A convenient one hour’s drive from Venice Airport Marco Polo (VCE), Lake Garda (Lago di Garda) is amongst the most popular and beautiful holiday destinations in Italy.
Situated in the North of the country, with a shoreline divided between the provinces of Trentino (North), Verona (South East) and Brescia (South West), Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy, attracting some 22 million visitors each year.
From the cuisine and culture to the traditional architecture, grand mountains and intense colour of the serene and refreshing lake itself, Lake Garda really has something for everyone.
With a shore line of just 98 miles (158 km), a road trip around the island can be a great way to spend the day and cover many locations in one go. Passing through the vast number of vineyards and olive fields offers gentle, charming views, while channeling James Bond on a drive through the lakeside tunnels (as used in Quantum of Solace) can be the perfect way to unleash your inner 007!
If Lake Garda is on your holiday radar then check out the following guide, as we take you on a brief tour around the island, exploring just a few of the many, sumptuous highlights on offer.
KEY INFO: Language: Italian | Currency: Euro | Flight Time: 2 hours & 30 minutes approx. (from Manchester) | Driving: Right side of the road
We begin in the sun-kissed commune of Sirmione, an ancient fortified town located on the narrow Sirmio peninsula, which extends more than 3 kilometres into the Southern bank of the lake, dividing the gulfs of Desenzano and Peschiera,
Sirmione is amongst the busiest locations on Lake Garda’s shores, so for those hiring vehicles and driving in it is worth getting there as early as possible as parking spaces close to the commune entrance tend to be few and far between. There are plenty of spaces to be found a little further away but expect a good walk to and from the vehicle.
Approaching the entrance to the historic commune walls it is clear to see why the Roman poet Catullo famously described Sirmione as ‘the pearl of the islands and peninsulas‘; an artistic and cultural hotspot that can trace its structural roots and heritage back to the early days of the Roman Republic.
Characterised by narrow, cobblestone alleyways and historic stone walls, Sirmione offers more than enough away from the more densely populated touristy spots to entice both solo travellers and those looking for a quieter and more romantic break, with the luxury Aquaria Thermal Spa, the Grottoes of Catullus, the small, fresco-filled churches of San Pietro in Mavino and Sant’Anna della Rocca, and the unique 13th-century Castello Scaligero (offering a rare example of medieval port fortification used by the noble Scaliger fleet, and strategically standing at the entrance of the peninsula) all proving essential cultural highlights.
Fed up of the crowds? Then take a 10-minute stroll uphill, through the winding, tree-lined cobbles, to the Parco Maria Callas, a secluded, hidden gem located close to the villa in which Maria Callas once lived which offers glorious panoramic views over the lake. Getting up to the top of Sirmione is the hard part, but once there you’ll find a number of parks and gardens to relax in and rest your weary legs.
CABLE CAR MALCESINE, MONTE BALDO
On the eastern shore of Lake Garda lies another historic commune, Malcesine, behind which lies one of the Italian Alps’ most beautiful mountain ranges, Monte Baldo, located between the provinces of Trento and Verona, and rising to an elevation of 2,218 m (7,277 ft) at its highest point.
Open from March to November – leaving the out of season months free for essential maintenance – Cable Car Malcesine Monte Baldo, is one of the most popular and thrilling experiences the region has to offer, though in summer queues can be extremely busy and wait times can be as much as 4 hours.
Ascending to a height of 1,750 m (5,741 ft), the cable car consists of 3 different stations and takes around 20 for the full ascent, with the first cabin holding up to 45 passenger and the second up to 80, rotating a full 360 degrees as it goes.
The highest summit of Monte Baldo, Cima Valdritta may be less than half the size of Mont Blanc – the highest mountain in the Alps – yet the views offered are truly spectacular, on a clear day.
With very little in the way of shelter, the top of the mountain can be something of a sun trap, so make sure you have plenty of sun protection and water with you. There are shops and cafes at the top, though queues can be long and prices high. In stark contrast, Baldo can also gets rather cold and see heavy showers from time to time. Be sure to check forecasts before you go (or the webcams). Who knows? The alpaca wool shops up there might come in useful!
The summit is within walking distance from the cable car station, but suitable footwear is required as paths can be steep and uneven.
Dogs are welcome, but they must be muzzled and kept on a lead, with only one permitted per carriage. Pushchairs are also restricted to just one per carriage. Mountain bikes are permitted, though there are restrictions, and paragliders are a regular site.
Full price tickets for the full journey: Malcesine – Monte Baldo (ascent and descent) are € 22,00, with discounts available for Under 18s, Over 65s and organised groups.
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About half way down the East shore of the lake at its widest point, a sort of midway point between Sirmione and Malcesine, lies Bardolino, a more traditional and authentic feeling municipality developed around the Medieval fortifications that encompass town.
Best known for the eponymous red wine produced within (the Bardolino DOC), and with numerous museums, churches and monasteries to explore, Bardolino feels significantly less gimmicky than many other communes found around the lake, attracting what tends to be a slightly older or more mature audience than many of the touristy hotspots.
Local produce – including wine, fish and oil – fuel a large portion of the economy, all of which can be sampled in the numerous restaurants, hotels and inns Bardolino is home to.
Due to Bardolino’s generally milder climate evenings can feel refreshingly cooler, but that doesn’t stop the nightlife, and with street performers and live orchestral concerts, there plenty to whet the appetite.
LIMONE SUL GARDA
With the vibrant zest of the old lemon houses still pungent in the air, there are no prizes for guessing how Limone Sul Garda got its name. Or perhaps there are, as despite its citrus-rich history, Limone’s name is actually thought to have derived from a combination of Limone San Giovanni, the town’s old denomination, and limes, the latin word for boundary (in reference to the two communes that surround the town.
Sitting on a narrow strip of land at the foot of an imposing cliff face, Limone was once a quiet, isolated town, reachable only by boat or over the mountains, though since the construction of the road to Riva del Garda in 1932, it has grown into one of the loveliest and most renowned tourist resorts in the area.
Limone is a picaresque town steeped in the culture and history of its old economy, but although it now attracts a rather large tourist population, it still manages to retain its traditional, small town charm, with the fishing port, narrow streets and old citrus houses quaint reminders of its rich past.
FOOD & DRINK
There are countless bars, restaurants and cafes to be found in all locations around the lake, however, due to Garda’s popularity as tourist trap, many can feel rather expensive and overpriced, so it is most definitely worth searching for somewhere a little off the beaten track. Follow the natives; they known the best places and, most importantly, the best deals! A point also worth noting is that most sit-down establishments will add on a compulsory cover charge for parties usually of four or more, though some can charge for parties of any number.
Fun Fact: You will notice that ‘Fried Fish Salad’ appears on almost every restaurant menu, however it is worth noting that the fried fish in question refers to shellfish and not the freshwater fish or sea fish you might be expecting. Also, grilled chicken tends to be difficult to find and when it does appear can be up to 10 euros for a single breast, with no accompaniment. Fried chicken schnitzel is however a regular feature, though perhaps not one for the more health conscious.
Hotels and inns close to the shore unsurprisingly tend to be rather expensive so it might be advisable to look for somewhere slightly further inland, unless of course budget is not a concern. A little uphill, and overlooking some truly beautiful scenery, Cavaion Veronese is a mere 5-minute drive from Affi and 10-minutes from Bardolino, with numerous restaurants and facilities within walking distance from the hotels. From personal experience, Cavaion is a perfect choice for those looking for a quieter stay, away from the touristy hustle and bustle of the lakeside resorts.
The weather around Garda can vary quite considerably from day to day. During the summer months it can range anywhere from 15°C to 32°C, with rain and heavy clouds not uncommon. Evenings tend to get dark fairly quickly and once the sun retires the temperature can get fairly chilly. Due to the varied fluctuation in temperature, packing can be quite a challenge as there are a number of scenarios you’ll need to prepare for.
On a scorching hot day there is nothing better than a swim in the lake to cool off, but there are some points you should consider:
• The water is cold, no matter what the weather, so be prepared.
• With no current to naturally filter and clear the shore line, the floor can feel very strange and slimy under foot, with many sharp, jagged rocks and debris scattered all about. It is worth investing in some waterproof footwear to protect your feet as there can also be glass, bottle tops and other dangerous objects around. The water is usually clear enough to see right through to the bottom but it never hurts to be prepared.
• The water depth of course varies from place to place, but a good rule of thumb is to never jump in or dive off piers and jetties.
We hope you find this guide of use and please do let us know if you have been or are planning a trip to Lake Garda soon!