Poets and politicians, divas and dictators, they've all been drawn to captivating Lake Garda (Lago di Garda). In fact, 7% of all tourists to Italy head for the lake’s shores, taking to its wind-ruffled waters in the north and village- and vineyard-hopping in the south. Surrounded by three distinct regions – Lombardy, Trentino Alto-Adige and the Veneto – the lake’s cultural diversity attracts a cosmopolitan crowd. Mitteleuropeans colonise northern resorts such as Riva del Garda and Torbole, where restaurants serve air-dried ham and Austrian-style carne salada (salted beef), while in the south, French and Italian families bed down in Valtenesi farmhouses and family-friendly spa towns such as Sirmione and Bardolino.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Lake Garda.
Poet, soldier, hypochondriac and proto-Fascist, Gabriele d'Annunzio (1863–1938) defies easy definition, and so does his estate. Bombastic, extravagant and unsettling, it's home to every architectural and decorative excess imaginable and is full of quirks that help shed light on the man. Visit and you'll take in a dimly lit, highly idiosyncratic villa (for which the tour is guided), three distinct museums and tiered gardens complete with full-sized battleship.
The long mountain ridge that towers above the northeast shores of Lake Garda is known as Monte Baldo. Ironically, the name doesn’t refer to its baldness (although the upper slopes are treeless), rather, it comes from the German word wald meaning forest. The Monte Baldo ridge reaches its highest point at Cima Valdritta (2218m), one of five significant summits that punctuate the ridge.
Opened in the mid-2010s and housed in an old monastery a block back from Salò’s ferry dock, Musa’s exhibits are split between a permanent collection that tells the town’s history through art and sculpture, and a temporary gallery that has – so far – pulled in several artistic heavy-punchers (exhibitions on Mussolini’s personality cult and ‘madness in art’ have recently featured).
Occupying 2 hectares at Sirmione's northern tip, this ruined 1st-century-AD Roman villa is a picturesque complex of teetering stone arches and tumbledown walls, some three storeys high. It's the largest domestic Roman villa in northern Italy and wandering its terraced hillsides offers fantastic views.
An unusual 100m waterfall that thunders through a vertical limestone tunnel rather than off an open cliff. With the help of metal walkways, you can enter the gorge to see the torrent – and get a soaking in the process. A botanical garden has taken root on the terraced hillside, making use of the perpetual downpour. The waterfall is just outside the village of Varone and 3km northwest of Riva's centre. Bus number 1 will get you there, or you can walk up on bike paths.
In 1943 Salò was named the capital of the Social Republic of Italy as part of Mussolini and Hitler's last efforts to organise Italian Fascism in the face of advancing American forces. This episode, known as the Republic of Salò, saw more than 16 public and private buildings in the town commandeered and turned into Mussolini's ministries and offices. Strolling between the sites is a surreal tour of the dictator's doomed mini-state. Look out for the multilingual plaques scattered around town.
It's not often you get to explore such a stunning private island, villa and grounds. Anchored just off Salò, this speck of land is crowned with impressive battlements, luxuriant formal gardens and a sumptuous neo-Gothic Venetian villa. Boats depart from towns including Salò, San Felice del Benaco, Gardone Riviera and Sirmione, but in typical Italian fashion they only leave each location one or two times a week, so plan ahead. See the website for the precise timetable.
Before the Clooneys and Versaces, wealthy Roman senators and poets had holiday homes on Italy's northern lakes. One survivor is Desenzano’s now-ruined Roman villa, which once extended over a hectare of prime lakeside land. Today, wooden walkways snake through the villa above a well-preserved collage of black, red, olive and orange mosaics, many depicting hunting, fishing and chariot riding, garlanded by fruits and flowers.
Gardone's heyday was due in large part to its mild climate, something which benefits the thousands of exotic blooms that fill artist André Heller's sculpture garden. Laid out in 1912 by Arturo Hruska, the garden is divided into pocket-sized climate zones, with tiny paths winding from central American plains to African savannah, via swaths of tulips and bamboo.