Extending from Lakes Orta and Maggiore in the west, Lake Como north of Milan and Lake Garda to the east, the northern Italian lakes are truly stunning. Each lake is diverse with a charm of its own and can be enjoyed as a fabulous holiday or combined as a two-centre destination with one of the northern Italian cities.
Surrounded by the snow-covered Alps, their breath taking scenery and pure air have been popular since Roman times. Many writers, poets and composers have been inspired by them - Manzoni’s famous novel, I Promessi Sposi, is set on Lake Como; Verdi and Rossini found inspiration in their beauty and Ernest Hemingway enjoyed spending time on Lake Maggiore.
Lake Garda, the largest in Italy and divided between three regions, stretches between the Alps and Dolomites. The lake acts like a huge solar panel and the mountains as an insulator keeping the heat in making for a year-round mild climate. As a result, the olive and grape vines on the banks of the lake produce excellent olive oil and wine – look out for white Lugana or Bardolino red– and even lemons grow producing a local liqueur known as limoncino.
The mountainous regions in the north of Lake Garda offer fabulous hiking and cycling opportunities as well as water sports. For a more laid-back approach, the southern part is perfect for soaking up the sun on its pretty pebbly beaches where swimming is a joy in the calm, warm waters of the lake. Lake Garda has something for everyone – whether you enjoy the tranquillity of the mountains, explore Limone’s quaint narrow streets and lemon groves, or enjoy cosmopolitan Sirmione which comes alive with bars and restaurants in the evening. And if you want to treat the kids for a day, Gardaland themepark has it all! For nature lovers head west of Garda to the off the beaten track, smaller Lake Iseo, famous for its excellent Franciacorta sparkling wine.
Lakes Garda and Iseo can easily be combined with Verona or Venice for a superb twin centre holiday. Not only beautiful, holidaying in Lake Garda is good for your health! The town of Limone is renowned for its population’s longevity due to the pure air and good food.
Lake Como, shaped like an upside down Y, is Italy’s third largest lake and the deepest in Europe. Situated in Lombardy at the foot of the Alps, it has always been a popular retreat for the wealthy. Its palatial lakeside villas have been turned into luxurious hotels and many are second homes for the rich Milanese as well as Hollywood celebrities – if you’re lucky you could spot George Clooney.
Lake Como has always been a particular favourite of Liz’s as she spent many childhood family summers there spending lazy days on the small lidos as well as enjoying the many scenic walks. Visit the famous Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo with its wonderful botanical gardens or take ferry trips to the pretty towns of Varenna and Cadenabbio. A visit to charming Bellagio with its cobbled streets and chic boutiques is a must, as well as the main town of Como on market day for local specialities. Fish from the lake is popular in this area - be sure to try Missoltit, preserved dried fish, a speciality of the region as well as the region’s staple, risotto. Milan is very close by and worth a day trip to visit the famous Duomo and indulge in some retail therapy.
I’ve been lucky to have visited all the lakes, but have probably spent the longest on Lake Maggiore whilst filming a few years ago. Lake Maggiore straddles both Italy and Switzerland with stunning Alpine scenery and, like Lake Garda, enjoys a mild year-round climate. Its proximity to Switzerland means a trip to Zermatt to enjoy some of the best mountain scenery and the mighty Matterhorn.
I particularly enjoyed visiting the smaller Boromean islands especially the fishing village on Isola Pescatori, so quaint and far removed from the modern world where you can watch the fisherman’s boats come in with their catch and enjoy a lovely lunch at the local seafood restaurant. There is also the lovely Isola Bella and Isola Madre with their lavish palaces and wonderful gardens.
With lots of accommodation on offer to suit all budgets, Stresa is an ideal base for a holiday in Lake Maggiore; a typical, elegant Italian town with good ferry links to the nearby islands and trips to the mountains. For stunning Alpine views, take the Mottarone cable car conveniently located by the lido. Stresa is lovely for wandering leisurely along the lakeside promenade and enjoying the many shops, cafes and restaurants the town has to offer.
For an undiscovered gem and away from it all experience, try enchanting Lake Orta just west of Maggiore. Stroll along the cobbled streets of medieval Orta San Guilio to marvel at the pretty picturesque houses and 15th-century baroque church. Take the boat across the lake to Pella, a quiet, pretty little village, for a wander and some lunch.
Whether you want an activity packed holiday in Lake Garda with the family, a romantic escape to the luxury Hotel Villa d’Este on Lake Como or a get-away-from-it-all experience on Lake Orta, the choice is yours and there is something for everyone to enjoy and savour in the incredibly beautiful lakes of northern Italy.