Italian Lakes road trip? But don’t people visit the lakes to stay at grand hotels, stroll luxuriant gardens and cruise around on glam speedboats? They do. But if you like to drive, one of the most fun things to do is circumnavigate Northern Italy’s lakes by car. Like driving Mallorca, the majestic mountains and shimmering water make a road trip around the Italian Lakes a real delight.
The 18th- and 19th-century grand tourists travelled around the Italian Lakes by horse and carriage, risking attacks by bandits to take in the breathtaking beauty of this Northern Italian region and to 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. Here’s our guide to how to do it, based on our many years of experience criss-crossing Italy by car, researching and writing travel guidebooks on Italy, including half a dozen guidebooks to the Italian Lakes, Milan and Northern Italy.
Italian Lakes Road Trip – Circumnavigating Northern Italy’s Lakes
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 of the lakes 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, spend time exploring both lakes, then drive eastward to Lake Como, spend some time there, finishing at Lake Garda and Lake Iseo, where you can finish your road trip.
How Long Do You Need for an Italian Lakes Road Trip?
So how long do you need for an Italian Lakes road trip? Or how little? Based on our many trips to the Italian Lakes, both for holidays and work (torture!), we’d recommend an absolute minimum of 2-3 days but note that you’ll be spending a lot of time in the car – or getting in and out of the car.
A week to 10 days on the Italian Lakes is wonderful if you have the time, spending 2-3 days exploring Lake Maggiore and its tiny neighbour, Lake Orta, before driving eastward to Lake Como for another 2-3 days, finishing with 2-3 days at Lake Garda and Lake Iseo.
A 1-week to 10-day road trip will give you a great taste of the Italian Lakes and allow you to see quite a lot of the lakes, stroll the beautiful private gardens that open to the public, explore villages, and do some activities, such as a speed boat tour or scenic flight.
My ideal Italian Lakes road trip is longer; more like 3 weeks to a month, but not everyone has the time or funds. That’s why we wrote all those Italy guidebooks!
Could you do an Italian Lakes Road trip in less than a week? Sure, you could. Could you could spend a weekend on the Italian Lakes? Absolutely, but you’d spend most of the time driving if you try to see them all. You’d be better off choosing one lake, and spending a weekend on Lake Como, Lake Maggiore or Lake Garda.
There are so many things to do on Lake Como, from doing a private speed boat tour to visiting the many splendid villas with luxuriant gardens open to the public that Lake Como would be our pick for a weekend on the Italian Lakes.
But you really want to see all the Italian Lakes in the shortest time possible as you have a limited time… yes, a 4-day or even 3-day Italian Lakes road trip is possible, but you’ll be spending a lot of time getting in and out of your car. While the lakes are stunning in summer, don’t do that trip during the Italian school holidays or you’ll be spending it in gridlock.
If you’re going to explore the rest of Northern Italy, see our Northern Italian itineraries for ideas and inspiration.
Best Time of Year for an Italian Lakes Road Trip?
We enjoyed a winter holiday on the Italian Lakes a couple of times, but 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 along the lake shores, or hit the water for some wind-surfing, sailing, kite-surfing, fishing, or a cruise.
No matter which lake you’re on, summer is the best time to do as the locals do and partake in the Italian rituals of a late afternoon passeggiata and aperitivo, a cocktail or two with few small dishes of chips, nuts and olives, at a waterfront café-bar.
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 fresh air – and, quite probably, a whiff of hard-worked brake pads.
After an hour or so hugging the hills and snaking beneath 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.
Where to Stay on Lake Maggiore
Built in 1861, the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées at Stresa is an exquisitely restored Belle Époque masterpiece on a massive lakeside property with sprawling gardens and sumptuous rooms with lake views. Be prepared to dress up for the main restaurant.
Where to Stay on Lake Orta
Book a room Villa Crespi as soon as you book your flight. The magical Moorish-style villa, built in 1879, has just fourteen ornate rooms. It’s also home to the Michelin two-star cuisine of chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo whose creativity outshines the whimsicality of the accommodation.
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 on Lake Como in 2001, he’s charmed the locals whose only complaint is the paparazzi prowling the lakeside for shots of Clooney and Amal 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. You can also park the car and do a private speed boat tour in a fancy polished wooden boat.
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 the 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 handsome 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.
Where to Stay on Lake Como
In sophisticated Como, the 19th-century Albergo Terminus is on the waterfront (book a lake view room) and has a sumptuous Art Nouveau bar-restaurant that’s worth a meal. Elsewhere on Lake Como, the splendid Grand Hotel Tremezzo dates to 1910, has a floating lake pool and sandy lido overlooking Bellagio.
From Tremezzo, take the car ferry to Bellagio, an enchanting village of cobblestone lanes and charming shops, where a night at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, dating to 1873, is a must. Dating to 1873, the hotel is decorated in frescoes, antique wallpapers and Murano chandeliers, and has an enormous lakeside swimming pool and a magnificent Michelin-starred restaurant.
Driving Around Lake Garda and Lake Iseo
The largest of the lakes, Lake Garda has a bit of everything for everyone. Faded charm, splendid old hotels, and sophisticated restaurants, plus good beaches and agreeable winds for water sports.
Canoes, catamarans, sailboats, and motorboats can all be hired on Lake Garda. If you’re travelling with kids there’s the added bonus of theme parks and water parks, but these get very busy in summer with Italian families.
Sirmione is touristy but it has a photogenic castle with moat and drawbridge, plenty of waterfront hotels and restaurants, and nice beaches, like the one pictured above. It was sweltering the day I took that photo, but Lara and I were researching a guidebook and sadly had no time for a swim.
From Sirmione, drive clockwise, stopping at 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 incredibly picturesque and definitely worth a wander.
Continuing north, Riva del Garda and Torbole are popular haunts of sailors and windsurfers, as is Malcesine on the eastern side.
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.
Where to Stay on Lake Garda
One of the most famous of the Italian Lakes grand hotels, Grand Hotel Fasano at Gardone Riviera offers the quintessential Lake Garda lakeside experience. Built as a hunting lodge for the Austrian imperial family in 1888, it has lovely gardens, fine restaurants, a bar, and beach club.
Also in Gardone Riviera, Villa Fiordaliso is Lake Garda’s most romantic hotel. The pretty pink neoclassical villa has a small private beach and marina, a Michelin-starred waterfront restaurant that’s definitely worth a meal, and a piano bar atop the medieval San Marco Tower. But it has just five suites, so can be hard to get into. It’s worth trying! The sumptuous Claretta suite is our pick with original period furnishings and a terrace boasting beautiful lake vistas.
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.
First Published 18 August 2016; Last Updated and Republished 14 May 2023