Our Favourite Italian lakes
Italy has some stunning lakes that are famous the world over. The likes of Garda, Como, and Maggiore have the pulling power to attract the rich and famous, but it’s not just the international jet set that come to see Italy’s lakes. Whatever your interests, whether outdoor activities, exploring magnificent villas and churches, dining out in style, lazing on the beach, or being pampered in a spa, there's an Italian lake for you.
Here are our favourite lakes in Italy.
Situated in Lombardy and shaped like an upside-down Y, Lake Como is Italy’s third-largest lake. This fjord-like stretch of water offers countless activities including sailing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, paragliding, hiking, horseback riding, cycling, and golf, while nearby slopes accommodate skiers and snowboarders in winter. Or you could just sit outside a café and sample food made with local produce such as honey, olive oil, cheese, and salami.
It's easy to get around and explore; a great way to see the lakeside towns is to hop on the pleasure boats that ply the lake. The city of Como has a marble-clad cathedral that took so long to build it displays a mix of Romanesque, Renaissance, and Gothic styles. Also in Como, there's a museum telling the story of the area's silk-making industry.
Lake Como has been a popular retreat for the wealthy since Roman times, and it's reflected in the countless elegant villas dotted round its shore. Tremezzo is home to Villa Carlotta, with its landscaped gardens and collection of sculptures. In the pretty east coast village of Varenna, you can visit Villa Monastero, whose botanical garden contains rare plant species. Bellagio is home to Villa Melzi, built in the early 1800s for the vice president of the Italian Republic, and home to stunning gardens open to the public.
Lake Maggiore is popular for its spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, pleasant climate, and historic buildings. Italy shares the lake with Switzerland, but has the larger part of it, including some special spots like Val Grande National Park, with its hiking trails through alpine landscapes, and diverse wildlife. The lake offers plenty of other activities, like windsurfing, golf, ziplining, cycling, horseback riding, sailing, and canoeing.
The town of Stresa is where boats depart for the pretty Borromean islands; Isola Madre and Isola Bella are home to beautiful palazzos and stunning landscaped gardens built by the aristocratic Borromeo family. Palazzo Borromeo has played host to both Napoleon Bonaparte and Mussolini. The English Garden on Isola Madre features pretty topiary, plus peacocks, golden pheasants, and parrots that live freely there. There's also a small fishing village on the aplty named Isola dei Pescatori, along with yet another mansion you can tour. Meanwhile, the little islands of Castelli di Cannero contain the ruins of 16th-century fortifications.
You can take the cable car from the lake shore in Stresa to both the Alpinia Botanic Garden and the mountaintop of Mottarone. There's an alpine slide and for the adventurous, you can hike up (or down) the mountain, although it is very steep in places. For more great views along the lake, head to Carciano and hike up to the 35-metre-tall Colossus of St Carlo Borromeo statue.
Switzerland may have the overwhelmingly larger part of Lake Lugano, but Italy’s three sections of the lake have plenty of attractions. The southwest corner, where lakeside towns include Porto Ceresio and Ponte Tresa, is home to Cinque Vette Park, where you can hike among wooded mountains, passing small lakes and waterfalls.
The northeast end is home to peaceful villages like San Mamete and Osteno, plus Porlezza — which has a number of campsites. There’s also the Italian exclave of Campione d'Italia — the town is dominated by the Casino di Campione, which has been closed since 2018 and bears a resemblance to London's MI6 Building. High above Campione is the Balcone d'Italia viewpoint, which offers stunning views across the lake.
If you cross over into Switzerland, you can visit the lakeside city of Lugano, as well as attractions including the Monte Brè funicular for elevated views along the lake, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Monte San Giorgio.
Midway between Como and Garda, Lake Iseo may be more off-the-beaten-track when it comes to tourism, but it doesn't disappoint thanks to beautiful mountainous vistas and fascinating historic sites. Arguably the lake's biggest attraction is Monte Isola, Italy's largest lake island. It's home to the Baroque church of San Michele, which has many notable frescoes and wooden carvings. There's also the shrine of Madonna della Ceriola, which is situated at the highest spot on the island, 600 metres above sea level, and must be reached on foot from the small village of Cure. Also on the island is the Martinengo fort, near Menzino, which was built across the 15th and 16th centuries.
Watersports are available on the lake, as well as winter sports at Montecampione, just to the east of Iseo. You can sample some local cuisine, including fish from the lake, in restaurants dotted around the shore — dishes include linguine with Monteisola sardines, and the stuffed pasta casoncelli. The surrounding Franciacorta vineyards produce a well-known sparkling wine.
Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy, inspired Goethe, Byron, Joyce, Kafka, and many other writers. It still wows visitors with its beauty, and offers countless things to see and do, including picturesque villages, bustling resorts, amusement parks, waterparks, and natural reserves.
Riva del Garda, at the northern end of Lake Garda, is one of the most popular towns, offering beaches, Baroque churches, luxurious hotels, and the 12th-century Rocca fortress. The resort of Malcesine has a stunning Medieval castle, which stands on a rocky outcrop on the lake, while you can also catch the cable car up Monte Baldo for walking trails and wonderful views of the lake.
Gardone Riviera is home to Art Nouveau architecture, as well as the palazzo of Vittoriale, and the André Heller Botanical Garden, with its more than 2000 plant varieties. Sirmione, known for its spas, is set on a narrow peninsula at the southern end of the lake. Its attractions include the Grotte di Catullo archaeological site with its Roman remains, plus a 13th-century castle and a Romanesque abbey church.
The lake's mild climate and pleasant water temperature allow a multitude of outdoor activities, such as swimming, sailing, climbing, hiking, cycling, horseback riding, rafting, and hang-gliding. In the southeast corner, you can tour the vineyards that produce wines like Bardolino.
Just over 13 kilometres in length, Lake Orta sits a few miles west of Lake Maggiore. With its forested mountains and sometimes misty views, Orta is a romantic setting, but it still has a relatively low profile among visitors. It did, however, impress the likes of Lord Byron, Robert Browning, and Honoré de Balzac.
The town of Orta San Giulio has narrow traffic-free cobblestone streets that lead to hidden churches and little piazzas where you can sit with a drink. You can also head up to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sacro Monte di Orta, on a hill above the town. It was built from the 16th to 18th centuries as a devotional complex dedicated to St Francis of Assisi and contains 20 frescoed chapels.
The lake’s crowning glory is the small island of Isola San Giulio, with its 12th-century Basilica di San Giulio, home to some stunning frescoes, plus a Benedictine Monastery. You can reach the island by boat from Orta San Giulio.
Other lakes of northern Italy
Lake Reschen, an artificial lake in South Tyrol, has a pretty setting among the mountains. Its most distinctive feature is the top of a 14th-century church tower that sticks out of the water. When the lake freezes sufficiently in winter, it’s possible to walk out to the tower.
Another stunning artificial lake is Lac de Places de Moulin, in the Aosta Valley region. Its turquoise waters are fed by glaciers, and magnificent views of the surrounding towering Alps are best taken in from the track that leads along the lakeshore.
Lake Braies, also known as the Pragser Wildsee, has pretty beaches that offer grandstand views of the surrounding Dolomites. There's a trail running round what is arguably one of the most stunning lakeshores in Italy.
The 11-kilometre-long Lago d'Idro is where wild, forested mountains plunge down into the water. It’s a great setting for a camping trip, and there are good beaches, plus plenty of hiking trails in the surrounding hillsides.
Lakes in central Italy
The series of almost circular-shaped lakes that stretch from Rome to Perugia include some of the country’s largest bodies of water. Lake Bolsena — the biggest volcanic lake in Europe, and fifth largest lake in Italy — is ringed by beaches, campsites, and restaurants with lake-view terraces. You can take a boat trip to Bisentina Island with its evergreen oaks and seven churches.
Umbria’s Lago di Trasimeno — fourth largest lake in Italy by surface area — has a backdrop of gentle hills, woods, and agricultural land. Settlements include Castiglione del Lago, home to several Etruscan tombs, a castle, and palazzos. Maggiore Island has 12th- and 14th- century churches, as well as the stunning Isabella Castle. The largest island, Polvese, is used as a public park, and is home to a monastery, a church, and a 14th-century castle.
Lake Bracciano, eighth biggest lake in Italy, is a peaceful setting where motorised pleasure boats are banned, so its clear waters are a good place for sailing, canoeing, swimming, and scuba diving. The town of Bracciano, up on a hill, is home to Orsini-Odescalchi Castle, where there’s a museum of armour and weapons from the Middle Ages. Parco Naturale di Bracciano-Martignano offers cycling and trekking on marked paths.
Nick Elvin contributed to this post.