Midway during my trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg in May this year, I received an invitation to visit a place called Lake Garda in Italy. Having been to this Southern European country a few times, the name piqued my curiosity. I have heard of Lake Como – that body of water just north of Milan filled with mansions owned by celebrities. Then there’s also Carezza, the baby blue lake in Italy’s alpine region. But I have to say I had not known about Lake Garda before.
A quick search provided for a revelation. Lake Garda, sandwiched between Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto – is actually the largest among Italy’s many lakes with plenty of small and distinctive towns dotting its shores. One of Italy’s short-lived republics, Salo, is actually situated by the lake. Most guidebooks catering to an international audience – such as Lonely Planet or Eyewitness Guides – devote no more than 1 or 2 pages to the area so the slightly off-the-beaten track feel certainly got my attention.
This is not to say that Lake Garda is devoid of tourists. The region is a very popular holiday destination among Italians and travelers from nearby European countries. Outside of this however, the lake remains mostly a secret (for now!). Plus there are so many attractions around the lake that you can easily find a town or a village all to yourself – even in high season.
I spent about 4 days going around the lake and sampling the myriad of specialties – from wines to golf, wonderful historical architecture as well as natural attractions. Once I found myself in Lake Garda, I must say I was hooked. The region simply offers plenty of diversity, from the milder climes of the south to the sub-alpine sensibilities of the north. And we’re talking about a lake that just spans 52 kilometers!
The next time you visit Italy for a holiday, make sure to check out Lake Garda.
What to do in Lake Garda
Visit the Diverse Towns Around Lake Garda
Gargnano – one of the most scenic towns in Lake Garda, this small community is noted for its curved shoreline which looks especially great when contrasted against the mountains in the distance. The narrow winding roads also add to the charm. The area is also known historically for its lemon gardens such as the Limonaia la Malora Lemon Garden.
Salo – the former capital of the short-lived Republic of Salo, the town is well known for its many palazzos as well as the cathedral which dates back from the 15th century. It is one of the larger towns around Lake Garda and the promenade lining the coast is the longest in the region.
Sirmione – the most touristy among the towns around Lake Garda (and with good reason!), Sirmione is a tiny and narrow peninsula jutting out of the lake like an appendix. One could easily spend an entire day here exploring Castello Scaligeri and the Roman ruins of Grotte di Catullo. The coastal areas of the northern part of the peninsula is termed “marbled beach” due to the colorful rocks sitting under the shallow waters and is a popular place for a soak due to the area’s thermal properties.
The Caffe Grande Italia is a must-try when in Sirmione. The classy venue dates back from 1894 and has seen some noteworthy people as its patrons including opera singer Maria Callas. If you are looking to cool off, the town is also well-known for its gelato shops.
From the cafe, it is a short walk to the pier where you can hire a boat to take you around the peninsula and past the drawbridge lining the castle. While it is also possible to walk around town by foot, a trolley can take visitors from one to end to another for roughly 1 to 2 Euros.
Desenzano del Garda – the largest town facing the lake and its commercial hub. It has a relatively local vibe where Italians go about their daily living. If you are heading to the lake from Milan or Venice, you’ll likely make a stop here. The main attraction is the castle which is perched on a hill in the center of town. If you are not busy shopping away in one of the town’s unusually large proportion of boutiques, I highly recommend coming up to the castle in the morning to appreciate the views. For party animals, the town offers plenty in terms of nightlife.
Garda – sharing the same name with the lake, the town of Garda is the main community in the eastern coast. A popular tourist town, Garda is filled with plenty of cafes and has more souvenir shops than I have seen anywhere else around the lake. Ferries from Sirmione dock here which make it a customary stop. Other than this, there’s not much to see here and you’re better off heading to San Zeno di Montagna or Malcesine.
Bogliaco – a charming and compact fishing village, Bogliaco is refreshingly uncrowded and is best combined with Gargnano if you plan to make a visit. There are lots of charming palaces and it’s interesting how some of them are built in the Austrian style owing to the village’s inclusion into the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to the First World War.
Make Your Way to the Enigmatic Vittoriale
A hillside estate in the town of Gardone Riviera, the Vittoriale was the residence of the Italian writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio from 1922 until his death in 1938. The estate consists of the Priory, an amphitheater, mausoleum, boathouse, a battleship and plenty of landscaped gardens. Vittoriale has been described as a lunapark, owing to the many quirky elements found within including rooms deliberately made dark, a leper’s room and another created in order to store religious relics.
Other than the opulent residence, the gardens – which are tiered – are also a great place for a stroll or to take shade in the warm glow of the summer sun. While there, you can also catch a glimpse of the dog cemetery (D’Annunzio was fond of dogs).
The amphitheater is probably the first thing most visitors would see when they enter the grounds. Other than offering a fantastic view of the lake, the venue itself is still used for performances to this day.
Adding to the juxtaposing features of Vittoriale, a genuine battleship called Puglia makes an appearance here amidst the calmness of the gardens.
Opening hours: 9am to 8pm (April to October), up to 5pm (Nov to March)
Admission: EUR 16 adult
Practice Your Swing at Paradiso del Garda Golf Club
The southern portion of Lake Garda is blessed with unusually mild weather and as such, it’s a popular region for various sports including golf. While a number of golf clubs dot the region, one of the most scenic is perhaps the Paradiso del Garda Golf Club.
Practice your swing at the driving range or play a few rounds at the golf course while savoring a huge bowl of fruits. Or better yet, have the kind folks from Olga Golf Activities – a group consisting of some of Italy’s most respected professional golfers – get your game on. My experience here was probably the most luxurious I’ve ever had where sports are concerned.
Sample the Wines
We all know that Italy is synonymous to wines and Lake Garda is just next to the Veneto region, one of the leading wine producers in the country. Go for a wine degustation as I did with sommelier Igor Sartori. We ran through some of the region’s best wines within one sitting, from the prized prosecco down to deliciously sweet Fior d’ Arancio Moscato and Recioto. In between, there’s the famous Amarone della Valpolicella and the Lugana wine which is emblematic of the region surrounding Sirmione.
Pick some lemons from Limonaia la Malora (Lemon Garden)
Lemons have always been part of Lake Garda’s heritage. This is evidenced for example in towns with names such as “Limone sul Garda.” While only a few plantations remain, one which is open to the public is the Limonaia la Malora located near Gargnano. This lemon garden was acquired by Giuseppe Gandossi, in 1978 after it had been completely abandoned for about 15 years. At the time, the garden was not well-maintained and only 6 lemon trees were left alive.
Today, his son Fabio actively manages the farm and runs guided tours at 11AM daily. At the end of the tour, you can drink a bit of limoncello by the gardens. I highly recommend the lemon marmalade which comes preservative free.
Opening hours: Daily, 10 to 12 am and 4 to 6 pm. Guided tours at 11am
Admission: EUR 3
Where to Eat in Lake Garda
Taverna Kus (San Zeno di Montagna)
This mountainside restaurant may require a bit of a drive but I assure you that it is worth it. The dishes here are as imaginative as the quirky interiors – there’s a room full of mirrors for example while a horse statue greets diners by the entrance. There are always seasonal items in the menu and these are heavily recommended. If you ever find yourself unsure what to order (and there are many things to choose from), the knowledgeable staff are there to help. My personal favorite is the Truffles Fettucine. If you are ever feeling adventurous, the excellent Caramelized Eel which is farmed in Lake Garda is not to be missed.
The desserts are highly imaginative affairs – from chocolate balls to a plate full of purple-colored sweets.
This rustic family-run restaurant located within a vineyard not far from Torre San Martino is as local as you’d expect. The owners – the Fortmentini brothers are highly hospitable and offer a wide knowledge of wines and of the Lake Garda region in general. If you’re looking for an authentic and insider experience, you won’t go wrong here. This is also an excellent place to taste Lugana wine. The venue is part of the Selva Capuzza, a wine estate that exports wines all over the world. There’s nothing pretentious about the food here. The Zucchini Salad was especially noteworthy and so were the homemade desserts.
Ristorante Rosa (Hotel Duomo, Salo)
With its lakeside location, the Ristorante Rosa in Hotel Duomo in the small town of Salo is the place to go for a laidback lunch without having to worry about schedules or other appointments. Try the Ravioli stuffed with fish while savoring the view over an espresso.
Villa Pioppi (Sirmione)
If ambiance is #1 in your list then you should make your way to Villa Pioppi. Come here in the evenings and watch the sun set over the horizon as the lake water starts to calm. The restaurant is a popular dinner spot and while there are both indoor and outdoor areas, you need to come extra early to get a table close to the lake. The River Shrimp Pasta is a must-try.
Where I Stayed in Lake Garda
The Hotel Dogana, located in Sirmione, is an inexpensive option for those who place a high priority on convenience (bus station is just a short walk away). The rooms in the main building are newly renovated and sport a contemporary look – in contrast to most hotels around Lake Garda in this price range that often look like traditional guesthouse affairs. If you are looking for rooms that are more modern at a budget-friendly price, then this is the place. Do note that the hotel has a main building and an annex. The main building is where you want to be for the modern and newly-renovated rooms.
Limonaia la Malora
Lunch at Ristorante Rosa in Salo
Golfing at Paradiso del Garda
Dinner at Villa Pioppi, Sirmione
Sirmione – Castello Scaligeri
Sirmione – Villa Romana
Sirmione – Boat tour around the peninsula
Take the ferry to Garda town
Explore Garda town
Dinner at Taverna Kus, San Zeno di Montagna
Explore Selva Capuzza – winery, restaurant
Day trip to Verona
I visited Lake Garda on a media trip with Italian Leisure Way. All views, as always, are my own.