Want sandy beaches, gentle waves and vast open water? Oceanside jaunts aren’t your only option. In fact, some of the best water-based escapes can be found inland.

From giant inland seas to calm alpine waters, the world’s greatest lakes showcase nature at its most diverse and dramatic, as well as offering adventure, culture and wholesome outdoorsy fun. Here are some of our favorites lakes to explore.  

Great lakes – the red waters of Laguna Colorada, Bolivia
Scary, or simply beautiful? Laguna Colorada, Bolivia © Rich Thompson / Getty Images

Best for otherworldly scenery: Laguna Colorada, Bolivia

Part of Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flats, shallow Laguna Colorada sits amongst hot springs, volcanoes and twisted rock formations, and its rust-red waters are dotted with bright white pools of sodium, magnesium and borax. The effect is more Mission to Mars than Planet Earth, and it’s a scene made all the more bizarre by the presence of huge crowds of lurid pink flamingos.

Also great: Lake Natron, Tanzania 
Remote and desolate, Tanzania’s caustic Lake Natron turns the animals that die there into eerie 'mummified' statues.

Your guide to classic Bolivian adventure activities

A woman in winter gear stands in front a turqouise lake ringed by mountains.
Lake Louise in Banff National Park is always postcard perfect © Hue Chee Kong / Shutterstock

Best for winter activities: Lake Louise, Canada

Turquoise, glacier-fed Lake Louise, encased by the snowy peaks of the Canadian Rockies, is spectacular enough in summer, but really shines in winter when it turns into one of the most beautiful ice rinks in the world.

If skating isn't your thing, make the most of the lake through world-class skiing and sleigh rides, as well as ice sculptures galore at the Ice Magic Festival – the crisp night air is also perfect for stargazing. Then there’s the fondue-guzzling, hot chocolate-slurping, beer-drinking après ski in the resort town of Banff.

Also great: Lake Åresjön, Sweden
Sweden’s Lake Åresjön becomes a giant frozen ice sheet in winter and there’s fantastic skiing around the tiny historic mountain town of Åre.

Explore Canada's great outdoors on these 11 hiking trails

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Great lakes – Kayakers paddle in Lake Malawi, Malawi
Spend a lazy afternoon exploring the rocky edges of Lake Malawi © Barry Tuck / Shutterstock

Best for beach bums: Lake Malawi, Malawi

Malawi may seem an unlikely place to fulfil your tropical island fantasies, but there’s chilled beach life and golden sands aplenty around the country’s namesake lake. Lake Malawi’s shores are lined with laid-back villages and pristine coves, and the clear, calm waters swarm with clouds of colorful cichlid fish.

When it’s time to sleep there are dozens of options – from the backpacker resorts of Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay to full-blown eco luxe at Kaya Mawa and Nkwichi Lodge. Adventurers can cruise the lake on the vintage MV Ilala ferry, bedding down on the deck beneath the stars.

Also great: Bacalar Lagoon, Mexico
Tranquil Bacalar Lagoon in Quintana Roo, Mexico is great for camping, swimming, kayaking and simply lazing around.

Reaching new highs in the mountains of Malawi

Great lakes – Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy
Bellagio glows in the evening light that reflects off Lake Como © Francesco Iacobelli / Getty Images

Best for architecture buffs: Lake Como, Italy

Yes, Italy's Lake Como has snow-topped mountains and deep green hills, but the real stars here are the chic homes, lakeside palazzos and enchanting towns and villages brimming with storied old buildings. Among the best are famous Bellagio, a jumble of winding stone staircases, red roofs and flower-filled gardens, and 18th century Villa Balbianello, whose elegant facade, exquisite art-filled interior and sculpted gardens come with stunning lake views.

To explore, rent a car and zip around the lakeside highway, hire a bike to navigate the hills or, in high season, take to the water and hop from idyllic town to idyllic town.

Also great: Lake Pichola, India
India’s Lake Pichola is backed by the forested Aravalli Hills and the palaces, temples and havelis of enchanting Udaipur.

6 of the most beautiful road trips in Italy

Great lakes – Lake Nakuru, Kenya
Rhinos roam around Lake Nakuru, Kenya © GomezDavid / Getty Images

Best for wildlife watching: Lake Nakuru, Kenya

You can’t so much as dip a toe into the waters of Kenya’s Lake Nakuru, one of the Rift Valley’s famous soda lakes, but it’s the surrounding wildlife that is the big pull here. While most of the once plentiful flamingos have moved on, animal enthusiasts will be more than happy with the lions, leopards, black and white rhinos and endangered Rothschild giraffes that roam the surrounding grasslands and forests.

To get up close, hire a jeep, or take an organized safari, which you can book in nearby Nakuru town or through one of the lodges dotting the National Park.

Also great: Lake Clark, Alaska
Wild, remote and beautiful, Lake Clark, Alaska, is a fantastic place to see brown and black bears in their natural environment.

Kenya's 10 best natural wonders

Great lakes – Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, New Zealand
Get your heart pumping in Queenstown, New Zealand © Ramiro Torrents / Getty Images

Best for adventure sports: Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

If you’ve ever wanted to throw yourself out of a plane or jump off a mountain, then Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown – the self-appointed adventure capital of New Zealand  is the place to go. You can bungee from Queenstown’s Kawarau Bridge or take in views of the lake while on a tandem skydive from 15,000 feet; then there’s jet boating, zip-lining and for those of a less adventurous ilk, hiking the lakeshore. And when you’re done, take the edge off that adrenaline buzz in one of Queenstown’s lively bars.

Also great: Lake District, United Kingdom
Head for the UK’s Lake District to get your mountain biking, abseiling, kayaking groove on.

6 jaw-dropping places to stay in New Zealand

Great lakes – Lake Titicaca
Explore a different side of South America at Lake Titicaca © Saiko3p / Getty Images

Best for culture: Lake Titicaca, Peru

Deep blue Lake Titicaca, peppered with golden islands and backed by snow-capped mountains, is also shrouded in myth and legend – and it’s a wonderful place to learn about local highland cultures. On the Peruvian side are the famous reed islands of the Uros Indians. They’re easily visited by ferry from nearby Puno or you could stay overnight in the reed huts of Uros Khantati.

Over the border in Bolivia, the serene islands of Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna are home to traditional communities, pre-Columbian ruins and the beguiling religious center, Copacabana.

10 best beaches in Peru

Great lakes – Loch Katrine, as seen seen from the Trossachs, Scotland
Views of Scotland's lochs are ample reward for tired hikers © David C Tomlinson / Getty Images

Best for walking: Loch Lomond, Scotland

The epitome of Scottish natural beauty, Loch Lomond is best off-season, when the crowds of tourists and day-trippers have thinned out and you’ll have more of its haunting splendor to yourself.

The Iconic West Highland Way runs along the loch’s eastern shores, and across the way, Luss Heritage Path winds through the gentle countryside and the ancient and charming Luss village. West of Loch Lomond itself are the steep Arrochar Alps, and to the east are the Trossachs - a gorgeous landscape of forest, lakes and hills. The sheer variety means that there are routes for everyone – from gentle strolls to hardcore, multi-day hikes.

Also great: Gokyo Lakes, Nepal
At Gokyo Lakes, in Nepal’s Everest region, you can traverse dramatic scenery at an altitude of 5000 meters (and take a dip, if you're brave enough).

Exploring Scotland's magical Hebrides islands

Great lakes – Lake Michigan, Chicago
City tripper with a love of the great outdoors? Get the best of both worlds in Chicago, USA © Fraser Hall / Getty Images

Best for urbanites: Lake Michigan, Chicago

Take to Chicago’s 18-mile long lakefront trail and you can jog, walk, bike or rollerblade with the blue waters of Lake Michigan to one side and a mixture of parkland and dramatic skyscrapers on the other.

Got a car? Enjoy the mighty city views from Lakeshore Drive, which runs alongside the trail, finishing in the diverse lakeside community of Edgewater. The lake’s many beaches pack out with sunbathers in the summer months, and on the lake, you can paddleboard, jet ski or zip around by boat.

Also great: Lake Kandy, Sri Lanka
Set in Sri Lanka’s second city, surrounded by verdant hills and colorful old buildings, Lake Kandy is the perfect place for a city stroll.

Let Chicago wow you this winter: here are the best things to do

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The best US lakes for recreation

This article was first published January 2018 and updated January 2022

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