Exploring Lake Garda

Shore of Lake Garda. Photo: Shutterstock
Shore of Lake Garda. Photo: Shutterstock

Virgil wrote poems to it, Kafka set a novel here, Goethe got himself arrested, and Catullus and Mussolini set up house on the lake's shores. Garda is a place of exceptional natural beauty and the largest lake in Italy.


Visiting Lake Garda

Garda was given its name in the Middle Ages: a reference to the guardian rocks along its fortress-like northern shores. To the ancient Romans it was known far more benignly as Lake Benacus (the Beneficent). The lake’s alternative name, Benaco, is still used to this day.

Expansive Lake Garda stretches 51km (31 miles), from Riva to Peschiera, and is up to 17km (10.5 miles) across at its widest point, from Lazise to Moniga. The crystal clear waters of the lake lap at a shoreline 158km (98 miles) long. Created by glaciers, Garda is effectively an inland fjord. The high walls of the north end of the lake carved out by the action of the ice, the great low, fertile bowl at the southern end moulded by the erosion that spilled out into a vast arc, forming a natural dam. The main river flowing into the lake in the north, between Riva and Torbole, is the Sarca. To the south, the Mincio flows out from the lake at Peschiera. 

The mountains to the north protect the lake’s bowl from the chilly Alpine winter, creating a mini-Mediterranean climate of indigo waters where lemon trees, olive groves and vineyards thrive. Garda is divided across three provinces, which are based on historic empires. Its eastern shore is part of the Veneto province, along with Venice, Verona and Valpolicella. The western shore is part of Brescia. The north shore is in Trentino, an area which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I.


Picturesque small town street view in Limone. Photo: Shutterstock

Early boats and Lake Garda's history

Garda has had ferries for as long as it has had people living on its shores, but got its first steam ferry, the Arciduca Ranieri, in 1827. More ships were added to the fleet, possibly the most interesting of them was the Amico a Prora. Known as ‘The Handlebar’, it was powered by eight horses yoked to handlebars on deck, turning the paddle wheels, and sailed for 10 years until 1830.

By the time of World War I, around 30,000 visitors a year were travelling on the ferries. In the period between the two world wars, a new fleet of ships carried up to 400,000 a year, numbers not reached again until the 1980s. These days well over a million people a year take to the lake’s waters. Escape the crowds on Insight Guides' Enchanting Italian Lakes trip. Our local experts can help you find the region's most secluded spots and share advice on the best things to do in Lake Garda.

Ferries on Lake Garda

Lake Garda boat tours are a splendid pick and mix from dozens of ferries and pleasure boats that criss-cross the water every day. Routes link towns along both shores, crossing the lake at key points. To the south, multiple routes converge like a spider’s web on the resort town of Sirmione, sitting at the end of a peninsula jutting out into the lake.

You can choose between standard ferries, historic paddle steamers, high-speed catamarans or hydrofoils. Most of the boats carry passengers only, but car ferries operate from Riva to Desenzano, Maderno to Torri del Benaco and  Limone to Malcesine. The number of services drops dramatically in winter (Oct–Mar).

Tickets are available for single journeys, but if you want the freedom to roam, consider buying a ferry day pass. These come in three types – one covering the whole lake, one for the Upper Lake (Riva down to Bogliaco) and one for the Lower Lake (Peschiera up to Gargnano). There are adult and child fares available from ticket offices by all the quays.


View over the famous Village of Limone sul Garda. Photo: ShutterstockView over the village of Limone sul Garda. Photo: Shutterstock

Taking a boat out on Lake Garda

Rent a boat for an hour, an afternoon or a day, and sail or motor wherever you like. Boat-hire yards can be found in most of the resort towns. Prices vary and can be steep, so do your research before setting out. Most of the boats have a ladder, making it easy to swim off the back, so you can enjoy snorkelling, or trying your luck with a fishing rod. Or simply take a picnic and enjoy the scenery and sunshine. Make sure you can remember what your home harbour looks like, so you can easily find it when the time comes to return the boat at the end of the day.

How to hire a dinghy

The northern part of the lake in particular, around Torbole, is known as perfect sailing territory. Ferries have to thread their way through flotillas of training dinghies while windsurfers zip precariously under the bows. There are plenty of places to hire equipment, as well as schools where you can take water sports lessons.

Ready to take a trip to the Italian lakes?

Simply get in touch with us to share ideas for your trip and let us know when you would like to travel. We can then create an itinerary for you based on your personal preferences, which you can amend until you're happy with every detail before booking. Our existing itineraries in Italy can help with ideas, and remember that all of our planned itineraries can be tailored to suit your wishes.

Updated 21 October, 2018