Swiss on the other end were, and what we were calling about.” Other legendary heads of state like Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt have called the Serbelloni home, as have legendary stars of the silver screen like Clark Gable, Mary Pickford and Al Pacino.

Naturally the surrounding tableau of the lake plays its role in the magic of an extended stay at the Villa Serbelloni. As advertised, Lake Como’s reputation as one of the loftiest playgrounds for Europe’s moneyed class is carved in stone, and does not disappoint. This is the land of sprawling villas and impeccably-manicured gardens, of wealth and prosperity.

(Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)

Everywhere one wanders feels like you’re strolling through a Renaissance painting. On the afternoon prior to the gala, the Serbelloni provides one of their famed wooden varnished Vaporina boats for a cruise on the giant lake, taking us past the iconic Villa La Cassinella, the manse of Alexander Skarsgård’s tech savant Lukas Matsson in Succession.

Grand dame hotels transport you to another age, a place of timeless elegance outside of class or income.

The estate is so exquisite its infinity pool comes lined with 22-carat gold reflective tiles, and so secluded it can only be accessed by boat. Then there’s the jaw-dropping Villa del Balbianello rising from the water, a stream trickling from the gardens to the lake like a fountain.

Here they filmed Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala’s wedding to Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. When George Lucas moved his production crew here, one of the wealthiest and most celebrated filmmakers in the world handpicked the Villa Serbelloni as his temporary home.

A small corner of the five acres of elegantly manicured gardens overlooking the lake (Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)

Credit the weird semitropical microclimate of the elevated Italian valley for all the palm trees and profusion of multi-chromatic flowers lining the hills and cascading down terraces. Its beauty is both natural and manmade, refined by human fingers over the centuries to a point of near perfection.

As we coast across the glassy waters back to the Villa Serbelloni, the magnificence of the Grand Hotel sharpens into focus, its Art Nouveau decadence coming into view on the shores of the lake. With the sun glittering brilliantly off the tiny waves, the recognition hits that Lake Como is so visually decadent, so otherworldly that Hollywood uses it to underscore the billionaire status of their characters. Or to play the fantasy setting of a lovestruck princess’s wedding ceremony in a galaxy far, far away. 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Maxim magazine.

Follow Deputy Editor Nicolas Stecher on Instagram at @nickstecher and @boozeoftheday.