Discover worlds in one languishly scenic drive. Lemon groves, Venetian piazzas, medieval castles, roman ruins and seafood trattorie, all in one lake.
Forming the border between Italy's northern regions of Lombardia and Veneto, with the tip in the mountainous province of Trentino, Lago di Garda is a treasure to visit. One of the best ways to experience the lake is to drive it.
While Como is famously grand and stylish with residents like Mr George Clooney, Sting and Richard Branson, there's something truly beautiful about Lake Garda's lesser-known shores with all the glam of Como but also a down-to-earth side to her charm. This is a well-loved lake and not by celebrities or stars, this is a lake loved by her Brescian, Veneto and Trentino people.
Lake Garda's shoreline is divided between the provinces of Verona (east), Brescia (west), and Trentino (north).
The lake's circumference is merely 150km and takes under 5 hours to drive. You could make a daytrip from Verona of it, but why would you? There's far too much history to soak up, therapeutic spas to unwind in and sun-trapped piazzas to sit on, not to mention the food...
The valley was formed by a Paleolithic Glacier passing through some 5-6 million years ago forming the narrower northern tip of Italy's largest lake which is bordered by the steep Monte Baldo mountains. A wider, sunnier, southern basin is where more industry and commerce lies with the busy towns of Desenzano del Garda and picture-perfect Sirmione, opening up onto the calm blue waters.
Start at the top or start at the bottom, either way make sure you drive clock-wise. With a blue, lake-view to your right, you'll want your windows down, your music up and your camera ready.
Here are the towns and sites not to miss along your way:
I'll start here where a beloved family friend lives. She helped us discover Lake Garda in all her beauty, a true Brescian with her heart buried where the truffles lie, this is her home town. Amble through pretty paved streets up towards the castle to savour majestic views over the lake before you venture out. Stop for breakfast near the little internal harbour or, if Roman history takes your fancy, step back in time with stunning mosaics at the Roman Villa Museum.
Drive or ride north along the SP572 towards Salò.
During the 14th century, Salò became the administrative centre of the lake, subsequently growing in importance when it was named the Capital of the 'Magnifica Patria' - a group of communities under the rule of Venice. The influence of the powerful Venetian republic -La Serenissma, can be noted in characteristic architecture of Salò's Moorish palazzi, in particular, Palazzo Della Podesta lining the main square. Many buildings had to be reconstructed at the turn of the century after a great earthquake in 1901, but lend to beautifully mastered designs of the city's Art-Nouveau style. So beautiful in fact, that Mussolini chose Salò and the buildings around this very Piazza della Vittoria as his refuge and base to re-instate the Social republic before being captured by allied forces.
Salò has to be my favourite of Garda's lake-side towns, there's something graceful in the elegant proportions of its palazzi; just to sit in the sunshine on the piazza watching local children play while swans glide beside the Lungolago Zanardelli promenade, instils a sense of peace where time stands still. Take your time in this little city, civilisations before you have stood where you stand now, looking out over the rippled surface mesmerisingly calming any pressing thoughts on your mind. Breathe and relax here, replenish and feel the warm stillness before heading on.
On your way out, do make sure not to miss Salò's historically formidable clock tower. It stood as the western city gate with a drawbridge as protection, constructed originally in the 13th century.
Just off Salò, lies the most jaw-dropping private island paradise you'll ever see. Isola del Garda's fascino has drawn many visitors throughout time including Dante Alighieri and San Francesco d’Assisi who built a small monastery here. No monastery anymore, now stands an magnificent neo-Gothic Venetian villa, home to the Contessa Cavazza and her seven children's families. The formal gardens are the height of Italian opulence with cypress trees and manicured beds, like something out of a Bond film (no, that's Limone del Garda), and guess what? You're allowed to visit!
If you have the time, plan ahead giving yourselves a couple of hours for the guided tour which leaves by boat from Salò twice a week, amongst other towns. The tour includes an aperitivo although the main attraction of this piece of sumptuous splendour has to be sheer decadence. See the island's website for tour times and days.
Driving north, you'll pass through Toscolano Maderno with a supermarket, camp-site and offerings of lake-sports. A good place to stop with the kids, there's a nice little beach and lots of fresh air.
The next bit of beautiful Garda is Gargnano.
Cast your eyes on ancient, terraced lemon groves called Limonaie, creeping up the mountain-side and Villa Bettoni, another magnificent villa on the water's edge. Stop in Gargnano for lunch or a coffee, depending on the time of day. With lazy fishing boats lapping at the water's edge and sunny lake-side walks, Gargnano lacks Salò's grandeur, but in a good way; it feels real. Sleepy Gargnano boasts incredible accommodation, including the decadent 5 star spa hotel, Lefay just up the hill, there are many fantastic options if you choose to stay here.
Limone sul Garda
Limone sul Garda is a wonderful place to stop for a night or two if you're experiencing Lake Garda at a leisurely pace. The name suits the town as an abundance of lemon and citrus trees are grown here but technically derives from an ancient Latin word for 'boundary'. It is a great base to explore the lake but does get very busy during the summer months. Backed by dramatic sweeping mountains, Limone sul Garda's curvy roads and tunnels are famously featured in many a quintessential Italian drive including the opening scenes of James Bond's 'Quantum of Solace'.
Approaching Limone sul Garda from the south, one can turn onto winding mountain roads towards the little waterfall pool, Tignale. Mountain roads criss-cross behind town, making for excellent hiking with varied difficulty-levels. It's worth spending a morning or afternoon exploring olive groves and abandoned limonaie or taking to the well-marked trails, ask your hotel for updated information or check this website. In the hills, find an agriturismo for lunch and tuck into some home-made farm food, the pride and joy of hard-working local families who cook with their own produce. Agriturism culture is big in Italy and the most authentic way to sample regional and seasonal Italian cooking, made with family love. Many agriturismi offer rooms and suites, some are well-equipped with swimming pools and can cater for large events in their restaurants, some remain simple and humble. The high-up terraced slopes between Limone sul Garda and Gargnano are dotted with options, we've stayed in beautiful hotels in Limone but would opt for an agriturismo any day.
The following town along is Riva del Garda at the northern tip of the lake.
Riva del Garda
It's here you can stand facing south over the lake's length before the potted stone boulevard that sums up this spacious town. There's a feeling of grandeur in the fountained piazzas and wide promenade where sun bathers and pic-nickers gather in the summer months on the promenade beaches. Belonging to Austria until 1918, it's a large and leisurely town with many good restaurants, some open all year round, and a great place to spend a breezy, romantic evening. With lots of shops, hotels and businesses, Riva gets incredibly busy in the summer.
From here, clock-wise, the SS40 continues through wind-swept Torbole.
This is windsurfing and sailing paradise with a quaint harbour, tiny paved alleys and a stunning view south down the length of the lake. The mountain valley sweeps north from Torbole and Riva with a feeling of being in the Alpine province of Trentino, but in contrast, facing in the opposite direction and almost out of the town, you're suddenly surrounded by cypress and olive trees, giving you a perspective of the variety in Lake Garda. A favoloso spot to stop off and put your feet up on a calm day. If, however, your boots are made for walking, hit the Busatte-Tempesta Trail. Take a couple of hours (and bottles of water) and give your legs a good stretch on the elevated forest trail leaving from Torbole. It's a 11km hike there and back through the forests or you can catch the bus back from the bus-stop signposted on the busy road. Expect roughly 400 iron steps over the rocky bits, this easy trail is recommended for families (although not dogs if they have issues with see-through steps) especially for the stunning views over Lake Garda and a break from the busier towns.
While the western coast with its terraced citrus trees and dramatic tunnels makes an impressive drive, the eastern side drive is just as enjoyable; hugging the shore, dipping down to the water's edge and snaking alongside olive trees, you're cruising past grand villas and pebbly beaches with cypresses on the horizon. In summer months, traffic is typically terrible and one's mind turns towards the option of motorbiking this beautiful stretch of road. If you are in a car, don't despair, there are so many little places to stop, just think, "Is it gelato time yet?"
This has to be Lake Garda's prime spot, and everybody knows it. The picturesque cobbled streets and piazzas of little Malcesine are very popular with many an authentic restaurant adding a tourist menu and upping their prices. Lake-side options become very crowded but you'll always find tucked-away, authentic osterie and eateries if you explore the tiny alley-ways. Malcesine's striking castle belonged to the Scala family, Castello Scaligero, and can be visited for dazzling lake-views and oodles of history with three museums and many an exhibition. Another draw of charming Malcesine is the cable car up to Monte Baldo, the mountain ridge behind the town. Ascending 1760m, the top is strewn with pretty walking paths and flowery meadows, biking and hiking trails, Alpine bars, sun-loungers and restaurants. On a hot summer's day it is heavenly, as much as on a snowy winter's day, but the cable cars can become frustratingly busy, so do time it well.
One can see why little Malcesine is a stop on the ferry-boat routes. Yet another attraction is the pretty pebbled beaches on either side of the town and a path that takes cyclists and walkers past the lovely sun-bather's headland to Cassone, another cute village. The hour-long walk is serenely beautiful, passing through the cypresses of Val di Sogno (Valley of Dreams) - a little haphazard collection of grand villas and pebbly sunbathing beaches.
Follow lake-side Via Gardesana road as it snakes along the water for a scenic 30km stretch. You'll pass a few attractive towns along the eastern shores: Brenzone, S. Zeno di Montagna and Torri del Benaco before you get to Garda. These are all wonderful places for a coffee or lunch stop, with quiet harbours of coloured, bobbing fishing boats but there's something extra special about Garda.
The lake was named after this town, derived from the German word 'warte', meaning watch-over which pays tribute to the imposing fortress, La Rocca, an overgrown ruin seen from Garda's shores. Glancing north, one immediately notices the small peninsula Punta San Vigilio, jutting out into the lake with a villa, a harbour, a chapel and the Bay of Sirens ancient olive tree-ed park, it strikes a romantic postcard scene and is well worth a stop.
Perfect for a stroll, Garda's wide pedestrianised promenade hosts many seafood trattorie, restaurants and bars. Even if the towering mountain-sides of the northern part of the lake have blended into hills, Garda seems like a strong-hold, a stable base to stop, especially for lunch. The food around Garda and in the three provinces of the lake begs to be tasted and admired. Here, seafood of mussels, clams and lake-fish reigns supreme. With olives, lemons and grapes in abundance, you can just imagine the quality and flavours of this area. Truffles are Brescia's secret love and it's in these hills their prized black truffle is harvested.
Catch the Garda market on Fridays if you can for local wares!
Next along, Bardolino must be mentioned on the way to Lazise
Apart from it's old town centre and little harbour, Bardolino is famous for the production of its internationally-known fruity red wine, named as such, as well as its Rosé Chiaretto.
Lazise is rather large with an impressive beachfront and a medieval castle beside a little harbour right in the city centre. With a lovely, wide promenade and magnificent villas, such as Villa Pergonlana and Villa Bernini, Lazise is a favourite amongst visitors. Families flock to Italy's largest amusement park, Gardaland, around the corner with the thermal waters of the region collected at the Thermal Park of near-by Colà, or you can visit beatific Acquaria. Expect the height of spa decadence with blissful thermal pools overlooking the lake and treatments galore. Gift yourselves a 5 hour session or, for the ultimate sense of equilibrium and harmony, stay Acquaria's five-star luxury hotel.
Spa waters of this region have always been prized. Romans who visited Lake Garda in ancient times chose the most scenic spot of the entire lake for their thermal spa, the Pearl of Garda, Sirmione. It's here we end our road trip, having saved the best till last.
On a raised peninsula of the southern shores of Lake Garda stands the historic fortified town of Sirmione. With entry into the old town over a castle moat of lake water, the tiny paved town is a mishmash of charming, colourful buildings taking you back to bygone times. If you want to venture even further back in history, head towards the very tip of the land.
The Grotte di Catullo is an ancient Roman villa and thermal baths, named after the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus. Known as Catull, he spent his life in Verona but holidayed in Sirmione, dedicating some of his most beautiful work to this precise tiny piece of idyllic paradise. After his death, when a sublimely decadent villa was constructed and carved into the peninsula rock right here, well, of course they named it after the Roman poet. A place for affluent families to gather to soothe their aches and pains, the healing, mineral-rich thermal waters were masterfully piped from northern shores, where they bubbled out at 70°C, straight into the Roman's baths. The crumbling ruins of this magnificent villa can be visited walking north out of Sirmione's busy heart into the gnarled olive tree groves that have taken over the few remaining arches and columns. Stand and admire the lake's length, as millennia of people have done before and fall in love with this breath-taking view. It truly is the most ruggedly romantic of spots.
Rocca Scaligera, the Castle of Sirmione, was built near the end of the 12th century to stand as part of Verona's defence from the likes of Milan and Venice. Thick rock battlements drop directly into lake waters, forming the borders of tiny Sirmione and make for the most memorable and striking of scenes from your Lake Garda trip.
The beauty of Lake Garda really lies in its options.
You can make a day of it, a weekend break or a week with endless things to see and do. Stay in a camp-site with the kids, drive your Harley or your campervan, choose a luxury spa resort or a homely agriturismo, tailor-make your holiday plans to suit your budget and your time, but avoid summer if you can. The lake is a popular destination with so much on offer. Stick to spring months, like May and June, remembering that before Easter, Lake Garda belongs to the locals. There's not much gong on in terms of tourism, but if that's not what you came for, then perfetto! Expect fewer hotels and restaurants open, perhaps with limited menus, but lots of peace and quiet, emptier roads and tranquil spaces.
Only half an hour's drive from Verona, if you ever feel like an escape to calming, blue, historical waters, take the time to explore Lake Garda, you may end up inspired to write poetry, just like our old friend Catull.