The calm beauty of Lake Garda has inspired authors, poets, and artists for centuries. Here are six beautiful towns that can't be missed.
Italy’s biggest lake, Garda, straddles Veneto and Lombardy and sits directly between Milan and Venice. It is incredible how many tourists still flock to Lake Como when Garda has all the charm and not nearly as many of the tourists.
Lake Garda is blessed with a Mediterranean climate from its tranquil waters and protective mountains in the north, where the waters comes to a sharp point beneath a fantastic Alpine backdrop. The lake rounds out and softens its edges in the south, where it is bordered by olive groves, lemon trees, and vineyards; its inhabitants have long taken advantage of its clement weather. Many literary and artistic figures in the past have been drawn in by Garda’s atmosphere: Catullus, Goethe, Tennyson, D.H. Lawrence, Gustav Klimt, Kafka, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce are only some of the creatives who have found inspiration along its shores.
The best way to visit Lake Garda is to select a centrally located town and then take day trips, by ferry, foot, or car, to the other beautiful villages that reflect off its waters. Desenzano is a good choice, and easily reached by train. All that’s left to do is decide where to go—and with so many colorful lakeside towns, it’s not an easy choice! Here are some of the most beautiful villages that you don’t want to miss (listed clockwise around the lake).
“Picturesque” doesn’t begin to describe this town. Malcesine sits between the steep mountains of Veneto and the deep blue waters of Lake Garda, overlooked by Mount Baldo. Take the cable car up for a stunning view. The town is particularly noted for its Scaligero Castle, used as a fortress up until the 19th century and today open to the public, with a room dedicated to the German writer Goethe, who was suspected of spying when he sketched the castle in 1786. Before heading up, walk through the medieval lanes, visit the harbor and Porto Vecchio, and meander down the promenade to catch some sun on the pebbly beaches.
Bardolino gives its name to the local wine made from the surrounding vineyards of the Veneto’s Bardolino DOC wine zone. This town is a must-see for wine tourists; there is ample opportunity to sample this red, rosé (called Bardolino chiaretto) or novella wine in local enotecas, or to visit a winery nearby. Another characteristic feature of the area is the olive groves, planted among the hilly vineyards and producing some of Italy’s rarest but most delicious extra virgin olive oil. Sip a glass of wine while you enjoy a relaxing lakeside atmosphere, quaint shops, and numerous restaurants. Then, leave the ferry behind to take the footpath that connects Bardolino to Lazise, Peschiera del Garda, and Garda.
Lazise’s medieval roots are easily recognizable in its narrow alleyways and pretty town squares. The 14th century Veronese customs office is a particularly beautiful structure in stone. Today, it’s used for events, weddings, meetings, and even fashion shows. Another site is the five-towered castle on the lakefront; and Lazise is also noted for numerous villas in and around town, like the turreted Villa Pergolana, Villa Bernini beside the castle, medieval style Villa Bottona, and Villa Baratta with its elegant park. Note that there are no nearby beaches in this town, but this simply means you should take the time to sit at one of the many tidy cafés or bars with an afternoon aperitivo and a refreshing glass of Prosecco; definitely opt for the Valdobbiadene DOCG.
Peschiera sul Garda
One of the lake’s most unique towns, Peschiera sul Garda is immediately recognizable for its surrounding canals. Like Desenzano, this town is often used as a base to explore the rest of Lake Garda, but don’t be in too much of a hurry to leave. First, walk over the canal to the imposing fortress, and explore the narrow streets lined with little places to eat in the old town. Then, enjoy a walk along the waters at the harbor or the beaches (they even have one just for dogs!). If ancient history holds your fascination, don’t miss the Roman ruins near the Church of San Martino. Finally, the town is in the vicinity of the wine territory Lugana. Its white Lugana wine, fresh, fruity, and floral, can reach surprising levels of complexity and is well worth a visit to a winery to taste.
Crossing over to the Lombardy side of the lake, Desenzano is one of the liveliest lakeside towns and perfect for that time-honored “sport” of travelers everywhere: people watching. At night, it comes alive with partying locals and out-of-towners. The winding historical streets between the town’s castle and the waterfront throng with their energy during the evening passeggiata and aperitivo hour before they hit the clubs. We suggest trying a drink yourself, perhaps a classic Spritz. During the quieter daytime hours, visit the castle (open to the public), the historical Roman villa and its ruins, mosaics, and the small museum.
Sirmione is built on a thin tongue of land reaching out at the southernmost point of Lake Garda. Small and compact, rich in charming storefronts, eateries, and gelaterie, it fills up with tourists during the high season (visit off season if you can, but don’t skip it if you can’t). Its fairytale castle, the Rocca Scaligera, greets travelers at the town entrance and can be explored on your own whim—perfect for views of the town and lake. When you’re done meandering the charming pedestrian streets, head to the end of the promontory where Roman ruins can be visited, the Grotte di Catullo, or “Caves of Catullus,” an ancient Roman poet who had a family villa here.
A section of the western coast of Lake Garda is called the Riviera dei Limoni for its extensive lemon cultivation, and Salò sits right in this zone. If you arrive from the lake, the town presents a scenic, extended line of colorful buildings reflected in the waters. Its lakeside promenade is the longest along Lake Garda, and it leads to pebble beaches at the southern end of the bay. To close our circle, from this point in Salò enjoy a beautiful view of Mount Baldo above Malcesine across the lake.