Discover the Italian Lakes
In the foothills of the Alps and straddling the Swiss border, this picture-perfect corner of Italy catches every mood and moment. Here you can head into the great outdoors on foot or by boat or bicycle, catch a cable car to mountain heights, or hop between wineries. Menus are filled with delightful regional specialties: gnocchi (potato or semolina dumplings) with hazelnuts and gorgonzola, risotto made with Barolo red wine, and lake fish like pike-perch and trout abound. Perhaps the best thing to do here? Simply kick back and master il dolce far niente: the art of doing nothing.
Planning Your Visit
When to Go
Sheltered by the mountains that rise in this region of northern Italy, the Italian Lakes seem to combine the best of the Alpine and Mediterranean climates, with snow atop mountain peaks in the cooler months, and palm trees and exotic flowers lining lakefront promenades.
In summer, the lakes are engulfed by travelers, especially in August when the locals go on holiday and roads are clogged with traffic. It's more pleasant to visit in spring, when the shores and gardens are a mass of fragrant blooms, or in early autumn (September is a reliable pick) for fall color in the woodlands.
From November to February, the resorts fall silent and visitor numbers are reduced to a trickle. Many boat services are also cut back during this winter period.
There are plenty of places to stay in the region, but bear in mind that the best spots fill up fast in the high summer season, especially August. Many hotels shut their doors for the winter season (November through February).
Getting There & Around
Milan Malpensa Airport is the major international hub. It's around a 30-minute drive from the southern tip of Lago Maggiore and 45 minutes from Como on the southern shore of its namesake lake. Lake Garda is closer to Verona Airport.
Navigazione Laghi ferries glide across the lakes, linking the towns and resorts. Timetables and tickets are available online or at the booths in the harbors. Look out for the money-saving 'free circulation' tickets, which cover you for multiple stops.
Lago Maggiore: Historic Islands & Medieval Villages
Highlights & Activities
Making a splash on the regional divide between Lombardy and Piedmont, Lago Maggiore has a beauty all of its own, with mountains (snowcapped in winter) as a backdrop and shores dotted with medieval, stone-built villages. Elegant 19th-century villas, grand hotels and botanical gardens await, as do historic towns where life unfolds around tiny piazzas.
Stresa is a fine starting point for discovering the lake. Hemingway sojourned here back in 1918, while recovering from a war injury, and fell head over heels in love with the place. "This beats paradise to all hell," he exclaimed, standing atop the 1491m summit of Mottorone above the town. A cable car zooms from the lake shore to this summit in just 20 minutes, opening up far-reaching views of the Italian and Swiss Alps, lakes and Po Plain.
From here, it's just a short ferry hop to the Borromean Islands, one of the lake's absolute highlights. It's an easy day trip to Isola Bella, where the showpiece is Palazzo Borromeo. The 17th-century creation of Count Vitaliano, this fantasy palace has a shell-encrusted grotto and terraced gardens to explore. Napoleon stayed here in 1797. Less-visited islands worth checking out include low-key Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen's Island), where simple restaurants serve freshly grilled lake fish, and Isola Madre, where the botanical gardens are lush with rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas and wisteria.
On a tour of Lago Maggiore, be sure also to factor in a trip to Verbania, home to the unmissable Villa Taranto gardens, full of fountains, sculptures and rare botanical species. The gardens are the brainchild of Scottish Captain McEacharn, who designed them in 1931. Just north, close to the Swiss border, Cannobio is a delight, with a mazy historic center, where cobbled lanes wind past pastel-painted houses. On the lakefront, there's an appealing lido beach for swimming, lounging and windsurfing. North of here, hairpin bends twist precariously into the wild, waterfall-laced mountains of the Val Cannobina, great for hiking and mountain biking.
Where to Stay & Eat
An affordable boutique base is Hotel Palma in Stresa, with a panoramic pool and sky bar looking right out over the lake. For a dash of old-fashioned luxury, up the budget to spend the night at the opulent, chandelier-lit Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées, going strong since 1863. Besides a medical spa, it has fabulous lake views and fountain-splashed gardens. Other favorites include Hotel Pironi in Cannobio, a 15th-century palazzo stylishly revamped as a boutique hotel, and intimate, wisteria-draped Locanda di Orta in Orta San Giulio, with a season-driven Michelin-starred restaurant.
For the catch of the day fresh from the lake, check out the restaurants on Isola dei Pescatori, such as lakefront Trattoria Imbarcadero. Other fine picks include Osteria Mercato in Stresa for good home cooking with a regional slant—think creamy risotto with artichokes and polenta-stuffed ravioli.
Lago di Como: Showstopping Scenery & Lakeside Villas
Highlights & Activities
It’s a tough call but Lago di Como (Lake Como in English) just might be the most dramatic and visually stunning of all of the lakes, with the snow-dusted Rhaetian Alps soaring high above its green-blue waters. The lake also has the glamor factor, as its shores and steeply wooded hills are speckled with lavish villas and immaculately tended gardens.
The town of Como makes a charming base. You'll want to walk the lakefront promenade, lined with mansions and villas, and explore the marble-clad Gothic cathedral, exceptional because of its octagonal form. The walled medieval center has a great assortment of bars, restaurants, and cafes. On the fringes of town, head to the Museo della Seta for an insight into Como's illustrious past as a one of the world's largest silk producers. Or for views stretching out over the lakes and deep into the Swiss Alps, hitch a ride on the Como-Brunate funicular.
More appealing if you prefer peace and quiet, however, are the smaller hamlets sprinkled around the lake. Among them is Bellagio, at the tip of a promontory where the lake forks. There are big mountain views from this little village, which has a pretty lido beach and the fabulous gardens of Villa Serbelloni to discover.
The villas of the rich and famous attract visitors to Cernobbio and nearby Laglio, not least Villa Oleandra, the summer residence of George and Amal Clooney. North of here, near Lenno, is romantically perched Villa del Balbianello, where scenes from the 2006 Casino Royale Bond movie were shot.
Other stops that should be on your radar include Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, given to a Prussian princess as a wedding gift in 1847. Its harmonious lakefront gardens are a riot of rhododendrons and azaleas in spring. Over on the lake's eastern shore, photogenic, brightly colored Varenna huddles at the foot of steep, wooded slopes. Here former Cistercian convent Villa Monastero gives way to expansive botanical gardens.
Where to Stay & Eat
Set in lakefront gardens, the Palace Hotel in Como combines old-world style with sensational views. Or try the simple, central and friendly Albergo del Duca. Over in Bellagio, you could treat yourself to the full-on honeymoon experience at romantic and ever-so-grand Villa Serbelloni, or get the full five-star treatment at Villa d'Est in Cernobbio, a 16th-century palace set in terraced gardens.
Memorable meals are served with picturesque lake backdrops (prime sunset viewing) at the likes of La Vista at Albergo Milano in Varenna, and Trattoria Baita Belvedere high in the hills above Bellagio.
Lago di Garda: Outdoor Activities & Family Fun
Highlights & Activities
The easternmost of the Italian Lakes, Lago di Garda touches the three regions of Lombardy, Veneto, and Trentino-Alto Adige. It has a very different flavor than the other lakes, being more geared towards the families who come here for outdoor activities and theme parks like Gardaland and CanevaWorld. The lake is phenomenally scenic, nudging the foothills of the Dolomites in the north, and rimmed by mountains wooded with pines, firs, olive, and lemon groves.
Poetic souls from verse-composing Romans to Tennyson, Lord Byron, DH Lawrence, and Ezra Pound have all had a soft spot for Sirmione and its distinctly medieval profile, jutting out on a southern peninsula. Rising above its ensemble of lanes and piazzas is its a turreted 13th-century fortress. The ruins of Grotte di Catullo form one of the most important Roman sites in northern Italy. But if you’d just rather cool off in the heat, you can head for the town's pebble beach or thermal spa.
On the western shore of the lake is the Valtènesi, an area renowned for its vineyards and olive groves. Here clearly marked trails thread through holm oak woods to some tranquil beaches in Rocca di Manerba nature reserve.
Other highlights to factor into your visit include mountain-backed Salò and its lakefront promenade, Gardone Riviera, with its opulent villas and exotic gardens, and Riva del Garda for its waterfalls and raft of outdoor activities (mountain biking, canyoning, kitesurfing, windsurfing—you name it). Castle-topped Malcesine is lovely, too, with a labyrinthine old center and a cable car whisking you up to 5774ft Monte Baldo for hiking, mountain biking and paragliding.
For wine, head across to Bardolino on the southeastern shore to cellar hop, enjoy tastings and visit the Museo del Vino.
Where to Stay & Eat
You'll receive a warm welcome at family-run Hotel Grifone in Sirmione, with lake and castle views. Surrounded by olive groves, Hotel Olivi Thermae & Natural Spa has thermal baths, contemporary decor and a handy location near the lake. Other fine choices include lakefront Hotel Vigna in Salò, and Agriturismo Le Vai in Bardolino, an upscale farmstay with a pool that is beautifully set among vineyards.