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A guide to Italy's Great Lakes

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Italy’s Great Lakes are a vision, with sky-scraping mountains bordering deep, turquoise lakes with charming, lively villages dotted around them. The best part of these lakes is the sheer variety. Each glacial lake has its own personality, drawing different kinds of travellers from all over the world.

Lake Garda is a hotspot for outdoor activities like swimming and mountain climbing. Lake Maggiore is characterised by its Borromean Islands, three small isles featuring tranquil gardens and palaces. Lake Como is popular with honeymooners and is certainly the most glamorous, which might be a reason why Italy’s Great Lakes are often considered to be an expensive, upscale holiday destination. For those travelling on a budget, rest assured you can still explore these magnificent sites, with Lake Maggiore having the most budget accommodation offerings. It just comes down to doing your research, and most importantly, booking in advance.

If you are struggling to distinguish your Como from your Garda, this is where we come in! Whether you are looking for a cosy winter escape, or for a splash in the summer, our ultimate guide to Italy’s Great Lakes will help to steer you in the right direction.


Italy’s Great Lakes at a glance


Italy’s Great Lakes consist of eight lakes, all glacial bodies of water formed at the conclusion of the last ice age, but we would love to focus on our favourite three: Lake Como, Lake Garda, and Lake Maggiore. If you are curious about where these lakes can be found, look to the south side of the Italian Alps. These beautiful bodies of water have put Northern Italy on the map as a must-visit travel destination. No matter where you go, know that all the lakes are a time-honoured spot for rest and recreation.

Lake Garda is Italy’s largest lake, at 142 square miles. Maggiore is second in size, at 82 square miles, with part of it even lying in Switzerland. So head to Maggiore if you fancy visiting two countries in one! Lake Como might be the smallest of the trio, at 56 square miles, but it certainly packs a punch with its five-star accommodation offerings, waterfront villages, and neoclassical villas - plus it’s only 32 miles from Milan.


Why holiday to Italy’s Great Lakes


One of the main reasons to book an escape to one of Italy’s Great Lakes is because of the versatility of these destinations. Whether you book an alpine villa in Lake Como, or a waterfront hotel room in Maggiore, you will have the opportunity to combine vast, natural scenery - snow-capped peaks, twinkling lakes, and flourishing gardens - with all the modern delights of lakefront bars, fine dining, and winery tasting opportunities.


How to travel to Italy’s Great Lakes


All three lakes can be easily accessed by the frequent train services travelling from Milan, Venice in Italy and Lugano and Zurich in Switzerland. It can take between 45 minutes to three hours depending on where you are travelling. The train is affordable, convenient, and offers surprisingly stunning views of the mountainous north of Italy.

Of course, you could decide to road trip the region, moving between all the lakes - but the roads can be curvy, plus their small size means they frequently face serious traffic jams between the villages. Your best bet, if you are not taking a guided tour, is to reach each lake by train and then to take scenic ferry rides to the villages you are hoping to visit. Patience is a virtue, in these areas.


Places to visit in Italy’s Great Lakes


Malcesine, Lake Garda


On the twinkling eastern shore of Lake Garda lies Malcesine. This charming town features all the gems: cobbled laneways, a castle, and some of the finest swimming spots on the lake. If it’s a hot day, wander to the shores of Val di Sogno, a quiet bay with sapphire waters. When it comes to sunset, watch the golden hues shine on the peaks and the crystal-clear water while enjoying aperitivo. We would recommend Oasi, a marvellous waterfront bar. If you have the whole day in Malcesine, why not take a scenic ferry ride from the harbour of Malcesine across the lake to Limone, a colourful town famed for its thriving lemon groves.


Madonna del Corona, Lake Garda


If you have time for a little side trip, we would definitely recommend the Santuario de la Madonna della Corona. It’s just a 30-minute drive from Garda, the lake’s main town. Now, you have probably seen pictures of this fascinating, holy site. If not, let us describe it to you! It is, one of northern Italy’s most sacred sites. But it doesn’t matter your religious affiliation - because the sheer engineering of the place will be enough to have you in complete awe. A beautiful 1600s church built right into the thin rock shelf of Mount Baldo, hanging precariously above the valley of the River Adige. It must be seen to be believed.


Orrido di Nesso, Lake Como


We can guarantee that this spot is like nothing you have seen before. Orrido di Nesso, a long waterfall hidden within a rocky gorge, is one of Lake Como’s most stunning natural wonders. To get up close and personal without having to swim right in, we would recommend hiring a small boat to help you get a magical glimpse of the cascades.


Things to do in Italy’s Great Lakes


Go winery hopping


Italy’s Great Lakes are a fabulous way to get reacquainted with your inner oenophile or to discover incredible new regional Italian blends. Lake Garda’s Bardolino region lies to the east of the lake, drawing travellers from all over Europe with their enticing red wines. You could spend a few days in this region, sampling the wines and the delicious cuisine, but if you only have time for one spot, check out Villa Calicantus. This biodynamic winery is one of the region’s smallest but offers incredible guided tours and tastings beneath the olive trees and quaint woodlands. 


Take a hike


Whether you are hoping to set off on a calming, lakeside stroll, or more of a mountainous, high altitude adventure, Lake Garda is the best lake destination for an active escape. From the town of Malcesine, you can take a cable car right to the summit of Monte Baldo, the 2,218-metre high peak which looms over the lake below. On a good day, you can marvel at Lake Garda in its entirety. The views are spectacular. 

Better yet, there are a number of hiking trails to explore once you are up there - just be sure not to miss the last cable car back down to the base! To keep things casual, wander around the stunning aquatic area of Jamaica Beach in Sirmione, which looks eerily like a Caribbean swimming spot.


Explore the gardens


Italy’s Great Lakes are famous for their gardens and the exquisite florals that contrast so beautifully with the blue water each spring. One of the best ones to explore is a bit of a trek to get to, as it is situated on a charming little island. Isola Madre, which you can access by boat from several towns around Lake Maggiore, is home to a stunning, colourful garden. This elegant spot brings a touch of exoticism to the island, with rare plants from every continent blanketing the grounds. 

There are even said to be white peacocks wandering around. Over the years, the garden has been used to grow citrus and olives - which have thrived in the mild climate. During your visit, keep an eye out for the rhododendrons, magnolias, Bougainvillea and waterlilies. This place is heaven for the gardening fiends out there! 


Solo travel in Italy’s Great Lakes


Italy’s Great Lakes draws solo travellers from all around the world, looking for outdoor adventure in the surrounding mountains, lake swimming, and moments to read and reflect in the quiet gardens around the lakes. It’s an exceptionally scenic base for world travellers. Having said that, Italy’s Great Lakes are safe to travel alone - just be sure to inform people when you set out on an aquatic adventure or mountain hike.


Over 60s travel in Italy’s Great Lakes


Italy’s Great Lakes is a hugely popular holiday destination for over 60s travellers, because of the scenery, high-quality dining, and elegant accommodation. Because of the often luxurious nature of escapes in this region, retirees are some of the most common holidaymakers here - with people saving for years to make this dream destination a reality.


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