For centuries, the Italian lakes have inspired and enthralled visitors and locals alike. With a seemingly endless repertoire of landscaped lakeside gardens, beautiful historic villas, bustling morning markets and elegant waterfront hotels, it is easy to see why the region is loved by all that venture to its shores. Europe expert, Milly, joins the dots between northern Italy’s most beautiful lakes.
The Italian Lakes are just so special and beautiful – each one offers something slightly different, meaning they can be combined with a longer itinerary, or you can easily visit just one for a long weekend away. With frequent direct flights from Heathrow and Gatwick into Milan and then out of Verona to Gatwick, you needn’t go back on yourself either. If you are planning a longer trip exploring more than one lake, then a hire car really is a must. This way you have the freedom to drive along the shimmering shores of the lakes at a leisurely pace, stopping off to explore the many little towns en-route. Driving is actually very easy and the Italian drivers in the north of the country are a lot more docile compared to those in the south. Don’t let hair-raising memories of cliff-edge driving on the Amalfi Coast put you off hopping in a car here!
Lake Orta & Lake Maggiore
To the west of Milan you have the lakes of Orta and Maggiore. These are both charming lakes that are much quieter and less visited than the famed Como and Garda. Villa Crespi offer the ideal base from which to explore these beautiful lakes. A unique hotel with just 14 rooms, it was once the palace of an Italian nobleman who was fond of the Moorish style, the influence of which can be seen in the design of the villa, with its wonderful patterned exterior and an interior rich with vibrant blues and reds. From Villa Crespi, you are just a 10-minute stroll from Orta San Giulio, a beautiful lakeside town with lovely winding streets which are so typically Italian. There, the sun bounces off the characteristic burnt orange walls, giving the town a warm orange glow, and trattorias are abundant, giving you plenty of choice when it comes to bruschetta, pizza and pasta!
Lake Como is just a two-hour drive east and whilst much busier, it is very atmospheric. Grand Hotel Tremezzo is an iconic place to stay on the lake, complete with a floating pool actually on the lake as well as a more private pool in the hotel’s expansive gardens. The hotel’s modern interior is well-blended with traditional Italian grandeur and is the perfect spot for couples or groups of friends to relax in a prime position on the lake. Just two minutes’ walk from Grand Hotel Tremezzo is Villa Carlotta, a charming villa complete with an impressive botanical garden. If you want to discover the lake in real style, why not take the hotel’s lovely traditional Riva boat over to Bellagio or Varenna to get lost in their picturesque winding streets.
An hour’s drive south will take you to Villa d’Este, which boasts a more traditional Italian style. Here you are right on the lake’s edge and it is a great spot for couples and families alike. Villa d’Este also has a pool floating on the lake, as well as a sports centre offering squash, table tennis, electric golf and 8 outdoor clay tennis courts. There is a complimentary kids club on site offering a range of activities from age 3 upwards. From the hotel you can walk in to the small town of Cernobbio where there is a handful of restaurants, take the public ferry over to the town of Como or even venture up to Bellagio.
Heading south, you come to the smaller and lesser-known Lake Iseo, which is a tranquil little lake and often overlooked by visitors heading to the more well known spots of Como and Garda. Just 15 minutes’ drive from the lake is l’Albereta, an oasis of a hotel with a feeling of being deep in the countryside. Here they have a medical spa, a great option if you are looking for a true detox. Alternatively, guests can hike around Lake Iseo or rent a bike from the hotel and cycle around the vineyards. The hotel’s gastronomic restaurant Leone Felice is absolutely fantastic and definitely worth reserving a table, as it is very popular.
Heading east from here you eventually reach Lake Garda which is the place to be when it comes to water sports such as paddle boarding, windsurfing, waterskiing and even kite surfing. Along the shores of the lake you can find many little pebbly ‘beaches’ where you can take a dip in the fresh, clear water. The town of Desenzano on the southern coast of the lake is a quaint little town and worth a stop to wander through the pretty streets or enjoy a leisurely lunch. Sirmione is also a great stopping point, however it can get very busy, so I would advise getting here in the morning and making a day of it. Sirmione is on a peninsula and offers lovely beaches where visitors can cool off in the lake and soak up the sun.
On the west coast of Lake Garda, set up in the hills above Gargnano, is Lefay Resort – the views are unbeatable from here. This is the perfect destination for those looking to completely unwind and wanting a bit of peace and quiet away from the towns on the water’s edge. Lefay Resort has an expansive spa complete with four steam rooms of varying temperatures, a water bed relaxation room and even a salt ‘lake’! There are two outdoor pools, one of which is 25 metres long, so you can get your lengths in here!
Heading north you will reach the town of Riva del Garda which is the best location to get stuck in with the many water-based activities on offer there as well as heading in to the mountains to hike, cycle or attempt the famous ‘Via Ferrata’. Lido Palace is a lovely boutique hotel just 5 minutes’ walk from the town, and with a spa and two restaurants it is a great base from which to enjoy the delights of the lake.
On the eastern coast of Lake Garda, about 30 minutes’ drive from Riva del Garda, is Malcesine which is famed for the cable car up to Monte Baldo. From here you can immerse yourself in the mountain scenery and don hiking boots for a gentle hike, rewarded with a glass of wine and lunch at the rifugio afterwards. In mid to late March there can still be snow up here, adding a lovely contrast to the lakes below.
Right on the south east of the lake is the town of Garda which is a picturesque Italian town with many restaurants along the promenade. A 20-minute drive away from Garda is Villa Cordevigo, a brilliantly restored 18th century villa. With just 34 rooms, it is a quiet and relaxing spot to kick back and soak up the sun by the outdoor pool. The hotel is set in vineyards and offers complimentary bikes which you can take out and potter through the estate. Villa Cordevigo also boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant and a lovely wine cellar offering tasting sessions.
To begin or end your trip with a dose of vibrant culture, head to Verona. This is a lovely town with so much more to offer than just Juliet’s balcony! You can take an underground private guided tour of the city to explore the ancient Roman ruins, on which today’s city is built, or why not take a guided tour by Vespa or even try wine tasting by kayak along the river? The centrally-located Palazzo Victoria is the best place to base yourselves as the main sights in the city are within a 15 minute walk of one another. The hotel itself is steeped in history, with Roman ruins and ancient frescos to be found in the public areas and bedrooms. Palazzo Victoria’s fantastic restaurant is a real treat and locals are often found dining here, so be sure to reserve a table.