Italy really does have a glorious coastline, lyrical countryside and celestial mountainscapes, its geography also includes some of the most wonderful lakes in Europe. And Italians have made these places even lovelier by building so beautifully beside them. Italian lakesides are some of the most beautiful in the world, with colorful villas on leafy hillsides gazing across sparkling water. Like coastal areas, Italy’s lake areas are usually well-protected against over development and indeed ugly development. You will enjoy an almost infinite choice of lifestyles and landscapes among Italy’s lakes.
In terms of size and atmosphere, Italy seems to encompass every possible variety of lake – from the teeming inland sea of Lake Garda to the tiniest tranquil pool lying little-known and unvisited in lush semi-wilderness. The best-known area is the heavenly northern lakes with dreamy blue watersides. But central Italy has its clutch of lakes too – serene, hill-fringed oases with a restful, sun-drenched charm. In the far south, isolated mountain tarns and sandy coastal lagoons are more the thing. Whatever your taste in lakes, there’s likely to be one in Italy to meet it.
THE GREAT NORTHERN LAKES OF ITALY
Of all Italy’s lakes, you’re likely to be most familiar with the names of its famous northern three – Garda, Como and Maggiore. These mountain-fringed northern lakes are simply gorgeous places – dreamy, dramatic, redolent of ease and sophistication. Note that the big three aren’t the only lakes up here. There are some other, smaller gems scattered about the north that you might want to investigate. Let’s take a closer look at these three largest and most popular of all Italy’s lakes:
Garda is the biggest and most visited of the three, with reliable winds that make it a particularly popular spot for sailing and windsurfing. The lake’s northern stretches are dramatically mountainous and home to some jewel-like little towns, while further south the landscape is increasingly flat and sees greater development. The southern end of the lake sees the most tourist activity, while the north boasts a more dramatic landscape, with good access to the mountains for skiers.
Lake Como is to some minds the most beautiful lake in Italy. Long and thin, with a shape like an upside-down letter Y, the lake’s every shore offers entrancing views across to another nearby shore. Steep slopes sprouting lush greenery plunge down into the water, while evaporation haze makes dreamy, romantic layers of every undulation in the surrounding hillsides. Towns around the lake are very pretty, as are the period villas nestling on the leafy slopes. It is, in general, quieter and less crowded than Garda, but nonetheless attracts a steady crowd of visitors, and is particularly popular as a weekend getaway. Its most famous and picturesque spots, such as Bellagio, Menaggio and Varenna, are situated along the middle shores of the lake.
The other popular northern lake is Maggiore, which spills over from Italy into Switzerland. The shoreline is elegant dotted with historic villas and gardens, and the whole lake emits an air of peace and gentility, perfect for getting away from it all. There’s arguably a greater sense of space and openness here than on Lake Como, as the surrounding slopes aren’t so consistently steep or dramatic.
THE SMALLER LAKES OF CENTRAL ITALY
There are at least two truly delightful lakes with freshwater in central Italy that might be perfect for you – namely Lake Trasimeno in Umbria and Lake Bolsena in northern Lazio. Both are smaller and sleepier than the three northern lakes. They’re ringed by rural hills rather than steep Alpine slopes, and they enjoy slightly longer and warmer summers. Fascinating old towns and villages lie beside them.
Edged by small sandy beaches and reedbanks, Lake Trasimeno sees woodlands, sunflowers and vineyards arcing across its low surrounding hills. Umbria’s Lake Trasimeno is a rural, tranquil place, which is popular with visitors for its watersports, fishing, cycling and nature. Clean and shallow, the lake water is agreeably warm for much of the year. The most desirable towns include Monte del Lago, Castiglione del Lago and Passignano, all with lovely views and long history.
Meanwhile, Lazio’s sparkling clean, eight-mile-wide Lake Bolsena sits serenely amidst super-fertile hillsides dotted with tiny towns full of Etruscan, Roman and medieval remains. It’s a charmed, hypnotic spot that has become quite popular over the last couple of decades yet remains wholly unspoilt. Note that Bolsena’s southerly neighbor, Lake Bracciano, within commuting distance from Rome, has a similar charm.