There are the crags of the Prealps. There are the silhouettes of Dolomites on the horizon. You’ve got dashes of lemon orchards and vineyards. Feel the fizz of Prosecco. See the mirror-like sheen of the water. It can only be Lake Garda (AKA, one the best things to do in Italy).
A gorgeous and grand place, it’s hemmed in at the north by a phalanx of cathedral-like mountains. To the south, it’s all rolling Lombard plains with wineries and campsites. The result? Somewhere beloved by adventurers and jet-setters alike. A land that fuses long-distance hiking with glitzy yacht marinas. A getaway that’s part chill, part clip-yourself-to-a-harness-and-dangle-from-2,000-meters-up! Basically, if you’re cruising through Europe on the Interrail, make sure to stop.
A circuit of this stunning water is sure to be one of the most bucket-list adventures you can undertake in northern Italy. So, let us be your guide through cobbled towns where you’ll munch toppling ice creams, and up cloud-splintering summits where there are views to die for.
Once a muse to the impossibly romantic Roman poet Catullus, Sirmione still rarely fails to draw sighs of nostalgia. Skyline shots are filled with the crenulations of Scaliger Castle. That protects the tip of a headland where cobbled lanes dip under arches, espressos clink in little cafes, and vines crawl up stone-faced villas. There’s little wonder that Sirmione has a claim to be Lake Garda’s most beautiful town. And then you add in the thermal baths, which gurgle mineral-rich water around the lakeside to make a stunning natural spa.
Three letters make Bardolino a downright doozy of a destination for wine heads: DOC. Yep, there’s a designated heritage wine area flowing through the rolling hills all around this lovely little harbor town. Within, there are more tasting rooms and cellar doors than you can shake a bunch of red Rondinella grapes at. The grand Guerrieri Rizzardi Winery is one of the world’s best wineries, and a great choice for a day’s sampling. They run free guided tours of their cellar between May and October, including tipples of three local wines.
Majestic Malcesine looks like it was planned by an Italian haute couture designer. Like nimble threads, the old town’s streets wiggle and weave through piazzas and under arches. Overhead, the Scaliger Castle of Malcesine bolts upright with its crenulated tower. You can climb it for a handful of euros and get rolling views of the pebble beaches that run northwards along Lake Garda. Don’t worry if you get lost in the main heart of Malcesine – that’s half the fun. It’s worth getting bearings for lunch though, because little La Cambusa serves unforgettable fresh pastas and local wines with the most friendly service.
People-watching in Torbole ranges from suited jet setters next to Lycra-clad cyclists to sweaty hikers mingling with sun-kissed families. A lively little corner of the north lakeside, this is one of the most popular places during summer on Lake Garda. Campsites that line the pebble beaches are a great place to pitch up if you want to wake and walk just a couple of meters before your morning swim. During the day, rent a bike and hit the breezy promenade that shoots off to the south and west. It wiggles under craggy outcrops and past countless pizzerias. Sometimes, you’ll also be able to see the local daredevils diving into the water under Forte San Nicolo. Water sportsers might prefer a day of SUP boarding, sailing, or windsurfing on Lake Garda – this is the place to do that.
A-list vibes run strong in Riva del Garda. Look left and right – are you sharing a cappuccino spot with George Clooney, perhaps? Packed with palazzos dating to the Venetian Republic and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it’s a grand duke of a town. Start by wandering through the quays around the 12th-century Rocca bastide. Then, make for Piazza III Novembre, where beer bars showcase the Germanic influence of the Trentino Alto Adige. Just down from that is the taste-bud-tingling Pizzeria Sud, where you’ll munch on bufalina pizzas made in the Neapolitan style. Overhead, you can hike to the Bastione for sweeping views of the north of Lake Garda.
Leaving the water behind for a spell, head north to Arco. A cute maze of stone-topped lanes that hugs the Sarca River, this one’s less buzzy than the lakeside resorts. You’ll see harnesses and helmets for rent in all the climbing shops – some of the most gravity-defying via ferrata routes of all lurk nearby. Be certain to grab a pistachio ice cream on the main piazza and wander under the scented stone pines of the local park. Then, it’s up to Arco Castle and it’s sheer drama. Perched like something from a fantasy novel on rock-ribbed bluffs, it’s held power over the valley since the 11th century.
Like a sleeping giant, Monte Stivo reclines across the flatlands above northern Lake Garda. It’s a beast of a peak, clocking up 2,059 meters in height. It’s not the tallest in the region, though (that honor goes to Monte Baldo above Malcesine). But you can’t conquer Stivo by simply hopping on a cable car. That’s the fun part. The hike from bottom to top ranges through thick fir forests and even passes a donkey sanctuary at Malga Zanga (give the big Bernese dogs a hug, please!). Then, it opens onto high alpine pastures dotted with cows. The rewards are the 360 degree views of the Piccolo Dolomites and the Brenta Range, along with a cold beer at wonderful Rifugio Prospero Marchetti.
From one lake to another, your eighth stop whisks you into the rugged Trentino ranges to the northwest. The walk there is a joy in itself. Start on the edge of Arco and clamber the cobbled streets that hairpin back and forth. They are used by the local wine growers to tend to the vines. Eventually, you’ll cross under a great castello at Tenno town. A stop at Canale is a must – think fairy-tale medieval hill town with crooked cottages. Then, it’s onto Lago di Tenno. Glowing turquoise blue beneath the forests, it’s your ticket to wild swimming and SUP boarding in the midst of the mountains.
There’s a wonderful hiking path linking Riva del Garda to Pregasina. It climbs upwards along the precipitous cliffs that lurch from the western banks of the lake. As it goes, it zags through groves of crocuses and juniper, pine and periwinkles, as panoramic views of the water and the mountains to the west unfold. Then you reach Pregasina itself. It’s a tiny little place; a snapshot of sleepy Trento that’s not got the crowds of the other resort towns. Stop for a coffee (or a cold beer) in the Hotel Ristorante Panorama before heading back to Riva.
Resting on a silted estuary and a narrow sliver of land beneath the jagged spires of the Ledro Alps, Limone Sul Garda is a truly stunning pitstop. You can reach it by car, through tunnels used in the filming of James Bond chase scenes. Or, you can come by ferry, which offers deck-top views of Monte Baldo opposite. Whichever way you arrive, you’ll want to wander the streets to see the centuries-old lemon terraces. They were once used to cultivate citrus orchards but are no longer in use. That doesn’t stop shops from bursting with limoncello and lemon soap, though. Souvenirs bought? Good, now make for the pebble shoreline by Mamba Beach Club to watch the kite surfers in action.
Don’t confuse this Gargano with the Gargano of Apulia. They are both beautiful but could hardly be at more distant ends of the Italian peninsula. Here, you’ll discover a quintessential town of the Alpine foothills. Layered with the history of Roman settlers, the Etruscans, and the grand Republic of Venice, it’s got plenty of past. It was also once the home of DH Lawrence until he departed in 1913. The kernel of it all is at the Porto di Gargnano. Bobbing boats line the quays there as cafeterias and pizza eateries hide beneath more lemon terraces. Look north and you’ll find views all the way up Lake Garda and across to cloud-haloed Monte Baldo.