7 Lakes To Swoon Over In The Italian Lakes District

Glamorous Mediterranean joie de vivre meets alpine outdoorsiness.

By Paul Jebara

30 January 2020

7 Lakes To Swoon Over In The Italian Lakes District

You’d have to be pretty determined to resist the spell cast by the enchanting landscapes of the Italian boot, spanning from the snow-dusted peaks of the Dolomites to the Puglia’s pearlescent sands and olive groves. We’d certainly contend that among Italy’s most classically romantic destinations is the Lakes District, an area that straddles the country’s borders with Switzerland at the foothills of the Alps.

This is where glamorous Mediterranean joie de vivre meets alpine outdoorsiness and sensibility, across three Italian regions: Piedmont, Lombardy, and Veneto. We can thank the Ice Age glaciers for their retreat into the peaks of the Alps millenia ago, carving out a smattering of postcard-perfect sanctuaries for Italophiles and local hedonists to swoon over. From Lake Como and Lake Maggiore—which often appear in films, literature, and daydreams—to the lesser-known Lake Orta and Lake Varese, we’ll explore seven of the most beautiful lakes in Italy and the treasures that each of them holds tight.

When to visit:

Summertime is arguably the most splendid season to enjoy the lakes of northern Italy, though the pleasant weather attracts pretty big crowds, especially in July and August. Plan a visit in May or September, which still ensures plenty of sunshine and opportunities for water sports, but without the peak pricing and influx of visitors. Alternatively, choose a small lake that’s less of an international headliner, and you’ll be gifted with a relaxed ambience all year round.

1. Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como may be Italy's most famous lake (grazie, George Clooney), and is certainly one of Europe’s most desirable destinations. Its reputation as a flashy magnet for the rich and famous has persisted for generations, and understandably so, considering the picturesque clusters of villages and stately villas perched on its banks. And with new hotels on the scene like the Mandarin Oriental Lago di Como and Vista Palazzo Lago di Como, a fresh air of opulence is blowing through.

How long to stay: 3 days

Getting here: Lake Como is about an hour away from Milan by car, and with the flexibility to explore the surrounding area, we recommend a road trip. Another option is to take the speedy 40-minute train from Milano Centrale to Como S. Giovanni, right on the shores of the lake—which your Journy trip designer would be happy to arrange for you.

Don’t leave without...

  • Hiking Como’s surrounding trails, especially the Wayfarer's Path that runs between the 8th-century hamlets of Varenna and Bellano.
  • Strolling along Como’s sparkling lakefront promenade with a stop at the Como Cathedral.
  • Riding the funicular that connects Como with the mountaintop village of Brunate 1,600 feet above the lake—stunning panoramic views included.
  • Sipping an espresso at Cremeria Bolla, a locally adored cafe since 1893.
  • Taking a tour of the area’s most legendary villas, like Villa del Balbianello in Lenno (a popular filming location), Villa Melzi d'Eril in Bellagio, and Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo.

Plan My Trip To Lake Como

2. Lake Maggiore

Lake Maggiore

Jaw-droppingly gorgeous Lake Maggiore is another certifiable hotspot in the Italian Lake district. It’s also the second largest lake in the district, extending its reach into Swiss territory. This slender body of water is best known for being home to the three enchanting Borromean Islands, as well as offering a range of activities for outdoor lovers.

How long to stay: 4 days

Getting there: You can reach Lake Maggiore in about 90 minutes by train from Milan to Stresa, the transport hub on the western shore. Renting a car takes about the same amount of time.

Don’t leave without...

  • Touring the manicured gardens and villas of the Borromean Islands—Bella, Madre, and Superiore—which have been owned by the aristocratic Borromeo family since the 16th century.
  • Taking the cable car up Mottarone Mountain for a stunning panorama and stroll inside the Botanic Garden of Alpinia.
  • Touring Villa della Porta Bozzolo and Villa Taranto of Rocca di Angera, two medieval fortresses on the lakeshore.
  • Photographing the Colossus of St. Carlo Borromeo, one of the largest statues in the world (at 115 feet tall) in the town of Arona.
  • Kayaking, rafting, or hiking in the breathtaking Sant'Anna Gorge.

Plan My Trip To Lake Maggiore

3. Lake Garda

Lake Garda

As Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda is a superb base for exploring the entire region, especially with its convenient location between Venice and Milan. The lake’s perimeter stretches to nearly 100 miles total, along which you’ll find ten hill-hugging villages with lidos (“beach” clubs), grand castellos, and lively plazas. Whereas Como is favored by American tourists, Europeans tend to gravitate toward Lake Garda for its milder climate and diverse family-friendly attractions.

How long to stay: 4-5 days

Getting there: Verona is the closest international airport, but with regular train service from the lake towns of Desenzano del Garda and Peschierato to Milan, Venice, and Brescia, Lake Garda is the most accessible spot on this list.  

Don’t leave without...

  • Touring the lush Botanic Garden atop Mount Baldo, nearly 4,000 feet above sea level.
  • Walking to the peak of Arco Castle, a 12th-century medieval fortress built on a rock spur over the Arco Valley.
  • Diving into the Sirmione area, a thermal spa destination that boasts the famed Grotte di Catullo archaeological site and the 13th-century Scaliger Castle, one of the country’s best-conserved castles.
  • Perusing religious art at the Romanesque Abbey Churches of Maderno and Bardolino, and the neoclassical Parochial Churches of Bardolino and Cassone.
  • Lingering over lunch in Riva del Garda, one of the most beautiful towns around Lake Garda.

Plan My Trip To Lake Garda

4. Lake Iseo

Lake Iseo | @miraz_travels

Tucked in the Lombardy region, Lake Iseo is often considered a hidden gem compared to the larger, better-known lakes, and it’s got the smaller crowds to prove it. In fact, you may have never even heard of this one, as is kept closely guarded to prevent over exposure to tourists. Beside the tranquil nature of Lake Iseo, the true highlight is Monte Isola, Europe’s largest lake island, which can be accessed from the towns of Iseo, Sale Marasino, and Sulzano on the eastern shore.  

How long to stay: 3 days

Getting there: Take a 20-minute train from Brescia to the lakeside towns of Iseo or Sulzano. Renting a car is probably the ideal way to reach Lake Iseo, especially if you’re staying on the western side of the lake. You can either carry on driving along the lakeshore or park and take a ferry or bus to continue your journey.

Don’t leave without...

  • Taking a traghetto ferry to Monte Isola, where you can climb up to Madonna della Ceriola, a 13th-century church at the island’s highest point 2,000 feet above sea level.
  • Passing by Palazzo Martinengo, one of the finest Renaissance mansions on the lake, nestled in the town of Sale Marasino.
  • Strolling through the elegant piazzas and churches of Iseo town.
  • Discovering the rustic charms of Lovere, Riva di Solto, and Marone, three medieval villages that date back to the Stone Age.
  • Savoring tinca al forno (baked fish with bread and polenta), a hyper-local specialty from the town of Clusane.

Plan My Trip To Lake Iseo

READ MORE: The Founder Of Puglia's Most Respected Cooking School Wants You To Stop Thinking Of All Italian Food As The Same

5. Lake Orta

Lake Orta

Another hidden gem in the area is Lake Orta, a truly underrated destination west of Lake Maggiore in the Piedmont region. Italian visitors love this spot for its uncrowded cobblestoned streets, age-old basilicas, and rich history. Stay in the artistic village of Orta San Giulio (where Friedrich Nietzsche wrote his novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra), the ideal place to settle into for creative inspiration.  

How long to stay: 3 days

Getting there: Combine your visit to Lake Orta with a stay at Lake Maggiore or Lake Varese, as they are all in close proximity to one another. If you’re going directly to Lake Orta, renting a car is best from Milan’s Malpensa airport, which is just 28 miles away. Access by train is much more limited than other lakes.

Don’t leave without...

  • Exploring San Giulio Island’s 12th-century Basilica di San Giulio and Benedictine monastery.
  • Climbing to the top of Sacro Monte di Orta, one of nine “sacred mountains” in northern Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with religious artwork and chapels.
  • Meandering along the Piazza Mario Motta, lined with pastel-colored buildings and al fresco eateries.
  • Visiting the Painted Walls of Pogno, an open air art gallery of murals about 20 minutes from Orta San Giulio.
  • Lazing around at the Orta Beach Club, the perfect place to swim or kayak in the lake.

Plan My Trip To Lake Orta

6. Lake Varese

Lake Varese

Sizewise, Lake Varese is smaller than the other lakes in the Lombardy region, but that doesn’t mean you should sleep on this jewel at the base of Mount Campo dei Fiori. Don’t expect a library of historic landmarks, grand palazzos, or regal promenades—this lake is all about enjoying the pristine nature of the lush alpine foothills.

How long to stay: 2 days

Getting there: Reach Lake Varese by car in less than an hour from Milan, or tack it onto an existing trip to Lake Maggiore as a day trip. Arriving by public transport is doable, but much more time consuming as you’ll need to take a train to the town of Varese, and then a bus to the lakeside town of Schiranna.

Don’t leave without...

  • Spending the day sunning and dipping into the lake at one of the handful of beach clubs, like Lido di Varese.
  • Visiting the Baroffio Museum, which has a wide, art-focused collection of intriguing curiosities and collectibles, like Chinese paintings and illuminated manuscripts.
  • Renting a bike to cycle the winding 20-mile trail that hugs the lakeshore.
  • Hopping on a ferry to the tiny islet of Isolino Virginia, home to an impressive Neolithic settlement and the Ponti Museum dedicated to the excavation of the historic site.

Plan My Trip To Lake Varese

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7. Lake Lugano

Lake Lugano

Shared by Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Tocino region, Lake Lugano’s crystal clear waters divinely reflect the towering alpine peaks that surround it. Though much of the lake’s footprint is inside Swiss borders, Lugano has a distinctly Mediterranean flair, with its largest city earning the nickname the “Monte Carlo of Switzerland.'' There are several stunning towns on both the Swiss and Italian sides, like Porlezza, Brusimpiano, and Campione d’Italia—just make sure to keep your passport handy as you’ll frequently be crossing those borders.

How long to stay: 3 days

Getting there: The city of Lugano is the nearest entry point, though it’s technically in Switzerland. Milan would be the nearest major Italian city, just 75 minutes away by train.

Don’t leave without...

  • Discovering Campione d'Italia, an Italian enclave surrounded by Switzerland on all sides, where people use Swiss francs and have Swiss phone numbers, but carry Italian passports.
  • Visiting the Hermann Hesse Museum in Montagnola, dedicated to author and Nobel laureate Herman Hesse.
  • Hiking the summit of Monte San Salvatore for spectacular vistas of the Alps.
  • Embarking on a brunch boat trip on the lake to take in the scenic beauty while devouring local specialties.

Plan My Trip To Lake Lugano

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Bellagio, Lake Como