About Italian Lakes
There are five major lakes in the Italian Lake District, running from west to east the lakes are Lakes Maggiore, Orta, Como, Iseo and Garda. Each of the Lakes has its own particular character and spectacular sites to see and activities to take part in. Each of the lakes is an excellent place to bring the family for relaxing time in a fun filled environment.
This is one of the smaller sized lakes thirteen kilometers long and three wide, where soft morning mists are a way of life. Orta has a single, base town of Orta San Giulio, with cream-colored houses roofed with thick slate tiles, a lakeside central square, Piazza Motta, overlooked by the Palazotto, a frescoed 16th-century building borne up by the stilts of a cosy loggia, and unforgettable views of the island, Isola San Giulio. Tourist tack is almost absent; instead there are several delicatessens, an antiquarian bookshop, a shop specializing in period jewellery and an excellent wine bar – the cosy Enoteca Re di Coppe at piazza Motta 32.
Its balmy climate is one of Garda’s biggest selling points. The lake acts as a gigantic solar panel and a ring of mountains stores the heat. The famous lake winds keep things bearable and windsurfers are especially happy.
Around Lake Garda, places to visit include Sirmione, a green and peaceful headland covered in olive trees and cypresses, and the occasional garden hotel. Visit the huge, old-fashioned thermal establishment which takes hot, sulphurous water from a spring that gurgles from the bottom of the lake a few hundred meters offshore.
Punta Portese marks the beginning of the Riviera Bresciana, Garda’s small-scale version of the Côte d’Azur which takes in the towns of Salò and Gardone Riviera. Further up the western shore is Gargnano, a perfect little port town, with one of the lake’s best restaurants, La Tortuga.
Riva del Garda, the main resort of the northern shore, has tall and solid buildings. Torbole, at the other end of the north shore, is a pretty town with an unimpeded view on clear days right down the lake to Desenzano, and a clear run for windsurfers, who have elected the town as their main Garda base.
The eastern shore of the lake is dominated by the long ridge of Monte Bardo, a verdant mountain where rhododendrons, gentians and rare orchids bloom. The best way to explore it is by taking the cable car from Malcesine, which is the main town of the upper shore and one of the most picturesque of the whole lake.
Garda is an attractive, faintly old-fashioned resort frequented by British and German tourists. Bardolino beyond has two pretty churches and between Bardolino and Peschiera is Gardaland, the largest amusement park in Italy.
Despite its stately bearing, grand hotels and formal gardens, and its fringe of mountains, Lago Maggiore is not highly rated by the lake cognoscenti.
To unlock the lake’s charm, explore its picturesque and busy central parts and southern reaches by boat, using the extensive network of ferries for short visits before retiring to its calmer shores.
At the centre of the lake float the Borromean Islands: the Isola Bella, almost entirely occupied by the Borromeo family palace and gardens; the Isola dei Pescatori, with houses huddled together; and finally distant and aloof, the Isola Madre, another Borromeo fiefdom.
Lake Maggiore’s smart, low-slung white ferries shuttle back and forth between the belle époque resort of Stresa and Isola dei Pescatori every half hour in the summer, calling in at Isola Bella on the way. One of the lake’s most popular attractions is the castle of Angera on the south eastern shore.
Just north of Angera is the sleepy village of Ranto. There is little to see here but its fabulous Sole restaurant and hotel make it one of the most luxurious and pampered retreats on the lake. Near Ranco, don’t miss the tiny Eremo di Santa Caterina, a wonderful church which seems to grow out of the mountainside.
Como is the most beautiful of the Italian lakes particularly in the centre of the lake, where the eastern Lecco branch meets the main lake. Nestling in this charmed space, offering almost infinite views, is Bellagio, which manages to be a town entirely given up to tourism, and yet entirely delightful. Partly this has to do with the town’s unique setting. Partly though, it is also because the tourism is on such a small and human scale: there are only a handful of hotels, including a ‘Grand’ that lives up to its name.
Varenna, on the rugged eastern shore also merits a visit. It consists of a few boats pulled up on the beach, two bars and a restaurant hidden behind a medieval arcade. A good hotel and frequent car and passenger ferries make it an excellent base. Explore the lake by boat travel is effortless and the views are ever changing. The voyage from Varenna in the east to Menaggio in the west by way of Bellagio displays all three arms of the lake in a slowly shifting choreography of water and mountains.
Cradled in a deep glacial valley north-west of Brescia, Lake Iseo has a certain unrestrained elegance evident in its handsome waterside promenade and its wide squares lined by low arcades. Iseo is a place where people live and work, tourists are welcome but they do not run the whole show as in some parts of the larger lakes. From Sulzano and Sale Marasino on the lake’s eastern shore, boats ply back and forth to Monte Isola, which proclaims itself as Europe’s largest lake island.