Italy’s Lakeland is spread out across a 100-mile-wide stretch in the north of the country, at the point where the Lombardy plain gives way to the Alps. As well as spectacular scenery, the lakes feature quaint waterside villages, grand palazzos and incredible hiking, biking and boating opportunities. Each lake has a different character – here’s a quick guide explaining what each of them has to offer.
Lake Garda is the biggest of the lakes. In the north, you’ll find a mountainous backdrop and plenty of hiking, cycling and watersports opportunities, while in the south there are pebbly beaches and gently sloping vineyards.
If you’re staying in the north, use the ferry service to explore Malcesine, Limone, Torbole (a great windsurfing spot) and Riva del Garda. Explore Limone’s narrow streets and lemon tree-filled limonaia, or take the cable car up Monte Baldo from Malcesine for widescreen views of the lake. If you fancy getting away from it all, cycle from Riva to the peaceful village of Arco. In the south, you could visit the fairytale castle in Sirmione, spend a day at Gardaland theme park, or sample wines at the vineyards around Bardolino.
You’ve got plenty of options when it comes to eating out here, from tiny, family-run trattorie to Michelin-starred restaurants. Freshwater fish is often on the menu, and many places will serve a different catch of the day each evening. Stock up on Bardolino olives to take home, too.
Lake Garda’s shores are striped with vineyards, so there are a number of local wines to sample. Try Bardolino, a light red wine, or Valpolicella Ripasso, a fruity red. Marzadro grappa is also a local tipple.
Surrounded by dramatic peaks and edged with postcard-pretty towns and villages, Lake Como is a favoured holiday spot with the rich and famous.
Travel around the heart of the lake by ferry, taking in the pretty towns of Varenna, Menaggio and Cadenabbia, as well as Bellagio, with its steep cobbled streets and chic boutiques. Elegant villas with manicured gardens line the lake. Two of the best are 300-year-old Villa Carlotta and Villa del Balbianello, which you might recognise from Star Wars, Ocean’s Twelve and Casino Royale. For beautiful views, take the cable car from Argegno up to Pigra – if you’re feeling active, there’s a great walking trail back down to Colonno.
Lake fish such as trout, lavarello and perch are staples here, whether grilled or served with pasta or risotto. One of Lake Como’s specialities is missoltino, preserved fish often tossed with spaghetti. If you’re heading to the town of Lenno, pick up a few bottles of its renowned cold-pressed olive oil.
Valtellina, the Alpine area to the north of Lake Como, produces some fantastic red wines, including Rosso di Valtellina and Valtellina Superiore.
Thought by some to be the most scenic of the Italian Lakes, Maggiore comes with an Alpine background and a handful of palazzo-topped islands.
A 10-minute boat ride takes you from Stresa out to the Borromean Islands. Tour the lavish palazzos on Isola Bella and Isola Madre, before heading to the fishing village on Isola Pescatori for a seafood supper. For fantastic lake views, walk the promenade from Stresa to Caciano, or take the cable car up Mount Mottarone. For something a little more hair-raising, hop into one of the two-seater, bucket-like cable cars at Laveno and travel up to Mount Sasso del Ferro.
You’ll find plenty of fresh local produce around Lake Maggiore, from sweet honeys and cured meats like Ossola Mortadella, to cheeses like Bettelmatt and Ossolano d’Alpe. If you’re after something sweet, try one of Stresa’s famous Margheritines – flower-shaped lemony biscuits.
You’ll find a few locally produced red wines from around Lake Maggiore, such as Prunent, a full-bodied red made in the Ossola valleys.
One of the smaller lakes (13 kilometres long and just three wide), lesser-known Lake Orta has a peaceful, romantic feel.
Lake Orta’s medieval main town, Orta San Giulio, is perfect strolling territory, with cobbled lanes and pastel-painted houses. From Piazza Motta, walk up to the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, a beautiful 15th-century baroque church. The hillside Sacro Monte di San Francesco is a must-see while you’re here – it’s a UNESCO-listed collection of baroque and Renaissance chapels filled with frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The island of Isola San Giulio is also worth visiting, particularly for its 12th-century frescoed basilica.
If you fancy something a bit different, try pasta with donkey or horse meat – it’s a speciality in the region. Restaurant-wise, there are plenty of small trattorie and osterie, as well as Al Sorriso, a family-run restaurant that’s been awarded three Michelin stars.
The lake sits in the Piedmont region, which is famous for the Nebbiolo grape. The most famous wines created from the Nebbiolo are Barolo and Barbaresco. The region mostly produces red wine, but there are a few whites to look out for, such as Cortese and Arneis.
Quieter and less developed than the others, Lake Iseo is a favourite with hikers, nature lovers and those who enjoy getting off the beaten track.
The medieval town of Iseo is lovely for strolling, with its chain of lakeside piazzas and historic castle, Castello Oldofredi. The island of Monte Isola is a great daytrip option – you’ll find a few pretty hamlets, olive groves and woodland, and a small chapel at the top of a hill.
The hills around the lake are patchworked with olive and chestnut groves, so you’ll find both in abundance on menus and in grocery shops. Fresh fish is a must-try – order tinca al forna, a delicious dish of baked fish with parsley, garlic and parmesan.
The area around Lake Iseo’s southern shore is famous for Franciacorta, a DOCG-classified sparkling wine that’s Italy’s answer to Champagne.