Italy’s largest lake is one of the country’s most beloved tourist spots, thanks to its pretty resort towns, lakeside beaches and activities like watersports, cycling and hiking – not to mention the most famous theme parks in all of Italy.
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Bordering three distinct regions – Lombardy, Trentino Alto-Adige and the Veneto – Garda is Italy’s largest lake and the landscapes, architecture and culture all vary enormously as you make your way around its shores. The crystal-clear waters, overlooked by craggy mountain peaks and surrounded by cypress trees and cobbled villages, are ideal for refreshing swims. And there are plenty of opportunities for watersports, cycling and walking, or simply relaxing lakeside with a glass of something local.
Climb to Monte Baldo on the cable car
Curving out into the water, Malcesine is a pretty tourist town of cobbled lanes and gelaterias dominated by the striking, medieval Scaligero castle. Take the cable car up to Monte Baldo – a mountain ridge that overshadows the resort and peaks at 2,218m (7,277ft) above sea level – to enjoy fresh air and spectacular views, or even to tackle the mountain walking trails. The climate at the peak can be dramatically different from that at sea level, so bring layers and good walking shoes.
Take to the water
Lake Garda’s carefully monitored, clean waters are perfect for a swim, but in addition to the many beach lidos, there are plenty of opportunities for more adventurous watersports. Regular wind systems make the northern part of the lake around Torbole particularly popular with windsurfers and sailors, and kayaks and SUPs can be hired from many shoreline stands. Less intrepid explorers might be more inclined towards hiring a self-drive or skippered motorboat – or at the very least, a pedalo.
Follow the Cascata del Varone waterfall
This extraordinary waterfall, which flows 98m (322ft) through a hollow cave, has been drawing nature lovers to the northern part of Lake Garda for the past 150 years. Follow the balconied walkway through the caves surrounding the waterfall, the cool air misty with water vapour, to see it from different perspectives – the steepest part of the walk takes you to a high viewpoint surrounded by a beautiful zen garden. Bring supplies of olives, bread and prosciutto to make the most of the park’s well-equipped picnic area.
Sip local wines and olive oil
Despite the fact that Lake Garda is much further north than most olive oil-producing areas, olive trees thrive here, thanks to the warm and balmy microclimate. Head to Museum Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva near Bardolino, where ancient presses and other equipment are exhibited. It’s free entry, but you’ll make up for that in the gift shop, where you can both try and buy various oils as well as olive oil soaps, fruity vinegar and even the museum’s own cosmetics line. Excellent regional wines are produced around the lake too, with winemakers also taking advantage of the mild climate. Crisp white wine from Lugana is ranked among Italy’s premier, while the fruity and floral offerings from Custoza are little known outside of the region yet certainly worth an order. The local chiaretto has been called Italy’s finest rosé whilst groppello is the region’s best-loved red variety.
Perfect your downward dog on Isola del Garda
This private island – the biggest on Lake Garda – has been open to visitors since 2001 and is a popular, elaborate place for couples to tie the knot, although its fascinating history long predates destination weddings. Owned by the Cavezza family for the past century, the island was given to Francis of Assisi in 1221, who repurposed a natural cavity as a hermit’s cave. Some 200 years later, a monastery was built here. Now, you can join a guided tour to see the beautiful English-style and Italianate gardens around the central neo-Gothic villa, or book for yoga or even a Tibetan singing bowls experience on the grounds.
Crack the code at Il Vittoriale
The eccentric poet and WWI soldier Gabriele D’Annunzio created this extraordinary complex from 1921 onwards and spent the latter part of his life here. The expansive park features a battleship, a classic amphitheatre modelled on Pompei and even D’Annunzio’s own mausoleum. As for the villa, dimly lit rooms are crammed with the poet’s collections of some 33,000 books and 10,000 objects, organised thematically in different rooms demarcated by enigmatic, Da Vinci code-style symbols and phrases written over doors and fireplaces.
Walk or cycle around the lake
Set your sights on the picturesque stretch of foot and cycle path between Limone sul Garda and Riva del Garda – on the northwest side of the lake where a protected, smooth walkway has been constructed against the sheer rock face, hanging over the water. The 3mi (5km) waterside stretch between Lazise and Bardolino on the southeast shore is another leisurely option, with cafes, playgrounds and duck-feeding opportunities en route.
Go wild on theme park rides at Gardaland
Open since 1975, Italy’s top amusement park attracts almost 3 million visitors each year with its theme park rides, Sea-Life aquarium and Legoland park for families with children. Book into a themed bedroom (Jungle Adventure, Enchanted Forest, Peppa Pig for tots) at one of the park’s three hotels to give yourself enough time to ride its eight roller coasters, three water rides and many other attractions. Peschiera del Garda is the nearest resort town, just 1.3mi (2km) away, and a free shuttle bus runs from the station.
Eat a beautiful meal in Punta San Vigilio
Walk the 1.9mi (3km) waterside footpath from Garda to this charming peninsula on the eastern shore of the lake. Dominated by the 16th-century Villa Guarienti, the village’s citrus groves, pristine cove and surrounding cypress trees make it an unforgettable stop-off around Lake Garda. There’s also a chapel, an informal tavern with tables outside by the small marina and a path that leads through olive trees to the beach. Splash out on a night’s stay at Locanda San Vigilio, or simply stop by its hotel restaurant for a plate of gnocchi infused with local lemons and topped with plump scallops and courgette.
Sightsee and sunbathe in Sirmione
Popular since Roman times for its thermal spa baths, the resort town of Sirmione occupies a narrow peninsula at the southern end of the lake. A white, fairytale 13th-century castle, with wide-open views from its crenellated tower, marks the entrance to the attractive historic centre. Make your way to the tip of the peninsula to stumble across the Grotte di Catullo – the ruins of a 1st-century villa near the Lido delle Bionde beach. Do some historic sightseeing, then sprawl out on the sand with a book, to sunbathe and cool off in the cliff-protected water.
Looking for the perfect lakeside getaway? Browse and book the best hotels on Lake Garda now through Culture Trip. After exploring, wind down with a delicious dinner at one of the lake’s best restaurants. Want to explore more? Why not take a trip to nearby Verona – there’s no end of reasons to visit. Make one of the city’s top hotels your base and take a look at all the best things to see and do whilst you’re there.
This article is an update of one originally by Luca Pinelli.
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