The Italian Lakes, Where Grand Tourists Went to Live Like Locals
The Italian Lakes have been a magnet for travellers since Roman times and a popular spot for 18th to 19th century grand tourists to settle in for a while. A summer playground for Italians, the lakes are ideal for discovering at this time of year.
The Italian Lakes, Where the Grand Tourists Went to Live Like Locals
The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his late wife, might have drawn the world’s attention to Lake Iseo recently, with the Floating Piers, a pop-up installation consisting of a golden walkway made from floating polystyrene docks covered in 100,000 square metres of mandarin-coloured fabric. Some 270,000 people ambled over them in the first five days. But the Italian Lakes are no secret.
Skirted by leafy waterfront parks, luxuriant private gardens, grand hotels, and stately villas, the sprawling Italian Lakes have been a getaway spot since the Roman times and were where the grand tourists went to learn to live like locals in the 18th and 19th centuries. They remain a popular spot for Italians to escape to, and with good reason.
The first time we explored the Italian Lakes it was actually in winter, not summer. We did a road through the mountains of northern Italy after a snowboarding holiday at Cortina. (Well, snowboarding for Terence and lots of fireplace reading for me.) We thought winter was wonderful on the Italian lakes, with the crisp air and even clearer light, however, unfortunately many of the big old piles that are there grand hotels were closed and those that were open were spookily empty.
It was on a summer road trip that we became smitten, traversing the whole of Northern Italy by train and car. We updated two guidebooks and did the research and photography for a first edition Italian Lakes guidebook that we would later write back in Bendigo, Australia. But it was that months-long journey that we really fell in love with the Italian Lakes.
Scattered across Northern Italy, in Lombardy and straddling the borders of the Piemonte and the Veneto provinces, the most beloved and most beautiful of the Italian lakes or lagos, from west to east, are Lake Orta (Lago d’Orta), Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore), Lake Como (Lago di Como), Lake Iseo (Lago d’Iseo), and Lake Garda (Lago di Garda). Nearby, there’s also the lesser visited Lake Varese (Lago di Varese) and Lake Lugano (Lago di Lugano), most of which is in neighbouring Switzerland, and other smaller lakes.
Summer is when the Italian Lakes really come alive and are at their most beautiful. The sparkling expanses of water are variously surrounded by softly undulating hills, serrated limestone cliffs, lush agricultural plains, and lofty mountains. Their banks dotted with gracious villas, verdant parks, gourmet restaurants, and their famously grand hotels.
The ideal holiday would include some time on each lake because they each differ in geography, beauty and personality.
With the Alps providing a dramatic backdrop, colossal old hotels gracing its shores, and four beautiful islands, the Isole Borromee, afloat on its tranquil waters, Lake Maggiore has a certain grandeur the other lakes can’t match.
The grandest lake, Lago Maggiore is also one of the more peaceful lakes, lacking the development that sometimes conspires to spoil the Lake Garda experience. The highlight is no doubt the triplet of atmospheric islands owned by the influential Borromeo dynasty, with Isola Bella and its palatial grounds a breathtakingly beautiful sight and one oozing history.
Back on shore, Verbania has a lively waterfront lined with lovely emerald parks, while Stresa has a maze of pedestrianised streets and charming buildings. Both towns get busy on their weekly market days.
Cannobio has a charismatic waterfront lined with equally characterful buildings and al fresco cafés, while the steep lanes leading off the waterfront are also enigmatic. Its small lakeside beach sees the locals sunbathing on the lawn beside the town promenade during summer while the foreign visitors look on in bemusement.
By stark contrast, Lake Maggiore’s little neighbour Lake Orta is the most enchanting and most exclusive lake, surrounded by rolling hills and wooded forests, and with pretty St Giulio’s island (Isola di San Giulio) a short boat ride away from the charming village of the same name.
Petite and picturesque Lake Orta is arguably the most alluring of all the lakes in Northern Italy. Popular with wealthy Italians and Northern Europeans, the lakeside village of Orta San Giulo is pretty as a postcard and if a little touristy during the middle of the day, it’s enchanting by the late afternoon when everyone is out for a stroll.
Opposite, the island of Isole San Giulio, with the splendid Basilica of Saint Giulio, is a highlight of these lakes.
Lake Como is the most quintessential of the northern Italian lakes. When people dream of the Italian Lakes, you can bet it’s Lago di Como that they’re envisioning.
Its undeniable beauty, as well as its strategic location as a link between central Europe, Italy and beyond, has made it a coveted address through the ages with grand tourists, artists, writers, and, in recent years, George Clooney, all of whom have made the villas skirting these turquoise waters a base for inspiration and reflection.
For me, Lake Como is the most beautiful, most romantic, and most glamorous of lakes, with its majestic mountains and shores lined with atmospheric old hotels, palatial villas, pretty lakeside parks and gardens, and superlative restaurants.
Light planes fly overhead, speedboats whiz by, and ferries criss-cross the water, yet it hasn’t given over completely to tourism. Lago di Como is still very much a living-breathing lake with elegant Como’s shops, cafés and restaurants frequented by more locals than tourists.
Villages such as Varenna and Menaggio still retain an authentic laidback charm, while hilly Bellagio, one of the most popular villages with travellers, still feels very local with residents who have lived here for many generations. This is the must-visit lake if you only have time to visit one lake.
The largest of the Italian lakes, Lake Garda has a bit of everything for everyone. Its faded charm, historic hotels, and Michelin-starred restaurants appeal to an older more affluent traveller and couples looking for romance, while its good beaches, theme parks, and caravan and camping grounds, attract Italian families en masse throughout the summer months. It’s also a favourite with sporting enthusiasts for its superb sailing and windsurfing.
Traffic-free Sirmione, on the southern end of the lake, is the most photographed town because of its handsome castle with moat and drawbridge and Roman ruins. Spas, restaurants, shopping and Roman ruins draw visitors here – although kids will probably want to head to nearby Gardaland, considered the best theme park in Italy.
Heading clockwise, there’s the pretty town of Salò where Mussolini retreated to, and Gardone Riviera, where Il Vittoriale, an ostentatious villa once owned by Italy’s famously eccentric poet Gabriele d’Annunzio is to be found. It’s the spot to head for refined hotels and restaurants and loads of quintessential Italian Lakes atmosphere.
The northern end of the lake is where the sailing action is concentrated, and where everything from dinghies to yachts can be found tacking, with a backdrop of spectacular mountains that work as a wind tunnel, providing reliable gusts almost every day.
Riva and Torbole are the favourite haunts of sailing types, as is Malcesine on the eastern side of the lake.
Not far away, low-key Lake Iseo, with its picturesque waterside promenades, pretty squares and plenty of camping opportunities, is the least tourist-driven of the Italian lakes (except in summer, of course!), making it the most alluring for some.
Lying west of Lake Garda, northwest of Brescia, and a little under halfway to Lake Como, Lago d’Iseo is often overlooked by visitors to Garda and Como, yet it’s worth dropping into en route between lakes if you’re doing a driving holiday.
Lake Iseo may not boast the refined beauty of Lakes Como or Orta, nor does it have the dramatic surroundings of Lakes Garda or Maggiore, but its mountain setting is stunning and the waterfront at Iseo town is lovely. The lake also has a laidback attitude many visitors find appealing.
Despite the low-key vibe, it gets busy in summer, its camping spots and holiday resorts crammed with Italian and foreign holidaymakers throughout the warm months.
How to Get to the Italian Lakes
If you’re arriving by train or plane, the ideal departure point for the Italian Lakes is Milan, one of our favourite Italian cities (and more on that soon). There are trains to Milan from most major Italian cities, from Venice to Rome.
Milan is closest to Lake Maggiore and Lake Como, Bergamo is also not far from Como, Brescia is handy to Lakes Como and Garda, and Verona is also close to Lake Garda.
Most international travellers would also fly into Milan’s Malpensa Airport, which, at just 15 km from Lake Maggiore, is well placed for access to the western Italian lakes.
Getting Around the Italian Lakes
If you’re planning on doing a road trip around the Italian Lakes, you can get some great car rental deals online from most of the big car rental companies and arrange to pick up hire cars from most airports. Opt for a small car as parking can be a nightmare. As part of our European series we’ll also be posting a guide to driving the Italian Lakes.
Buses run directly to the Italian Lakes from Malpensa to Stresa, Como, Lugano and other destinations, and trains and buses crisscross the region.
Getting On the Italian Lakes
The government-operated water transport service for Lake Como makes getting between towns and villages a breeze with frequent ferry services between Como and Bellagio, Menaggio, Varenna and Bellano on several types of boat, from speedy catamaran to slow ferries.
Most ferries carry cars, so you can whizz around the lake on land for a while, then cruise across to the other side of the lake. During summer, there are daily excursions and themed cruises, some of which offer lunch and dinner.
You can also do a George Clooney and hire speed boats – along with water skis, wake boards and wet suits – from one hour to one week, from a number of marinas and docks around all the lakes. On Lake Como, try Newton Rent-a-boat which has motorboats that you can hire from an hour to six days.
Have you been to the Italian Lakes? Which is your favourite? Feel free to share any tips below.