The Enchanting Italian Lakes: A Perfect Itinerary

Offering impossibly picturesque backdrops, perfect summer temperatures, and a more relaxed pace of life, the Italian Lakes are perennially some of the top holiday destinations in Europe, and rightly so. Here is our perfect Italian Lakes itinerary.
The town of Sirmione overlooking Lake Garda. Photo: Shutterstock
The town of Sirmione overlooking Lake Garda. Photo: Shutterstock

Days 1 & 2 – Milan

The perfect place to begin our tour in more ways than one. Milan's airport is well serviced by many domestic and international carriers, making it a important transport hub for the north of Italy, and easy to fly to from almost anywhere in the world. The city itself is also close to the Lakes, with Como and Garda both about a 2-hour drive away. Aside from logistics and convenience, there are many other reasons to visit Milan. The city enjoys a global reputation for fine shopping and fashion, and whilst you will find plenty of designer boutiques, those who are not fashion aficionados will also find plenty to see and do here. Stroll around the city, and visit the iconic Castello Sforzeso, a 15th-century castle that now houses many of Milan's art galleries and museums. Nearby is a fascinating Benedictine monastery, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, home to a stunning 16th-century fresco by Bernardino Luini called the Life of San Maurizio. Next door is the Monastero Maggiore, which, at one point, was the most important female Benedictine convent in Milan. Today it houses an archaeological museum and is open to the public. 

Despite Milan's celebrated history, it is also a modern economic powerhouse. Nowhere else is this more apparent than at the nearby Piazza Affari, which houses the financial city's beating heart, the Milan Stock Exchange. The Piazza Affari is also home to the controversial statue by celebrated local artist Maurizio Cattelan. Officially called L.O.V.E., the statue has – for obvious reasons – taken on the name 'The Middle Finger', and is located outside the Milan Stock Exchange. From here, it is just a short walk to Milan's iconic Gothic cathedral, which is a photographer's dream (especially at sunset), and the third-largest of its kind on earth. Milan is renowned for its nightlife and restaurants, so there'll be plenty to keep you occupied in the evenings. All in all, Milan is a fantastic place to spend a few days before heading out to the Lakes.    

Milan Cathedral at sunset

Milan Duomo at sunset. Photo: Shutterstock

Days 2, 3 & 4 – Lake Garda 

The best way to get from Milan to Garda is to rent a car and drive. The route is stunning, and you have the added bonus of being able to stop off at places like Sirmione along the way. Sirmione is a picturesque community, complete with thermal springs, located on the southern shore of Lake Garda, between Desenzano and Peschiera. Today, the picturesque village is made of windy streets that are dominated by a 13th-century castle, which make it well worth stopping off to explore.   

Lake Garda is the largest of the Italian Lakes, and is long and slim: its southern shore is more built up (although hardly urban), while the north boasts dramatic fjord-like scenery, framed by rugged mountains. The lake boasts an abundance of charming towns, many of which, including Sirmione and Desenzano, were once the reserves of the Roman elite. Today, Desenzano is an traditional Italian town offering a genuine insight into everyday Italian life. Enjoy a coffee at one of the town's small cafes, and indulge in a spot of the most Italian of pastimes – people watching. The town of Malcesine is perhaps even more aesthetically pleasing, boasting a picturesque castle overlooking the lake, and a cable car to the top of the nearby Monte Baldo ridge, which is something of a walker's paradise. 

Whilst staying on Garda, you should consider taking a day trip to nearby Verona, the setting of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The town was originally designed to resemble the layout of a chessboard; today, the Gothic 14th-century Arche Scaligere remains a must-see. Here, five members of the Scaliger family, who once ruled Verona, were laid to rest. Be sure to head over the Piazza dei Signori and walk over the bridge crossing the Adige River for some stunning views. 

An idyllic beach on Lake Garda

An idyllic beach on Lake Garda, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Days 4, 5 & 6 – Lake Como 

The drive from Lake Garda to Lake Como is a pleasant one that will take about three hours. Lake Como is the most popular of the Italian Lakes, and has attracted the powerful and the artistic for well over 2,000 years now. Shaped like an upside down Y, the lake is framed by the foothills of the Alps, and is easily the most dramatic of all the Lakes. The city of Como sits at the southern tip of the western branch, and makes an ideal base and place to explore. Starting at the main square, Piazza Cavour, venture to the medieval old town, Cortesella, home to the iconic white-marble cathedral, which is Como's most iconic landmark. The cathedral was built over a long period of time, and fuses several architectural styles together. From Como you can catch a boat to Bellagio, which takes an hour. Picturesque Bellagio is home to a superb collection of ancient villas, including Villa Serbelloni, which is nestled in a large, well-kept parkland. You will notice many houses and villas around Bellagio have clear neoclassical influences, and feature fountains and statues. The town also has a charming market, which isn't to be missed.

For an excursion from Como, we recommend Lake Lugano, which sits just between Como and Maggiore. Straddling the Swiss-Italian border, 67% of Lake Lugano actually falls within the Swiss canton of Ticino. The lake itself is long and snakes its way through through the Ticino like a river. You can take a day trip to the town of Lugano, located on the northern shores of the lake. The mountainous surroundings are ideal for trekking, mountain biking, horse-riding, sailing, golfing and various other outdoor pursuits, so keep your eyes peeled as you glide across the lake. Picturesque villages such as Gandria, Carona, Milde and Campione d'Italia cling to the mountainous lakeside, and boast medieval churches and castles. Lugano itself is sleek and vibrant, and offers an array of cultural attractions, shopping, restaurants and bars with which to entertain yourself with before the return journey. 

Lake Como in the summertime

Lake Como in the summertime. Photo: Shutterstock

Days 6, 7 & 8 – Lake Maggiore 

Continue to Lake Maggiore, which is just a 90-minute drive from Lake Como. As with Lake Lugano, Maggiore straddles the Swiss-Italian border. The lake is framed by the dominant Matterhorn, and is the most picturesque of the Lakes. On the shores of Lake Maggiore sits the sleepy town of Stresa, the largest and most lively resort on the lake. Despite this, this town retains almost all of the original charm that first put it on map as part of the Grand Tour. 

Maggiore is well known for the Borromean Islands, of which there are three: Bella (beautiful), Madre (mother), and Pescatore (fisherman). The Borromean Islands were named after the Borromean Family, who once owned all the islands, and were summer favourites of writer Ernest Hemingway, amongst others. The islands are reachable via boat, which leaves from Stresa each day. Islola Pescatore (also known as Superiore) is the only Borromean Island that is continuously inhabited, and is home to a charming maze of side streets and alleyways. Isola Madre is home to a wild community of peacocks, pheasants and parrots, whilst Isola Bella is home to the the grand Palazzo Bromeo, with a fantastic 18th-century English Garden.      

Spend a few days soaking up the sights and delights of Maggiore, before returning to Milan to drop off your rental car and catch your onward flight, which is a 2-hour drive away. 

View of Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore in autumn.View of Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore in autumn. Photo: Shutterstock

Ready to take a trip to the Italian Lakes?

Our local experts can help organise fantastic trips to the Italian Lakes and other regions around Italy for you. Simply get in touch with us to share ideas for the trip and to let us know when you would like to travel. We will then create a personalised itinerary based on your preferences, which you can amend until you're completely happy with every detail before booking. Our Enchanting Italian Lakes trip and other itineraries in Italy can offer inspiration, and keep in mind that they can all be tailored to suit your own specific requirements.