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7 Stunning Italian Lakes: Top Tips for Visiting the Lake District

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With its sparkling lakes and picturesque towns set amongst towering mountains and forest-covered hills, Italy’s lake district is breathtakingly beautiful to behold and makes for a fantastic Italy holiday. Offering up much more than just spectacular scenery, the charming lake towns are home to elegant lakeside villas, fascinating historical sights and a wealth of fun outdoor activities for you to indulge in. There are several lakes in the lake region but below are our recommendations for ideal destinations to enjoy Italy’s beauty mirrored in the cool and pristine waters of the lake region.

To help you make the most of your visit, here are our tips for visiting the lake district.

Best time to visit

The ideal time to visit the lake district in Italy is during the hottest months of the year, June through August. However, most of the lakes can get quite crowded and busy since it receives a lot of visitors during this popular time of year. If you want to avoid the crowds and still enjoy glorious sunshine then May or September are your best bet.

However, some of the destinations such as Lake Orta, Lake Lugano and Lake Varese, are much quieter and less crowded than the more popular lakes in the region, and so even in July and August, you won't find it to be too busy. The weather is nice and there aren't all the crowds that summer brings, making it the ideal time to visit. 

1. Lake Como

Lake Como has glittering dark blue lake waters that are bordered by the most glorious hills and mountains, and beautiful villages and towns are clustered along the shore.
Lake Como is well-known for its dramatic scenery, stunning architecture and upscale resorts.

For centuries, Lake Como has been a popular place for the rich and famous to visit, and it is easy to see why. Located in the north of Italy, the glittering dark blue lake waters are bordered by the most glorious hills and mountains, and beautiful villages and towns are clustered along the shore, it really does paint a perfect scene its wealth of attractions only adds to its allure. 

Highlights:

  • Explore the elegant Como Cathedral, one of the most important religious buildings.
  • Visit Villa del Balbianello to steal some Instagram-worthy photo opportunities
  • Stroll along the lake promenade in the town of Menaggio.
  • Hike through the lush surrounding landscapes of Lake Como.
  • Practice your watersport know-how on the sparkling waters with kitesurfing.

Best ways to get there: The largest city near to Lake Como is Milan and it takes just under an hour to drive from one to the other. Going by car is quick and means that you can then explore the lakeside towns and viewpoints at your leisure. Be aware, however, that at peak times you may end up in traffic and find it hard to come by a parking space.

Another option is to take the train, which can take as little as 40 minutes from Milano Centrale to arrive at Como S. Giovanni. Upon arrival, you'll find the lake glittering before you. You can always take a bus, hydrofoil or ferry to explore some of the other lakeside towns that border Lake Como. Or, what some visitors prefer to do is to take an hour-long train from Milan to Lecco and then continue up the east coast of the lake by train, stopping off at little towns on the way.

Our tip: While there are various things to do in Lake Como, visiting the scenic town of Bellagio is rightfully one of the most popular things to to do. It is also a popular place to stay in Lake Como, which makes it one of the most expensive. If you're on a budget, it is well worth having a look at some of the other lovely little towns that are scattered around the lake.

2. Lake Garda

Scenic view of the harbor
Colorful boats line the harbor in Garda

One of the most popular Italian lakes to visit by both Italians and foreigners alike, Lake Garda is the largest lake in the whole of Italy and has absolutely loads going for it. Alongside the idyllic villages and towns that surround the lake, it also has a number of impressive castles that rear up along the shores or amongst the neighbouring mountains and forests. A very family-friendly place, Garda's alluring water is great for swimming in or trying out watersports.

Highlights:

  • Visit the Castello Scaligeri and enjoy the spellbinding 360° view from the top that you’ll never forget!
  • Savour-in the beauty and the magical atmosphere of Riva del Garda, one of the most beautiful town in lake Garda.
  • Hike to the top of Castle of Arco and enjoy a breathtaking view of the mountains surrounding the lake below.

Best ways to get there: As it lies in between Brescia and Verona, visitors to Lake Garda have a number of ways to get there depending on where they start out from. From Verona, it is only a 20–30-minute train journey to Desenzano del Garda, the largest town on the lake and from here you can catch a bus or take a ferry to many of the other picturesque towns that line the lakeshore. As this train runs regularly, it is an easy, quick and cheap journey.

Alternatively, you can always take a car from Verona and it is around a half-an-hour drive to the lake, depending on which town you head to. This then means you have the luxury of exploring Lake Garda to your heart's content.

From Brescia, trains to Desenzano del Garda again take around 20–30 minutes while it takes a similar amount of time to drive to the lake yourself.

Our tips: 

  • With so much to see and do at Lake Garda it may be worthwhile taking an Italian lakes tour, as this will help you to see as many of the amazing sights as possible.
  • For a delightful lakeside promenade, head to Desenzano del Garda and marvel at the views out over the lake.

3. Lake Maggiore

Get enchanted by the beautiful villas with landscaped gardens of The Borromean Islands.
There are a number of islands in Lake Maggiore, including the Borromean Islands
The second largest lake in the Italian lake region, Lake Maggiore stretches all the way into Switzerland.
Lake Maggiore has many charming corners to explore

The second largest lake in the Italian lake district, Lake Maggiore stretches all the way into Switzerland. Because of this, at one end of it, you can see the snow-capped Alps looming impressively off into the distance. Beautiful to look at, Lake Maggiore also has a number of enchanting islands for visitors to explore as well as a whole wealth of natural sights and elegant lakeside villas.

Highlights:

  • Pay a visit to the Borromean Islands and be enchanted by the beautiful villas with landscaped gardens.
  • Visit the medieval fortresses, Villa della Porta Bozzolo and Villa Taranto of Rocca di Angera on the lakeshore.
  • Take a 'bucket lift' from the town of Laveno up to the top of Mount Sasso del Ferro, the views from up high are astounding!

Best ways to get there: From Milan, the nearest major city, it takes around a one to the one-and-a-half-hour train journey to arrive at the beautiful town of Stresa on the western shore of the lake. From here, you can take a ferry or boat taxi to any one of Lake Maggiore's majestic islands.

Driving to Lake Maggiore is another option and it takes around an hour and a half to get to Stresa. While Stresa is the main town that people head to, by car you could always explore the eastern coast of the lake and also stop off at the nearby Lake Varese on the way.

Our tip: For a magical end to the day, head to Hotel La Palma's Sky Bar which has panoramic views out over the lake for you to enjoy. Watching the sunset over Lake Maggiore before lights slowly turn on in all the little villages and towns is a sight you won't forget any time soon.

4. Lake Iseo

Am awe-inspiring view of lake Maggorie
Monte Isola in Lake Iseo is a grand sight

Well worth visiting for its delightful scenery, lovely little towns and wealth of outdoor activities, Lake Iseo in Lombardy really does have something for everyone to enjoy. While the fabulous island of Monte Isola certainly steals the show as it rises imperiously from amongst the lake's waters, the surrounding hills and forests are packed with surprises as ancient archaeological sites border scenic villages and hiking trails.

Highlights:

  • Visit Monte Isola and get awe-struck by the stunning small mountain that lies in the middle of the island and little villages located around its base.
  • Stroll through the attractive town of Ideo and explore the 12th-century church and some beautifully sculpted piazzas.
  • Explore the fascinating archaeological sites found in the hills surrounding the lake.
  • Feed your adrenaline rush by wakeboarding.

Best ways to get there: Located almost equidistant from both Bergamo and Brescia, there are a number of ways to reach the shimmering waters of Lake Iseo depending on where you start out from.

From Brescia, the lake is a 20–30-minute train journey away to either of the charming lakeside towns of Iseo or Sulzano. From either of these towns, you can take a ferry to Monte Isola or continue your journey around the lake by bus or even by bike if you want to explore its scenic bike paths. Driving to them from Brescia also takes around the same amount of time.

It is just as easy to get to Lake Iseo from Bergamo by car as it takes just over half-an-hour to reach Sarnico in the southwestern corner of the lake. You can either carry on driving along the lakeshore or park and take a ferry or bus to continue your journey.

Public transport takes a bit longer from Bergamo as you'll need to factor in around an hour-long bus journey to arrive at the beautiful lake.

Our tip:

  • If you're after a livelier experience when visiting Lake Iseo, then the town of Iseo is the place for you.
  • In contrast, Sulzano is a more peaceful town in which to stay if you're after a quiet holiday.

5. Lake Orta

A visit to the UNESCO- liated Sacro Monte Di Orta is a must.
A chapel in the UNESCO-listed Sacro Monte di Orta in Lake Orta
A visit to San guilo is a must when you visit Lake Orta
San Guilo Island is home to an interesting 12th-century basilica.

Often overlooked in favour of the other larger and more famous lakes in the region, Lake Orta is very much a hidden gem and definitely warrants a visit. Forests and mountains form a stunning backdrop to the lake and at its heart is the alluring Isola San Giulio which stands out delightfully against the waters around it. With beautiful lakeside villas, winding cobbled streets and centuries-old chapels and basilicas for you to explore, Lake Orta certainly won't disappoint with what it has to offer.

Highlights:

  • Explore San Guilo island, home to a cluttered mess of delightful old buildings, including a 12th-century basilica.
  • Travel back in time at the historical centre and religious complex of Sacro, Orta San Giulio.
  • Walk to the top of the UNESCO-listed Sacro Monte di Orta (the Sacred Mountain) and discover the little old chapels and beautiful religious artworks.

Best ways to get there: The train ride from Novara to Orta Miasino station also takes an hour, after which it is just a short walk to the centre of town. Here you'll find buses and trains that will take you up and down the east coast of the lake as well as ferries to the stunning Isola San Giulio.

Due to its proximity to both Lake Maggiore and Lake Varese, it is well worth taking one of the tours of Italian lakes that are on offer as you'll often be able to visit all three of them in just one day. This is ideal if you're pressed for time.

Our tip:

  • If you're into fine dining then make sure to visit Villa Crespi, a 2-star Michelin restaurant in Orta San Giulio.
  • For the best view of the lake imaginable, head to the Sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso which is located on a hilltop overlooking it — you won't regret it!

6. Lake Lugano

San Vitale is a beautiful church in Lugano.
San Vitale church in Lugano
Lake Lugano is a beautiful lake and should be on everyone's go-to list for vacations.
A view of the lake from an old archway

Straddling the Swiss-Italian border, Lake Lugano is absolutely gorgeous to behold as the Alps rise up impressively all around it and so the glacial lake really does paint a pretty picture. A very popular tourist destination, Lake Lugano's scenic shores are home to both Italian and Swiss towns with the beautiful city of Lugano in Switzerland being the main gateway to exploring all its amazing sights. As well as the scenery on show, Lugano is a popular spot to visit as it is known as the 'Monte Carlo of Switzerland' and it is home to some interesting historic sites and lovely architecture.

Highlights:

  • Hike up the majestic trails of Monte Bre and enjoy the awe-inspiring views of the lake below.
  • Visit the Hermann Hesse Museum and discover the objects and works by the widely read author, Herman Hesse.
  • Go on a relaxing boat trip and enjoy the scenic beauty that the lake offers.

Best ways to get there: Other than the Swiss city of Lugano, which actually lies on the shoreside, Milan is the nearest major city to Lake Lugano and it is located just an hour and fifteen minutes away by train.

If you decide to drive from Milan then it will take roughly the same amount of time although this does mean that you could feasibly combine your trip to the lake with a stop at the nearby Lake Como. Once you reach Lugano you can always take a bus or ferry to explore the rest of the amazing sights that Lake Lugano has to offer.

Our tip: As you'll very likely be passing from Italy into Switzerland and back again when visiting Lake Lugano make sure to bring your passport! It is a good idea to wear a good, comfortable pair of shoes and not flip-flops, as there are lots of lovely hiking trails to be found in the hills and mountains surrounding the lake. 

7. Lake Varese

Lake Varese has amazing lakes and mountains and is perfect for nature lovers.
The promenade of Lake Varese comes alight by nightfall. 

Lying at the bottom of Mount Campo dei Fiori, Lake Varese is unlike any of the other lakes in the region and offers up a completely different holiday experience. While the lake itself is beautiful to behold and is certainly set in a lovely landscape, there isn't much in the way of 'must-see' attractions or tourist facilities. For people looking for a quiet and relaxing day out in nature, however, it is ideal as you can cycle around the picturesque lakeside scenery in peace. While Lake Varese may be short on sights and elegant lakeside villas, it more than makes up for it with the incredible scenery available, as forests border the lake and mountains rear up dramatically in the distance.

Highlights:

  • Cycle around the picturesque lakeside scenery and enjoy the peace and quiet amongst nature.
  • Beat the Italian heat by going for a refreshing dip in one of the nearby lidos.
  • Stroll around the small islet of Isolino Virginia, home to an interesting archaeological site.
  • Enjoy an Italian delicacy overlooking the fabulous view of the lake at one of the several restaurants.

Best ways to get there: Lying just over an hour away by car from Milan, Lake Varese makes for a lovely scenic day trip and Lake Maggiore is nearby if you want to combine the two into one trip.

By public transport, it is slightly more complicated as you first need to take an hour-long train to the town of Varese before taking a 40-minute bus to Schiranna which lies on the lakeshore. While this will get you to the lakeside, public transport is quite sporadic from then on although you can walk from one town to another as the distances involved aren't too far.

Our tips:

  • One of the best ways to see all that the lovely Lake Varese has to offer is to rent a bike and cycle from town to town. There is a 30 km bike path surrounding the lake and the scenery you pass through is gorgeous.
  • Make sure to bring your swimming gear as stopping off for a quick dip at the lidos in summer is a must.

With so much for visitors to see and do, these Italian lakes really do make for dream holiday destinations. And everywhere you go, you'll be greeted by the most incredible scenery imaginable.

Whether it is Lake Garda and its fantastic watersports, Lake Maggiore with its enchanting islands or the peace and quiet of the picturesque Lake Varese, each of the lakes has its own unique feel and look and they are all well worth visiting for what they offer.

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