The ultimate guide to Lake Garda
Lake Garda is where glistening waters meet colourful towns, each with its own distinctive character. Add in the mountain backdrop and vineyard-covered countryside, and it’s easy to see why it’s the most popular of the Italian lakes.
Where is Lake Garda?
Lake Garda is in the heart of northern Italy, between Venice and Milan – and it’s the country’s biggest lake at 52km long. To get there, you’ll fly into Verona or Milan airport and then it takes between 45 minutes and 3 ¼ hours to drive to the lake, depending on which resort you’re staying in.
Where to stay on Lake Garda
There are 25 hubs circling the shores of Lake Garda. Hillside villages and harbour towns line the narrower northern tip, surrounded by dramatic mountains. The southern end is much flatter and wider, with gently rolling hills and the Sirmione peninsula stretching out from the shore. Take a look at some of our favourite places to stay…
The town of Garda itself is an ever-popular choice on the eastern edge of the lake. Its name comes from the old Germanic word for ‘guard’, in honour of the 5th-century fortress that once stood on the cliff next to the town. Now, it’s full of pavement cafés, waterfront villas and age-old cypress trees – not to mention the lively promenade, where you can watch musicians playing and join the locals in the evening for a passegiata, the traditional, pre-dinner walk.
Our favourite things to do in Garda
• Punta San Vigilio: Stroll a couple of kilometres along the shore to this little village. It’s got a harbour, church and shingle beach, as well as the Renaissance-style Villa Guarienti.
• Friday market: A weekly market moves from town to town around the lake, and on Fridays it comes to Garda. Browse for souvenirs and gifts among the stalls of pottery, leather and local produce.
• La Rocca di Garda: The 6km walk to the top of this 300m-high rock is steep but worth it. Visit the monastery that’s stood on the peak since 1663, and then head to the Rocca Vecchia viewpoint overlooking the town and lake.
Where to stay in Garda
• Hotel La Perla: Five minutes’ walk from the middle of town, this place has pastel colours and contemporary furniture to give it a fresh feel. But the real highlight is the huge outdoor pool.
• Hotel Regina Adelaide: This elegant hotel is a favourite for its great food. The Italian restaurant overlooks the garden, and there’s a patisserie that serves up homemade sweet treats and gelato.
Below the Monte Baldo mountain at the northern end of the lake is the medieval town of Malcesine. It’s one of the prettiest spots, with pastel-coloured shops, churches and restaurants, as well as a clifftop castle and harbour. Its beauty has drawn artists and writers there for centuries – Austrian artist Klimt once painted the town, and German writer Goethe was accused of spying when he came to sketch the castle.
Our favourite things to do in Malcesine
• Scaliger castle: There are four Scaligeri castles around the lake, built by the lords who ruled Verona back in the 13th and 14th centuries. The clifftop one in Malcesine is known as the most romantic and picturesque. Climb to the tower and look out over the terracotta rooftops and shimmering water.
• Monte Baldo cable car: Take the rotating lift up to 1,760m for a bird’s-eye view of the lake. The Monte Baldo peak’s also called the Garden of Europe, and there are lots of walking paths you can follow to see a rich variety of wild plants. Or just pop into a mountain hut for a bite to eat or classic Italian coffee.
• Palazzo dei Capitani: Once home to Malcesine’s governor, this 15th-century villa has a courtyard garden and ceiling frescoes showing the Scaliger castle and the lion emblem of St Mark.
Where to stay in Malcesine
• Hotel Majestic Palace: There’s fun for all the family here, with three outdoor pools, a kids’ club, tennis courts and minigolf. You can walk into town in 25 minutes – or just jump on the free hotel shuttle.
• Hotel Casa Barca: This small hotel is a good pick if you’re looking for a quieter place to stay. It overlooks the lake so you can admire the views from the outdoor pool or rooftop terrace.
On the northern shore of Lake Garda and surrounded by the Italian Alps, Riva is a lively harbour town with a historical centre and Roman town walls. The narrowness of this end of the lake, and the sheltering mountains surrounding it, also make it a great place for watersports. You can have a go at windsurfing or paddle-boarding, or just relax on one of the pebble beaches or grassy lidos that line the shore and watch others out on the lake.
Our favourite things to do in Riva
• Cascata del Varone waterfalls: Visit here to walk through caves and over bridges, and find the waterfalls that have been thundering down for 20,000 years.
• Torre Apponale clock tower: Once a lookout post, and then a prison, this 13th-century tower is now one of the best viewpoints around. Climb the 165 steps to the top to see across the harbour and lake.
• Museo Civico: The 12th-century Rocca Castle now houses a museum, where you can learn about the history of the town that’s lived under both Austrian and Venetian rule.
Where to stay in Riva
• Hotel Villa Nicolli: This hotel is all about romance. Spend time together in the huge spa and outdoor saltwater pool, and book a candlelit dinner in the à la carte restaurant.
• Hotel Garda: A modern choice, 15 minutes’ walk from the centre of Riva. Lounge under the palm trees around the outdoor pool, or make the most of the free bike hire and explore the area on two wheels.
In the south-east, Bardolino is another of the most popular towns on the lake. You can spend your days exploring the cafés, artisan shops and medieval churches. Once the sun goes down, the promenade is the place to be, with its bars, live music and street performers. Make sure you try some of the world-renowned local wines, which are made in the vineyards around the town. And if you’re there in June, you can celebrate the prized rosé variety at the Chiaretto Wine Festival.
Our favourite things to do in Bardolino
• Lakeside promenade: The 3km promenade between Garda and Bardolino is the longest one around the lake – and it’s the perfect place to go for a bike ride or walk, or to just sit outside a café with an ice cream or spritz.
• Vineyard tours: Visit local vineyards to learn about the winemaking process, from the grape to the glass, and sample some of the tipples that are made right on the shores of Lake Garda.
• Historical sights: A walk through town will take you past the ruins of an ancient castle and beautiful churches dating as far back as the 9th century. Finish at the San Nicolo church, where you can sit on the steps and listen to an evening concert or choir performance.
Where to stay in Bardolino
• Hotel Nettuno: This traditional hotel’s excellent location – and great staff – brings people back year after year. Soak up the scenery from the pebble beach, outdoor pool or terrace.
• Hotel Bardolino: Simple and welcoming, this is a good-value base for exploring. It sits between the towns of Bardolino and Cisano, and is less than a minute from the lakeside promenade.
Built on the rocks of Lake Garda’s north-western shore, Limone is known for its bustling harbour, pebble beaches and lemon groves. Surprisingly, the name doesn’t come from the fruit, but from when the town was the frontier of Roman control (‘frontier’ is ‘limen’ in Latin). This secluded spot could only be reached by boat until the road was built in 1932, and the narrow, cobbled lanes and shuttered houses still give it an authentic feel.
Our favourite things to do in Limone
• La Limonaia del Castèl: Get a glimpse into the history of Limone’s most famous export, and wander among the fragrant citrus trees on the terraced walkways of the lemon gardens.
• Church of San Rocco: Climb steps lined with flowers to reach Limone’s 16th-century church, and take a moment inside its cool walls to admire the colourful frescoes.
• Wander winding streets: Stroll along Limone’s twisting cobbled lanes and browse for souvenirs in the gift shops. Finish your walk on the promenade, stopping at a waterfront café to watch the world go by.
Where to stay in Limone
• Hotel Le Palme: In the heart of town, Limone’s very first hotel was originally a 17th-century Venetian villa. Spend the evening on the sun terrace by the old lemon house, where there’s live music most nights.
• Hotel Splendid Palace: Overlooking the bay, the highlight of this hotel is the views. Make the most of them as you swim in the pool, sit back in the whirlpool, or sip a glass of wine on the terrace.
Other things to do on Lake Garda
• Lake beaches: Spend the day at one of the pebble and grass lake beaches dotted along the shore – sunbathing, swimming and watching boats and windsurfers out on the water.
• Theme parks: Find fun and thrills at Italy’s best theme parks. You can enjoy over 30 rides at Gardaland – the biggest park in Italy – become part of the action at Movieworld, and make a splash at Caneva Aquapark.
• Dolomite mountains tour: Join a TUI day trip up into the dramatic Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll see spectacular mountain views and traditional villages, with plenty of stops for photos.
• City tours: Must-see cities like Venice, Verona, Florence and Milan are easy to reach by train from Lake Garda. Or book a TUI experience to get a guided tour of the best sights.
• Gardens: Get back to nature in some of Italy’s most beautiful gardens, from the rose-lined paths and hedge maze at Sigurtà Park to the neat flower beds and sprawling woodland on Isola del Garda, the lake’s biggest island.
Where to eat on Lake Garda
• La Bussola, Garda: Sit a streetside table or in the hidden garden and tuck into delicious seafood and steak. Then round off your meal with an icy-cold glass of limoncello.
• Al Gondoliere, Malcesine: This friendly, family-run place is proud of its traditional menu. The seafood is particularly good, so you can look forward to dishes like octopus carpaccio or gnocchi with prawns and courgette.
• Cristallo, Riva: This modern café serves up some of the best homemade ice cream in town. Dig into a huge sundae or grab a cone to go and enjoy it as you walk along the promenade.
• Caprice Pizzeria, Bardolino: This is the oldest pizzeria in Bardolino – and one of the best places to eat pizza on Lake Garda. Choose classic flavours, finished with a splash of homemade olive oil or balsamic vinegar.
• Al Vecchio Fontec, Limone: Tucked down a backstreet, this is a popular choice thanks to its reasonable prices and authentic Italian cooking – think plates of fresh fish and pasta drizzled with truffle oil.
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