The Italian Lakes have been a popular holiday spot since Roman times, and it’s easy to see why. They seem to strike a perfect balance between natural beauty and manmade decadence, where one can enjoy the finer things in life in stunning surroundings. Take a look at our short guide to help inspire your next trip where you could swap the beach for a lakeside getaway instead.
What are the Italian Lakes?
Of course there are many lakes in Italy, but the Italian Lakes refers specifically to the cluster of glacial lakes in the north, nestled in the foothills of the Alps on the border between Italy and Switzerland. The five major lakes are Lake Garda, Lake Como, Lake Lugano, Lake Orta and Lake Maggiore, with many smaller ones dotted around along with tarns up in the high valleys.
When to Visit
With their alpine climate, the Italian Lakes are a little cooler than Italy’s more southern regions and rarely see temperatures rise above 25 degrees in the height of summer – perfect for native Italians wanting to escape the stifling heat of the cities.
To avoid the crowds the best time to visit is probably around May, June and September time when the air is cooler and all the flowers are in full bloom. It will be quieter too, and also a little cheaper.
The best way to explore the region is by train. Though ferries are an ideal way to see the lakes themselves. Driving offers more independence and you can hire a car in most towns, but fuel is pricey and parking can be complicated. There are numerous ferry services that criss-cross their way across the lakes throughout the day, and plenty of excellent cycling routes if you prefer to be outdoors.
Whilst the whole region is worth exploring, each lake has its own unique character and charm – it’s just a case of choosing which one to go for if you are on a shorter break.
1. Lake Como
Como is all about glitz and glamour and has long been a destination for the rich and famous. It’s close proximity to Milan (less than an hour’s drive) means it’s often frequented by urbanites seeking their weekend escape to the mountains.
The town of Como is famed for its silk industry and is a fantastic place to shop for exquisite, locally made garments. There is also the beguiling town of Bellagio – with its steep stone steps, breath-taking Baroque gardens and enchanting cypress groves.
2. Lake Garda
Lake Garda is the biggest and busiest of the lakes, which means there is always something going on. It even has its own microclimate with all-star vineyards making the most of the Mediterranean weather. The lake itself is excellent for watersports and there are thermal spas in Sirmione that supposedly boast healing properties.
3. Lake Maggiore
Despite being the second biggest lake in Italy, Maggiore is surprisingly peaceful with its elegant palm-lined promenades and picturesque villages. The architecture here is particularly stunning and the food is to die for.
The Borromean Islands are a must-see, located in the western arm of the lake, with their grand palaces and terraced gardens.
4. Lake Orta
Arguably the best kept secret of the region, Lake Orta carries an air of enchantment and has been a popular destination for many writers and poets over the years. It even has a British-run poetry festival every September called Poetry on the Lake.
It’s less developed than the other lakes and offers a much quieter, more rustic charm where everything moves at a slower pace of life.
5. Lake Lugano
Nestled between Como and Maggiore, Lake Lugano sits across the borders of Italy and Switzerland. It is a great place to enjoy outdoor pursuits with its countless offerings of watersports, hiking, horse-riding and golf – and just about anything else you can think of.
On the north shore, the vibrant Lugano city is packed full of fantastic bars and restaurants and the famous Nassa shopping district with its designer boutiques and department stores.