Lago di Como, just north of Milan near the border with Switzerland, has always piqued the imaginations of foreigners—a young Mark Twain even wrote about his visit to the 28-mile long Italian lake in his 1869 book "The Innocents Abroad." Its reputation as a playground for celebrities (George Clooney scooped up one of Como's luxurious lakeside villas, as did Richard Branson and Donatella Versace) only enhanced the lake's sought-after status, with travelers heading there in droves each summer.
Despite the high profile and attendant mass tourism, is Como indeed worth a visit? Absolutely. But you'd be remiss if you visited Italy's Lakes Region and skipped over the area's many less-crowded (and arguably more enchanting) bodies of water. Below we list six lakes worth a visit in the northern Italian provinces of Lombardy, Veneto, Trentino-Alto-Adige, and Piedmont, and many of these are well off the tourist trail. For more on Italy's regions, see this guide.
Lago di Garda: Italy's Largest Lake, a Cultural Melting Pot
It makes sense to kick off an article about Italy's most stunning lakes with the largest one in the country. Lake Garda is a 31-mile-long, tomahawk-shaped body of water that runs up towards the border with Austria. It's so big it straddles three of Italy's regions: Veneto, Lombardy, and Trentino-Alto-Adige. There are dozens of towns around Garda, each culturally distinct depending on whether they sit on the northern or southern shores.
The fishing village of Malcesine, located on the northeastern tip of the lake, is often regarded as the most beautiful town in Garda. This is due in no small part to its collection of colorful houses and the battlements of iconic Scaliger Castle rising into the skyline. There are also incredible 360° views from the top of Monte Baldo, which is accessible via a 15-minute cable-car ride that ascends to 5,774 feet (1,760 meters).
True, Lake Garda is firmly on the tourist trail, but visit during the shoulder seasons and you can enjoy some highlights without the major crowds. Wine lovers should head to the fertile land between the towns of Bardolino and Lazise to taste the region's famous Bardolino variety of light red wine. Literature buffs can visit the poet D’Annunzio’s opulent villa near Gardone Riviera on Garda's west side, and there are plenty of postcard villages home to beautiful lemon groves such as Limone Sul Garda and Gargnano.
The best and easiest thing to do is arrive at Lake Garda via the nearby cities of Verona, Venice, or Milan. Then spend a relaxing mini-vacation hopping around the lakeside villages by ferry and bus. For more ideas, check out this 10-day Milan and Lake Region itinerary.
Lago di Maggiore: Time Travel from Baroque Gardens to Luxury Villas
Italy's second-largest lake for a long time beat out Como in terms of popularity. Maggiore is 40 miles long, which makes it the longest lake in Italy, and covers both the Piedmont and Lombardy regions, even running up to the Swiss canton of Ticino. It's most famous for its well-manicured baroque gardens and for being speckled with islands overflowing with luxury villas. Maggiore reached its romantic heyday in the 19th century when wealthy Italians turned the lake into a popular weekend retreat.
But it was in the 16th century that the aristocratic Borromean family of Milan took over an archipelago between the villages of Stresa and Verbania and put the region on the map. They built grand palazzos decorated with oil paintings and surrounded by terraced gardens dotted with marble statues and white peacocks roaming around. Author Edith Wharton, when touring the gardens of the most famous island, Isola Bella, remarked that they could most favorably be compared to renaissance poetry.
To really get off the tourist path and away from the many monuments to Italian decadence, you can stay in the town of Baveno, which is little touched by tourism but still offers ferry access to the islands. Also, on the eastern side of the lake, near the art-nouveau city of Varese, lies Arcumeggia, a "painted village" whose buildings are adorned with colorful frescoes. 20 miles west of Lake Maggiore sits Vogogna, a true medieval gem of a town. Head up its 14th-century Visconti Castle for prime views of the village.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Lago di Orta: Historic Lakeshore Towns Without the Crowds
Fifteen miles west of Maggiore is a lake oft-overlooked by the tourists flocking to the gardens of Maggiore or the celebrity-filled shores of Como. This is Lake Orta, and it's the place to come if you want to escape the tourist crowds while still traveling through the heart of Italy's Lake Region. It may be a mere eight miles long but there is much to see and do around this lake.
Orta San Giulio, located on the eastern shore, is the crown jewel of towns with its Moorish mansions, 16th-century palaces, waterfront piazzas, and cobbled streets winding up the hill to the 17th-century, UNESCO World Heritage religious complex of Sacro Monte. Sitting atop Mount Campo dei Fiori, the complex consists of 14 ancient chapels and is a popular pilgrimage site.
Offshore is the Isola de San Giulio, whose Basilica di San Giulio dates to the 12th century and today is a convent. A must-visit site is the Sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso, a 16th-century baroque church that hangs off a cliff 2,000 feet above the lake.
Visit Orta San Giulio during the week and you'll likely have the town mostly to yourself. If you want to explore more of the area, you can visit other historic lakeshore towns like Pella and Pettenasco And whether you have an eye towards eloping or you're planning a big formal wedding, there are few more tranquil and romantic spots in this region in which to exchange marital vows.
Lago di Lugano: Charming Glacial Lake with Swiss Alpine Scenery
In between Maggiore and Como lies a little squiggle of a lake called Lugano. About 2/3 of this glacial lake spills over the border into some of the most gorgeous alpine scenery of Switzerland. In this area you'll also find Monte San Giorgio, a mountain that has earned UNESCO World Heritage Status, not for its beauty but because it's a giant paleontological site. Within this mountain are the countless remains of dinosaurs and ancient marine life from the Triassic period.
If you aren't an amateur paleontologist, there's still much about Lugano to enjoy. It's a popular fishing spot for brook trout, and there are great hiking trails near the town of Porlezza, on the eastern shore. For breathtaking 360° views of the lake, spend two hours hiking up a trail from the city of Paradiso-Lugano to the top of Monte San Salvatore (3,600 feet/1,097 meters). If physical activity aint your thing, there's a funicular railway that gets you to the top in 10 minutes (runs March to November).
Lago di Iseo: Medieval Villages with a Local Atmosphere
Located in the Lombardy region outside of Bergamo and sitting at the foot of the Bergamasque Alps between Lake Garda and Como, is Iseo. This 16-mile long lake is more of a traveler's destination than a tourist hotbed. There are charming little towns and medieval villages around the lake like Predore, Tavernola Bergamasca, and Pisogne, and exploring them is a great reason to come here. The dearth of tourists means you can while away the hours on café patios chatting and really getting to know the locals.
Iseo is probably most famous for its island, Monte Isola. At about five miles around and 900 feet (275 meters) at its highest point, this is the largest lake island in Italy. There are colorful villages you can visit at the base of the island, and it's possible to hike around it (although plan on it taking a few hours).
For winter sports, there's a ski resort at Monte Campione, located 15 minutes northeast of the lake. It features 20 slopes geared towards all skill levels. No matter when you visit, though, the best way to get around the lake is by local ferry. You can criss-cross Iseo easily, visiting towns and snapping photos of the giant sugar-lump mountains rising around the lake's shimmering waters, all while sipping on a glass of the region's famous Franciacorta sparkling wine.
Lago di Varese: Piazzas, Panoramas, and a Holy Pilgrimage
To the east of Maggiore and just a few kilometers from the Swiss border lies Varese, named after its nearest city. At a mere five miles long this is the smallest lake on the list, surrounded by marshlands and rolling hills. The exception to this is that on the northern shore of the lake is the dominating ridgeline of Mount Campo dei Fiori and above it the ancient holy site of Sacro Monte.
Even if you aren't planning on making the pilgrimage to Sacro Monte, you can enjoy leisurely activities away from the crowds. The lake is teeming with carp and pike, so it's a great fishing spot, and there are old villages to discover around its shores. Probably the most attractive is Azzate. located on the southeastern shore, the town slopes down a hill to its medieval center and the stone Piazza Antonio Ghiringhelli. Nearby is Belvedere di Azzate, a viewpoint offering panoramas of the lake and surrounding mountains.