When most Australians plan a holiday to Italy, the cities of Rome, Florence, Pisa and Venice usually head up their list of must-see places to visit. Suggest Lake Garda, or Lago di Garda, (as it’s known in Italian) to them, and they will probably look at you in bewilderment. There are, however, plenty of things to see and do around Lake Garda.
Thanks to George Clooney, many Aussies have heard of Lake Como, where he owns a luxurious lakeside villa, but Italy’s biggest lake, Lake Garda, still remains a virtual unknown to the average Aussie tourist. It is, however, definitely worth a visit, and offers something for all ages. I have enjoyed four visits to Lake Garda and still never tire of this lovely part of Italy.
Located in the north of Italy, about half way between Milan and Venice, Lake Garda measures almost 52 kilometres in length and 17 kilometres across. Extending between the provinces of Verona, Brescia and Trento, the lake is easily accessible from the north via the Brenner Pass and from the south via the A4 autostrade.
For an easy excursion away from Lake Garda, why not take a day trip to Venice?
Situated at the northern tip of Lake Garda, Riva del Garda is one of the lake’s most popular holiday resorts. The pretty little town boasts a lovely harbour and pedestrianised 'old town', dominated by the 13th Century clock tower, “Torre Apponale”. A moated castle, originally built to protect the town from pirates, now houses a museum, whilst cruise boats and brightly painted fishing boats ply the busy harbour.
Pretty towns and villages are dotted all along the shore line but the lake’s southern shores are where it is most populated. This is also the widest part of the lake, and a haven for all kinds of watersports.
Sirmione is the jewel in the crown at the southern end of the lake. Situated on a four kilometre long promontory jutting into the lake, Sirmione is dominated by the Scaligeri Castle. Built in the 13th Century and boasting the obligatory moat to protect the village from invaders, the castle forms an imposing sight. Visitors to Sirmione must, these days, cross a bridge to enter the town which is closed to all non-essential traffic. Filled with prettily painted houses and shops, the bustling town is home to endless restaurants, cafes and shops, and is the ideal spot to enjoy an alfresco pizza at a table overlooking the lake.
Desenzano is the most important town at Lake Garda’s southern end. Located on the Milan to Venice rail line, many of the region’s most popular destinations are easily accessible from Desenzano. A two hour train trip took us to Venice via Verona and Padua and saved the hassle of having to find somewhere to park when we arrived in Venice. Milan and Brescia are also only an hour away by train.
Also at the southern end of the lake are some of Italy’s biggest theme parks. Just like Australia’s Gold Coast, this is Theme Park Central!! Gardaland is a Disneyland-kind-of-theme-park, with rides galore and live shows, offering something for everyone. Kids (and big kids!) will have a ball on the adventure rides and roller coasters, and watching the 3D shows. The recently opened Movie Land Studios is dedicated to all things cinema, whilst water fans will enjoy one of the many aquatic parks such as Caneva World.
Animal lovers are also catered for at Parco Natura Viva , and when it’s time to slow down a little, Parco Giardino Sigurtà offers restful gardens and parkland where you can wander and catch your breath. With an area of over 600,000 square metres, the Park is known as one of the world’s most extraordinary gardens.
Also on the western side of the lake are the delightful medieval towns of Toscolano, Salo, Malcesine and Limone. It’s easy to while away the hours wandering the cobblestoned streets and sipping cappuccino at an outdoor café. Is there any better location for people-watching than with the gentle waters of Lake Garda lapping at your feet? Shopping and fashion are high priorities of the Italians so you will have no shortage of choices when it comes to parting with your Euros – everything from high end fashion to cheap copies are available in abundance at any of the quaint villages and larger towns along the lake.
Numerous boat cruises are available from various towns around the lake. I enjoyed a morning cruise to Isola del Garda, a privately-owned island where you can take a guided tour of the gardens and part of the villa. The two hour cruise from Salo cost €26 per adult (July 2015 prices). We followed the cruise with Sunday lunch at Restaurant Lepanto, right on the lake front at Salo. The view, service and meal were excellent.
For a change of scenery, why not head into the hills? Tignale is a gorgeous little village situated high above the lake with views to die for. Not only will you get a bird’s eye view of Lake Garda but also of the towering Monte Baldo which dominates the eastern shores. Tignale, or another mountain village, Tremosine, make a great escape from the lakeside crowds, and are ideal destinations for walking.
Lake Garda really is a secret waiting to be discovered by Australians. With an authentic Italian ambience, excellent access to some of Italy’s most popular destinations, beautiful natural scenery and a mix of both the old and the new, it makes the perfect holiday destination for anyone.
If you have visited Lake Garda, I'd love to hear what your favourite things to see and do are?