Italian Lakes road trip? But don’t people visit the lakes to stay at grand hotels and stroll luxuriant gardens? They do. But if you like to drive, one of the most fun things to do is circumnavigate the lakes by car. Like driving Mallorca, the majestic mountains and magical lakes make a road trip a real delight.
Italian Lakes Road Trip – Circumnavigating Northern Italy’s Lakes
The 18th- and 19th-century grand tourists travelled around the Italian Lakes by horse and carriage, risking attack by bandits to take in the gobsmacking beauty of the region and settle into the sumptuous grand hotels that dotted the lakes.
These days the most fun way to see the area is from behind the wheel of a car – preferably, a small, fast car – on an Italian Lakes road trip.
The Northern Italians love the Lakes and often head here from Milan or Turin for the weekend, but a week to ten days is a more realistic time for you to get a decent taste of the region if you’re doing an Italian Lakes road trip.
Twisty narrow roads run along the shores and while distances don’t seem great on the map, driving can be slow going, especially in summer when traffic can be bumper-to-bumper and every cyclist in Italy is Lycra-clad and on two wheels.
Never doubt that the roads here are tricky – in 2008 a stunt driver delivering an Aston Martin DBS to a James Bond film set managed to take the rare vehicle for a dip! So if you’re not used to snaking your way around continuous turns, it’s better to take your time.
Our Italian Lakes Road Trip Route
The best approach is to book a rental car from Milan airport, and head for the westernmost lago, Lake Maggiore and its tiny neighbour, Lake Orta, then drive eastward, spending a day or two exploring each lake, and finishing at Lake Garda.
Summer, spring and autumn are the best times for an Italian Lakes road trip, particularly if you want to break up the driving with short hikes in the surrounding mountains, walks on the lake shores, or hit the water for some wind-surfing, sailing, kite-surfing, fishing, or a cruise.
Driving Around Lake Maggiore And Lake Orta
With the Alps providing a dramatic backdrop, grand old hotels dominating its shores, and four attractive islands called the Isole Borromee, Lake Maggiore is the most magnificent of the lakes.
Drive along the western shore, where Verbania boasts a lively waterfront with parks, Stresa has a maze of narrow streets made for exploring, and Cannobio has outdoor cafes and a lakeside beach with evenly-tanned locals strutting their stuff.
From Cannobio, take the sign-posted turn-off to Val Cannobio and take a loop around Parco Nazionale della Val Grande, Italy’s largest wilderness area, and the scenic route to Lake Orta. While it’s a popular hiking spot with Europeans, you can easily enjoy the craggy mountains from the comfort of the car. We did, anyway.
After a rapid ascent up narrow winding roads, the route takes you across ancient stone arched bridges, through dense forest to high mountainous wilderness. The slender road trims down to an anorexic stick of a lane.
Pull over whenever you can (finding a safe spot is tricky), stretch your legs and breathe in the crisp air – and quite probably, a whiff of hard-worked brake pads.
After an hour or so hugging the hills and snaking through canopies of trees, you’ll meet the main road at Malesco, and, if you’re not careful, the freeway at Domodóssola. The smaller road adjacent to the freeway is much more pleasurable, with ruins of castles and towers dotting the drive.
Take the Omegna exit for Lake Orta and follow the signs to San Giulio. Surrounded by rolling hills and forests, placid Lake Orta is special.
San Giulio is a charming village worth spending the night in. Admittedly there’s little to do but wander the narrow streets, sit in the sunshine on the main square, and take a boat across to tiny Isola di San Giulio.
Driving Around Lake Como
The quintessential Northern Italian lake, Lake Como is a stunner. It’s also the most glamorous of the lakes, thanks to the luxury hotels, palatial villas and… George Clooney.
Since the silver-haired Hollywood heartthrob bought a villa here in 2001, he’s charmed the locals whose only complaint is the paparazzi prowling the lakeside for shots of Clooney in a speedboat or riding his Harley.
The elegant city of Como makes a terrific base for exploring and car ferries criss-cross the lake making it easy to get around.
Driving here, however, will have you wondering from time to time whether you’re actually on a one-way or two-way road. More than once we feared for our external rear view mirrors – especially when a Ferrari was coming in the opposite direction.
From the city of Como, drive north along the western shore, stopping to wander the cobblestone lanes of the laidback villages of Varenna and Menaggio, and to gape at the grand hotels and gardens of Villa Carlotta at Tremezzo.
If you want to get wet continue onto Dervio for sailing or Domaso for windsurfing, both at the northern end of the lake. If you’re happy staying dry, from Tremezzo take the car-ferry to Bellagio, one of the most beautiful villages on the lake.
There are waterfront hotels at Bellagio or you can catch another ferry across to Varenna on the eastern shore. Varenna’s tiny alleys are worth an amble, as are Villa Monastero’s gorgeous gardens which offer panoramic lake views.
On the drive back down to Como, stop at Lecco for a walk along the attractive waterfront where the local fishermen like to throw in a line.
Back in Como, if you need a break from driving, you could take a scenic seaplane flight – on a clear day, the views are spectacular, especially if there’s snow on the Alps – or (far more Clooneyesque) hire a speedboat.
You’ll have to BYO girls in bikinis and James Bond-like blokes though but once in the air you can see where you’ve driven and gasp in horror at those narrow roads.
Driving Around Lake Garda and Lake Iseo
The largest of the lakes, Lake Garda has a bit of everything for everyone. Faded charm, old hotels, and sophisticated restaurants, plus good beaches and agreeable winds for watersports.
Canoes, catamarans, sailboats and motorboats can all be hired. If you’re travelling with kids there’s the added bonus of theme parks and water parks.
Make Sirmione your base. It’s touristy but it has a photogenic castle with moat and drawbridge, plenty of waterfront hotels and restaurants, and nice beaches.
From Sirmione, drive clockwise, stopping at attractive Salò where Mussolini retreated to, and Gardone Riviera, where you can visit Il Vittoriale, an ostentatious villa once owned by a famously eccentric fascist poet. Both towns are picturesque and worth a wander.
Continuing north, Riva del Garda and Torbole are popular haunts of sailors and windsurfers, as is Malcesine on the eastern side, on the way back to Sirmione.
Close by, low-key Lake Iseo, has scenic waterside promenades, pleasant town squares and plenty of camping and fishing opportunities.
Wherever you are, come sunset, make sure you’re close to a waterside café or bar where you can reward yourself with a cold birra. Trust us, you’ll need it.
Our Italian Lakes Road Trip Tips
- Book a rental car from Milan airport (well in advance) so that you can hit the road straight away and avoid Milan’s traffic.
- Time your trip to coincide with the Italian Formula One Grand Prix at Monza, just north of Milan, which is home to one of motorsports’ most legendary events. The annual race on ‘La Pista Magica’, or ‘the magic track’ as the Italians call it, is for many Italians the highlight of the sporting calendar and is seen as the ‘home’ grand prix of Ferrari.
- In the winter months, the magic track, officially called the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, which has held the grand prix every year bar one since the start, is often open for ‘general driving’ where you can take street cars onto the circuit and do a lap. See the Monza website for details.
- If you’re a motor sports fan, note that one of Europe’s oldest motorcycle manufacturers, Moto Guzzi, has its address on Lake Como.
- If you’re an Italian car lover, do a detour to Modena, the home of sports car manufacturer Ferrari, and Bologna, the address of Ducati motorcycles.