Blessed with a Mediterranean climate and diversity of landscape, Lake Garda still remains the largest lake in Italy. With Venice to its east and Milan to its west, Lake Garda remains curiously underrated despite its more recently growing hype. This spoon-shaped expanse of water measures up to 80km in length and almost 18km in width.
WHERE TO GO:
Sirmione is personally the most beautiful of all of Garda’s surrounding towns. With its cobbled streets, thirteenth century castle and, above all, ruined Roman Villa that lies at the tip of the promontory, Sirmione remains one of the most important sites in Roman history. The noticeable Roman buildings, the tombstones, the trunks of the columns, the capitals and other relics found during the centuries testify the ancient important of Sirmione.
DESENZANO DEL GARDA
This picturesque small town that is located on the southern part of the lake has the widest and best equipped port of Garda. It is often talked about as the navigation system of Garda, but personally I believe there is so much more character to it than just a “transport-hub.” Its old quarter is booming with restaurants and cafes and it even boasts its own twelfth century castle. You can also visit the Roman Villa called Borgo Regio where you can find interesting mosaics to the west of the site in its recreation rooms. The colours are extremely vivid with many illustrated scenes and although they have been severely damaged over time, the actual setting sets up an interesting view.
Salo is one of the most important commercial and tourist centres of the west Riviera of Garda. The town lies on the slopes of Mount S. Bartolomeo which offers a great view of the grandiosity and beauty of the lake. Another highlight is the Duomo of the Palace of the Captain Rector, a great example of Gothic-Renaissance style. Within the cluster of houses you will also find Terzi-Martinengo Palace which has a park filled with fountains built by the marquis.
Poised high above the lake, allowing a spectacular unrestricted view of parkland and shoreline is an impressive estate built by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italy’s vivacious soldier-poet. The Vittoriale spreads across an entire hillside and contains a private museum filled with his bizarre collections. Paintings, statues, stained glass, antiques, books, musical instruments, gleaming vintage cars and around 10,000 objects are some of the many oddities that fill his eccentric estate. However, this is not the only highlight of Gardone Riviera, one of the most elegant and beautiful zones of the lake, as the variety and magnificence of its vegetation also adds to the magnificence of the town.
Known for its famous wines, Bardolino is positioned in the perfect location at the foot of hills covered with orchards, olive yards, and of course, vineyards. Cool, dark wineries line the main street and clusters of tables gather at the water’s edge. The four-square sixteenth century building is now a restaurant and inside you will find a spectacular dining room with vaulted ceilings supported by slender columns. If wine and dining aren’t your thing there are plenty of other things Bardolino has to offer such as the Roman church filled with Renaissance frescoes and a promenade that lines the perimeter of the town’s seafront with flowers.
Surrounded by ancient walls with embattled towers, Lazise, which is definitely one of my favourite locations around the lake, is one of the most historic towns. This is probably because of its crenellated walls and castle that rises from the water’s edge, built by the Scaligeri. You should look out for the Roman church, the ancient Custom-house near the port, the Roman tower in the churchyard and Scaligeri’s Castle.
There are a number of other locations positioned around the lake, some which I visited briefly when I rented a boat and others which I did not manage to make it to. Some of these include; Manerba, S.Felice del Benaco, Toscolano-Maderno, Gargnano, Tignale, Tremosine, Limone, Riva del Garda, Torbole, Malcesine, Torri del Benaco, Punta S.Vigilio, Garda and Peschiera.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Lake Garda was one of many places we visited in a single trip last summer. We started in Geneva, Switzerland, drove first to Morzine, France and then ended in Lake Garda. This is one of the many options you could take and I seriously recommend hiring a car if you’re planning on visiting more than just Garda. You can’t drive into the historic centre of Sirmione unless you have a booking confirmation from your hotel though so don’t bother hiring a car unless you’re seriously considering visiting more than just Garda. For example, you could visit Verona or Venice or even Milan if you’d like to rent a car. Or you could plan a bigger trip and visit more countries like we did.
Those of you who would like to visit by air have plenty of choice.
- Verona Airport — 30km
- Gabriele D’Annunzio Airport — 40km
- Orio al Serio Airport — 87km
- Marco Polo Airport — 159km
- Treviso Airport — 165km
- Bolzano Airport — 155km
- Milan Linate Airport — 134km
- Milan Malpensa Airport — 174km
- Innsbruck Airport — 279km
The nearest railway stations to Sirmione are at Peschiera which is 11km away or Desenzano which is 10km away. Once you get to the train station a short bus or taxi ride are necessary to get into Sirmione.
WHERE TO STAY:
Honestly, I recommend Sirmione. Despite it being the most popular and therefore busiest town its the most comfortable in terms of accommodation and dining. If you’re visiting in the summer like I did the streets come alive in the evening. In any other part of the world this is usually a negative thing, but in Sirmione everyone is just strolling. Its not like New York or London where cold and lifeless beings chaotically run up and down the streets carrying out their daily tasks. In Sirmione everyone is simply just enjoying the atmosphere and their surroundings. Everyone just becomes friendlier and you’ll soon find yourself smiling back at strangers who accidentally got caught in your line of vision.
You can find a list of accommodation choices here.
For those of you who are looking at cheaper options there are a number of campsite that are extremely popular. You can find a list of these here.
WHAT TO DO:
HIRE A BOAT
This was hands down one of the best things we did whilst in Garda simply because we got to see way more than we would have, in our own time and without having to stop at every port via the ferry. We were in charge and we got to see Lake Garda from the root itself stopping at every destination we felt like and parking our boat for lunch or breaks wherever and whenever we liked.
DRINK WINE IN BARDOLINO
Bardolino is famous for its wine and each year it holds two wine festivals (one in late spring and another at the end of the summer). However, you don’t need to attend a festival to taste what this town has to offer. Cool, dark wineries line the main street and a cluster of tables fill the streets to accommodate the many curious visitors who wait patiently to find out what all the craze is about.
EXPLORE LAKE GARDA’S MEDIEVAL PAST
Art and history lovers will never fall short of things to do here. From the medieval villages wedged between walls and towers, Veronese and Venetian castles and elegant villas Lake Garda is ultimately a leap into the past.
- Archaeological Museum in Sirmione (you can find one in Desenzano and Salò also).
- Villa Romana Grotte di Catullo in Sirmione.
- Isola del Garda in San Felice del Benaco.
- Fondazione Ugo da Como in Desenzano
- Il Vittoriale degli Italiani in Gardone Riviera.
RELAX AT A SPA OR WELLNESS CENTRE
As I mentioned above Lake Garda is perfect for relaxing and taking some time for yourself. It is perfect mainly because of the precious sulphurous water, containing sodium chloride, bromine and iodine, flowing naturally from the depths of the lake.
There are also a number of activities for those adventure junkies who just can’t sit by the lake all day:
- Sailing & Windsurfing
- Bike Routes
- Trekking and Nordic Walking
- Horse Riding
- Kite Surfing
- Ski (winter)
WHERE TO EAT:
- Ristorante Gemma – in Limone, a pretty yellow lakeside house covered in bougainvillea with the tables right on the water.
- Vecchia Malcesine – in Malcesine, a gourmet restaurant with a covered terrace and amazing view of the lake.
- Al Cantione – in Salò, a few streets back from the waterfront.
- La Goccia Trattoria – in Desenzano, perfect for fish lovers.
- La Rucola – in Sirmione, the chefs add a touch of class to the menu filled with sea and lake fish.
- Ristorante Papillon – in Salò, enjoy the pizza straight from the wood-fired oven by the lake.
- Cristallo Caffè – in Riva del Garda, more than 60 flavours of artisanal gelato crafted by the Panciera family, which has been making gelato since 1892.
The best way to move around is obviously by boat and the ferry system isn’t that much of a hassle to stop from town to town. You can search the routes and timetables on the official website.