Talk about the perfect Italian lakeside holiday and most people think of Lake Como, its celebrity status cemented by the patronage of George Clooney, Donatella Versace, and Richard Branson (who, reportedly, is neighbors with Clooney). But the fact remains that the country is home to several lakes around which lie quaint, picture-perfect towns, some that seem to have magically stopped time. As such, holidays to Lake Garda are the perfect way to explore what is a stunningly beautiful part of Italy.
The largest lake in Italy, Lake Garda or Lago di Garda, (spread over Lombardy in the west, Veneto in the east and Trentino-Alto Adige in the north) beckons to travellers to indulge in all the happy clichés; charming town squares where sitting to look up is a valid use of one’s time, medieval architecture that talks of centuries bygone, dreamy swirls of gelato, cobblestone streets that lead to gorgeous harbor scenes, tucked away pastry shops, and the welcome aperitivo where it’s hard to choose your favorite: Is it the flowing conversation, rose-gold sunset, delicious prosciutto, or exceptional wine?
Venture deeper and you’re rewarded with captivating stories of the region (as there are of every place), of the people who once lived here building opulent residences like Vittoriale and Villa Romana, of those who brought back to life abandoned lemon gardens and made them home, and turned modest run-down farms to elaborate dining venues; all driven by passion, instinct, and often good business sense.
Not a surprise then that Lake Garda has inspired poets and writers through history; Lord Byron, DH Lawrence, Lord Tennyson, Goethe, Dante, and the Roman poet Catullus (whose former residence is believed to be the site of the Roman ruins in modern-day Sirmione, a historic town along the lake).
That all this comes without the formidable price tag and high-season crowds of Lake Como is only a plus. The region has carved out its own deservedly stellar reputation with much to offer in terms of sights, leisure, wellness, activities, cuisine, wine, and the endless bliss that comes when you enjoy these in the right doses.
If you’re dreaming of the perfect (and affordable) Italian lakeside escape, look no further than Lake Garda in Italy. A week should give you enough time to explore its delightful towns, appreciate the food and wine, and successfully slow down the hectic pace of modern life. Here’s a guide to some cool things to do in Lake Garda along the Italian Leisure Way:
Things To Do in Lake Garda
Explore Beautiful Sirmione
The narrow peninsula of Sirmione stretches out into Lake Garda, and the views along the coast are the kind that compel you to slow down, to amble, to pause and to take it all in. Swans come surprisingly close to the walkway, the blues of the lake are a gorgeous myriad, and tourists soak in natural pools of thermal water on the beach.
But Sirmione tugs at the heartstrings long before one gets to the coast; the impressive 13th century fortified castle Castello Scaligeri is a fairytale like vision, the cobblestone pedestrian streets are flanked by little stores selling generously topped cones of gelato and souvenir shops, and tourists sit by the harbour revelling in this sweet Italian dream.
It’s worthwhile to take a boat tour of the Sirmione Peninsula and ponder, as the little boat passes under bridges, what is more beautiful: the azure Lake Garda from the lookout at the tip of the peninsula or dreamlike Sirmione viewed from the boat?
Historical Roman Ruins at Villa Romana, Sirmione
With a spectacular location on the tip of the Sirmione Peninsula, the archaeological site of Grotte di Catullo is an enjoyable walk through the town of Sirmione. It houses Villa Romana, that ruins of a lavish Roman villa, owned by an important and wealthy family and built between the end of the 1st century B.C. and the beginning of the 1st century A.D., and is the largest remnant of its kind in Northern Italy. The ruins, hidden under thick vegetation, were originally mistakenly believed to be a natural cave formation when they were first discovered, hence the name grotte meaning caves.
Spread over 2 hectares and three floors, the villa consisted of porches and terraces, grand arches, an olive grove, thermal baths, an atrium, and guest and services areas. Evidence of older ruins was found beneath the Roman villa, and the reference in the name is to Roman poet Caius Valerius Catullus, who had a home in the village and wrote of Sirmione with a certain sense of romance and longing.
Just by the entrance is a museum displaying artifacts and frescoes found during excavations. The biggest draw here is the sight of ruined arches and windows framing the blues and whites of the lake and the commanding views over Sirmione Peninsula.
Rejuvenate at Terme di Sirmione
At Terme di Sirmione, guests can recharge their batteries and reinvigorate in the sulphurous thermal waters at the Aquaria wellness spa. The permanent temperature of the water is around 36 degrees. You can peruse indoor and outdoor pools, steam, sauna, Finnish sauna, and multi-sensory showers and relaxation areas as well as a range of wellness treatments, all with spectacular views over Lake Garda.
- You can either walk to Villa Romana through the town (over a km.) or take a train midway from Terme, the thermal spa.
- Walking in Sirmione, as is always the case with pretty Italian towns, is a pleasant and happy affair, if you don’t mind the high-season crowds in summer. The town is small and easy to navigate. There are tons of gelato shops and zero reasons not to enjoy one while you walk around.
- It’s highly recommended to also take the boat tour to get a different perspective.
The Eccentric Grandeur of Vittoriale
On the hills of Gardone Riviera, looking down on Lake Garda, Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, better known simply as Vittoriale, is the opulent, ostentatious, and often strangely eerie former residence of poet, daredevil war hero, philanderer, and proto-fascist hedonist, Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938), a controversial figure but also one of Italy’s greatest writers. His relationship with the dictator Mussolini was both close and complicated, and his rising hero status became a threat to Mussolini who funded the restoration of the Vittoriale in 1922 to keep D’Annunzio away from the limelight.
The estate consists of a residential villa-the Priory, war museum, auditorium, secret museum, landscaped gardens, battleship, mausoleum, and an amphitheater. The residence is a blatant display of excess with a strange sense of superiority to the very striking and dramatic landscape that houses it. The house, an apt reflection of its owner’s personality is chockfull of eccentricities and objects from around the world, far too many for the space they occupy and too quirky to be tasteful. Interesting features are the dark and gloomy interior, Leper’s room (with a coffin bed), and the Relic room.
Outside, the gardens are a pleasant escape with fantastic views and particularly beautiful is the violin-shaped Dances Pond, as seen from above. His love of dogs is apparent in the dog cemetery, where on display is a poem he wrote about them and his strange humanizing of them, clear in the little figurines with dog heads and human bodies dressed in angelic robes.
Visitors can walk into what remains of the impressive Puglia battleship, donated to him by the Navy in 1923. At the summit of the estate is a grand mausoleum with the tomb of D’Annunzio, surrounded by those of his friends and dog statues, looking out into Lake Garda.
Tip: Wear comfortable walking shoes, carry a bottle of water, and allocate at least two to three hours to tour the place.
Visit the Limonaia la Malora Lemon Garden in Gargnano
Lake Garda has a rich tradition of citrus cultivation along the coast that dates to the 13th century and one that in many ways changed the fortunes of its residents and economy. These stonewall-encased terraced lemon gardens were especially built to protect the produce from the harsh winter conditions. The lemons, renowned for their high quality, were sold across Europe and the business peaked between 1850-1855. Over the years, production decreased significantly due to agricultural disease and competition from Southern Italy after unification, which led to many of these lemon houses sadly being abandoned.
It was one such 16th century lemon house or limonaia in Gargnano, abandoned for 15 years, that caught the attention of owner Giuseppe Gandossi in 1978, who, both awestruck by its dramatic location on Lake Garda and touched by its forlornness, decided that his own hunt for a family home ended here. He cleared out the weeds and overgrowth and put his heart into nursing them back to health so they could bear fruit once again.
Today, his son Fabio Gandossi takes visitors on a tour of the Limonaia la Malora garden, a sanctuary still as peaceful as centuries ago, telling them about its history, cultivation process, and the traditional practices that his father chose to preserve.
On the terrace, as my eyes began to wander to the calm blue of Lake Garda, Fabio pointed out where wooden boards were placed in winter and nailed onto the roof, and any gaps covered with hay, to protect the trees from rain and snow. I pictured him carefully handling this task, kneeling on precarious ledges, a man filled with fatherly compassion for his limonaia.
Afterwards, we sat in the beautiful garden, tasting varieties of limoncello, sipping on sweet liqueur from the sour fruits of century old trees.
Tip: Guided tours of Limonaia la Malora are held at 11.00am but it’s best to confirm and arrange in advance. The garden is open to visitors and you can also buy a range of sauces, marmalades, and other products at the shop.
Enjoy the Cuisine
One of the biggest joys of eating your way around Italy, especially in smaller non-touristy towns, is learning to appreciate the nuanced culinary specialties of every region. Like everywhere else in Italy, mealtimes in Lake Garda are leisurely and consist of at least three courses, followed by coffee. Dinner, of course, begins only after aperitivo, complete with prosecco, aperol spritz, or wine and prosciutto.
Freshwater fish from the lake, seafood pasta preparations, tortellini and risotto, savoury polenta and vegetable cakes that melt in the mouth, and heavenly desserts made eating in Lake Garda a highly enjoyable experience.
I had the chance to dine at these places and I can highly recommend each one for how unique it was in terms of the food and ambience. Everywhere, our servers expertly paired the wine with the dishes. That’s the thing about the kind of restaurants that you need to get to versus ones that you randomly walk into in some touristy town center; there’s something extra special on offer plus if you see well-heeled locals dining there (versus other tourists), you know it’s a good choice.
The Selva Capuzza wine estate, easily reachable from the towns of Sirmione and Desenzano, celebrates its 100th harvest this year (2017) and continues to welcome guests to experience their winery, agriturismo and restaurant Cascina Capuzza, in a 13th century farmhouse. There are no less than seven dining rooms for those who like to dine indoors, each one decorated differently and a spacious garden as well.
On the menu are seasonal, home-cooked specialties using homegrown ingredients. Guests are educated about the quality wines from the estate, to which the meals are matched. There are several four-course tasting menus to choose from and you can also order à la carte.
Go here for: To taste Italian food like you’ve never tasted before, seasonal specialties, beautiful ambience, quality wine, and incredible hospitality.
With a great location along the lake, Ristorante Rosa in Hotel Duomo, Salò has an easy vibe, perfect for a sunny afternoon with a view. It’s a good idea to take a morning to walk around the pretty town of Salò and come here for lunch.
Go here for: Easy vibe, simple but delicious food, friendly service, dessert, and the view over Salò harbor.
Ristorante Villa Pioppi
At first, the striking view from the al fresco terrace at Ristorante Villa Pioppi at the Hotel Villa Pioppi in Sirmione, quickly takes your breath away and it’s hard to tear yourself away from the sight of the lake disappearing into the blue of the sky. The scene is even more beautiful when hints of red and orange appear just before sunset. Post aperitivo, it’s time to tuck into the delectable but decidedly contemporary fare.
Go here for: To enjoy an unbeatable sunset view, top-notch food, friendly service, and a romantic dinner.
Ristorante Taverna Kus
Located in San Zeno di Montagna, Taverna Kus is housed in a 17th century farmstead that was bought by owner Giancarlo Zanolli in 1990. He restored the original structure and converted it into an elegant restaurant, each room styled according to a specific theme, such as the room of mirrors, porcelain, art, and clocks, to create a certain old-world ambience. There’s an airy outdoor section where glass paneled windows and doors treat guests to the beautiful scenery of the area while they dine under regal chandeliers and touches reminiscent of old palaces.
Whether you choose to dine indoors or outside, once the food begins to arrive, the elaborate dishes become the star of the show. The dishes make use of regional seasonal ingredients but the take on classic flavors is both experimental and creative. The boldness pays off; this is Italian cuisine at its finest- pleasing to all the senses beyond imagination.
Of all the places I’ve ever eaten in Italy, (including my month long trip last year), this is my favorite restaurant. The award-winning restaurant is a short drive from Verona, but is totally worth the journey. I highly recommend this restaurant for special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries, to make your day especially memorable.
Taste The Wines of the Veneto Wine Region
No trip to Italy is complete without (several sessions of) wine tasting, and that’s not just something you can do in Tuscany (although you should certainly do it there). The region of Veneto is one of the leading wine producing areas in Italy and home to some of the finest wines in the country. In fact, this region was the first in the country to develop a wine route, to help wine-loving travelers to explore the wines and vineyards of Veneto.
As a wine lover (but no expert), I enjoyed our wine degustation session with sommelier Igor Sartori, who introduced us to the flavors and notes of the region’s best wines such as the well-known complex and dark Amarone della Valpolicella, pink Bardolino Chiaretto, sweet Recioto della Valpolicella, and pale Lugana, among many others. If you’re a wine connoisseur or expert and would like to know more, here is a detailed guide to the wines of Veneto.
Whether or not you choose to journey on the wine route (which you totally should if you’re a wine lover who has the time), be sure to order wine with your meals, and ask your server for recommendations. Also go on a wine-tasting tour and you’ll emerge on the other side, both happy and enlightened.
Take a Day trip to Garda for the Bay Views
One of the towns along the lake, but the one that gives it its name, Garda is quite touristy, but still pretty with a large lakefront promenade, perfect for dining or hours of doing nothing but drinking wine, narrow village-like pedestrian streets, cafés, and shops selling clothes, souvenirs, gelato, and fresh produce.
Play Golf at Golf Club Paradiso del Garda
Learn how to play golf or show off your skills at the Golf Club Paradiso del Garda, a year-round open 18-hole golf course in Peschiera del Garda with a driving range with covered tees, putting green, pitch green, bunker, shop, swimming pool, wellness centre, bar, refreshment area and an à la carte restaurant. If you’re a newbie, consider picking up a new sport on your holiday at the golf academy (training course) at the Golf Club Paradisetto.
“GOLF- Great Opportunities for Lifelong Friendship” said our instructor Luca, whose stories served as a great introduction to the history and tradition of this sport that is played around the world today but originated in Scotland, where shepherds created it to pass the time. So, if like me, you also thought that golf is a sport for the elite, that isn’t true; it’s for everyone.
This being my first ever golf lesson, I didn’t expect the time to pass by as quickly as it did while I learnt the basics such as putting, pitching, and the full swing, under the expert guidance and encouragement of our instructors. The experience was a highlight of my trip, and I recommend it to everyone visiting the region.
Where to Stay in Lake Garda
The best area to stay in Lake Garda also depends on your own preferences and travel style- whether you like touristy towns that are lively, or more authentic quiet ones, whether you like big towns or ones so small that you could walk around them in an hour, on whether you’re looking for a family hotel in Lake Garda and your budget. Note that there are tons of affordable 4 star hotels in Lake Garda of which these are a good place to start.
The Hotel Duomo Salò
With a gorgeous location on the lakefront promenade in the quaint town of Salò, the 4-star Hotel Duomo Salò is a modern, and homely hotel with a great in-house restaurant. It’s a good place to base yourself while exploring Lake Garda. There’s also a gym, Finnish sauna, whirlpool, and sun terrace. Ask for a room with a lake view.
Hotel Villa Pioppi, Sirmione
Sirmione is a particularly beautiful town to stay in and Hotel Villa Pioppi scores on many fronts; a large outdoor pool, luxurious modern rooms, most with a lakeview balcony, and an exceptional restaurant (with an exceptional view).
A 10-minute drive from Sirmione, Hotel Dogana is a family friendly hotel with a restaurant and swimming pool, just 200 meters from Lake Garda. Rooms are spacious and comfortable. There’s also a sun terrace and outdoor pool.
Milan (100km), Venice (100km), and Verona (15km) are the closest airports. Train connections are available to Desenzano and Peschiera del Garda, from where buses are available to the towns or taxis can easily be arranged. To town-hop around Lake Garda, both fast ferries and slower boats are available. Detailed transport information is available here.
Tip: Plan your perfect custom itinerary with Italian Leisure Way.
I visited Lake Garda as a guest of Italian Leisure Way. All opinions, as always are honest and independent.
Tell me, have you been on an Italian lake holiday? Would you go to Lake Garda?