You don’t hear much about Lake Garda compared to it neighbor Lake Como. Lago di Garda as it is called by the Italians, is a popular holiday destination and is located in northern Italy, between Venice and Milan. It is the largest lake in Italy, glaciers formed this alpine region at the end of the last Ice Age. The lake and its shoreline are divided between the provinces of Verona, Brescia, and Trentino.
Why visit Lake Garda
When we were in Italy last fall, we were contemplating between visiting Lake Como and Lake Garda for a spending a few days during a driving trip from Venice to Milan. Lake Garda area of Northern Italy was highly recommended by the locals as one of their favorite holiday destinations. You can go to Lake Como for a meal and admire the beauty of the villas around but if you want an active holiday with the family exploring quaint towns on the lake shore, go paddle boating, swimming, visiting wineries, olives groves – go to Lago di Garda we were told. And that is what we did… and we were surprised at the amount on things there were to do around the lake.
Where to stay
If you’re arriving at Lake Garda by train or from the A4 Autostrada, Desenzano del Garda is where you’ll probably catch your first sight of Italy’s largest lake. It is a lively little town centered around a marina basin and the piers where lake steamers and hydrofoils leave for towns all around the lake. We picked Desenzano del Garda as our base and stayed at the Park Hotel Desenzano for two nights.
With plenty of cafés and restaurants and convenient boat connections, Desenzano is a great base for exploring the lake. Most of the lake’s best beaches are along this southern shore. Our hotel was situated walking distance to the town square and had wonderful views of the lake. It had lovely outdoor areas and a rooftop pool with views of the lake. We had a family suite here and our windows opened up to the colorful town square. We loved the morning breakfast and evening time at the cocktail bar and kids enjoyed playing with the hotel dog Aki.
Things to do
There are many interesting and fun places to visit around Lake Garda. There are many campsites dotted around the shores of the lake and not too far away are several theme parks for families to enjoy. You can visit wineries, look for some truffles, check out the olive oil production, do some shopping in the markets, go cruising around the lake in a boat and of course enjoy wonderful food and wine that Italy is famous for. We ate so many truffle dishes, since Fall is truffle season and the chefs were generous with their shavings of both black and white truffle.
Olive oil from Lake Garda is a unique light oil of an extremely high quality. It is produced all around the lake by small family enterprises and you can visit the farm and oil mill near Desenzano at Frantoio Montecroce. Make sure to get appointments in advance.
We went wine tasting and walked through the winery at Ca Maiol. Cà Maiol is located in a beautiful area between the Morenical Hills and the south part of the Lake Garda. You can visit the wine cellars and vineyards overlooking the lake, learn about the technologically advanced cellars, their stainless steel vats and innovative bottling equipment while on a tour. We brought back a couple of bottle of wine that we enjoyed later in Milan.
We didn’t make it to Gardaland, the largest in theme park in Italy, with more than 35 theme attractions for young and old – the park is located in Castelnuovo del Garda, near Verona. Adventure lovers can’t really miss the Caneva World theme parks – Movieland, dedicated to the world of cinema with shows, animation and reconstructions of film sets, and the Caneva Water Park, a paradise made of big and small pools with slides, attractions and water games. Both parks are located in Lazise sul Garda, in Verona district.
Most Lake Garda park attractions are generally opened from April to late October, with special openings during the Christmas holidays and some weekends. Since we were there in November during our Thanksgiving break, the weather was a little cool and not many water activities were open.
Towns to visit
Although we didn’t indulge in water activities or boat rides on the lake, we drove around the perimeter of the lake visiting the different town squares and markets, many were dressed with pretty lights for Christmas.
Desenzano del Garda
Desenzano del Garda was on the way from Venice to Milan during our road trip and had excellent roads and rail network like I mentioned earlier. The town’s railway station is linked to Venice at one end and Milan at the other. By express train Venice can be reached in around one and a half hours, Milan in just under an hour. Verona is a quick day trip away too. The station is about a kilometer inland and up a long hill but the local bus service takes you straight there. But to get to the town around the lake itself you would need to have a car. It was a vibrant and bustling town full of people strolling along the promenades and pretty streets. Desenzano is very popular place for youngsters, partygoers and night-clubbers and many Italians are known to visit here for a quick weekend getaway. We weren’t out that late so didn’t run into any other than families out for a gelato.
The town of Sirmione has Bronze Age origins from the 18th-16th B.C when villages existed on the peninsula on which it sits. It became a strategic position militarily as it sat between Verona and ‘Brixia’, the old name for modern Brescia. Fortifications were added in the 4th century A.D. and taken advantage of by the Heretics as a stronghold during the era of the Inquisition. It has a castle built in the 15th century by the Scaligeri family and actually used the existing Roman foundations on which to build it upon. We stopped for a late lunch at the square to visit the castle and some leisure time around the lake shore.
Riva del Garda
The second largest town on Lake Garda, Riva del Garda is right at the North end of the lake at its narrowest point. Therefore with high mountainous surroundings it is one of the most spectacular parts of the lake and a favoured haunt for hill-walkers and rock-climbers. The town can receive the winds coming off the Dolomite Mountains and so is also popular for wind-surfers, as is the little village of Tombole nearby which is within easy walking distance. A promenade along the lakeside is great to spend some time and walk among its attractively decorated walkways.
Situated on the north-western side of the lake, Limone is a very picturesque part of the area as the mountains rise immediately behind the town. Although the Italian word for ‘lemon’ is ‘limone’, this has nothing to do with the naming of the town. Despite once being a flourishing lemon and citrus-fruit growing area the name comes from the word ‘boundary’ as it is close to the limits of the province of Brescia.
Photo by VisitGarda.com
Gardone Riviera is one of several beautiful towns on the western shore, in the Riviera Bresciana, which begins where the steep mountainsides above the northwestern part of the lake begin to leave enough space for towns to cling. The combined effects of the lake below and hillsides above give the town a special micro climate where different luxurious vegetation thrives. A visit to the magnificent Hruska Botanic Garden that takes full advantage of the landscape and climate is not to be missed when in Gardone. Thick, almost tropical foliage shades its winding paths and terraces, where a walk among the sculptures, pools, waterfalls, and plants make for a magical day. The striking lakefront boulevard of Gardone hosts musical and cultural events in the summer.
Saló del Garda
The town of Saló is on the south-western shores of the lake in the shade of Monte Bartolomeo and situated in a small gulf. It was founded in the Roman period and named Pagus Salodium. However, in 1901 it was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. The inventor of the violin came from this town and was called Gasparo Bertollotti, born in 1540, who ever since has been known as Gasparo da Saló. It was also the location of the summer residence of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and the capital of his Italian Social Republic from 1943-45 from where he administered.
The town has the longest promenade on Lake Garda and perhaps even the longest in Italy itself and is lined with many pleasant cafes and restaurants. Salo is also the perfect place to visit for sporting types as it offers fishing, surfing, rowing, tennis and sailing on the lake. There is a popular market held on Saturday mornings. This was one of our favorite towns we visited, a walk along the promenade for some shopping is a must if you are in the area.
What to see and do in and around Lake Garda if you have more time
Three days was not enough to explore all the pretty towns around the lake. I could easily see spending a week if not more here, visiting other villages and towns around Lake Garda. With medieval villages clustered between walls and towers, Veronese and Venetian castles, spas and theme parks there is a lot to do in the area. Lake Garda is also a good place for golf and water sports enthusiasts, you can go sailing, windsurfing, mountain climbing, even paragliding. Kids and families would love visiting theme parks like Gardaland or Caneva Aquapark. Visit Lake Garda’s website for more holiday ideas and my travel resources page if you need some tools and tips to book the trip. No matter what you type of holiday you prefer, Lake Garda is bound to have something that suits you! We loved our time there and can’t wait to go back!