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Which of the Italian Lakes is best for a holiday?

The haunt of Hollywood A-listers and the muse for poets and writers throughout the centuries, the Italian Lakes beg to be at the top of your must-see travel wish list.

By Elle Hammond

Published 10 July 2024

Menaggio Town Street, Lake Como, Lombardia,  Italy

Fishing boats and sleek yachts bobbing in tiny harbours, manicured waterfront lawns of grand villas and opulent hotels, lemon and olive trees sitting alongside blue skies, green mountains, candy-coloured promenades, soaring church spires and tiled red roofs – the Italian Lakes are achingly beautiful. But how do you go about choosing which of them to visit?

Are you into watersports, hiking, and ancient architecture, for instance? Or are you more inclined towards beautiful beaches and botanical gardens? Do you prefer to visit somewhere off the beaten track, or would you rather rub shoulders with the glitterati in glam lakeside marinas?

We’ve created this handy guide to help you choose which of the Italian Lakes is right for your next getaway. So, put your feet up, grab a cappuccino and read on for a taste of la dolce vita…

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Glamorous, romantic, and home to the stars

Situated less than two hours’ drive north of Milan, the poster child of Italy’s lake district, Lake Como, has long been a setting sought by hikers and celebrities alike. Thanks to its pine covered mountain backdrop and charming stone-built hamlets, Madonna, George Clooney, and Richard Branson have all put down roots here, within chic neoclassical villas and art nouveau holiday homes. This is where the majesty of the Italian lakes comes to the fore.

Spend a day strolling around the cobbled streets of Bellagio or the steep stone stairways of Varenna and you’ll instantly understand why romance is never far away.

Lake Maggiore

Lake Maggiore

Lake Maggiore

Alpine scenery and botanical gardens

The second largest lake in Italy, Lake Maggiore is relaxed yet elegant. It’s somewhere to slow down and take your time on a peaceful café-lined promenade as you admire the snow-capped Swiss Alps over a freshly roasted Italian coffee. Although foodies aren’t flocking here in their droves just yet, there’s no disputing the culinary combination of Italy and Switzerland – cured meats, goats’ milk cheese and cherry-scented Valtellina wine are all regional delicacies.

Not only does Lake Maggiore straddle a section of southern Switzerland, but it also dissects the Italian regions of Lombardy and Piedmont. The best-known resort town, Stresa, is located on the lake’s western shores, as part of Piedmont. Stresa is home to the

Lake Maggiore’s largest city, Verbania, and you’ll discover one of the best regarded botanical gardens in Europe surrounding the Villa Taranto. In Laveno-Mombello, on the Lombardy side of the lake, cable car rides to the summit of Monte Sasso del Ferro provide perfect panoramas from 1,061 metres.

Lake Maggiore’s much-loved places to visit, the Borromean Islands. This is where landscaped Baroque gardens, and the Palazzo Borromeo can be found on Isola Bella as well as an English-style botanical garden on Isola Madre.

“One can’t describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could.” - Writer Henry James on Lake Maggiore

Lake Garda

Lake Garda

Lake Garda

Enchanted islands and varied landscapes

As the largest lake in Italy, Lake Garda is a great place to take a holiday. The location alone, between Brescia to the west and Verona to the east, oozes romance and it’s no surprise that the likes of Byron, Dante and D. H. Lawrence have all felt compelled to wax lyrical about the lake’s uplifting properties.

The surrounding scenery is diverse, with rolling hills, vineyards and olive orchards to the south and steep plunging cliffs and Monte Bondone to the north. Around the 144-kilometre coastline you’ll find pebbled beaches for picnics and historic towns, such as Limone del Garda on the west bank, Malcesine on the east, and Riva del Garda on the north, offering accommodation and lakeside restaurants.

Boat trips from the mainland take travellers out to enchanted islands where long-forgotten fortresses, Venetian villas and pirate’s caves provide day trippers with plenty of things to do. Isola del Sogno is especially enticing for scuba divers as not only is the surrounding water incredibly clear, there’s also a sunken shipwreck to be found just offshore. If you prefer to stay above the water, Lake Garda is also popular with kite surfers and sailors, or you can just enjoy a swim in the clear pebbled shallows.

If water sports aren’t your thing, there are endless walking and mountain biking trails as well as canyoning and rock-climbing centres dotted along the north coast. Alternatively, if you’re interested in combining 14th-century history with some stunning 360-degree views, the Castello Scaligero, in the southern resort town of Sirmione, ticks all the boxes.

Lake Molveno

Lake Molveno

Lake Molveno

Traditional alpine ambience

Surrounded by the pine forested slopes of the Brenta Dolomites and boasting some of the region’s clearest blue waters, Lake Molveno is one of Italy’s most beautiful natural settings and a great place for a relaxing holiday. The location, just to the north of Monte Bondone, creates a natural border from Lake Garda with the closest city, Trento, around an hour’s drive to the east.

This is where you can wander around working water mills and 13th-century churches or hike in the foothills of Cima Tosa Mountan, which dominates Lake Molveno’s western shores. You can also hire SUP boards, canoes and rowing boats or find a patch of grass and take it all in with a slice of freshly made apple strudel. Speaking of tasty treats, nothing beats a food and wine holiday in the Dolomites to make the most of Lake Molveno and the surrounding area.

The mountain village of Molveno, on the lake’s northernmost shores, is the picture of alpine loveliness with cobbled, car-free streets lined with pizza restaurants, craft shops and stone and wood buildings. It’s also the start and completion point for the 14-kilometre circular trail around the lake that takes in the 13th-century stone archway of Ponte Romano and some magnificent snow-capped mountain views.

Orta

Orta

Lake Orta

Pilgrimage trails and woodland walks

Scenic Lake Orta is situated to the west of Lake Maggiore surrounded by chestnut, oak, and pine forests within the foothills of the Italian Alps. It’s off the typical tourist trail but still has plenty of reasons to visit, including a medieval monastery on San Guilo Island and a good variety of woodland and mountain walks to suit all levels. There’s also a circular pilgrimage trail that leads up to the summit of hill. The UNESCO-listed Sacro Monte di Orta complex can be found at the top, and features several Roman Catholic chapels complete with ecclesiastical artwork and sculptures of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Another highlight is the traditional lakeside village of Orta San Giulio. Located on the western shores of Lake Orta, it’s a medieval maze of cobbled alleyways and pastel-painted buildings. Best advice is to pull up a pew at an al fresco café in the Piazza Mario Motta and watch the world wander by over a cool glass of Campari Spritz.


Ready to get planning your break by the lake? Book one of our hotel holidays in Lake Molveno or contact Saga about escorted group tours featuring Lake Como, Lake Garda, Lake Orta and Lake Maggiore.

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