Among the largest and most visited lakes in the Lakes District of Northern Italy are Lake Garda, Lake Como, and Lake Maggiore. These major bodies of water and the villages and resorts that surround them are easily accessible from Milan, Florence, and Rome. It's easiest (and fastest) to travel by train, but having a car will give you more options to explore the area.
If you want to fully immerse yourself in the region, you can see Milan and the Lakes District in one trip with this 15-day itinerary.
The distance from Milan to the Lakes District is about 80 miles (130 km) and the area is easy to reach by frequent regional trains.
Duration: From 40 minutes to 65 minutes, depending on the town.
From Milano Centrale station, you can catch a train on the National Railway system, Trenitalia, to Lake Como (35 minutes), Lecco (40 minutes), Stresa (55 minutes), Desenzano del Garda-Sirmione (about an hour), and Varese (65 minutes). Trains run about every 30 minutes from early morning until the evening. You may want to combine the train with hiring a private driver, or renting a car, to give you more options to explore the region, or travel by car instead.
Duration: 1 hour or longer depending on the town
To reach the closest major lake to Milan, Lake Como, a distance of 51 miles (83 km), by car, will take about one hour. If you want to visit more than one town during your trip, to see as much as possible in a short time, you'll appreciate the mobility of having wheels. In Milan, you'll find a concentration of rental car companies near the central train station. It is possible to rent an automatic transmission car in Italy, but manuals are more prevalent and will be less expensive to rent. You’ll also want to factor in the cost of gas (prices are by liters, not gallons) for your road trip.
Fast trains run from Florence to Milan, meaning that you can easily get to the Lakes District from Florence without needing to drive.
Duration: About 3 hours, depending on the town that you choose in the Lakes District.
From Firenze Santa Maria Novella station you can catch a high-speed train on the Italian National Railway system, Trenitalia, or its competitor, Italo, to Milano Centrale station for a 2-hour journey. You can show the conductor your ticket on your smartphone, for convenience. Trains run about every 30 minutes to one hour, depending on the time of day, and until around 10 pm. Different ticket classes are available at varying comfort levels. From Milano Centrale, you can catch a regional train on Trenitalia to the town of your choice to begin your exploration in the Lakes District.
Duration: About 4 hours and 20 minutes depending on the town that you choose in the Lakes District.
If you'd rather have the convenience of renting a car, you'll find many options in the center of Florence, a few blocks from the train station, with several companies to choose from. As you make your way north on the E35 autostrada, you can explore Emilia-Romagna. You could make a stop in Bologna, which is 65 miles (106 km) north of Florence. This city that is also home to one of Europe's oldest universities is known for its Bolognese pasta sauce and Mortadella cured meat. Or, stop in Modena, known for its Balsamic vinegar. You could even take a longer detour with this 7-day Northern Italian food tour.
Duration: 4 hours or longer depending on the speed of the train and your final destination in the Lakes District.
From Roma Termini station, you can catch a high-speed train on the Italian National Railway system, Trenitalia, or its competitor, Italo, to Milano Centrale station for a 3- to 3.5-hour journey. A few times a day you'll find non-stop trains from Rome to Milan, which will take 3 hours, while others will take about 3.5 hours. From Milano Centrale, you can then catch a regional train to the town of your choice to begin your exploration in the Lakes District.
Duration: 6.5 hours depending on your final destination in the Lakes District.
Opting to drive to the Lakes District from Rome will take you on a road trip up Italy. While driving is slower that taking the train, you might appreciate the opportunity to make stops in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna as you travel north. You could make a detour in Montepulciano — a Tuscan hill town known for its red wines — or, Florence, to see the birthplace of the Renaissance.