There is something truly magical and romantic about a holiday to one of the many Italian lakes. Spectacular scenery, sophisticated accommodation, and superb cuisine together with the chance to get out on the water lure guests back year after year. As if that is not enough the surrounding countryside and mountains make this part of the world ideal for simple relaxation or adventure.
The many pretty towns and villages, connected by ferries, private boats, or the road, invite visitors to mooch along their cobbled streets that are filled with stylish boutiques, restaurants, and cafes where people-watching is an art.
History lovers can revel in the many palaces, museums, and churches while just a short journey by train, bus, or car you can be transported to some of the country’s most iconic cities including Venice, Milan, and Verona, not to mention the lesser known but equally delightful, Bergamo, Brescia, and Vicenza.
Many of us are fans of the Italian Lakes, so earlier this year, I embarked on my own “Little Italian Adventure” as I travelled from Venice across to Bergamo. En route, I took time out to stay at Lake Garda and the lesser-known, Lake Iseo.
Travelling in Italy, whether by car rental, bus, or train, is incredibly convenient. In my personal experience, I found taking the train to be the best option. The primary train operator, Trenitalia, offers a pass that allows you to select the level of service you desire, the number of journeys you wish to take, and the type of passenger based on age, while the trains themselves were almost always punctual, clean, comfortable, and budget-friendly.
The bus network is also clean, comfortable, and worth considering, whether for local or long-distance travel.
As a little tip, whether it is on the train or the bus, make sure to have your tickets stamped upon boarding, as failure to do so, can result in a significant fine.
Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy and lies between the Alps and the Dolomites. I flew to Venice and after a couple of nights in one of the world’s truly great cities, I hopped on a train and after a couple of nights in both Padua and Vicenza, I arrived at Desenzano del Garda.
Desenzano Del Garda
On the Southern end of the Lake is the popular town of Desenzano Del Garda. As I stepped off the train and exited the small station, I soon realised just how much the hill slopes down to the lake below. I was staying at the highly recommended, by me, Hotel Benaco, a charming 3* hotel offering a friendly welcome, stylish accommodation, and breakfast for a king!
From the Hotel and as you approach the town, you can swing by and visit the Castello (Castle) for terrific views over the town and lake. You could also check out the Roman Villa or Cathedral. Arriving lakeside and into the town, plenty of shops range from designer boutiques to somewhat tacky souvenirs. Beautifully appointed restaurants and trendy bars line the waterfront while three beaches attract the sun worshippers. There is also a weekly market every Tuesday morning.
As with many of Lake Garda’s towns, there is a jetty where companies offer smaller personalised tourist boat trips around the lake plus there are scheduled ferry services to the other towns.
The small town of Sirmione, built on a long peninsula, is considered by many to be one of the most celebrated towns on Lake Garda. I took the ferry from Desenzano del Garda, taking just 20 minutes and costing 4.50 euros one way.
As we disembarked, we found ourselves at a waterside square surrounded by restaurants. Head off in any direction and you are immediately jostling for position in the narrow streets and alleyways that are packed with shops, restaurants and a rather large number of ice cream parlours that seem to compete against one another for who can offer the most flavours.
The signature landmark in Sirmione is the Scaligero Castle which was built in the mid-fourteenth century by the Veronese Della Scala family, from whom it takes its name, the “Rocca Scaligera”. The Church of Santa Maria Della Neve dating back to the 15th century is worth a visit although I preferred the little Chapelle Ave Maria opposite.
For a taste of local life, there is a weekly market in Colombare di Sirmione on Monday mornings while if it’s relaxation you crave then head to Jamaica Beach. Made up of huge smooth rocks and behind a little sandy beach, this is a popular hang-out for locals and visitors alike.
Close to Jamaica Beach is the Roman Villa, Grotte De Cattulo which dates back to the 1st century BC.
Peschiera del Garda
To the east of Sirmione is one of the signature towns on the lake, Peschiera del Garda. The Venetian Fortress of Peschiera del Garda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and when combined with the many bridges, Roman ruins and canals you can understand why a visit here is a must.
The Garda Riviera
Continuing anti-clockwise, on the South Eastern side of the lake is the Garda Riviera.
Here there are several places worth a stop including Lazise, a medieval town, complete with its own 13th-century castle, pretty streets full of boutiques and a lovely waterfront piazza and harbour.
Located at the foot of the Morainic Hills, the peaceful resort of Bardolino is famous for its naturally delicate and fruity-flavoured olive oil. So much so you can even take a tour of the Museo dell’Olio. As well as the oils there is also the famous Bardolino wine. This delicious light red wine is produced in the nearby traditional vineyards which you can also visit. If you are lucky enough to visit in late September there is the Festa dell’Uva e del Vino di Bardolino – the festival of grapes and Bardolino wine.
There is also the town of Garda. Whilst only a small town it is the proud home of one of the finest beaches in all Lake Garda, the Mermaids’ Bay in Punta San Vigilio. Friday mornings are market day so be sure to sample some of the local cheese, olive oil and famous Bardolino wine.
Still, on the East side of the lake, some 18kms from the Northern tip, is one of Lake Garda’s most iconic locations, the town of Malcesine.
The port area offers visitors the chance to relax and indulge in an early morning coffee or a late afternoon cocktail while watching the many sailing boats that moor up.
Situated at the base of the Monte Baldo ridge the town is known for the 7,000 feet high cable car journey that takes tourists up to a height of 1760 metres. What is unique is that at the midway point, the cable car rotates offering passengers a 360-degree view. Once at the top, there are not only amazing views but also the start of some excellent mountain trails for hiking and cycling.
As you walk uphill and along the narrow lanes full of an assortment of enticing restaurants, shops and artists’ studios, you will reach the Castello Scaligero, a medieval castle perched on the edge of the lake. Here you can tour, visit the museums, or just marvel at the fabulous views.
Riva del Garda
At the very North of Lake Garda is the town of Riva del Garda. Cobbled old streets sit alongside pretty parks and walkways while in the main square, you will find the Torre Apponale Clock Tower. Be sure to visit the Fortress or Rocca, which was originally built in the 12th century, and is today home to the Alto Garda Museum which provides areas dedicated to art, archaeology and World War Two.
The most famous beach in Riva del Garda is “Spiaggia dei Sabbioni“ while the beaches nearby Torbole and Spiaggia dei Pini are popular for those who love windsurfing and kitesurfing. For those looking to go hiking or to tackle some challenging mountain biking trails, then head to Monte Brione. The area is great for photography and history as it is home to fortifications that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Limone sul Garda
As you start the journey down the west coast a lovely stop is at the little town of Limone sul Garda which since the 15th century has been known for its lemon production. This history is showcased at the Limonaia del Castel where you can learn about the cultivation of these lemons, as well as tour the terraces which overlook the harbour below. There is of course the chance to sample the produce!
South of Limone Sul Garda is the town of Tignale which is famous for its Truffle festival which is celebrated in late September and early October. Restaurants offer a wide selection of menus that include truffles, while there is the opportunity to take part in tastings and even learn how to hunt for truffles.
The Gardone Riviera
At the southwestern side of the lake is the Gardone Riviera, part of the Riviera Bresciana which is renowned for its Art Nouveau and Art Deco Style. None more so is this the case than at “Il Vittoriale”, the former home of the poet and Italian nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio.
The Hruska Botanical Gardens or the Heller Gardens are another signature landmark on the Gardone Riviera. Here visitors can enjoy, not only an incredible array of plants but also works of art from 20th-century artists such as Roy Liechtenstein and a personal favourite of mine, the wacky creations of Keith Haring.
All photos were taken by myself and should be credited if used to @justonefortheroad