Discover the Lake District of North West Italy

Written by on April 20, 2021 in Lakes & Rivers, Things to See & Do

Lake Garda paragliding - what a magnificent place for it!! - Discover the Lake District of North West Italy

Discover the Lake District of North West Italy

There are many lakes all over Italy, in fact more than 1,500, more if you include all the little mountain lakes. But most of the larger lakes are concentrated in Northwest Italy, in the Lombardia and Piemonte regions, not far from Milan.

The Italian Lake District

The 5 main lakes that make up the Italian Lake District are Lago Maggiore, Lago Lugano, Lago di Como, Lago di Garda and Lago d’Iseo. Around them you will find several smaller lakes – such as Lago d’Orta, west of Maggiore, Lago di Varese, east of Maggiore and many smaller Alpine lakes dotted around the valleys.

The Lake District region offers astonishing views of blue water, stunning mountains, sleepy cobblestone medieval villages, stone cottages, grandiose villas, incredible botanical gardens and exotic flora.

Lake District

Lago di Garda

It is the largest lake in the whole of Italy with a surface area of 370,000 square kilometres. It is located only 120km east of Milan and is shared by 3 different Italian regions, Lombardia, Veneto and Trentino-Alto Adige.

You can happily spend a couple of weeks holiday at Lago di Garda, there is so much to see and do. Water sports enthusiast will find some of the best places in the World for windsurfing, sailing and hang gliding. It is also a mecca for mountain biking and hiking. For the kids there are theme parks, water parks, zoos and other attractions. You can play golf, visit picturesque towns and ancient castles or just ‘dolce far niente’ on the beach or by the pool.

Things to enjoy at Lake Garda

One of the best way to see any large lake is from a boat and Lago di Garda is no exception. At it’s northern end it is surrounded by high mountains that come right down to the waters edge. The view is truly spectacular.

Depending on how many days you have you could also drive all around the lake which is about 150 km, although in high season the narrow roads can get very busy. Therefore, we suggest to combine driving with trips on the car carrying boats, which not just saves time but also gives you a fantastic feel for and view of the lake.


Some must visit villages on Lago di Garda

The 6 most beautiful towns on Lake Garda, starting from the south are heading up the east shore are:  Sirmione, Bardolino and Malcesine, with its medieval narrow streets and beautiful harbour. If you have time and weather is nice when you are in Malcesine, take the cable car up to Monte Baldo for a spectacular view over the lake.

Reaching north, the 2 most gorgeous towns are Torbole and Riva del Garda. Torbole is a wind-surfers paradise, while Riva del Garda has picturesque narrow streets with plenty of shopping and dining options.

Northern part of Lake Garda - Discover the Lake District of North West Italy

Coming back down the west shore stop at Limone sul Garda, with its charming colourful buildings on the waterfront. If you have time, take a detour to Lago di Tenno only 14 km from Riva del Garda. Stop at the charming medieval town of Canale di Tenno, one of the prettiest ‘borghi’ in Italy.

Lago Tenno

Read more about Lake Garda.

Lake Iseo

The 6th largest lake in Italy with a surface area of 65,000 square kilometres, situated 86 km east of Milan. The northern part of the lake (Alto Sebino) has been nominated a UNESCO World   Biosphere Reserve area.

Lake Garda

The lake is surrounded with beautiful medieval towns and villages such as Iseo located at the southern end of the lake. Or the little charming town of Sarnico. Going north on the west shore of the lake there is Predore and Tavernola Bergamasca from where you will see breath-taking views over the lake.

On Lago Iseo, you can take a boat trip to Monte Isola. It is the largest inhabited lake island in Europe.  The island is linked to the mainland by two main routes: Sulzano-Peschiera and Sale Marasino-Carzano. The ferry service runs 24 hours a day.

Monte Isola - Discover the Lake District of North West Italy

The ‘Treno dei Sapori’ and a ‘Pedalata Gostronomica’

If you would like to try something unique, take a journey on the ‘Treno dei Sapori’ to the nearby wine area of Franciacorta, tasting local wines and sampling other local delicacies on the way.

Staying with gastronomy, if you are looking for a more active way of tasting the local food, join the ‘pedalata gastronomica’ which takes place in the beginning of June. It is a 55-kilometre route suitable for everyone. It includes 5 stops at vineyards and at farmhouses where you can taste local products. You can rent a bike on site in Iseo from where the program starts.

Read more about Lago Iseo and Franciacorta.

Lago Maggiore

Lago Maggiore is the second largest lake of Italy with a surface of more than 212,000 square kilometres.  You can reach it from Milan easily, is only 70 km away.

Lago Maggiore is considered to be a quieter and less touristy place, however it is a very popular destination for Italians.

Borremean Island and Stresa Mattarone

The Borromean Islands

The three major islands of the lake, called the Borromean Islands, should definitely be on your list of places to visit. Isola Madre is the largest island and houses a stunning palace with a tropical garden, where white peacocks run free. Isola Bella is an ancient fishing village that has become a beautiful oasis with a baroque palace and a garden full of exotic plants. And last but not least, Isola dei Pescatori is the only island that is permanently inhabited. You can recognise it by the pointed spire of the Church of San Vittore, which rises above the red roofs of the houses.

isola dei pescatori - where people actually live permanently - Discover the Lake District of North West Italy

The most charming villages to visit are Stresa and Verbania, together with Legguino, Angera and Laveno. From Stresa you can take a cable car that takes you to the top of Mottarone. Here in the winter you can enjoy some lovely ski slopes and in the summer several hiking trails. There is also a great bob-sled ride which is fun for people of all ages. In Laveno you can take a funicular that climbs to the top of Sasso del Ferro, from where you enjoy the stunning views over the Alps and the lake. Do not miss a visit to the hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso in Legguino, which is still used as a monastery.

Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso in Legguino

There is plenty to do for the children too, such as the spectacular Zipline in Aurano, the Adventure Park in Baveno and the superb Botanical gardens and friendly petting zoo at Villa Palavicino in Stresa.

If you are feeling adventurous and energetic you can participate in Lake Maggiore half Marathon in early June in Stresa and Verbania.

Lake Lugano

Lugano is the 10th largest lake in Italy and is located 80km to the west of Milan, between Lago Maggiore and Lago di Como.

The majority of Lake Lugano is actually in Switzerland. The atmosphere around Lake Lugano has a mixture of the Swiss sophistication and the Italian relaxed, laid-back vibe. The Italian waters are considered non-territorial and therefore enjoy duty-free status, exempt from VAT.

Porlezza in Lake Lugano - Discover the Lake District of North West Italy

A popular tourist destination on the east shore is the little charming medieval town of Porlezza. It is situated in the Valsolda area which is dominated by the Dolomite cliffs and a 318 hectare nature reserve, the largest in the Lombardia region. Here you can enjoy numerous hiking trails and other outdoor activities. Alternatively, if you are looking for a more tranquil walk, you can just stroll along the lake shore in the village Oria and take a visit to the beautiful “Villa Fogazzaro ROI” Art museum.

Charming villages in the Valsolda area - Oria, Gandria - where the Olive Tree Trail starts

Only a few kilometres from Oria to the west, already in Switzerland, it is a quaint fishing village called Gandria. You can take the nature trail called “Olive Tree Trail” (Sentiero dell’Olivo) which is an easy 3 km picturesque lakeside walk to Castagnola. Look out for the 10 metre high ancient olive tree know as “Olivo di Carlin” by the pier in Gandria. Or if you are not a keen walker, enjoy a boat ride to the breath-taking town of Lugano.

Lago di Como

It is the deepest lake in Italy and the third largest with a surface area of almost 146,000 square kilometres.

Como is the closest of the great lakes to Milan (50 km) which makes it also an attractive commuting place for people who work in Milan. It is a glamorous place, much loved by celebrities and movie makers.

The beautiful town of Como - Discover the Lake District of North West Italy

Lago di Como has the shape of  an upside down letter ‘Y’. The town of Como is situated on its south west arm, Lecco on the south east arm and Colico at the top. The lake has been the destination of the Italian nobles since the 16th century, which you can see also from the breath taking and grandiose villas.

Cernobbio is the site of the Villa d’Este, which was presented in Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated film The Pleasure Garden, as well as Villa Erba, one of the most important Italian lake villas from the 1800’s. This historical Villa is a Convention Centre surrounded by the centuries-old park and the Galoppatoio (Horse track).

Villa d'Este Cernobbio

Bellagio is associated with elegant, aristocratic villas, including Villa Serbelloni and Villa Melzi with its botanical park. South of Bellagio you will come to Lecco, where you should visit Villa Manzoni, seat of the Manzoni Museum. It is also a departure point for a ‘Promessi Sposi’ itinerary – that is a tour that traces Manzoni’s Italian classical novel “The Betrothed”.

Lecco on Lake Como

Among the most beautiful villages in the north is Ossuccio, renowned for its spectacular Isola Comacina, the Lake’s only island and the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio, also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other characteristic and charming villages to visit are Varenna, Tremezzo, Bellano and Colico, home to the Abbey of Piona.

Varenna, Tremezzo and Nesso - Discover the Lake District of North West Italy

Activities on and around Como

Regarding activities and events around Lake Como, you are spoiled for choice again. Hiking, trekking, mountain biking, water sport in the summer including wind-surfing, canoeing, sailing, water-skiing, jet-skiing and kite-surfing. And for golfers you can find 7 internationally known courses. For ski loving people the 2 ski resorts close to the lake are Piani di Bobbio and Pian delle Betulle, both offering numerous pistes for downhill as well as cross-country skiing.

Things to enjoy around Lake Como

On the other hand, if you are looking for a laid back, easy going time, opt for superb boat trips, wine tasting tours, shopping for gifts and souvenirs. Or rent a vintage car, go back in time, stop at one of the magnificent, elegant villas, take a tour and enjoy sipping some prosecco at a bar on the shore.

Read more about Lake Como.

How do I get to the Italian Lakes?

Six airports serve the lakes, of which the most convenient is Milano Malpensa, situated just 15km from Lake Maggiore and handy for Orta and Como too. It has numerous international flights.

bergamo airport at sunset

Milano Linate is a likewise just short drive from Como. Bergamo’s Orio al Serio airport – Milan’s third airport – is a gateway for both Como and Lake Garda. Other airports within easy reach of Lake Garda include Brescia and Verona. The Swiss Lugano airport is also convenient especially for the western part of the Lake District. All six airports are well connected by public transport. From Malpensa, the “Malpensa Express” train departs frequently for Milan City Centre. It stops midway at Saronno, where you can change for the lines heading north to Como, Varese and Maggiore. Buses also run directly from Malpensa to Stresa, Como, Lugano, while from Linate take the Express bus to Milano Centrale and from there take a train to the lakes.

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