Image: Cardinal's building
Villa d'Este
The main Cardinal's building on the 25-acre, 152-room five-star Villa d'Este, on Lake Como, has 131 air-conditioned, individually decorated rooms, many with lake views.
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updated 6/22/2009 10:40:03 AM ET 2009-06-22T14:40:03

"It has everything," says one Forbes Traveler 400 board member of Villa d'Este, the World's Best Hotel. "Location, views, architecture, beauty, service, decor, history, easy accessibility, a spa, sightseeing and weather."

When the editors of Forbes Traveler asked the world's top travelers to name the "400 best hotels on the planet", it was no surprise to find a Lake Como property atop the list. For hundreds of years, this elite getaway 30 miles north of Milan has attracted discerning travelers with picturesque views and a Mediterranean-like climate. One of the lake's town names has even become a synonym for luxury itself: Bellagio.

Since opening to the public in 1873, Villa d'Este, on the lake's southwestern leg in Cernobbio, has welcomed more royalty than Buckingham Palace and hosted more celebrities than Grauman's Chinese Theater. It opens each season in late February.

Naming the best hotel in the world is a challenging proposition, to say the least. One traveler's grande dame is another's stuffy mansion, after all. The editors therefore assembled a panel of discerning luxury travelers from a variety of fields. Some are celebrities themselves, like chefs Todd English and Rocco Dispirito; others are renowned travel experts, like Esquire columnist John Mariani and "The Today Show's" Peter Greenberg. All board members have one thing in common: They stay in at least 20 five-star hotels every year.

Forbes Traveler asked these top travelers to rate nearly 800 of the world's best hotels in a number of categories, including room quality, service, décor and cuisine; the top-ranked 400 became the Forbes Traveler 400. But board members were also asked something more challenging: to name the Single Best Hotel Overall.

When their answers were compiled and cross-referenced with the original ratings, one hotel stood tall at the top of the list. Villa d'Este beat out Bangkok's venerable Peninsula and Hong Kong's Landmark Mandarin Oriental. It edged out the beloved Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, and even outshone the self-described seven-star Burj al Arab in Dubai.

For devotees, this will come as no surprise. Several generations of A-listers have kept this 16th-century palazzo on the short list of elite favorites. Past guests include Prince Ranieri of Monaco, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Mel Gibson, Bette Midler, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Madonna and Mick Jagger. It's a favorite among designers Oscar de la Renta, Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace;  billionaires such as Bill Gates have passed through Villa d'Este's doors.

Power is in the property's DNA. Power, of course, attracts celebrity. In 1568, Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio built the site's first villa. He called it Villa Garrovo, after a nearby mountain stream. The villa then passed hands as a private residence for three centuries. Among its many noble owners was Caroline of Brunswick Princess of Wales, for whom one of the villa's buildings, the Queen's Pavilion, is named. It finally opened as a luxury hotel in 1873.

Image: Villa d'Este
Villa d'Este
Since the 16th century, in fact, "Lago di Como" has been popular among royals and other elite who built private villas on Lake Como's shores. Over the centuries, many of these residences have been transformed into luxury hotels. The finest among them is Villa d'Este, in Cernobbio, on the lake's southwest leg.
Like many European hotels that have passed the century mark, Villa d'Este fights to retain its old-world charms while keeping up with the competition of newly built properties.  (Villa d’Este is obviously not a unanimous choice; some travelers say it hasn’t kept up its standards sufficiently. ) But while the 152 rooms and suites are still decorated with period furniture, oil paintings and silk drapes, they don't feel stodgy. At the top end, the Cardinal Suite features a private lakeside terrace, spacious bedroom and separate living area—and two plasma TVs. The two Presidential Suites are slightly smaller, but also feature separate living and sleeping areas, and substantial lake-view terraces. These $5,000-per-night suites are consistently booked well in advance of the June-through-September high season.

If that's not enough space, consider renting one of two short-term residence villas, both renovated in 2006. The tri-level, 2,700-square-foot Villa Malakoff, built in 1860, features living and dining rooms, a large terrace, a fully equipped kitchen and four bedrooms (two have their own terraces). It's set back from the main building, making it popular with guests for whom privacy is paramount. Villa Cima is a bit older—and significantly larger. Built in 1815, this 7,000-square-foot villa sits on the lake's edge, and features two suites, one junior suite and two double rooms. Each bedroom has its own lake-view balcony.

Image: Verandah Restaurant
Villa d'Este
For chic, modern dining, there's the Grill at the Verandah Restaurant at Villa d'Este on Lake Como. The traditional Italian haute cuisine is paired with an excellent wine list, and the best view of the Lake.

Even if you snag a room with a lake view, there's no substitute for getting out on the lake. Lake Como is perfect for day trips, and countless ferries and speedboats connect the various towns and villages—making an afternoon of unforgettable shopping as easy as a trip to the mall. Or, consider booking a private full-day excursion. Typical itineraries include visits to historic villas with stopovers on Comacina Island and in Bellagio. At some point, you will drive past the owned villa by the lake's most famous movie-star resident, George Clooney. He's been known to wave back.

If that's still not enough, Milan is less than an hour away to the south, and Lugano, Switzerland, is even closer to the north. The concierge can arrange day trips to Pavia, Venice or just about anywhere else; Villa d'Este has its own helicopter.

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