Crystalline waters and snow-capped peaks on the northern horizon. Belle Epoque resorts and memorable lakeside walks and drives. It’s hardly surprising that tourists have been coming here for thousands of years. Garda’s shores are littered with ruins of once-grand Roman villas—the poet Catullus, for one, had a pad.
The Lakes region stretches from the Alpine peaks of Piedmont in the west, across Lombardy to the plains of Veneto in the east. And there’s more to a holiday here than the scenery and some messing about on the water—though you’ll want to do plenty of that, too.
Donald Strachan's verdict on the Italian Lakes
Food. Traditional Lakes dishes use freshwater fish. Expect to see persico (perch)—its firm, meaty flesh can take a hearty sauce. Risotto (rice) and polenta (corn meal), rather than pasta, are the traditional carbs. The olive groves beside Lake Garda also produce some of Italy’s most prized extra virgin oil. Look for the “olio Garda DOP” stamp on the label, which marks oil of the highest quality.
Wine. South of Lake Iseo, the small Franciacorta wine zone is carpeted with pinot noir and chardonnay grapes that make Italy’s finest Champagne-style fizz. Cellars are open to visitors most weekends. Soave is made in the hills east of Lake Garda. The northern climate is generally conducive to white grapes, but Garda’s shores are also home to one of Italy’s prestigious reds: almost black in colour, Amarone della Valpolicella is made from grapes whose flavour is intensified by partial drying.
A great guide. To dig deeper, buy a copy of The Rough Guide to the Italian Lakes, by Lucy Ratcliffe and Matthew Teller.
Top places for families
You’ll need to pack your passport for the Lago Maggiore Express. The circular lake-and-mountain circuit heads off into the wild scenery of the Centovalli (by rail) and then over the border to Swiss Ticino, before returning to Maggiore’s resorts by ferry—the full length of the lake from Locarno in the northeast to Arona in the south. Stop en route (or earmark another daytrip) for Isola Bella. This tiny lake island off Stresa was transformed by the Borromeo family, who built a baroque palace and Italianate gardens here in the 1600s. Its gardens, and those of neighbour Isola Madre, are a romantic riot of rhododendrons, camellias, hibiscus and more. If you still have the energy, head up to Mottarone on the cable car. Fit family members can hike back down to Stresa.
There are fewer fireworks on the wooded shores of Lake Orta—and that’s the main attraction. If you feel the need for some bustle, make for the lakeside village of Orta San Giulio on market day (Wednesday); roam its steep, cobbled lanes, andk take a water taxi over to Isola San Giulio for views of the ancient village and lake. Head back for a bite at rustic backstreet enoteca Al Boeuc: enjoy a glass of wine whilst sharing plates of bruschetta, salami and local cheeses.
At Sirmione, kids can clamber over the battlements of a medieval castle; the Rocca Scaligera was built by Veronese nobles to guard the strategic peninsula. Afterwards, ride the little road-train out to the Grotte di Catullo, a ruined Roman villa that dates to the 1st century B.C. The lake-hugging road to the north featured in the opening scenes of 2008 Bond film, Quantum of Solace. At the lake’s far north, Riva del Garda has some of Italy’s top windsurfing schools. At Gardaland there’s a sealife aquarium alongside the usual theme park staples. Book tickets online ahead of time for big savings.
The pace is slower and the summer crowds thinner on the shores of Lake Iseo. Ferries run from the dock at Iseo (the lake’s sleepy “capital”) to everywhere, including Monte Isola—Italy’s largest lake island, ringed with walking trails, including up to the sanctuary on its 600 metre peak. North of the lake, the Val Camonica has harboured human life for millennia. At the Parco Nazionale delle Incisioni Rupestre, paths weave among birch and chestnut woods and past exposed rocks inscribed with Neolithic pictograms dating back 6,000 years. Images of a hunt in progress are the kind of art that even young children can appreciate.
It’s easy to combine a Lakes holiday with short urban hops. Milan has the haute couture boutiques of the Quadrilatero della Moda and top-rank museums like the Pinacoteca Brera. Verona, the city of lovers, has a well-preserved medieval centre, and the Arena—a Roman amphitheatre where open-air opera is staged all summer. Small art cities Padua (for Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel) and Mantua are within easy reach of Lake Garda.