|Lake Como//Photo by: eurotravel/istock/getty images plus/Getty Images|
by Kiki Deere, The Daily Telegraph, August 19, 2016
The Romans were first to see the potential of the Italian lakes as a holiday destination. They built their sumptuous villas in some of the prime positions around Como and Garda, where the southern foothills of the Alps sweep down towards the Mediterranean and the fertile plains of northern Italy, forming some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe.
Modern tourism has transformed the towns, but the lakes, mountains and views are as beautiful as they were 2,000 years ago, and the villages, Baroque gardens and lakeside hotels are still wonderful places to enjoy a holiday, especially during the long, warm autumn.
Spread out over four of Italy’s northern regions – Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino Alto Adige – the lakes extend north of Milan and stretch to Verona, varying enormously in size and setting. The westernmost, Lake Orta, is a gorgeous little slice of deep-blue water harbouring one of the country’s prettiest medieval villages, Orta San Giulio. A short drive away is the longest, Lake Maggiore, which extends north across the Swiss border. East lies modish Lake Como, lined with opulent villas and glitzy hotels. Farther east still is Lake Iseo, the least well-known of the five, while the largest of all, Lake Garda, is one of the country’s most popular holiday destinations.
So how do you choose the right one for you? Those after a little romantic corner may favour Lake Orta or Lake Como. Outdoorsy types should head to the northern shores of Lake Garda for canyoning and kite surfing, while Lake Iseo is ideal for hikers and cyclists. Nature and culture lovers in search of a quiet break will find a solution on Lake Maggiore’s peaceful shores. Size might also determine the length of your stay. Little Orta and Iseo work well as short-break destinations, while Como, Maggiore and Garda require longer stays to explore.
There are other aspects to consider, too. Here is our guide to the five key lakes along with our recommended hotels to suit both higher and lower budgets – rates quoted are per room per night and vary according to date and demand. Follow the links given for full reviews on our website.
The most exclusive of the lakes, this is a trendy destination with luxurious hotels and modish restaurants lining the shores, and a generous sprinkling of celebrity visitors, including Madonna, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
The elegant town of Como on the lake’s southern shore comprises a walled old quarter with pretty narrow lanes lined with boutiques, open-air cafés and restaurants. From here steamers head north from one wooded mountain slope to another, passing one of Lake Como’s most attractive houses, the 18th-century Villa del Balbianello, the setting for the remake of Casino Royale. Farther north is Villa Carlotta, a pink and white grand house where the main attraction is the spectacular 14-acre garden where camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas tumble towards the waterfront.
The resort of Menaggio has an attractive centre and views across the water to Bellagio and Varenna, picturesque towns that are among the lake’s highlights. Fringed by cypresses, Bellagio sits on the tip of the Como and Lecco branches of the lake, while the romantic town of Varenna comprises a cluster of attractive houses nestled along a rocky shoreline.
About seven miles (12km) north of Menaggio is Dongo, where Benito Mussolini was captured by resistance partisans as he attempted to flee to Switzerland in 1945. The northern shores of Lake Como are largely off the tourist track, and there are excellent hiking opportunities, in particular around the town of Gravedona.
Where to stay
For a treat: Leading designer Patricia Urquiola is the mastermind behind this elegant yet relaxed Il Sereno in the picturesque town of Torno. Interiors are made of local wood, stone and fibres, while floor-to-ceiling windows draw one’s attention to the beautiful panorama outside. The excellent restaurant serves simple dishes with a contemporary touch. From £649.
For value: Hotel Belvedere is set above Bellagio among terraced gardens leading down to the lake. It opened its doors in 1880, and has since been run by five generations of women of the Martinelli family. From £94.
Nearest airports: Lecco is an hour from Bergamo airport; Como town is 45 minutes from Lugano and Milan Malpensa airports. For flight options and fares to this and all other airports listed below, see skyscanner.net.
The largest lake in Italy, Lake Garda’s topography varies dramatically. In the south, it is fringed by rolling hills, while the northern shore is characterised by sheer cliffs with villages clinging on to the rock faces. Located on a long promontory at the bottom of the lake is Sirmione, a pretty spa town surrounded by ancient castle walls that attracts the bulk of the tourists.
The western shore is home to the old Venetian town of Salò, with its pleasant waterfront promenade, while farther north is Gardone Riviera, home to Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, the former house of the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. The tranquil town of Gargnano lies farther north, while pretty Limone sul Garda, the last lakeside town in Lombardy, sits along a narrow road that runs along the side of jagged cliffs. It is famous for its lemon cultivation; the Limonaia del Castèl, a lemon garden and museum, provides an insight.
Situated beneath sheer cliffs on the lake’s northern shore, Riva del Garda has a quiet pedestrianised quarter, while two miles (3km) north is Cascata Grotta Varone, a gorge and waterfall. The northern shore is a major hub for watersports, including windsurfing, sailing, canyoning and ice climbing.
The main attraction of Malcesine on the lake’s eastern shore is the 13th-century Castello Scaligero, where Goethe was briefly imprisoned in 1786. Farther south lies Torri del Benaco, one of the lake’s most beautiful villages, surrounded by remnants of 10th-century walls, while the resort of Bardolino is the home of the red wine.
Where to stay
For a treat: Villa Feltrinelli is a historic villa on the western shore with 21 lavishly restored rooms. It’s expensive, however. From £934.
For value: On a hillside overlooking Lake Garda, Due Di Moro is a laid-back, eco-friendly b&b with its own vegetable garden and orchard supplying the restaurant. From £93.
Nearest airports: Sirmione is about 80 minutes from Bergamo and Verona airports.
Following the opening of the Simplon Tunnel between Italy and Switzerland in the early 20th century, Lake Maggiore became a holiday retreat for European nobility. While the lake’s heyday has long past, it is still a relaxing and peaceful place to unwind for a few days. Palms and oleanders line the lakeside, and verbena and orange blossom grow abundantly.
The main sights, such as the grand resorts of Stresa and Pallanza, are around the Golfo Borromeo, which takes its name from the prominent Borromeo family of bankers. Lined with opulent hotels, Stresa comprises a compact centre with narrow cobbled lanes, while offshore are the picturesque Isole Borromee. A short boat ride from Stresa’s imbarcadero, Isola Bella is the highlight, with its Baroque palazzo and impeccably manicured terraced gardens. The larger Isola Madre houses a smaller, more modest villa and lush gardens, while nearby Isola Superiore, known as Isola dei Pescatori, is an attractive place with alleys and old buildings that once housed fishermen, which are now mostly souvenir shops.
North of Stresa is Pallanza, a quiet little resort with an attractive waterfront whose main attraction is the lush garden of the 19th-century Villa Taranto.
The northern part of Lake Maggiore is wilder and less explored, home to the charming village of Cannero and the town of Cannobio. Across the border into Switzerland is the resort of Ascona, which faces the pretty Isole di Brissago, while at the very top of the lake is the elegant town of Locarno. The eastern shore is much more sedate, but offers excellent mountain hiking opportunities.
Where to stay
For a treat: The Grand Hotel Majestic is a Belle Époque villa on a promontory with wonderful views of the Borromean islands. It has a delightful lakefront garden and a small sandy beach, from where it’s possible to swim in the lake. From £121.
For value: Relais Casali della Cisterna is a family-run hotel on a hillside running down to the lake – it also has beautiful gardens and a private beach. From £104.
Nearest airport: Stresa/Pallanza are an hour from Milan Malpensa; Locarno is less than an hour from Lugano airport in Switzerland.
|Lake Iseo// Photo by: piergiov/istock/getty images plus/ Getty Images|
Much smaller than its neighbours and the least-known of the lakes, Iseo is nevertheless popular with local tourists and day-trippers, who come here for the excellent trekking and mountain biking. Europe’s largest lake island, Monte Isola, is a charming spot with a perimeter promenade that is best explored by bike. Cycling and walking routes criss-cross the interior of the island, and there are lovely views from the 15th-century Santuario della Madonna della Ceriola.
On the south-western shore of the lake is Sarnico, an attractive old town with a number of Art Nouveau villas peppered around the hills. On the south-eastern shore is Iseo, an agreeable town with cobbled streets that makes a pleasant place for a stroll. Most of the lake’s attractions lie on the eastern shore, carpeted with wooded slopes and sprinkled with olive groves.
The ancient trading route of the Via Valeriana, today a popular hiking route, is a 15-mile (24km) stretch that passes through hamlets, vineyards and olive groves, commanding wonderful lake views. Outside the village of Zone lies an impressive landscape of rocky pyramids with granite boulders, the result of centuries of rain erosion of moraine deposits. Stretching north of the lake up to Sonico is the little-visited Val Camonica, home to prehistoric rock carvings that cover a period of 13,000 years. Heading south of the lake, between Iseo and Brescia, is the hilly region of Franciacorta, which produces Italy’s finest sparkling wine.
Where to stay
For a treat: L’Albereta overlooks the vineyards of Franciacorta and Lake Iseo beyond. Converted from a 19th-century mansion it has a state-of-the-art health spa. From £226.
L’Albereta overlooks the vineyards of Franciacorta
For value: Casa Visnenza is a cosy, welcoming b&b in the town of Cemmo di Capo di Ponte, 20 miles north of Lake Iseo. From £43.
Nearest airports: Sarnico is half an hour from Bergamo airport.
Lake Orta is an azure slither that remains largely off the tourist track, although its romantic views and tranquil, relatively quiet atmosphere attracts its fair share of Milanese and Torinesi who flock here for weekend breaks. It is probably the most beautiful of the lakes, home to the picturesque medieval village of Orta San Giulio, undoubtedly one of the lakes’ most captivating towns, with its winding cobbled streets and pastel-coloured palazzi. The lakefront square of Piazza Motta is dotted with chestnut trees and framed by frescoed buildings.
Lying offshore is Isola San Giulio, a tiny car-free island with only one cobbled lane that runs the perimeter of the island. Home to 60 nuns, the Benedictine Basilica di San Giulio houses frescoes dating back to the 14th century. Above Orta San Giulio, reached on foot from Santa Maria Assunta Church, is Sacro Monte di San Francesco, a forested area sprinkled with 21 chapels built between the 16th and 18th centuries. Each of these has painted terracotta statues that act out scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi, attracting scores of pilgrims year-round.
The cool air attracts just as many tourists who come to admire the spectacular views of the lake and enjoy a picnic in the pine-scented surrounds.
Where to stay
For a treat:Villa Crespi is a 19th-century villa in the Moorish style, with incredibly ornate décor. It is owned and run by two-Michelin star chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo. Rooms from £411.
For value: La Contrada dei Monti is a three-star hotel which offers welcoming little rooms in a restored 18th-century building in the heart of Orta San Giulio. From £86.
- Read more: The best Lake Orta hotels
Nearest airport: Orta San Giulio is less than an hour from Milan Malpensa airport.
When to go
The lakes’ season runs from Easter to October. The best times to visit are May to early June and September, when temperatures are warm and the evenings clear and cool. In July and August the lakes are at their most crowded, and the weather can be unbearably hot. Avoid August if possible, when Italians descend on the lakes for their summer holidaysn and prices peak.
Passenger boats ply the lakes, with car-ferries crossing Garda, Maggiore and Como. Exploring different lakes by public transport is tricky as buses and trains have erratic timings and journeys often involve changes. Renting a car allows more flexibility, but the lake roads get very busy in summer and queues are common, especially along the shores of Lake Garda and Lake Como.
This article was written by Kiki Deere from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.