From the very first moment my eyes glimpsed Lago di Garda – Italy’s largest lake – I was captivated by its blue beauty and dramatic surroundings.
Imagine a long narrow basin of water being held in a tight embrace by tall, powerful mountains to the North. To the South the landscape flattens and the lake spreads out with wild Italian abandon. Vineyards and olive, citrus and palm trees dot the steep rugged slopes and the verdant plains. The blue waters of the lake glint under the hot Italian sun. Cuddled on the shores are picturesque towns, each one with its own character and appeal.
It is no wonder that lake Garda attracts millions of visitors each year.
Its perimeter of almost 160 km can be easily circumnavigated from dawn ’til dusk. Why rush it, though?! Time needs to be spent slowly savouring the beauty of the place, visiting the several castles perched above the lake, renting a boat to slowly glide on its waters and stopping off at as many of the lakeside towns as possible for at least an hour or two or, even better, for the day.
Lake Garda is only a short distance away from several large cities in Northern Italy. Heading there is a great day trip from such tourist magnets as Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Venice, Brescia, Trento and Milan.
An even better option though is to spend a few days in one of the little towns and villages dotted around Lago di Garda and explore what’s in the vicinity and across the crisscrossed by ferries lake.
The shores and waters of lake Garda are divided between three Italian regions – Veneto, Lombardy and Trentino. Thus you can experience a vast array of Italian regional differences and food with only the minimum of travel entailed.
To help you with your travel plans, here are my personally tried and tested recommendations for 12 gems on the shores of lake Garda. These are 12 charming towns spread all around the lake.
We will start from Sirmione at the southern base, go up the eastern shore to Riva del Garda on the Northern tip and then drive down the western shore to Peschiera del Garda on the southern end of Lake Garda again. Visiting all 12 towns will give you a chance to:
- see Roman ruins and medieval castles;
- take a cable car 1760 meters up a steep slope to the top of Mount Baldo (known as the Garden of Europe);
- relax in a luxurious spa fed by underwater thermal springs;
- go for hikes, explore caves, see a stunning waterfall;
- (depending on the season) sun yourself on the beach or visit a cute Christmas market;
- indulge in some of the best Italian gelato, plus so much more.
The Best 12 Towns to Visit Around Lago di Garda – Italy’s Largest Lake
1. Sirmione, Lombardy
If you have time to explore just one of the many towns on the shores of lake Garda, make sure that it is Sirmione. This charming town is really special and has so much to offer that you won’t realise how quickly the day will fly away.
Located on the tip of a long and narrow promontory protruding into the lower part of lake Garda, Sirmione is surrounded by water on three sides.
Start your visit by spending time at the medieval castle built by the Scaliger dynasty right at the entrance to the old town. Climb to the top of its tower to admire the view over the town’s colourful rooftops and the fortified castle walls which sink deep into the waters of the lake. From there, walk across Sirmione and take lots of pictures of the quaint houses, some of which are bedecked with flowering bushes. Don’t forget to treat yourself to the largest gelato cone you can comfortably hold in your hand.
Sirmione is home to several spa facilities with hot sulphuric waters coming from a spring about 20 meters below ground in lake Garda. You can buy a daily or an hourly pass and then relax in luxurious surroundings to your heart’s content. Or you can opt to spend an hour or two at one of the free Sirmione beaches – Jamaica Beach and Lido delle Bionde.
At the tip of the promontory you will find the ruins of an enormous Roman villa – Grottoes of Catullus – commanding breathtaking views over the lake. There is a very interesting on-site museum and paths allowing you to walk through and round the excavations of the villa.
Tip: Round up the day with a boat trip around the promontory. Boats for hire with or without a guided tour moor in the small marina by Sirmione’s Scaliger castle.
2. Lazise, Veneto
With its wide promenade (called lungolago in Italian), citrus trees (which in winter are covered with fruit), and many gelato shops, Lazise is a dream to spend a relaxing day in. This medieval town has a very well preserved 13th century defensive wall encircling its historical centre.
Go for a walk admiring the yachts moored in the blue waters of lake Garda. Ducks and swans will glide close. A small beach gives you a chance to cool off. Just bring some fashionable swimwear with you.
In winter, don’t miss the lively Christmas market selling local crafts and foodstuffs. The almond nougat (called mandorlato) from nearby Cologna Veneta and Lonigo comes highly recommended.
Don’t miss the 12th century Church of San Nicolo’ – dedicated to the Patron Saint of waters and navigators. Between the church and the lake you will see the historic building of the Venetian Customs House (Dogana Veneta). Dating back to the 14th century, it was used to facilitate the commerce between Lombardy and the Republic of Venice.
If you are travelling with little kids, they will appreciate the chance to let some steam off at the large playground beside the medieval Scaliger castle (not open for visits).
As the night falls, admire the breathtaking sunset bringing another day to a close over lake Garda and reminisce over dinner of the fabulous sights and experiences you have been lucky enough to enjoy.
Tip: If you like walking, follow the promenade all the way from Lazise to nearby Bardolino. Just a little bit beyond the halfway point, visit the Museum of the Olive Oil in Cisano (the first of its type in Italy). There you can learn about the history and the production process behind the lake Garda’s green liquid gold.
3. Bardolino, Veneto
Famous for its wine, Bardolino is another lovely town that you cannot miss on the shores of lake Garda. Just up the road from Lazise (you can easily walk between the two), Bardolino’s area bears witness to human settlements since prehistoric times.
The town has had a tumultuous history changing hands several times. Interestingly, enough, Bardolino was an independent city-state until 1193 but it was then ruled by the Scaliger dynasty from Verona, the Republic of Venice, and Austria, until it joined Italy in 1866.
Bardolino has a very cute historic centre, several churches dating back to the 11th-12th centuries and 12th century defensive walls. Make sure that you go for a walk on the promenade to admire the beautiful yachts moored in the marina.
The town is charming with its cafes and restaurants with open-air seating areas. A Christmas market with a small ice rink takes place each year (read more about it here). There are also several festivals held in Bardolino. Most of them are dedicated to the local wine, but also there are some cultural and kids-orientated events.
Tip: Don’t miss the stained glass windows in the Church of San Nicolo’ and San Severo in the heart of Bardolino. They are very beautiful with their striking colours and motifs.
4. Garda, Veneto
The town of Garda not only gave lake Garda its name, but it also has what seemingly is the most stunning location on its shores. After all, the name Garda apparently comes from the German word ‘warda’ meaning ‘place of guard’ or ‘place of observation’.
You can see how the town ended up with its name. Embracing a picturesque bay, Garda is huddled within a naturally formed curve of the land right before the point from which the much narrower and elongated part of the lake starts. This allows for some stunning views both across the blue waters of lake Garda and the surrounding hills.
The most notable of these is La Rocca – a rock outcrop covered with lush vegetation – where a fifth century fortification used to stand until the incoming Venetians destroyed it. You can go for a walk all the way to the top of La Rocca.
Walking around town – both through its historic centre and along its gently curving promenade – is a visual delight. Garda town has that proper Italian feel to it, like you are in a beautifully styled movie. Don’t miss the Palace of Capitano. Built in the Venetian Gothic style, this is where the Captain (the appointed by Venice local ruler) lived. Originally, the harbour was right in front of this palace, but at a later stage it was filled and turned into the square you see today.
If you wish to learn more about lake Garda, don’t miss the Museum of the Territory of Garda (Museo Territoriale del Lago di Garda). There you can find out more about the local agriculture, crafts, mining, fishing and folklore.
Pay a visit to the colourful and eclectic Villa Albertini. Its western facade is from the 16th century, while the rest of the villa was renovated in the 19th century at which point it was whimsically made to look like a medieval castle. Originally, the villa Albertini and the nearby small church of San Carlo Borromeo were built by the feudal lords Becelli. Since the 18th century the villa has been owned by the counts Albertini.
Go for a romantic walk to Punta San Vigilio – a long strip of land, lined up by cypresses, which separates the Southern part of lake Garda from its central narrower part. There you can glimpse the 16th century Villa Guarienti. It is in private hands and it has hosted some of the world’s most important people.
Tip: Another walk you can take from Garda town is to Mount Luppia – the hill right behind Punta San Vigilio. Mount Luppia is not only higher than La Rocca, but there you can also see thousands of carvings etched in the soft rocks by the local shepherds over thousands of years.
5. Torri del Benaco, Veneto
The name of Torri del Benaco carries a linguistic vestige of the Roman name – Lacus Benacus – under which lake Garda was known up to around the 9th century AD.
Don’t miss this pretty, picturesque town. Among many other things here, you can enjoy a visit to the impressive and well preserved Scaliger castle. It was built in 1383 on the orders of Antonio della Scala on the ruins of a previous castle dating back to the 10th century. Most likely this is where a Roman fort also used to stand. The castle had many underground passages (some of them still existing) used during sieges.
The Scaliger castle in Torri del Benaco nowadays houses an Ethnographic Museum. There you can spend some time exploring the local traditions of fishing and olive oil production. There is also a section dedicated to the prehistoric rock engravings found in the area.
During your visit to the castle, don’t miss the limonara. This is a winter garden with huge lemon trees which was created in 1760 and is one of the very few of its type.
The views over the lake from the castle walls are stunning. Be aware though that the castle closes for a couple of hours in the middle of the day for the traditional Italian riposo.
Go for a wander through the narrow medieval streets of Torri del Benaco and admire its many Venetian buildings. A special mention deserves the Gardesana Palace which was built at the beginning of the 15th century. This is where the meetings of the Council of Gardesana dell’Acqua were held. The Gardesana was a federation of ten municipalities (from Lazise to Malcesine) on the east side of lake Garda.
Next door to the Gardesana Palace, visit the Oratory of the Santissima Trinita. This is a 14th century oratory originally built by the Menaroli dynasty and with frescoes from the 14th, 15th and the 16th centuries. After the First World War, the church was restored and it became a war memorial.
On hot days relax on the nearby beaches surrounded by olive groves. If you are looking for some adrenaline, don’t miss the local scuba-diving centre. The waters of lake Garda are generally crystal clear with excellent visibility.
In addition, there are many nature trails to explore on pleasant walks and hikes.
Tip: There are many ferries crisscrossing the blue waters of Lake Garda. Take a ferry from Torri del Benaco across to Maderno/Toscolano on the western side of the lake. The crossing lasts only about half an hour and gives you a chance to enjoy some of the most beautiful views over Italy’s largest lake. Plus, the ferries take cars and other vehicles, too.
6. Malcesine, Veneto
Nestled at the bottom of Mount Baldo, Malcesine will steal your heart with its picturesque steep streets and its Scaliger castle standing guard over lake Garda. Goethe spent a night there in 1786 whilst on his Grand Italian Tour. At the time Malcesine could be reached only by water and the German poet and humanist had to take refuge in the town, after sudden strong winds impeded the advance of his boat. The story goes that Goethe decided to sketch the castle and he was almost arrested on the suspicion that he was an Austrian spy.
Nowadays you can reach Malcesine both by car and by boat – a ferry crossing from Limone sul Garda on the opposite side of the lake takes about 20 minutes. By car, Malcesine is a short distance away from Torri del Benaco down the road and Torbole just up the road.
In Malcesine you can also:
- dive (down to the bottom of the lake at 346 m);
- sail; and
- practice windsurfing. The Upper Garda is recognised as European capital of windsurfing. The triangle between Limone sul Garda, Torbole and Malcesine offers the ideal waves and winds .
Once you have had your fill of Malcesine’s unique charm, make sure that you take the cablecar up to Mount Baldo. You will enjoy stunning views of lake Garda and the surrounding mountains. A state-of-art cabin will take you first to the intermediary stop of San Michele at 560 meters. From there, a much larger cabin ascends to 1760 meters height. As you go up, its floor will slowly swivel at 360 degrees giving everyone inside an equal chance to enjoy the panorama without shoving and pushing.
Mount Baldo is known as the Garden of Europe for the unparalleled number and variety of botanical species which grow there. Among many other things, there are 62 types of orchids!
Tip: In winter, you can practice many winter sports on Mount Baldo. In summer, it is a great place for hiking. There are also several paragliding centres there.
7. Torbole, Trentino
Torbole is a picturesque fishing town with a long paved promenade curving alongside Lake Garda. Take a walk down the promenade to admire the stunning views which open over the colourful houses of Torbole and the craggy outcrops offset by the deep blue waters of the lake. You will feel like you are in a splendid amphitheatre where people and nature have conspired to put a spectacle of pure harmony.
Just bear in mind that it can get quite windy, so wrap up warm, especially in autumn and winter.
Torbole, with is Venetian and Austrian heritage, is a magnet for writers and artists. The town has a beautiful mix of Mediterranean and alpine features and, through the centuries, has witnessed many battles and struggles for dominance of this beautiful and advantageous corner of Italy’s largest lake.
Surrounded by ruined castles, steep nature hikes and vestiges of several civilisations that flourished at those parts, Torbole is well worth it a stop. Those who love photography, in particular, will be delighted with the fabulous views. While they are happily snapping away and moving their tripod from one spot to the next, their loved ones can spend some time at the nearby beaches.
Tip: Make sure that you set some time aside to visit the Church of Saint Andrea. You will find it above the older part of Torbole and its history is tightly woven with the fortunes of this picturesque fishing village.
8. Riva del Garda, Trentino
Located right at the Northern extremity of lake Garda, Riva del Garda is a great base for day trips around Italy’s largest lake and deeper into the Northern Italian region of Trentino.
This elegant town is surrounded by steep mountain slopes and to reach it (from the lake’s western side) you need to drive through a series of narrow tunnels dug straight into the rock. Each tunnel carries a name inspired by ancient mythology. For example, you will need to negotiate the Tunnel of the Dwarves, the Tunnel of the Fawns, the Tunnel of the Furies and even the Tunnel of the Gorgones, which is rather scary with its uneven rocky surface.
Once in Riva del Garda, don’t miss the:
- Rocca fortress (housing the Civic Museum);
- Torre Apponale – a 13th-century clock-tower;
- Bastione – a grey early 16th century tower overlooking Riva del Garda and the lake;
- MAG – the Museum of Upper Garda;
- many piazzas preserving the town’s medieval/Venetian look;
- several nearby beaches, sport centres and hiking trails.
Plus, in winter Santa Claus himself sets up house in Riva del Garda which can be visited by children and adults alike.
Tip: A short distance away from Riva del Garda is Cascata del Varone – a waterfall spilling from a height of 40 meters inside a cave. It is an impressive sight, so head there if time permits.
9. Limone sul Garda, Lombardy
Don’t miss this elegant little town surrounded by citrus groves. As its name would suggest, Limone sul Garda is famous for its lemons. You will see them painted and imprinted everywhere – from handmade scented soaps to beautiful ceramics.
Still, the town’s name comes in fact from either the Celtic word limo or lemos meaning elm or from the Latin lima (file) in reference to a river, the current of which eroded the ground.
Up to 1932 the town was only reachable via boat or through a steep mountainous path. Apparently, due to this relative isolation through the centuries, the inhabitants of Limone sul Garda are famous for their longevity with many local people reaching 100 years of age.
Don’t miss a visit to the Limonaia del Castel – a renovated lemon grove. Otherwise, take it very easy here, simply enjoying la dolce vita at its very best.
Tip: From Limone sul Garda drive through the Gorge Road to Tremosine sul Garda – one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. You will be rewarded with stunning views over Italy’s largest lake.
10. Maderno/Toscolano, Lombardy
Maderno and Toscolano are two towns on the western shores of lake Garda. Maderno is a tourist resort and Toscolano is an industrial centre.
Stop there to enjoy some nice beach time and also to explore the local botanical garden ‘E. Ghirardi’ which is property of the University of Milan. In Toscolano there are also the remains of a Roman villa, called Nonii Arii, with some preserved mosaics. The villa is one of the most important Roman residential buildings found on the shores of lake Garda.
The most interesting place you can see there though is the Paper Museum. Located just outside of Maderno/Toscolano it gives you a glimpse into Italy’s industrial history. Paper mills have been in existence along the Toscolano river since 1381. In the 15th and the 16th century, the valley with its over 60 paper mills became the leading paper manufacturer of the Republic of Venice .
Unfortunately, in 1630 the plague decimated the local population and the paper production collapsed. By 1720 most of the paper mills were re-opened and soon they were flourishing once again. However, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the Toscolano paper mills refused to adopt the new production methods which eventually led to their gradual decline.
The Paper Museum is a great place to explore the history of the Paper Mill valley and to learn about Italy beyond its art.
Tip: Close to Maderno/Toscolano there are several lovely beaches offering you stunning views towards Mount Baldo on the opposite side of lake Garda.
11. Desenzano del Garda, Lombardy
You can easily and quickly reach Desenzano del Garda on the train from Venice, Verona, Brescia and Milan, thus making it the perfect day trip from one of Northern Italy’s largest cities.
Desenzano is very picturesque and has a lively vibe to it. Explore its Archaeological Museum, its castle on a hill, its excavated Roman villa, its frescoed churches and Tower of St. Martin. Get lost in the town’s maze-like old streets and eat your weight in gorgeous Italian gelato and food. In the evening, sit outside and sip an aperitivo while engaging in a light spot of people watching.
Many festivals and events take place in Desenzano del Garda all year long. So, make sure that you check the local listings to see what’s on.
Click here to see a short video from the Christmas festival staged in Desenzano del Garda in the last days of 2017.
Tip: Desenzano del Garda is renowned for its nightlife. Pubs and clubs attract a fashionable crowd from near and far.
12. Peschiera del Garda, Lombardy
A fortified town on the shores of lake Garda, Peschiera del Garda has a long and tumultuous history starting from Roman times.
The town is surrounded by thick defensive walls rising from the waters of the lake. These walls and the Peschiera fortress were included in the UNESCO’s World Hreitage Site List in 2017. Especially impressive are the two gates – Porta Verona and Porta Brescia.
The Voltoni bridge is another beautiful panoramic spot. With its brick arches and dating back to the 16th century, the bridge is near the point where lake Garda meets the river Mincio. According to Pliny the Elder, this is where eel fishing was exceptionally abundant.
The historical centre is cute as a button. There are archaeological excavations from Roman times to explore. Nearby there are natural protected areas like the small lake of Frassino.
Kids would be delighted to find out that right next door to Peschiera del Garda are some of Italy’s best and biggest amusement parks. Shuttle buses will fetch you from the train station and take you to Gardaland and CanevaWorld.
Tip: Peschiera del Garda is just a short distance away from:
- one of the most beautiful parks in Europe – Parco Giardino Sigurta (see the fourth entry in this list);
- Valeggio sul Mincio – a pretty town famous for its handmade tortellini, Scaliger Castle, and 14th century fortified bridge (see the second entry in this list); and
- Borghetto sul Mincio – a nearby beautiful village on the river Mincio where you can sample Valeggio’s tortellini in one of the local restaurants housed in old historic mills (see here how).
I hope that I have inspired you to visit at least a couple of these 12 gorgeous towns around Lago di Garda – Italy’s largest lake. Let me know which one you liked the most.
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