The morning was extraordinary—slightly cloudy, but still and silent as the sun began to rise. We passed Limone, with its gardens and terraces tracing up the mountain slope, and a spectacle of wealth and grace unfolded before us…
Goethe, Italian Journey, 13 September 1786
A treasure chest of six jewel lakes
The region of Italy that stretches beyond Milan is one of singular delights. Not only is it among the most historically rich in all of Italy, but the landscapes here are heralded as some of the most spectacular in all of Europe.
Imagine a treasure chest of gems that stretches across 200 kilometers and counts six lakes within—each uniquely different from the next when it comes to nature, history and character. Moving from east to west across the region, those lakes include Garda (the largest), Iseo, Como, Lugano, Maggiore and Orta.
Over the last two decades, Lake Como has taken the spotlight as the star of the region thanks to its proximity to Milan and its popularity among Milanese VIPs and actors from the US. In 2014, Lake Como was chosen as the most beautiful lake in the world by the Huffington Post. It’s relatively common knowledge that everyone from Gianfranco Ferrè to George Clooney—and numerous soccer players and Hollywood stars in between—have purchased many of the sumptuous patrician villas that rise from the lake’s steep banks. If the celebrity scene isn’t really your cup of tea, rest assured there’s so much more to discover among the region’s other five lovely lakes.
The new lake game in town
Tourists looking for a romantic vacation in Italy—and perhaps Italian honeymoon packages, too—are learning there’s more to see around Milan than Lake Como. All eyes of late are turning to Lake Garda, where you won’t find nearly as many tourists but there’s no lack of charming villages accessible by ferry—and fabulous other ways to enjoy luxury Italy travel. Lake Garda has even garnered the attention of The Wall Street Journal, which has reported on the many reasons to set your sights on this lake over Lake Como for a dream vacation in Italy.
The largest lake in Italy, Lake Garda stretches across a vast landscape of mountains, hills and plains that encompass a variety of views and diverse adventures. The lake’s waters are crystal-clear and have all the nuances of the sea: shaped by wind and weather, it has a coastline that’s steep in parts and opens to sandy beaches and turquoise lagoons. The towns lining the lake—Sirmione, Malcesine, Garda, Desenzano and Torri del Benaco—are a rich historical tapestry immersed in a Mediterranean atmosphere imbued with sunshine, the scent of lemon trees and cedars, and olive trees and vineyards as far as the eye can see.
There’s something for everyone on the shores of Lake Garda when it comes to accommodations, too. Think impeccable campsites with private beaches or, for more pampering, luxury hotels with world-class spa facilities. How you spend your vacation, of course, is up to you—be it via leisurely walks or challenging treks; at amusement or nature parks; or in quiet towns or night clubs. Leisure, culture and everything in between awaits around the lake, while the nearby cities, like Verona and Mantua, burst with art. You can also head out on a day trip from the lakeshore along an eno-gastronomic route into the neighboring Italian countryside. Lake Garda is truly a destination where you can choose your own adventure and discover Italy and its authentic charms.
The many delights of Lake Garda
Lake Garda has long fascinated writers and poets with its mild climate, the striking beauty of its landscapes and the storybook villages lining its shores. From Virgil, Catullus and Goethe to Kafka, Gide and Nietzsche, many writers and intellectuals of the past have waxed lyrical about the extraordinary beauty of the region and its appealing Mediterranean climate.
Garda is not only the largest lake in Italy, but it sits at a crossroads of cultures and historical legacies. It’s perfectly positioned at the intersection of an axis that leads from France to the Balkans as well as another route that descends from Tyrol towards Tuscany. You can even feel nods to Tuscany along the lake, where pastoral landscapes are dotted with typically Tuscan cypress trees. The diversity of experiences and attractions is outstanding. You can see Roman ruins on the fortified peninsula of Sirmione, military fortifications in Peschiera, monumental villas in Gargnano, vineyards in Bardolino and theme parks in Lazise. Home to the most northern olive and lemon growing regions in Europe, the Lake Garda region serves as the gateway to the Mediterranean for Northern Europeans from colder climes who come in search of fun in the great outdoors.
How you venture into the outdoors is up to you. If you love flowers, don’t miss the cycle of blooms that explode within the Sigurtà (www.sigurta.it) botanical park in Valeggio. Find your favorite spot to relax among willows and cypresses at the many beaches and bays along the lake’s 145 kilometers of shoreline. Another great outing? Discovering the peninsula of Punta San Vigilio (parcosanvigilio.com/) or the Rocca di Manerba (www.riservaroccamanerba.com/en/) on the Lombardy side. For an adventure out on the lake itself, consider renting a small boat to explore the gardens of Isola del Garda (www.isoladelgarda.com/). Here, on the lake’s only large island, enjoy a spritz-based aperitif and magnificent vistas from its private villa.
Moving to the northern side of Lake Garda, you enter a third region called Trentino Alto Adige, which was once Princess Sissi’s favorite summer destination. The lake’s form narrows here, taking the shape of a finger wedged between the mountains. From the resort town of Riva del Garda, you can travel south along the Veronese side of the lake. Flooded by sunlight in the afternoon, the route seduces with sights like the medieval turreted village of Malcesine.
Another highlight of Lake Garda is seeing its majestic villas like Salò, Gardone and Gargnano. Don’t miss Villa Feltrinelli and the Vittoriale, where you can discover the life and history of Gabriele d’Annunzio—a renowned Italian poet and eclectic character who lived a decadent life in this extravagant mansion.
The proximity of other major attractions has much to do with the lake’s appeal. Within a few kilometers, you can visit famed art cities like Verona and Mantua as well as lesser-known spots like Brescia and Trento, which showcase heritage and charm that comes as a surprise to many Italians, too.
Garda’s luxury traveler trifecta
There’s no denying Lake Garda’s renaissance. The region is giving Lake Como a run for its money with top-notch spas, luxury hotels and culinary delights.
For a spa experience unrivaled in all of Italy, you’ll find endless options dedicated to salus per aquam practices that aim to improve heath through healing waters. The thermal baths of Sirmione (www.termedisirmione.com/it) have been enjoyed since Roman times; today you can see ancient ruins alongside the modern spa facilities. At the luxurious Lefay Resort (www.lagodigarda.lefayresorts.com/en), located some 400 meters above the village of Gargnano, you can bask in futuristic soaking pools with gorgeous lake views. Villa dei Cedri Spa Hotel in Colà di Lazise is another magnificent wellness escape surrounded by Garda’s iconic nature.
The crop of recently opened and upcoming luxury hotels is bringing more options than ever to this region of Italy. Among the recent arrivals to the hospitality scene is the Quellenhof Luxury Resort in Lazise (www.quellenhof-lazise.it), unveiled in February 2019. Coming up by early summer 2020 are the Travel Charme Resort “Il Giardino” in Salò (https://www.lorenzobellini.com/items/travel-charme-il-giardino) and Ealà in Limone (https://www.ealalakegarda.com/). Ealà’s enviable location sits next to the brand-new suspended cycle path that runs between Limone and Riva; it was inaugurated in 2018 as the first step of a 190-km bike route that will eventually go along the entire lake.
When it comes to Lake Garda’s tabletop appeal, the dining and vineyard attractions are many. Como clearly has competition. Garda has always been a culinary crossroads laced with wineries, especially along the Lombardy coast, which has seen a spate of openings in recent years. Among the many wineries to add to your hit list are Pasini, (www.pasinisangiovanni.it), Conti Thun (www.contithun.com), Costaripa (www.costaripa.it) and Comincioli (www.comincioli.it) as well as Montonale (www.montonale.it), Selvacapuzza (www.selvacapuzza.it), Ca ’dei Frati (www.cadeifrati.it) and Ca’ Maiol (www.camaiol.it).
Many of these wineries complement their wines with the excellent refined Garda olive oil. Rounding out the delicious grape and olive offerings, the triptych of typical Garda crops finishes with lemons. They give their name to one of the most beautiful villages here, Limone, the northernmost locale for lemon growing in all of Europe. Known throughout Italy for having residents who live the longest (86 years old is the average lifespan in the village), Limone may owe the longevity of its citizens to its particular microclimate, where the crisp air of the Alps meets the Mediterranean.
Lake Garda clearly has countless pleasures to share. Slowly but steadily, it is tempting Lake Como regulars to experience a different take on Northern Italy’s famed lake region.