Few hotels in the world can say they’ve been operating since Ulysses S. Grant was president, so a sesquicentennial milestone deserves celebration. But when that hotel is Villa d’Este, a standard birthday party simply won’t do. Instead, in March the famous retreat on Italy’s Lake Como kicked off a year of special events, menus, programming and more, all culminating in another rare occasion: The hotel will remain open until January to host Christmas and New Year’s Eve festivities. Cue a mad scramble for bookings.
It’s a fittingly grand roster of tributes to a hotel that has inspired such lasting devotion over 15 decades. There have been the VIP fans, of course, from royals, heads of state and world-class athletes to celebrities from Gable and Garbo to George Clooney, who often pops over from his own lakeside villa for a cold one (sometimes bringing prominent friends, including President Barack Obama, with him). Bruce Springsteen’s been a regular for nearly 25 years; John Legend and Chrissy Teigen were married here. But many non-boldfaced guests have likewise been checking in for generations, and often, it’s the staff’s remarkable attention to detail that keeps them coming back—the barman who remembers a preferred drink or the chef who knows just how to prepare a favorite risotto. When fashion designer Lorenzo Riva was the creative director for Balenciaga in the 1980s, he insisted on holding the maison’s management meetings here, instead of in Paris, and even organized a couple of fashion shows on the property. Villa d’Este is “elegant, hushed, soothing and reassuring,” he mused recently. “It’s also discreet. When you enter the gate, you leave the rest outside.”
In keeping with that reputation for discretion, the festivities—commemorating the year when the 16th-century private home first became a hotel—will all have an element of exclusivity. Most notable will be the official 150th celebration on June 28; the night will include cocktails, a gala dinner, entertainment and some surprises and will be open to invited VIPs and any guests staying in the hotel at that time. (Rates start at approximately $1,235 per night for a double room, and a three-night minimum will be required during those dates.) In April and September, themed dinners, presented in conjunction with the 190-year-old Teatro Sociale di Como theater company, will feature performers regaling and interacting with diners as they tell tales of Villa d’Este through song.
Meanwhile, some of the hotel’s annual events are being made more accessible to guests. Those who don’t have a classic car entered in the ultra-luxe Concorso d’Eleganza in May, for example, can still book a Friend of Concorso package that grants entrée to lunches, dinners, parades and chats with vehicle owners.
Throughout the year, travelers can purchase limited-edition commemorative items in the gift shop and explore the grounds to discover “Then and Now” panels, each with photographs, text and a QR code highlighting a notable anecdote or tidbit from the hotel’s history. The on-site Veranda restaurant will offer special dishes inspired by the hotel kitchens’ classics, while the bars will serve five signature cocktails, each named for one of the villa’s previous owners. Another past proprietor, Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales, who bought the estate in 1815, inspired the new Villa d’Este special-label gin, made using Italian organic soft wheat alcohol and Lake Como–sourced lemon, chamomile and other botanicals.
But this season isn’t all about the past. Over its 150 years, Villa d’Este has strived to be an innovator, from deploying the first floating swimming pool on Lake Como to installing charging stations for both electric cars and boats, and it’s aiming to maintain its efforts for its next century and a half. Which is to say, this grande dame of hospitality has earned her laurels, but she isn’t resting on them.