There are five major lakes in the Italian Lake District: Lake Maggiore, Lake Lugano, Lake Como, Lake Iseo and Lake Garda. The most well-known lake is Lake Garda but there are hidden gems like Lake Como and Lake Iseo that are often overlooked by visitors.
The Italian Lake District is worth visiting for its picturesque mix of lakes, mountains, pretty villas, old castles and monasteries. The Italian lakes are a great place to enjoy outdoor activities including hiking and water sports. A day trip to Milan is also possible from the Italian Lake District.
To help you decide which lake to visit, this article includes a description of the most famous lakes in the Italian Lake District and things to discover in each.
1. Lake Garda
Lake Garda is the most well-known lake in Lombardy. It is also the largest lake in Italy and the 34th largest lake in Europe!
Most tourists decide to visit Lake Garda and there is a good reason for this. The lake is superb! You will find crystal clear water, impressive views from old fortresses and the archaeological Grotte di Catullo.
The town of Sirmione on the southern banks of Lake Garda is known for its medieval castle and thermal baths and is a great starting point to visit Lake Garda. The town offers plenty of picture-perfect spots to be immortalised in photographs. You don’t need to be an expert to succeed in taking fabulous photographs here.
The water has an enticing blue-green colour which reflects the buildings of the town and the castle. When you wander around the town, you will find cobbled streets and stone houses. There are also plenty of lovely restaurants where you can rest and try out local Italian food specialities.
Things to Do or See in Lake Garda
There are plenty of activities to enjoy in Lake Garda, including many different water activities ranging from boat tours to canoeing.
As mentioned previously, Sirmione is a tiny picturesque town but, if you have kids to entertain, you might consider visiting the Gardaland amusement park which is just thirty minutes’ drive from Sirmione.
If you prefer to explore, you can visit the other historic villages dotted around the lake. For instance, you can visit Desenzano del Garda on the southwestern tip of the lake or Bardolino on the southeastern side.
Malcesine is another lovely town on the eastern shore of Lake Garda with its castle (also named Castello Scaligero!). Alternatively, you could explore Riva del Garda which is a bustling Italian town sitting at the northern end of the lake between the mountains.
To make sure you make the most of your trip to Lake Garda, here are some experiences which you can book in advance.
What to Do and See in Sirmione, Lake Garda
Sirmione on the south bank of Lake Garda is an attractive, small town with picturesque cobbled streets, ancient ruins, castle and charming houses for your eyes to feast upon. It’s certainly a memorable place.
The combination of the old town with its castle on the waterfront and the lake make for a special atmosphere. When you visit Sirmione, you will feel relaxed and at peace as you explore at your own pace.
Scaligero Castle is one of the best-preserved castles in Italy, from the Scaliger era. The castle is located on the edge of the main square of the town.
Even from the entrance, you will be speechless because of the beauty of the castle and the emerald water. The castle isn’t big but definitely worth visiting. Allow yourself around half an hour to see it.
Be aware that there are plenty of steps so if you find it difficult to climb steps, perhaps just enjoy the castle from outside as it’s a beautiful sight. Get your camera ready!
Archaeological Site of Grotte di Catullo
The Grotte di Catullo is an archaeological park with the remains of a Roman villa surrounded by an enormous olive tree grove. These ancient ruins were built between the end of the first century BC and the beginning of the first century AD.
This site has an amazing location which juts out into Lake Garda. The archaeological site entrance is approximately 1 km from the town centre and during the peak season there is an electric train if you have kids and want to avoid walking in the heat.
The Church of San Pietro in Mavino
The Church of San Pietro in Mavino is the oldest church in Sirmione, surrounded by olive trees in a magical location which overlooks Lake Garda. The church is a 15-minute walk from the town centre up the hill.
The views from the church are stunning over the entire lake. Inside the church, you will find attractive frescoes and a collection of architectural remains.
2. Lake Como
Lake Como is my favourite of the Italian lakes. If you look on the map, it is easy to recognize with its upside-down Y shape. This lake is a lot less touristic than Lake Garda. For this reason, celebrities like George Clooney have homes here.
Lake Como is also a popular choice for film makers. If you are a fan of James Bond and Star Wars, you will recognize some of the locations used for these movies.
Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy and one of the deepest lakes in Europe. The lake is surrounded by many beautiful villas and it is a popular place for wealthy people to live. One of the most stunning villas is the Villa del Balbianello (see below).
What to Do and See in Lake Como
Like Lake Garda, Lake Como has a lot to offer visitors. You can take advantage of many different water sports and visit beautiful towns and villages. Don’t miss visiting Como City, Bellagio, Varenna and Tremezzina.
You can travel between these lakeside towns and villages by bus or boat. However, travelling by boat is by far the best experience.
Lake Como also has spectacular villas to visit and you must experience the delicious fresh Italian food.
What to Experience in Como City, Lake Como
At the southern end of Lake Como is Como City, a charming town with old streets and medieval history. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you can experience the local market where you can mingle with the locals and enjoy seeing typical regional food. Take time to enjoy an Italian coffee outside on one of the piazzas before wandering around the town.
In Como City, there are plenty of authentic shops where you can buy clothes and other items with shops for any budget. If you prefer historical things to experience, you can visit the Romanesque Church of San Fedele or the Como Cathedral.
Other things to do in Como City include visits to the avant-garde Life Electric Monument, the Volta Museum or the Villa Olmo.
Como City can be expensive to find a hotel, so we recommend you check below with booking.com to find the best deal for your stay.
You can also enjoy the lake by using a boat to reach your next destination. From Como City, you can go to the beautiful town of Bellagio located on a promontory on the east coast of Lake Como.
For other ideas about experiences in and around Como City, check out the ideas below.
What to Experience in Bellagio Town, Lake Como
The town of Bellagio is considered as the pearl of Lake Como and is one of the most gorgeous places in Lombardy, Italy. Located halfway up on eastern side of Lake Como, Bellagio is perfect for a day trip. You will find all the attractions in walking distance of each other.
The town centre with its tiny streets is pretty in itself with plenty of local shops and restaurants. One of the best places to enjoy is the Via Giuseppe Garibaldi but avoid staying on this main street.
There are plenty of other streets to explore, some of which head towards the lake front. The streets rise from the lake and be aware that there are plenty of stairs. Like Como City, you will find examples of Romanesque churches in Bellagio.
Whilst you are visiting Bellagio, don’t miss out on seeing the Villa Serbelloni and the Villa Melzi and their gardens. To visit inside the Villa Serbelloni, you need to be a guest at the hotel, but you can book a tour to enjoy the garden. Villa Melzi is the best solution and is perhaps the best villa of the two to visit.
Bellagio is also a romantic place where you can enjoy stunning sunsets. See the map below for a hidden sunset spot. Grab a picnic and wait for nature’s spectacle.
As for Como City, it’s a good idea to book your hotel in advance. To find the best deal, check below for the best options for your travel dates.
From Bellagio, you can take another boat trip to your next destination. The public boat service from Belaggio serves Como and Varenna.
What to Experience in Varenna Town, Lake Como
Varrena is one of the most authentic villages around Lake Como and perhaps the quietest as well. If you are coming from Milan, you will be pleased to find this tranquil place to rest and explore in peace.
This typical Italian fishing village with a church, shops and charming cobblestone streets. You can also visit the Villa Monastro and the botanical gardens. This villa was an old monastery and afterwards an aristocratic house.
Another thing you can experience in Varenna is to walk to the top of the hill to reach the Castello di Vezio. This ancient medieval castle overlooks Varenna and the lake.
For the best places to stay in Varenna, check below.
If you want to research other day trips in the area, check below for the best experiences around Varenna.
From Varenna, you can easily take another boat trip to your next destination. The public boat service deserves Bellagio and Tremezzina.
What to Experience in Tremezzina Town, Lake Como
On the western banks of Lake Como, opposite Bellagio is Tremezzina. This town is a paradise for film lovers and the Villa Balbianello has been a location for many prestigious movies making it a superb place to visit.
From the 12th Century, the villa was an ancient monastery. However, you won’t believe its hidden history. Under the villa are escape tunnels and hidden passages built by Count Guido Monzino following the assassination of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade.
However, the villa is more famous today thanks to the movies which have been filmed on location here including blockbusters like Casino Royale or Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. The price to visit the villa and gardens is 23 Euros and is well worth the price.
If you are interested in visiting another villa, you could also try Villa Carlotta.
In Tremezzia, there are plenty of trails to be explored like the Greenway del Lago which is an 11.2 km landscape trail on the western shore of the lake. Alternatively, you could walk around Ossuccio to discover the San Benedetto Abbey.
What to do Around Lake Como?
In the area surrounding Lake Como, you can explore some prestigious farms which produce honey, cheese, olive oil, milk, eggs and salami.
3. Lake Maggiore
Lake Maggiore is located 70 km from Milan and is the second largest lake in Italy. The lake has a natural beauty with three small islands and two islets in the middle of the lake (the Borromean Islands) against a mountain backdrop of the Alps.
See below for more detailed information, but in short you can visit:
- Isola Bella (Beautiful Island) with its surreal palace gardens and small streets with exquisite shops and restaurants.
- Isola Madre (Mother Island) known for its botanical gardens, white peacocks and rare species of birds.
- Isola Superiore dei Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island) with its snaking medieval streets and charming views of the lake.
Lake Maggiore has a lot to explore whether you are looking for historical things to see or sporty things to do.
What to Do and See in Lake Maggiore
Around Lake Maggiore, you will find plenty of picturesque villages but what makes Lake Maggiore special is its islands which are a unique experience. The islands are easy to access from the town of Stresa as there is ferry service which links them.
All these islands are collectively called the Borromean Islands. If you can only visit one, don’t miss the Isola Bella and its magnificent gardens. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to see the white peacocks?
Isola Bella (Beautiful Island)
The island is 400 metres off Stresa, but you can also access the islands from Verbania, Baveno and Arona. In my opinion, Isola Bella is the best island to visit.
When you approach the island by boat, you will notice the garden with plenty of terraces (which resemble rice terraces) and a lot of statues.
The island is like a diamond on the surface of the lake. The island was naturally splendid, but with human help the landscaping of the island is now even more beautiful and is one of the top choices for tourists.
The Baroque Palace on the island is also great to visit. However, the main attraction for visitors is the gardens. They stand at 37-metres high divided into 10 terraces which make for an amazing and surreal sight.
At the top, there is a Unicorn statue which is the symbol of the Borromean Islands. You will also find plenty of other statues around the gardens and on the terraces.
Isola Superiore dei Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island)
Perhaps you will be disappointed when you first arrive on the Isola Superiore dei Pescatori because of the tourist stalls waiting for you.
However, don’t stop here. Keep walking and explore further by getting lost on the picturesque narrow streets and enjoy the peace. Shake off the tourists and find an authentic coffee shop and enjoy it with the locals.
Isola Madre (Mother Island)
Isola Madre is also famous for its exotic gardens and the variety of rare bird species. Some people describe the island as a garden on water. It is a paradise for birds, including white peacocks.
4. Lake Iseo
Lake Iseo is the last lake in my selection but not the least. Lake Iseo is undiscovered gem found in the Italian Lake District. This lake is the fourth largest lake in Italy and the biggest town on the lake is Iseo.
Compared to the other lakes, Lake Iseo is smaller but has an undisturbed quality so is perfect if you are looking to escape the crowds and want to enjoy a peaceful holiday. If you enjoy being outdoors, you can explore its amazing natural beauty by hiking in the hills and mountains which surround the lake.
Almost an equal distance between the north and the south of the lake is an island called Montisola which is the largest lake island in Europe. The island can be reached by ferry from Sulzano.
There are no cars on the island of Montisola, so a visit here truly transports you back in time. A trip to Montisola is a good excursion by boat with fabulous views from the lake.
What to Do and See in Lake Iseo
The northern portion of the Lake Iseo (Alto Sebino) has been declared a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The lake is also studded with medieval towns and villages.
Iseo will be the first one you probably visit at the southern end of the lake, but don’t miss Sarnico, Predore and Tavernola Bergamasca if you have time. From the villages of Predore and Tavernola Bergamasca, you will find breath-taking views of the lake.
On Lake Iseo, you can enjoy water sports just like on the other lakes. However, one of the main attractions is a train ride along the shoreline of the lake whilst you enjoy a 3-course menu. Imagine eating delicious local specialities with a view from your window of spectacular scenery. The restaurant serves just local produce which is fresh on the day.
Whilst you are visiting Lake Iseo, you can also discover the wine from the lake area (Franciacorta) and immerse yourself in an Italian vineyard. To learn more about opportunities like this, you can book one of the best wine tours by browsing the hand-picked selection below.
Where is the Lake District in Italy?
The Italian Lake District is located in northern Italy in Lombardy. This area is surrounded by mountains and stunning landscapes which are full of basins and lakes.
All the lakes are conveniently close to the Italian city of Milan.
Distance of Lakes from Milan:
- Lake Garda: 120 km
- Lake Iseo: 86 km
- Lake Lugano: 82 km
- Lake Maggiore: 70 km
- Lake Como: 50 Km
If you are interested in planning a day trip to Milan, check our other post about Milan.
Why Visit the Lakes in Northern Italy?
The area around the Italian lakes attracts a lot of travellers who want to discover more about Italy. The Italian Lake District is a good place to relax, enjoy sports or have fine dining experiences.
If you are looking for sporting activities, you will be happy to know that the Italian lakes offer you the opportunity to do many water sports, hiking, horse riding and golf. Almost anything is possible.
If you want more relaxing experiences, you can opt for boating. You can use the public boat to hop from one village to another. At the same time, you will have a great view of the beautiful villas and colourful villages.
If you are foodies and are passionate about cuisine, you will not be disappointed either. There are plenty of authentic places to eat including a train which tours the lake whilst you are eating!
Best Time to Visit the Lake District Italy
The hottest period in the Italian Lake District is between June and August. This is a good time to visit if you want to enjoy the water sports but not so good if you want to find tranquillity. At this time of the year, there are a lot of visitors to the area.
If you want a more peaceful holiday, then you need to opt for April to June or the end of August into September.
If you can’t travel off peak, don’t worry there is solution to find tranquillity and hot weather. For that, you need to avoid the tourist places like Lake Garda and head to Lake Orta, Lake Lugano and Lake Varese which are visited a lot less by tourists.
Is the Italian Lake District Worth Visiting?
The Italian Lake District has a lot to offer visitors to Italy. Whichever Italian lake you decide to visit, you will experience stunning natural landscapes, picturesque towns and villages and water-based activities which are sure to please all the family.
Spending a few days around any of the Italian lakes is relaxing. The Italian Lake District offers a time to relax but also cultural and historical things to see and do. What’s more the lakes are easily accessible from Milan and offer a peaceful contrast to a bustling city.