This was a difficult list to compile, since after almost a year here I have fallen in love with the majority of Lake Garda. Pretty much any town you visit will offer beautiful landscapes and culture, but I certainly recommend seeing more than one, since whilst you may see every village as one and the same, you’d be surprised how much difference there is. Being the biggest lake in Italy, Lake Garda spans through three different regions – Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino – each offering a unique beauty. Whilst the West side of the lake is most popular for its beaches, the Northern section, reaching into Trento, is identified by its mountainous roads overlooking the vast blue landscape below.
It is relatively easy to travel around – or indeed across – the lake. Travelling by car is especially enjoyable in the northern mountainous areas: between the tunnels are some beautiful panoramas. Do note, however, that road traffic on the weekends of holidays months is nigh impossible. Thankfully, there are public transportation options available. Bus routes run throughout the year, and more regularly in the summer. Be sure to buy tickets in advance, as they are often double the price to buy on board. Usually you can find them in a tobacconist’s, but if unsure check with your nearest tourist information booth (there is one in nearly every village surrounding the Lake). A more scenic option for public transport is the ferry boat: running from April to October, it has routes spanning across the entire lake, with regular times for the major ports and at reasonable costs. You can find more information and timetables here. Of course, if you want to go all out there is also the option of hiring a boat.
Yet I can say all this, and the point remains that you may arrive at Lake Garda, determined to see it in its full glory, take a map and timetable of all transportation and then be clueless at where, in fact, you should go. The lake is lined with both smaller, citizen villages and larger tourist towns, and if you haven’t researched the area, it can be daunting knowing which place name to pick for your day’s agenda. Though I am certain a simple close your eyes and point would result in a happy trip – as I’ve said, nearly every area of the lake is beautiful – I thought I’d help out any curious minds with a list of my personal top five places.
1. Sirmione. If you have done any research, or glanced through a guidebook, this name has likely already popped up. It is one of the most visited towns on the lake, attracting both foreign tourists and locals, and with good reason. Emerging from the central south end of the lake, it is a peninsula, consequently offering some beautiful panoramas from either side. The main town is towards the end of the landmass, and its history becomes clear as you enter this section via a castle drawbridge over the old port. The castle itself is open to tourists at a small price, further discounted if you are a student – or, if you want to play the system, an ex-student with a university card, since they don’t check the dates. The views from the turrets are stunning, but take your stamina with you, and beware if you have vertigo – there are plenty of steps, with the final set being extremely steep and allowing only one person at a time (causing long queues in the tourist period). After all the climbing, why not treat yourself to an ice cream? There are two gelaterias down a street next to the castle, famed for their portion sizes.
Though small, the town offers plenty of restaurants and bars with reasonable prices; a small, medieval church; plenty of tourist and fashion shops; and a panoramic walk which takes you past the natural hot springs, beaches, and finally to the rocky head of the peninsula. If you have time, I would also recommend walking further inland from the main town where there are fewer obstructions to the view, only to stand in the road and enjoy the fact that the lake is surrounding you on both sides (or is it just me who was so amazed by that?).
2. Manerba Rocca. Boasting slightly less pebbly beaches and pedallo’s galore, Manerba is nevertheless one of the lesser known places along the lake, since it is only a small, residential town. However, if you happen to be travelling north of Desenzano (a popular tourist residence), I would highly recommend stopping at Manerba Rocca for a short yet spectacular walk and some interesting history. The Lake’s prehistoric roots are emphasised here, with plenty of information available on the signs bordering the path that takes you to the “Rocca”; that is, the castle ruins. There is also a museum with free entry open throughout the warmer months, if you wish to widen your knowledge further. Yet history aside, the walk remains a must for the stunning view at the top. When you find the castle ruins, you can follow the path around to view the entirety of the southern side of the lake: a truly spectacular landscape.
3. Salò. A unique spot on Lake Garda, this small city is built around a large bay which breaks out from the Western side of the lake. This bay offers a unique viewpoint of the lake, and is aided by Italy’s longest promenade, which runs alongside almost the entirety of the shore, allowing tourists to view the beauty of Salò’s lakeside entertainment and amenities from afar. Picture. Though there are no beaches, its main boasting point is its dining and nightlife; in the summer months, you will find the promenade packed with both locals and tourists, ascending on the restaurants and bars to enjoy an aperitivo or pizza while admiring the spectacular view. I recommend researching events too: this summer, they have performers placed along the promenade and in the central piazzas every Thursday evening, creating a beautiful atmosphere.
4. Lazise. Another must see if you enjoy medieval towns with a slice of lake-side culture. Like Sirmione, the main town resides inside the city walls built centuries past, and while you don’t enter over a drawbridge, you do pass along a beautiful stretch of pathway and under the old city archway. On my first visit here, there was a wedding shoot taking place under this archway: a perfect example of the city’s romantic vibe. Though the historic walls can make it seem like a maze, the town is relatively small, and once through the first couple of streets it opens up onto the lake and porto vecchio: I’m fairly certain every porto vecchio on Lake Garda is beautiful, but Lazise’s certainly holds a unique beauty to it. The neighbouring Church of St. Nicholas further emphasises the historic feel, and is a personal favourite church: unlike many other Italian churches, its age mean its style is far more simplistic, and rather than admiring the intrinsic embellishment, you can relax in the subtle beauty of the artwork.
Though there may not be enough entertainment for a day, Lazise is the perfect place to pass an afternoon or evening, to stroll through the streets and be taken back in time.
5. Limone. Taking us towards the north side of the lake, Limone is located in the more mountainous section of Lombardy, which passes into Riva and Trento. The landscape is therefore far different from the other destinations: you will struggle to walk half a mile without a steep ascent or descent. It is also distinguished by its namesake: “limone” is literally “lemons”, and it is clear in the approach to the town why it has taken this name. The countryside is taken over by thousands of lemon farms, its ascending hills split into several levels for their vines, the climate of the lake providing the perfect atmosphere for their growth. And if that wasn’t enough explanation, you will find every possible lemon based product in the many shops that litter the streets: lemon juice, liquor, soaps, perfume, cleaning products…you name it, they’ve got it. So unless you’re an avid fan of all things lemons, why visit here? Well I can vouch for the fact that you can enjoy the lemon-fuelled environment even without a liking for them (I personally hate the fruit, far too sour and it always ruins my coco-cola). If you can put up with the citrus smell, the lemon farms make for beautiful scenery. And if nothing else, you can enjoy the beautiful pebble beaches, some of the best I’ve found on the lake: the pebbles aren’t quite as sore on your feet, and the surrounding hillsides create a perfect sense of tranquillity.
So that’s it, my top five! As I’ve said, this list was by no means easy to decide upon, and if you have a few extra days and would like to add on some others, the close runners up were Desenzano (for the old port and bars), Moniga (my home for the last year, with a long stretch of beaches and a few bars overlooking them) and Riva (the most northern point of the lake, with amazing reviews by friends, though I haven’t yet visited it). I should also point out that Verona – you know, the Romeo and Juliet place – is only a twenty to forty minutes’ drive from the more southern side of the lake, so adding that to your agenda is a good idea!