Exploring Lake Garda

Lake Garda is Italy's largest lake and a huge draw for travellers in the north of the country. Along its scenic shores, you can find major resorts, as well as quaint towns and unspoilt, rustic villages. Here's our guide to where to visit in Lake Garda.
Boats moored on Lake Garda, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock
Boats moored on Lake Garda, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Virgil wrote poems to it, Kafka set a novel here, Goethe got himself arrested, and Catullus and Mussolini set up houses on its 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, and 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, while 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 in this region 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, while the north shore is in Trentino, an area which remained part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I.

Charming streets in Limone sul Garda, Italy. 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 subsequently 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 comprising 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 tip 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 only passengers, 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 on all the quays.

View over the famous Village of Limone sul Garda. Photo: ShutterstockView over the village of Limone sul Garda, Italy. 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 sun-kissed scenery. Make a visual note of your home harbour so you can remember what it looks like and find it easily when the time comes to return your boat at the end of the day.

How to hire a dinghy

The northern part of the lake in particular, around the village of 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 a number of places where you can hire dinghies, kayaks and water sports equipment, some of which also offer windsurfing, kite surfing and sailing lessons.

Ready to take a trip to the Italian lakes?

Simply get in touch with us to share your ideas for your trip and let us know when you would like to travel. Our local experts will then create a personalised itinerary, which you can amend until you're happy with every detail before booking. Our pre-planned itineraries in Italy can offer inspiration, and remember that all of our existing itineraries can be tailored to suit your specific requirements.

Updated 30 July, 2019