Lake Garda’s glittering wind-swept waters have long attracted poets, artists, writers and politicians, from DH Lawrence to Wolfgang Goethe – not least Mussolini, who ran the Italian Socialist Republic from the lakefront town of Salò on the western shore.
Fringed by the Dolomites to the north, Italy’s largest lake is Mediterranean both in feel and in flavour, with a mild, temperate climate and a decidedly slow pace of life. Hills are carpeted in olive trees and vineyards, while citrus groves are thick with plump, juicy lemons. In lakefront villages, restaurant tables spill out onto pretty waterfront squares, while boats zip across glimmering waters.
The lower basin is punctured with sandy coves and gentle rolling hills, while travelling north, the lake takes on a new appearance, with hills replaced by sheer jagged cliffs that plunge into the waters. The northern shore is swept by mountain winds that create the perfect conditions for watersports, with windsailing, kitesurfing, and flyboarding making this a premier destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
For further Lake Garda inspiration, see our guides to the area’s best hotels, restaurants, nightlife, shopping and things to do.
Approaching from the southwestern shore, the Roman town of Sirmione seems like the most obvious place to start the day, with its magnificent Rocca Scaligera, one of the country’s best-preserved castles, and the Grotte di Catullo, the remains of a Roman villa.
While its beauty is undisputed, the town groans under the weight of tourists so if you want to avoid the crowds, head straight to Salò, a yachtie town with a gorgeous lakefront promenade and cobbled streets dotted with smart boutiques.
Take a stroll along the waterfront and then hop on a boat to Isola del Garda, the lake’s largest island that can only be visited by private tour. It’s a gorgeous spot, with a Venetian Neo-Gothic villa that is the home of the Cavazza family. Its terraced Italian and English gardens are beautiful, with lush exotic plants and fruit trees.
Back in Salò, nab one of the tables that spill out onto the lakefront promenade at Locanda del Benaco, a stylish restaurant serving exquisite fish dishes.
Belly full, travel north to Gardone Riviera, home to the Vittoriale degli Italiani, the former home of Italian writer and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. Declared a national monument, the house and grounds are extraordinary; showy and grandiose, they reflect D’Annunzio unconventional character and wild eccentricity (there’s a dog cemetery and even a warship). The gardens are lovely, with waterfalls and ponds, and you could easily spend most of the afternoon strolling the grounds, although you won’t be the only one here; this is one of Italy’s most visited museums.
In the evening, treat yourself to a Michelin-starred dinner at Villa Feltrinelli, once Mussolini’s home and today one of the country’s most exclusive hotels, where Chef Stefano Baiocco uses hundreds of flowers and herbs in his exquisite creations. The setting is sublime: a wedding-pink Art Nouveau villa in wonderfully manicured grounds, complete with croquet lawn and lemon grove, with a handful of tables where you can sit back and enjoy a pre-dinner drink to the gentle lull of the water.
Travelling north from Gargnano to Riva del Garda, the scenery becomes a lot more dramatic, with rolling cliffs morphing into steep rockfaces. The road snakes its way along the waterfront through narrow tunnels before reaching the resort town of Riva del Garda on the northwestern tip of the lake.
Hemmed in by jagged mountains, Riva has a pretty old quarter, with cobbled lanes and a breezy lakefront promenade. With a sedate laidback feel, it’s a lovely spot to enjoy a stroll and a morning coffee at one of the open-air cafes by the waterfront. For an early bite, grab a sandwich from Panem.
The northern basin of the lake is one of the windiest, making it a popular destination for watersports enthusiasts. From Riva del Garda, drive east to the lakefront town of Torbole sul Garda, where you can enjoy windsurfing, kite surfing or sailing.
If sports are not your thing, follow the lakefront road round to Malcesine, dominated by the Castello Scaligero, a medieval castle (where Goethe was imprisoned briefly in 1786) offering wonderful lake views.
From Malcesine, revolving panoramic cabins travel to the summit of Monte Baldo. The views from the top are sublime – spend the rest of the afternoon hiking one of the many trails. Alternatively, rent a mountain bike and swoosh down the mountainside, taking in the wonderful panorama.
As the day slowly comes to an end, drive south to Punta San Vigilio, a charming promontory jutting out into the lake that is home to Taverna San Vigilio, a laidback café and bar with tables lining a stone jetty. It’s hugely romantic, with boats bobbing up and down and ducks waddling at your feet – the perfect spot to enjoy an aperitivo as you watch the sun go down.
For dinner, tuck into exquisite Italian dishes at elegant Locanda San Vigilio, a cosy 16th century manor house furnished with antiques and family heirlooms. Ask for a table on the loggia, where you can unwind and refuel after a day’s sightseeing, taking in more dreamy lake views.
Grab a Garda Promotions Card from your hotel for discounts on a number of attractions around the lake, including the Museo del Vittoriale and the Monte Baldo cable car. Cards are valid for three days and can only be issued to visitors who overnight on the lake for a minimum of one night.
Tucked away about 15km inland from Garda, the 16th century Santuario Madonna della Corona has a spectacular location hewn into the rockface. Once only accessible via a treacherous mountain path, it can today be reached from Spiazzi, where a pathway zigzags down to the church through shaded woodland.
For a rush of adrenaline, drive the Strada della Forra, a winding road with blind bends that snakes its way along a rocky cliff face on the northwestern shore of the lake. It promises a thrilling drive – and exhilarating lake views.
Did you know?
Lake Garda’s temperate climate favours Mediterranean plants such as olives and lemons. The olive oil from Lake Garda’s Trentino region is the world’s most northerly produced olive oil, and has won scores of awards both nationally and internationally.
Pamper yourself as you soak up panoramic lake views at the award-winning spa of Lefay Resort & Spa. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to enjoy the outstanding facilities, which include six saunas, salt lake, infinity pool, hammam, ice pool, indoor and outdoor salt-water pools, to name a few. Oh, and there are 22 treatment rooms and two open-air massage gazebos. Heaven.
More places to stay
The stylish five-star Lido Palace in Riva del Garda is housed in a grand Art Nouveau building immersed in greenery. Interiors are elegant and contemporary, with bold colour schemes and sleek designer touches lending a voguish vibe. There’s a lovely spa, and the restaurant serves excellent Italian cuisine.
Doubles from €350 (£295)
Set on a hillside amid olive groves and fruit orchards overlooking the lake, Hotel Villa Arcadio is set in a beautifully restored building with original fresco motifs and vaulted interiors. There’s an inviting swimming pool, a fitness trail winding through wooded slopes and an excellent restaurant offering creative cuisine.
Doubles from €270 (£230)
Locanda agli Angeli is a tranquil little hotel in the heart of Gardone Riviera, steps away from the popular Vittoriale degli Italiani. The calm and welcoming interiors are decorated with Balinese furnishings including solid teak chests and terracotta lamps. The restaurant serves modern interpretations of classic Italian dishes.
Doubles from €120 (£100)
What to bring home
Lake Garda is foodie territory, with delicious cold cuts and cheeses from Alpine farms, and vineyards and olive groves producing excellent wines and olive oils. Stock up on local produce at Agraria Riva del Garda, which sells all manner of foodstuffs from pâtés to carne salada, a local beef speciality that can be enjoyed raw or cooked.
For award-winning wines and olive oil, head to family-run Comincioli on the lake’s southern shore.
When to go
The season runs from Easter to the end of October, with spring and autumn the best times to visit. In spring the lakes’ historic gardens are in bloom with a blaze of exuberant azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. Temperatures are mild, with pleasant warm days and cool nights, and a sprinkling of tourists in sight.
As the summer months roll in, crowds start descending to the lakes, in particular in the sweltering months of July and August when Italians take the bulk of their holidays and prices soar. From September onwards, the crowds begin to subside again and temperatures recede, making autumn an ideal time to enjoy the lakes’ dreamy and romantic atmosphere.
Need to know
• Boats ply the three larger lakes (Como, Maggiore and Garda), with fast services for longer journeys and car-ferries connecting various towns around the lakes. Travelling by boat is the most enjoyable and efficient way of getting around, providing lovely views of impressive lakeside villas and gardens that are best viewed from the water.
• Travelling from one lake to another is more complicated as buses and trains have inconsistent timings. You’re better off hiring a car, especially at the two smaller lakes (Orta and Iseo).
• Zipping along the lakes in a hired motorboat is a thrilling way to get around, giving you the flexibility to explore at your own pace and allowing you to stop off at sights of interest along the way.
• Water taxis can be organised at virtually all hotels, and you can rent boats with a skipper by the hour or by the day.
• This being northern Italy, public services work well, with high levels of service offered in restaurants, shops and hotels.
• The larger lakes, in particular Lake Como and Lake Garda, are home to some of the country’s best five-star hotels with prices to match. You’ll also find a number of superb Michelin-starred restaurants dotted along the shores, offering some of the country’s finest cuisine. While the lakefront towns inevitably attract the bulk of the tourists, you can easily veer off the beaten track, exploring lesser-known villages and heading inland, where you’ll come across typical trattorie serving genuine hearty Italian fare at a fraction of the cost of the restaurants along the shoreline.
• Souvenir and trinket shops abound in popular destinations such as Bellagio on Lake Como and Isola dei Pescatori on Lake Maggiore, although tucked away here and there you’ll find family-run shops selling high-quality crafts and excellent local produce including wines, cheeses and olive oil, all of which make for great gifts.
• Expect to pay a tourist tax on your accommodation; this ranges from about €1 to €5 per night, depending on the rating of your hotel.
About the author
Kiki Deere is Telegraph Travel’s Italian Lakes expert. Raised bilingually in northern Italy, Kiki is lured back to the Lakes time and time again, in search of great local food, a dose of culture, and heady lake views.