It’s hard to imagine that vast areas of natural beauty exist so close to the cityscapes of Milan, and yet that’s exactly what you’ll find on a trip to the Italian Lakes. It’s possible to see parts of the area on a day trip, but from experience, we highly recommend that you plan at least a few days in the area to really get exploring. There are heaps of cute hillside towns with meandering cobbled streets just waiting to be discovered. Read on for some hints and tips to help you make the most of your time in the Italian Lake District.
It’s impossible to really appreciate the beauty of the lake until you see it from a high vantage point; the shimmering blue water and the surrounding green hills sweeping out into the distance. The Como to Brunate funicular is a great way to see the sheer size of Lake Como, and is used by tourists and locals alike.
The line started in 1894 and originally ran on a steam engine. It is 1,084m long; a small section is in a tunnel while the rest is at (or above) ground level, which is where you start being able to enjoy the extensive views over the lake and Como city. Brunate itself is a small village which comes alive in summer when many travellers rent houses and make it their holiday base.
Bellagio is known as ‘the Pearl of the Lake’ because of its picture-perfect setting on the northern point of land between the Como and Lecco sides of the lake. The town seems to be surrounded by water and, to add to its magic, the towering Alps are also visible on the horizon.
Ross and I took a ferry to get here from Como so that we could see the mansions and pretty communities on the shores of the lake, and then we took the bus back down which provided us with more unique angles and views of the incredible area. Don’t forget to reward yourself with a delicious gelato after you’ve climbed all those stairs and steep paths!
A vast glacial lake which straddles the Italian/Swiss border, Lake Lugano is less well known than some of the other Italian lakes. That said, it’s just as special, with many small communities scattered around the lake. Some of these are only accessible by boat transfer, making them almost completely unspoilt and a true destination for an off-the-beaten-track explorer. The lake is very busy during the warmer months with locals on their private boats, and fishing is a popular pastime on the water. For one of the most breath-taking views of the lake, head up Monte San Salvatore using the funicular from Lugano (bear in mind that Lugano is technically in Switzerland).
The largest of the Italian lakes is a mishmash of vivid blues and greens as the sunlight bounces off the water, making it my favourite of the lakes. Again, a collection of small and charming towns are waiting to be discovered along the shoreline. Ross and I loved Sirmione, with its castle-like buildings, which we explored from the comfort of a small powerboat. Dating back to the stone age, this town on the southern point of the lake is steeped in fascinating history.
In recent years, Lake Garda has earned itself a reputation as a hotspot for adrenaline activities such as hang-gliding, windsurfing and mountain-biking. Add to that the proximity of other towns such as Verona (the home of Romeo and Juliet) and it’s easy to see why Lake Garda is a popular base for so many travellers.
Lago Maggiore is an incredible 64kms long and is another lake that belongs in part to Italy and in part to Switzerland. Its location to the south of the Alps means it is blessed with a mild year-round climate. The benefit of this is an exquisite collection of unique plants and flowers which have made the gardens around Lake Maggiore some of the most impressive in the world.
If you have time, make the effort to visit Villa Taranto in Verbania and the Alpinia botanical garden above Stresa. If you are able to get to the region in late July or early August, try to attend the Spirit of Woodstock Festival; an annual open-air festival in Armeno which will just add to your bank account of cool experiences.
Have you been? Tell us which lake you loved most!
All the photos in this article are Ross’s and my own from our time in and around the Italian Lakes. It was part of a 10 day trip exploring Northern Italy and we have many fond memories.