Discover the most beautiful lakes in Italy

There’s something about mid-morning sunshine reflecting off a turquoise lake that gets us a little bit excited. Even more so when these smooth waters come flanked by snow-capped mountains and moored by celebrity yachts amongst alpine forests in pristine Italian countryside. In just a short journey from Italy’s fashion capital of Milan, travellers will find a cluster of lakeside towns and villages each serving up their own flavour of local lifestyles, oozing either lavish refinement or carefree adventure. While George Clooney lovers won’t want to miss Lake Como, there are several other spots in the Italian Lakes District much loved since the Roman Empire. Here are our top seven glacial lake retreats from the Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto regions.

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Lake Como | Photo: Mariya Georgieva

1. Lake Como

Perhaps the most famous of all the lakes in Italy is Lake Como, put on the international radar thanks to its A-list guest list and opulent features. Travel just one hour from Milan Airport to reach the Lombardy region, twisting through forested roads that lead through stunning villages on the way to Como’s shore. Though you must share the streets with a fair number of red Ferraris and Armani-clad pedestrians, Lake Como remains one of the most picturesque spots in Europe, with a tremendous collection of lakeside stately villas and top-notch hotels such as the Mandarin Oriental Lago do Como and the Vista Palazzo Lago di Como.

Besides rubbing shoulders with Clooney at Il Gatto Nero restaurant, there’s plenty else to do in Lake Como such as hiking on Wayfarer’s Path passing through the 8th Century settlements of Varenna and Bellano, or riding the funicular towards the mountaintop village of Brunate for swoon-worthy views across the region. Stroll along the promenade of an evening, ticking off attractions such as Como Cathedral and the numerous legendary villas in the area – Villa del Balbianello in Lenno in particular.

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Lake Garda, known for its sheer size and its series of small islands, is somewhat more European than Como, with a family-friendly atmosphere and lemon grove surrounds

2. Lake Garda

Somewhere in the idyllic hills between Venice and Milan lies another of the best lakes in Italy. Lake Garda, known for its sheer size and its series of small islands, is somewhat more European than Como, with a family-friendly atmosphere and lemon grove surrounds. The Lake’s perimeter spans a total of 160 kilometres making for perfect walking trails that crawl upwards into the hills where private beach clubs and fancy castellos await. Also cooler than Como, bounded by mountains and formed from glaciers past, Lake Garda is popular among adventurers, particularly bikers, boaters and windsurfers who can enjoy the lake’s fjord-like surroundings before relaxing in the thermal spa destination of Sirmione, home to the Grotte di Catullo archaeological site and the 13th century Scaliger Castle. Equally intriguing towns worthy of your visit include Desenzana del Garda and Peschierato, all overlooked by Arco Castle and Mount Bardo, a 4,000-foot peak with its own elevated Botanic Garden.

Lake Garda | Photo: Viviana Rishe

Photo: Blake Wheeler

3. Lake Maggiore

Second only the Lake Garda in scale, Lake Maggiore also has its fair share of attractions, comprised of a thin body of water stretching 64 kilometres into Swiss territory at the foot of the Italian Alps. Like Garda, Lake Maggiore also has its own islands, named the Borromeans, which are best viewed from cruise boat, kayak, or even from a height. Happily, Lake Maggiore is home to the Mottarone cable car which can elevate visitors into the Mottarone Mountains for panoramic views over the lake and the whole of Lombardy. While up in the mountains, make time for the Botanic Garden of Alpinia before moving back to the lakeside for bike rides around the lake’s perimeter to meet the town’s two main medieval fortresses; Villa Della Porta Bozzolo and Villa Taranto of Rocca di Angera. A little way off in the town of Arona, you can also find the 115-foot tall Colossus of St Carlo Borromeo, a statue dedicated to the 16th-century aristocrat who owns the islands here.

Lake Maggiore | Photo: Jonathan Reichel

4. Lake Orta

One for the art world, Lake Orta is a long-standing favourite among Europe’s literary scene, drawing writers such as Balzac and Nietzsche to its water’s edge for romantic scenery and 12th-century villages. Isla San Giulio is the jewel on the water here, resting in tranquillity at Lake Orta’s centre and offering cobblestone day trips around the ancient basilica, Benedictine monastery and lively market at its heart. Despite lying just one hour outside of Milan to the west of Lake Maggiore, Lake Orta maintains a serene and understated vibe, flying under the mainstream tourist radar thanks to the hilly forests that border it. Follow in the footsteps of history’s intellectuals with a visit to the artistic village of Orta San Giulio, followed by a stroll passed the street murals of Pogno before finally resting for a late afternoon swim (or kayak) at Orta Beach Club. Other things to do nearby include climbing to the sacred chapel-covered peak of Sacro Monte di Orta or dining alfresco along Piazza Mario Motta.

Lake Orta | Photo: Jean Vivin

5. Lake Iseo

Another of the Italian lakes worth mentioning in the region is Lake Iseo, which despite its diminutive size offers much in the way of beautiful biking trails and nature walks surrounding Europe’s largest island mountain, Monte Isola. The little sister of Lake Garda in Lombardy’s Brescia province, Lake Iseo is an underrated gem, accessible through the towns of Iseo, Sale Marasino and Sulzano by train or rental car. Once here, catch the traghetto ferry across the water to Mount Isola, where, with a little exertion, you can reach the 13th century Madonna Della Ceriola church around 2,000 feet above sea level. Back on the mainland, embrace the calm atmosphere on bike rides passing by the Palazzo Martinengo mansion in Sale Marasino town, browsing the sophisticated piazzas of Iseo town or tasting baked specialities in Clusane. Other villages worth your time include Lovere, Riva di Solto and Marone, three rustic villages dating back to the Stone Age.

Lake Iseo | Photo: Salmen Bejaoui

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Top things to do spiralling outwards from the glacial Lake Lugano include funicular rides up Monte San Salvatore for hiking trails and panoramic views, or fossil hunting in Monte San Giorgio

6. Lake Lugano

Though much of these waters lie within Swiss borders, Lake Lugano retains a distinctly Mediterranean feel on the foothills of the Italian Alps. Nicknamed the ‘Monte Carlo of Switzerland’, Lake Lugano’s largest city is a rewarding base for visitors, just 75 minutes’ train ride from Milan, though technically in Swiss territory. Keep your passport handy in order to flick across the border and back again while touring the stunning towns surrounding, such as Brusimpiano, Campione d’Italia and Porlezza, each offering their own distinct cultural mix. Campione d’Italia, in particular, is notable for its use of Swiss currency despite being an Italian enclave. Other top things to do spiralling outwards from the glacial Lake Lugano include funicular rides up Monte San Salvatore for hiking trails and panoramic views, or fossil hunting in Monte San Giorgio. For something a little more laidback, consider taking a brunch boat trip to sample local specialities among unbeatable lake scenery.

Lake Lugano | Photo: Adege

Photo: StockSnap

7.  Lake Ledro

Though on the smaller side of things at just 3 kilometres long, Lake Ledro should in no way be overlooked as a vacation consideration. To compensate for its small size, Lake Ledro offers unparalleled natural beauty centred in the forested Trentino region said to hold some of the region’s most crystalline waters. Although alpine, Lake Ledro remains warm enough for boating and swimming in summer, with a number of top mountain bike trails zigzagging through the perimeter forests. An hour from Lake Garda and once under Austrian rule, Lake Ledro has a unique culture demonstrated by the dual local languages of Italian and German. Besides wandering the Thursday village market for a taste of local life, explore Bronze Age dwellings among the four main beaches that edge the lake, all acting as perfect bases for swimming, kayaking, hiking and biking adventures among art-filled forests and glacial waterfalls.

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Lake Ledro | Photo: Daniel Fürhapter

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