When it comes to inspirational landscapes it’s hard to beat a beautiful lake – there’s something about the glittering water, especially when combined with dramatic peaks, that creates an intensely picturesque and relaxing effect. This fact is no secret, which means the lakes of northern Italy are magnets for mass tourism whenever warmer weather arrives. But away from the honeypots of Como, Garda and Maggiore there’s a lesser-visited alternative with all the charm but none of the crowds.
Steeped in tradition, and fuelled on authentic food and fine wine, Lake Iseo has nothing to envy its larger rivals. In addition to being an ideal spot for a peaceful break, it also offers exceptional opportunities for outdoor pursuits, with its tree-clad cliffs perfect for scenic hiking.
Around 30 miles west of Lake Garda, Iseo is midway between the cities of Brescia and Bergamo, and divided neatly in half between the two provinces. Franciacorta, one of Italy’s most prestigious sparkling wine regions, kisses the southern tip of the lake, while the mountains of the Valle Camonica rise up to the north. It has it all.
The charms of Monte Isola
Europe’s largest lake island, Monte Isola, is a must-see for its charming villages, delicious food (lake fish and salami are specialities) and away-from-it-all atmosphere that reigns despite a small but thriving local community and long-standing net-making industry. Rent a bicycle from Guizzetti (0039 3402308569; guizzettirentalbike.wordpress.com) near the ferry stop at Peschiera Maraglio to tour the car-free island’s five-mile perimeter, hike to Santuario di Ceriola at 600m or simply relax with a swim and a meal at a lakeside restaurant. The historic Castello Oldofredi (0039 030 986 9424; oldofrediresidence.it) is a lovely place to stay at Peschiera, with an olive garden and terrace restaurant, while La Foresta (0039 030 988 6210; forestamontisola.it), run by a fisherman and his family, has an excellent restaurant and 10 bedrooms overlooking the water.
On the other side of the island, La Canogola (0039 030 982 5310; canogola.it) serves typical specialities and offers simple accommodation and a waterfront garden in a divinely peaceful location.
Iseo and the south
The attractive historic centre of Iseo town, on the southern shores of the lake, has a series of piazzas where a colourful market is held every Tuesday and Friday and an interesting church complex, Sant’Andrea and San Silvestro. Besides the many waterfront restaurants, there are some good options on the sidestreets, such as Osteria Ca’ de Cindri (0039 030 982 1543; facebook.com/osteria.cadecindri) with a particularly good wine list. Just west of Iseo, the pretty little port of Clusane has a wealth of high-quality traditional fish restaurants include the delightful 160-year old Trattoria del Porto (0039 030 989014; alportoclusane.it) in a stone palazzo opposite the marina.
Pinnacles and frescoes
About three miles north of Iseo, Sulzano has the main ferry stop for Monte Isola while, along with the island itself, Marone is the principal centre for quality olive oil production. In the hills above Marone, a footpath links a cluster of so-called ‘earth pyramids’ (curious pinnacles caused by erosion) and nearby, old-fashioned Trattoria Belvedere (0039 030 987205; tinyurl.com/2p95hb44) is the place for tasty food and fabulous views over the lake.
Beyond the steep Corna Trentapassi promontory is attractive Pisogne where the 13th-century Torre del Vescovo tower (free to climb) stands on the waterfront piazza and impressive frescoes by Renaissance artist Romanino decorate the Santa Maria della Neve church.
Roman relics and Bond connections
Even sheerer cliffs give the western side of the lake a dramatic profile and provide training grounds for serious climbers. Lovere has an elegant waterfront and interesting sights including the ornate interior of 15th-century Basilica di Santa Maria in Valvendra, Riva di Solto’s pretty lakeside promenade and historic centre are charming, while at Tavernola Bergamasca, directly opposite Monte Isola, the waterside terrace at La Sirena (0039 035 932920; tinyurl.com/yh39dchs) is a lovely spot for a meal. Another great place to eat is the romantic lakeside garden restaurant, Il Gabbiano (0039 035 938481; facebook.com/ristoranteilgabbianopredore) at Predore, where there is also a fascinating Roman spa archaeological site (free admission).
At the south-west tip of the lake, Sarnico and Paratico are divided by a bridge over the River Oglio. Paratico is home to a working 1930s steam train (ferrovieturistiche.it/en/trenoblu) while just outside Sarnico the historic Riva boatyard continues to produce luxury motorboats and yachts featured in James Bond and other movies.
Head for the hills
The peat lakes of the Torbiere del Sebino Nature Reserve, within the Franciacorta wine-making area south of Lake Iseo, are home to waterbirds including marsh harriers, purple herons and bitterns. There are hides for birdwatchers and a circular walking trail starting from the San Pietro in Lamosa Monastery, which has some interesting 15th- and 16th-century frescoes. The vine-covered villa of L’Albereta (0039 030 776 0550; www.albereta.it) is a wonderful place to stay or dine in Franciacorta.
North of Lake Iseo, the Valle Camonica is famous for its startling prehistoric rock drawings, delicious cheeses, imposing mountain scenery and – in winter – good skiing. The pretty village of Bienno, 15 miles north of the lake, is perfect for a quick foray into the area for its arts and crafts workshops, ancient metal-craft tradition and working water mill. Step back in time at Bar Antico (Piazza Roma), which lives up to its name, and tuck into tasty mountain specialities like cheese-filled gnocchi, at La Caldera de Noscent (0039 0364 300474; facebook.com/ristorantelacaldera).
The flavours of Iseo
Lake fish such as perch, chub and tench are prominent on restaurant menus, sometimes as a filling for pasta, while flavoursome Monte Isola ‘sardines’ (actually not sardines but shad), air-dried and preserved in oil, are a speciality, usually served with polenta. The island also produces a lightly smoked salami while the cheeses from the Valle Camonica north of the lake, such as tasty Silter and smooth Rosa Camuna, are exceptional.
The Franciacorta area produces some of Italy’s best sparkling wines, using chardonnay, pinot nero and pinot bianco grapes and in styles including smooth Satèn, bold Riserva and fresh Pas Dosé. A good time to visit is September for the Festival del Franciacorta, when wineries host tastings, bike rides, picnics and other events. Most welcome visitors all year round, however; try small family-run wineries such as Bosio (bosiofranciacorta.it), headed by brother and sister team Cesare and Laura Bosio, or nearby Bersi Serlini (bersiserlini.it).
Burning off the calories
Experiencing the lake from the water opens up a whole new perspective and while the ferries are perfect for crossing the lake and reaching Monte Isola, with a private boat trip you can stop for a swim, explore secluded bays and see private islands. The final date (September 10) of the Onde Musicali classical music festival provides a rare opportunity to set foot on one of them, Isola di Loreto. Nautica Bertelli (nauticabertelli.it), among others, rents out self-drive or skippered motorboats.
To explore the water under your own steam, various windsurf, canoe and paddleboard centres, such as Sportaction (sportaction.it) on the west coast and Sassabanek (sassabanek.com) at Iseo, organise lessons and rentals and there are numerous spots for paddling or swimming.
Cyclists of all types and levels have plenty of itineraries to choose from. The River Oglio cycle route, for example, leads from mountainous Valle Camonica in the north, past the lake and south to the Franciacorta vineyards. For bike rental, routes and accompanied rides, see Iseo Bike (iseobike.com).
Options for walkers are endless, from simple strolls to challenging hikes. The Antica Strada Valeriana skirts the eastern edge of the lake from Pilzone to Pisogne, passing the erosion pyramids at Zone and other sights. On Monte Isola, the hilltop Santuario della Ceriola is a popular destination for hikers while the perimeter route is a good way to see the island without the climb. Predore is an ideal start point for walks into the hills south west of the lake, as well as being one of the area’s top bases for rock climbers.
Need to know
The nearest airport is in Bergamo, served by Ryanair (ryanair.com) and EasyJet (easyjet.com).
The visitlakeiseo.info website has a wealth of information, tips and links on everything from events and activities to accommodation and transport.
This article is kept updated with the latest information.