Introducing The Lakes
Writers from Goethe and Stendhal to DH Lawrence and Hemingway have all lavished praise on the Italian lakes, but even their words scarcely express the lakes’ beauty.
Elaborate villas attest to the roll call of celebrity visitors and residents that the lakes, which are ringed by snow-powdered mountains, have attracted over the centuries. Tourism, though, isn’t as prevalent around the lakes as you might expect. Many northern Italians visit for the day or weekend, and summer generally sees northerners head for the Ligurian seaside, meaning it’s possible to find relative peace in many parts of the lakes even in Italy’s peak holiday month of August.
The lakes fan out across Italy’s north. In this guide, we’ve covered the main lakes from west to east. Sprinkled between them are countless smaller lakes.
The westernmost of the main lakes, Lago d’Orta, is entirely within Piedmont; about 100km northeast of Turin. East is Lago Maggiore, whose western shore and Borromean Islands are also in Piedmont, while its eastern shore is in Lombardy and its northern reaches nudge into Switzerland. East of here is tiny Lago di Piano; and Lago di Lugano, which straddles the Swiss-Italian border. East again is the most breathtaking of the lakes, Lago di Como. More or less due north of Milan, its main town, Como, is famed for its silk industry, and is the main gateway (and gangway) to the idyllic villages that dot Lago di Como’s shores, including Bellagio and Varenna. Further east, Lago d’Iseo is tucked up in the mountains midway between Bergamo and Brescia. Of all the lakes, Lago d’Iseo is the most unheralded (and hence most tranquil). It has quaint harbour towns and a hinterland sheltering prehistoric rock carvings. East of Brescia (north of Mantua), the largest of the lakes, Lago di Garda, is by far the busiest. In its southwestern corner, Desenzano del Garda is the lake’s main transport hub. The lake’s southeastern corner (in the Veneto region) has Disney-style family amusement parks, including Italy’s largest, Gardaland. Tiny Sirmione, sitting out on a narrow peninsula in the centre of Lago di Garda, is guarded by a 13th-century castle and has overgrown Roman ruins through which you can ramble. The northern reaches of Lago di Garda extend into the Alpine region of Trentino-Alto Adige.
Trains serve many of the lakes’ main towns, while passenger and car ferries ply the waters. If you’re travelling by car, there are some twisty but stunning lakeside drives. One word of caution: cycling around the main lakes is not ideal. Heavy traffic (including freight trucks), narrow roads, long tunnels and a lack of bicycle lanes strike fear into the hearts of even pro cyclists. Tourist offices throughout the area can provide cycling advice.
Last updated: Mar 24, 2009