by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
Italy's lakes near the country's northern border are flanked by the Swiss Alps as a backdrop. This area is not usually part of a first-time trip to Italy, but visitors who enjoyed Rome, Florence or the Amalfi coast often to return to Italy to discover the magic of the lakes.
I recently visited Lake Maggiore and Lake Como, which are the most popular for American tourists. Lake Garda, the largest of the lakes, is a popular destination for vacationing Europeans.
The second-largest lake in Italy and the largest in southern Switzerland, Lake Maggiore (or Lago Maggiore in Italian) is nestled between the Italian regions of Piedmont (Piemonte) and Lombardy and the Swiss canton of Ticino.
The main town is Stresa, overlooking the Borromean Islands, which are named for the family that acquired them back in the 17th century. The three islands include Isola Bella (Beautiful Island), known for its opulent palace and gardens, Isola Madre (Mother Island) known for its lush vegetation, and Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen's Island) where tradition continues and fishing remains a way of life.
The waterfront of Stresa is lined with hotels offering beautiful views and easy access to the bus line and ferry service that transport people from village to village up and down the lake. Hotel La Luna nel Porto was fine for our needs, not very expensive, and provided a junior suite with a comfortable king bed and huge balcony overlooking the lake. The kitchenette and living room area are ideal for longer apartment-style stays. Breakfast was included and quite generous in variety and size. Nearby, the Sempione Boutique Hotel also looked inviting with flower-boxed balconies and a rooftop terrace.
We connected with Girosole, a company specializing in walking tours throughout Italy, to take us for a hike above the waterline. This allowed us to see a bit of the daily lifestyle with landscaped yards, goats, horses, and undisturbed villages that allow residents to escape the tourist traffic. We started in Levo and took in beautiful views of the Golfo Borromeo and surrounding Alps from above before circling back to Stresa.
We stopped for a picnic lunch at the Giardino Botanico Alpinia (Alpine Botanical Garden), with spectacular views of the lake from above and then a stroll through more than 1,000 species of flowers, shrubs and herbs that grow in the Alps.
The largest town on Lake Como is called Como and is located at the bottom tip of the lake. It's the closest of this lake's towns to Milan, which is how most people first arrive. Como is big and feels urban, with plenty of great hotels and shops selling silk scarves and ties made in the local mills
For a quieter scene, head to one of the smaller villages north of Como. The upscale town of Bellagio sits at the tip of a peninsula separating the east and west sides of the lake. Bellagio has all the charm you'd expect from this area, with lakefront hotels, shops, restaurants and ferry stops. We stayed at the Hotel Florence, which is reasonably priced and ideally located near restaurants, wine bars and shops. A ferry station is directly across the road and the balcony views of the lake are stunning from sunrise and through the day and night. Other small villages that offering comfortable accommodations are Tremezzo, Varenna and Menaggio. Luxury lakefront villas with private pools are idyllic for larger families and small groups.
Our Girosole hiking guide, took us across the lake by ferry from Bellagio to Cadenabbia for a walk through the village of Tremezzo. The highlight of the day was walking up toward the church of San Martino, with an elevation of 475 m (1560 feet) above the village of Griante. The view of the lake was simply spectacular. Taking the ferry back across the lake we explored the town of Varenna. This is a fine place to stay if you like small villages and quiet evenings. From Varenna it's a 20-minute walk to the Fiumelatte, or River of Milk, a waterfall whose waters pour down from its glacial heights in a white cascade. We meandered among aromatic herbs like rosemary that grows as a hedge, flowering thyme along pathways, and wild poppies on the hillsides.
Garda is the largest among Italy's cluster of lakes, and is often combined with visits to Venice and Verona as part of a longer itinerary, or sometimes a day trip from the train station in the resort town of Peschiera del Garda at the lake's southern tip. It's about an hour and a half to Venice, and just under two hours to Milan.
The medieval town of Sirmione, on a peninsula jutting out from the lake's southern coast, is one of the most popular spots on the lake. Here, the Grotto di Catullo is an archeological site featuring the ruins of a Roman villa built between the end of the 1st century BC and the beginning of the 1st century AD.
Heading north on the dreamy west coast of the lake you'll find Limone Sul Garda, a popular town known for its lemons and olive oil. At the top of the lake is Riva del Garda, where the winds attract windsurfers and sailors.
Getting Here and Getting Around
If flying into Milan, take the shuttle to Milano Centrale (central train station), and connect on a train to Lake Maggiore, Como or Lago. Remember that there are very few train stops along the lakefront. Once at the lake, the most efficient ways to get around are by bus or ferry. Driving is possible, but the traffic can be terrible and parking spaces may be difficult to find, so use public transportation when possible.
Many eco-conscious accommodations, including organic farms (agriturismos), B&Bs and glamping, are available. Book early for peak travel periods. Public transportation is preferred over self-driving because the mountains don't allow for many large roads, and the villages depend on preserving the historic features of the area for tourism. Lake Como has reportedly invested heavily in its electrical network, adding more E-V charging stations.
Lake Maggiore and Lake Como have largely done away with single-use plastic, including straws (if you ask for one, it will likely be paper), forks and spoons ("take-away" at restaurants might include wooden utensils if any at all.)
Lake life has a comfortable slower feel than the rush to "see it all" in one of Italy's big cities. You can catch the vibe in a couple of days, but this area is best experienced with ample time to relax and take in the natural beauty as well as the foods and wines of this region.
Marcia Simon is a Connecticut-based travel writer and owner of Friendly Group Travel. Connect via Facebook or Instagram @friendlygrouptravel or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, has been exploring new places since she was 17 years old and traveled around Europe on a Eurailpass with her best friend. Decades later, she still considers travel the best investment of time and money she's ever made for herself and her family.