Italy’s charming cities and verdant countryside have set the scene for some of the most beloved films in cinematic history. Think classics like Roman Holiday (1953), A Room With a View (1987), or Life is Beautiful (1997), all the way to more modern blockbusters like Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) or Eat, Pray, Love (2010). While so much of this beautiful country already seems straight out of a movie, it’s possible to have an even more immersive experience by actually staying in some of the homes featured on the big screen. From Tuscany to Lake Como, these breathtaking villas may inspire your own masterpiece as well.
This stately country retreat was recently featured in the UK-based reality TV series A Celebrity Taste of Italy (2017). In the show, five of the UK’s famous elders—actress Rula Lenska, 70, Think Of A Number host Johnny Ball, 79, Wish You Were Here…? TV presenter Judith Chalmers, 81, Dad’s Army actor Ian Lavender, 71, and BBC’s “Green Goddess” fitness expert Diana Moran, 78—live together in Estate Felice for two weeks while learning to cook and exploring the Italian countryside. And everything the cast members do, from indulging in leisurely local wine tastings to fishing in a beautiful area lake, is definitely something you can and should indulge in yourself while staying at the estate.
Estate Felice takes its name from the word “happiness” in Italian—and it lives up to it. In the first episode of A Celebrity Taste of Italy, actress Rula Lenska cries with joy as she sets foot on the property because of its beauty. The estate’s landscaped gardens and pastoral surroundings give way to two buildings, an elegant main villa (Villa Felice) and a farmhouse (Casa Felice) [each rentable separately or together]. Villa Felice is a real showstopper, with a dramatic kelly green entrance hall, sun-dappled living and dining areas, and beautifully kept original architectural features like vaulted brick ceilings, flagstone floors and exposed wooden beams. Casa Felice also charms with five additional bedrooms. There’s a swimming pool surrounded by a sunny terrace and loungers, plus more expansive terraces perfect for sipping glass of wine with a view of the countryside.
The property is located about 15 minutes away from the historic hilltop town of Cortona, itself famous for setting the scene in the movie Under The Tuscan Sun, and about 24 minutes from sights like Lake Trasimento, where three A Celebrity Taste of Italy stars fish for carp and tench in episode one. Even closer is the excellent three-generation-run Winery Dal Cero, known for introducing Syrah grapes to the area, just five minutes away.
If you’ve ever fantasized about serendipitously discovering and purchasing a beautiful Italian villa just like writer Frances Mayes (played by Diane Lane) in her memoir-turned-movie Under the Tuscan Sun, Villa Laura is the place to play out that dream. The ten-bedroom property stood in as “Villa Bramasole” in the film, and like Estate Felice, it’s also located in Cortona. [There are actually two “Villa Bramasoles” in the Cortona area: The original, where the memoir was set—and where Frances Mayes still lives for few months each year—and the second, Villa Laura, where the movie was filmed.]
Just as Mayes gives her villa a makeover in the film, Villa Laura was recently renovated with an eye to traditional style. In fact, the real-life story behind Villa Laura is quite similar to Mayes’ own tale and to Hollywood’s silver screen version. The American owners fell in love with Tuscany, found the rundown villa, and worked with local artisans and craftsman skills to restore it with antique tiles and terracotta flooring. A mix of antique and contemporary furnishings elevates the centuries-old stone walls and rustic beamed ceilings, while the kitchen has been completely modernized. There’s a main house, a farmhouse, and conservatory, plus a beautifully landscaped lawn, garden, pool, and jacuzzi. And yes, it’s all so lovely that a stay here still seems like you’re walking—and sleeping—within a movie set.
Just as Diane Lane as Frances Mayes in the film does (and as the real Frances Mayes continues to do!), you can walk from the villa to historic Cortona—it’s about a 15 minute stroll. Villa Laura is also located about a 15 minute drive away from Lake Trasimento beach, which makes an excellent day-trip.
Located on Lake Como’s secluded western shore, this sixteenth-century palazzo—also known as Villa del Balbianello—has been the setting for multiple movie productions since 1941, for the Italian drama Piccolo Mondo Antico (Old-Fashioned World). And the films that have featured Gallio in the years since have gotten progressively bigger, too. Two of its most recent credits in cinematic history include the James Bond movie Casino Royale (2006) and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). In Casino Royale, Gallio stands in as the hospital where James Bond (Daniel Craig) recuperates after his torture by La Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), alongside his love interest Vesper (Eva Green). In Star Wars, the villa becomes the setting for the lake district of the planet of Naboo. Princess Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) and a young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) get married in the villa’s grounds under the tree by the old church towers; scenes were also shot on the loggia, where Anakin looks out across the lake after being awoken by a bad dream about his mother.
It’s no wonder that Gallio has been featured multiple times, as it’s so beautiful that a stay here seems like a fantastical experience. It’s the height of luxury: There’s a main house and a villino, which can accommodate up to twenty-eight guests, plus a staff that includes daily housekeeping, a butler, and a private chef. Inside, old-world elegance shines through marble flooring, walls adorned with fresco paintings, and ornate chandeliers, plus precious antiques and incredible works of art. The sprawling, expertly manicured property is gated, with parking for ten cars, private mooring, and a helicopter pad—so yes, you can arrive in James Bond-worthy style. Plus, the town of Lenno, a small village rich with ancient architecture, and the adjacent Lido di Lenno Beach are just a short walk away.
The popular 1993 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s 1599 comedy Much Ado About Nothing was shot in the sunny villa and stunning landscape of Il Prato di Vignamaggio—and the historic estate played a major role in contributing to the film’s aura of timelessness and isolation from the rest of the world. A stay here is like stepping right inside the film, as much of the film unfolds in the villa’s rooms and internal courtyards as well as the estate’s orchards. Plus, there are many famous scenes for all of the comedy’s love affairs, pranks, intrigue, and deception—a wooden-vat bathing scene, the knights’ arrival in the courtyard, discussions in the villa’s Renaissance garden—that make it all-too-easy to visualize Vignamaggio in all of its 1500s-era glory.
The estate includes three buildings: the main farmhouse, La Colonica; Il Cottage; and the Barn. The villa’s traditional features like the stone exterior walls, beamed ceilings, and cotto floors have been expertly maintained, plus it also includes modern amenities like an exercise room and hammam. And exploring the surrounding rolling Chianti countryside is like stepping back in time. There’s vineyards that have been in operation for more than 600 years and stone buildings that have dotted the area since the Renaissance. There’s much and more to explore in Chianti, but the cities of Florence and Siena are a short distance away too—ideal for day trips.
The renovation and creation of 13th-century Villa Reniella is completely chronicled in the six-episode documentary series La Dolce Debbie (2016), which aired on the OWN Network in Canada. It covers owner and celebrated Canadian interior designer Debbie Travis’s life-changing journey to Tuscany and hunt for her own villa.
Her find, while strikingly beautiful today, took half a decade of work to carefully restore. The old bones of the medieval building remain intact; Travis’s touch has been to layer in fine Italian furnishing and modern amenities, to create a luxurious setting. The estate’s tower, barn, and pigsties have been transformed into a collection of stunning en-suites with private gardens, plus there’s a plethora of living and dining spaces inside and out. Perhaps the villa’s most stunning feature is its infinity pool that sparkles with Italy’s luxe Bisazza glass tile surrounded by teak and Moroccan slabs of stone. The Tuscan surroundings are breathtaking as well: the property sits on 10-acres of vineyards, lavender fields, woodland, and olive groves.
Travis now primarily runs special workshops, retreats, and getaways for groups of women at the property, with the idea of leading them through an experience akin to the joy she felt when first discovering Tuscany (as detailed in La Dolce Debbie, of course). But Villa Reniella is also available as a rental for any group of up to 16 who wants to experience La Dolce Debbie for themselves, too.