The Italian Lakes are home to some of the most beautiful gardens in the country, with manicured lawns, exotic plants, elaborate fountains and (more often than not) an elegant villa or palazzo to boot. They’re well worth an afternoon of your time if you’re in the area – but which one should you choose? To help you decide, we enlisted the help of Niko and Hollie, our Italy Experts out in the Lakes, to put together an easy guide to the best gardens in the Italian Lakes.
Villa Balbianello, Lake Como
Villa Balbianello and its gardens perch on one of the most dramatic and beautiful promontories in Lake Como. You can spot it in films like Casino Royale and Star Wars, and a host of A-listers have married here. Everyone from casual visitors to horticultural obsessives are entranced by its vast, secluded woodlands and elaborate gardens, with velvety lawns sloping sharply towards the water. It feels like a fairytale to wander, and don’t miss the villa itself; best known for its impossibly idyllic loggia (arches) – the site of many ‘I dos’.
“Villa Balbianello’s explorer owner was so in love with the view from his office, that he had the trees outside clipped by hand, making perfect dome shapes. These umbrella trees are quite a feature, and even make it into movies (James Bond convalesced underneath them in Casino Royale).” Niko
Visit: A combined ticket to visit the gardens and villa is €11. Villa Balbianello is accessible via a lake boat from Lanno, however, we offer a half-day tour that includes a private boat tour as well as a visit to the garden and villa.
Villa Taranto, Lake Maggiore
Villa Taranto is home to a green expanse of botanical gardens on the western banks of Lake Maggiore, Italy’s second-largest lake. You don’t need to be green-fingered to enjoy these gardens; head through the entrance boulevard, the ‘alley of conifers’, for an hour or two’s wandering on a warm day. The 16 hectares of elegant, landscaped gardens are filled with around 20,000 varieties of plants, with a gorgeous ‘dahlia maze’, water features and greenhouses lining seven kilometres of pathways.
Visit: The gardens are open from March to November, with an entrance fee of €10.
Isola Madre, Lake Maggiore
The largest of Lake Maggiore’s Borromean Islands, Isola Madre has been perfecting its botanical gardens for hundreds of years. Spanning 20 acres, the gardens were originally planned by Count Lancillotto Borromeo himself, and are some of the oldest in Italy. Its microclimate helps its rare, subtropical plant life to flourish (look out for the 200-year-old Kashmir cypress tree and wisteria-draped scala dei morti, or staircase of the dead), as well as the colourful addition of brightly coloured parrots and white-feathered peacocks.
Visit: Isola Madre’s gardens are open daily between March and October. A fee of €13 includes entrance to the gardens and palazzo, and guided tours are also available. You can reach Isola Madre by boat from Stresa or Laverno.
Villa Melzi, Lake Como
This lakefront garden looks almost as good from the water as it does close up, so even if you don’t have time for a visit, look out for it on boat tours of the lake. The sculpture-dotted gardens are home to some spectacular plants, trees and flowers, including rhododendron, azaleas, Japanese maples (beautiful in the autumn), and cedars. Look out for the unusual Moorish-style pavilion by the water, and the serene Oriental garden with its water-lily pond and ornate bridge.
“This carefully manicured botanical garden covers acres, as it spreads into shaded woodlands. In 2016, it was named Italian Garden of the Year – and with good reason!” Niko
Visit: The gardens are open between the end of March and October and cost €6.50 to enter.
Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore
Another of the Borromean Islands, Isola Bella’s gardens are as lavish as they come, with grand stone staircases, statues and obelisks, and a grand baroque ‘theatre’ at the centre. A 200-year-old camphor tree guards the entrance, white peacocks prowl around the lawns, and from almost every point you can enjoy spectacular views of Lake Maggiore.
“When it comes to describing the wonder of Isola Bella, you can’t beat TV gardener Monty Don, who famously said the garden was ‘a tipsy drag queen of a garden, ready to party all night and the next day, too.'” Niko
Visit: Tickets for the palazzo and gardens cost €13, or 16 if you’d like to include the painting gallery as well. The island is open to visitors from mid-March to mid-October.
Villa Carlotta, Lake Como
Spread over 70,000 square metres on Lake Como’s western shore are the gardens of Villa Carlotta. In front of the villa itself is the Italian garden, with terraces of camellias and roses climbing up from the entrance. Make sure you turn and look back once you reach the top – the view of the ornate pool and fountain with the waters of the lake behind it makes a fantastic photo. Elsewhere, you’ll find a woodland of rhododendron, carpets of colourful azaleas (at their best in April and May) and a cool, shady ravine of ferns and plane trees.
“The grand scale of the gardens are a feast for the eyes, surrounding a fairytale-like villa, given as a wedding present from a mother to her daughter. While late spring is a riot of colour from azaleas and rhododendron, summer gives way to classical elegance with roses and jasmine scents filling the air.” Niko
Visit: The gardens are open from mid-March to mid-November, and cost €10 to enter. You can arrive by car, bus or boat – the ferry stop is Tremezzo – Villa Carlotta. Alternatively, stay at the stylish Grand Hotel Tremezzo, which sits just next door.
Parco Sigurta, near Lake Garda
Known as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, Parco Giardino Sigurta’s flowers, lakes, lawns and ponds sprawl across a huge 560,000 square metres. The Great Lawn is ideal for balmy summer days, with its serene lakes and weeping willows, but our favourite part has to be the ‘avenue of roses’ – it bursts into life each spring as 30,000 flowers bloom.
“I love that the park is accessible to everybody – there’s a train for little ones, golf carts for anybody that can’t walk too far, bikes to hire and walking routes. The gardens are beautiful at any time, but the two best times of the year to visit are at the end of April (when the spectacular tulip exhibition is held – look out for the deep-purple ‘Queen of the Night’) and mid-July, when the waterlilies, roses and hydrangeas are in bloom.” Hollie
Visit: The park is open from early March until early November, and is €12.50 to enter. It’s around 40 minutes’ drive south of Lake Garda – our Mantova and Parco Sigurta excursion takes you there by coach and includes a visit to the stunning city of Mantua.
Isola del Garda, Lake Garda
The little island of Isola del Garda, owned by the Borghese Cavazza family, sits just off the western shore of Lake Garda. Each summer, the family throw their doors open and welcome visitors to this serene spot. Italian and English gardens cascade down from the island’s neo-Gothic villa, filled with roses, bougainvillea and all manner of fruit trees (you’ll spot everything from persimmons and pomegranates, to prickly pears).
“With links to royalty and a long family history, this whole place is full of character. The family who owns the property do the tours of the island and know absolutely everything there is to know. There are some beautiful rose bushes, including Queen Elizabeth’s, as well as fragrant orange and lemon trees. The views from the terraces are splendid – best enjoyed with a glass of Prosecco!” Hollie
Visit: Isola del Garda is open to visitors from mid-April until mid-October. We run excursions from Gardone, Sirmione, Bardolino and Garda, which include the boat ride across.