The Italian Lakes

Guide to Property on the Italian Lakes

Properties on the popular Italian Lakes of Como, Maggiore and Garda achieve healthy rental returns, but as the Italian lakes are one of the most scenic parts of Italy, prices can be steep. Three-bedroom villas with a lake view, private terrace and garden on Como start at around €400,000. Lake side apartments on Maggiore, with access to a pool, start from €165,000.  The Italian lakes have good accessibility with the airports of Malpensa, Milan Linate and Brescia. The area offers an idyllic Italian experience in an outstanding natural environment, perfect as a second home location.

“One can't describe the beauty of the Italian Lakes, nor would one try if one could," wrote Henry James. The extravagant beauty of the Italian Lakes: Como, Garda and Maggiore has attracted visitors since the times of the Roman Empire, inspiring poets, writers, and musicians with idyllic landscapes of tranquil lakes ringed by soaring snow capped mountains which descend to meet the lakeshores.

The Italian Lake District stretches across Northern Italy. The southern ends of most of the lakes are relatively flat (a continuation of the River Po Plain), but the northern ends are mountainous as the lakes reach deep into the Alps. Popular with Northern Europeans and Italians alike for over 100 years, the Italian Lakes combine good weather with attractive scenery. The climate is mild in both summer and winter, producing Mediterranean vegetation, with beautiful gardens growing rare and exotic plants.

 

Featured Properties

Overview of the Italian Lakes

Italy has over a thousand lakes, renowned for their incomparable beauty and each characterised by distinct features.  Italy's lakes create enchanting landscapes thanks to the ecosystems that have developed over the millennia, and the evolution of the many and various plant and animal species.

Lake Garda

Lake Como (Lago di Como)

Just half an hour from bustling Milan, in the north of Italy. Lake Como is long (50km), slender and extremely deep. The  southern end forks into two long 'legs', with the picturesque town of Bellagio situated on the promontory between them.

Lake Garda (Lago di Garda)

Lake Garda is long and slim with a southern end that is low lying. In contrast, the northern end is surrounded by towering mountains.

Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore)

Italy's second-largest lake, divides the regions of Piemonte and Lombardia. The lake's northern end, in the Alps, stretches into Switzerland, where Locarno is a popular lakeside destination.

Lake Iseo (Lago d’Iseo)

This lake is entirely within Lombardy, and a few of the noteworthy towns along the shores are Iseo, Sarnico, Riva di Solto, Lovere, and Marone.

Lake Orta (Lago d’Orta)

In the Piedmont region of Italy is quite small, but it’s not far from Lake Maggiore so it’s easy to combine visits to both lakes. Some of the Lake Orta towns worth noting are Orta San Giulio, Omegna, Ameno, and Armeno.

The lakes have a number of national parks and nature reserves. They are noted for their dense woods, moor lands and variety of wildlife. Some suggestions are: Parco Pineta di Appiano Gentile e Tradate, Parco Regionale della Spina Verde and Parco Regionale della Valle del Lambro.

Art and Culture of the Italian Lakes

Castello Sirmione

Lake Como

The impressive cathedral (Duomo), like most in Italy, was built and added to over a period of centuries, so you can admire Gothic and Renaissance features including some fine tapestries and paintings. The town's earlier cathedral (built in the tenth century), San Fedele, is another fine sight, as are the tall nine-hundred-year-old gateway, Porta Vittoria, and the Romanesque church Sant'Abbondio. The town's art gallery (Pinacoteca) is also worth a visit. For a short trip out of town, take the funicular up to Brunate above Como, where you can enjoy spectacular views. If you're a hiker, take the footpath up to Monte Boletto.

Travelling along the western shore of  lake Como, you can stop in at the Tempio Voltiano, a surprising classic temple with marble columns and mosaic floors. A bit farther on are the beautiful formal gardens and park of Villa dell'Olmo, a sumptuous lake home named after an elm forest mentioned by Pliny the Younger in the days when Como was a flourishing Roman outpost.

Villa Passalacqua in Torrigia , a late 18th-century home where Vincenzo Bellini once stayed.

Lake Como is renowned for its exquisite villas, and probably the most famous one is Villa Carlotta, a perfect combination of luxurious interiors (beautiful stuccos, lovely ceiling frescoes and a great art collection, including an Eros and Psyche by Antonio Canova) and luxuriant exteriors (over 500 species of plants, trees and shrubs from all over the world).

Bellano old town centre is characterized by interesting tight alleys with medieval houses, arches that date back to the 17th century and Baroque courts.

Lake Garda Sirmione's moated castle, Rocca Scaligera. There are also the remains of a grand Roman villa plus an archaeological museum.

Lake Maggiore

The Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore are not to be missed and one of its prime attractions. There are three open to the public, containing beautiful gardens, small settlements and restaurants.

Towns of the Italian Lakes

Lake Como

Como is a lively and pleasant town with an appealing historical centre and a scenic location at the southern end of the east branch of the Lake.

Cernobbio, whose old town features a delightful collection of picturesque houses and narrow alleys. Nearby is one of the grandest hotels in all Europe, the Villa D'Este, whose rooms are almost like museum galleries.

Como's only island, Isola Comacina. The best day of the year to take the ferry over to the island is the week end after June 24th, when St. John's Day is celebrated with a mass at Santa Eufemia’s basilica, followed by a costumed procession and night-time fireworks.

Tremezzo is another lovely lakeside town. There's a classic lakeside promenade, as well as many wonderful old villas (some of which have been converted to hotels), and it's from here you can take a car ferry over to Bellaggio and Varenna, on the opposite shore.

Varenna may be the most picturesque town on the lake, its steep winding alleys lined with charming homes, flowering balconies and lace-curtained windows. Just above it is the ancient castle where Theodolinda, Queen of the Lombards, is said to have died in the 7th century. Two famed villas to visit here are Villa Cipressi, with terraced gardens cascading right down to the shores, and Villa Monastero, a true showcase.

On the southern shore is Bellaggio, la perla del lago (the pearl of the lake), considered by many to be the most beautiful town in all of Europe. Its narrow cobbled streets, breathtaking views, impeccable homes and glorious villas make it a most enchanting spot.

Lake Garda

Sirmione

Sirmione is on the southern shores of Lake Garda, a pretty town near the end of a long promontory. Sirmione's narrow medieval streets bustle with colour and life.

Desenzano del Garda

Around the harbour the streets are pretty, and from the castle up the hill (outdoor concerts in the summer) there's a lovely view over the lake. In the evening you can join in the popular activity of promenading, the passeggiata. There are plenty of good restaurants, shops, and busy bars.

Riva di Garda

Riva is at the northern end of Lake Garda. The pretty public gardens by the waterfront have a quaint air to them. The town is large enough to support a market and shops; while the lakeside area is packed with gelaterie (ice cream parlours), cafes and restaurants.

The waterfront is dominated by one of Garda's fortresses, the Rocca, which contains the town's museum. Steep wooded slopes tower above, with ruined towers emerging from the trees to tempt the energetic explorer.

North of Riva, walking or driving excursions give access to some of the region's most dramatic scenery. This includes a 287-ft waterfall at Varone, the remains of a Bronze Age settlement at Lake Ledro and the crags and fortifications of Castello d'Arco.

Malcesine

Malcesine is pretty and atmospheric. The town, on the eastern shore of Lake Garda, is charming, a maze of historic alleys. A castle (open to the public, with great towers to climb) guards the waters, while mountain slopes rear up behind the clustered buildings.

A cable-car takes you right up to the high grassy summit of the Monte Baldo ridge, where the air is fresh and cool, the views are stupendous, and you can refresh yourself at several cafe-restaurants.

Lake Maggiore

The most popular Lake Maggiore resorts are on the western shores of the lake.

Stresa is a lovely town with beautiful villas and gardens (some open to the public), a good climate and lake views. From the town a cable car takes you up Monte Mottarone, where from a height of over 1,500 m you can enjoy views of the Alps and the other lakes.

Sports and Leisure on the Italian Lakes

Windsurfing on Lake Garda

The lakes are perfect for water sports. Lake Garda offers excellent windsurfing, waterskiing and sailing facilities, as does Lake Como. Torbole, on Lake Garda, is a particularly prime spot for windsurfing. The lakes also boast a number of great beaches. The Italian Grand Prix is held on the second Sunday in September at the Monza track, 15km northeast of Milan.

Spa Resorts

Spa resorts are popular throughout the lakes becuase of the abundant supply of springs in the area.

Golf

One of golf's best kept secrets is the availability of beautiful and challenging golf courses in the lake area of Northern Italy, in particular around Lake Maggiore, Lake Orta and Lake Varese. Near Milan, you can be playing in delightful sunshine on a championship course against a background of snow capped Alpine mountains.

There are two new clubs near Lake Orta: Castelconturbia, a triple-nine designed by Trent Jones, and Bogogno, with its two courses designed by Robert von Hagge. For a more traditional atmosphere, try Varese, with its clubhouse in a former monastery; and Villa d'Este, set in beautiful woods beside little lake Montorfano.

One of the world's finest golf resorts is to be found in the luxurious Palazzo Arzaga near Verona, with a golf academy, tennis courts and a spa.

Skiing

In the north-west of Italy, Turin is one of the most convenient budget airports for ski holidays. It is also the base for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Directly west of Turin, and very close to the border with France, lies the Valle di Susa, a valley on the Turin-Paris train line. In this area there are several busy ski resorts, including Sauze d'Oulx, Bardonecchia and the fashionable and modern Sestriere (2035m). Sestriere lies in the Valle del Chisone, and is a well-developed resort with 20 ski-lifts, an ice-skating rink and cross-country trails. Buses run to Sestriere from Turin; alternatively local buses travel from Oulx station on the Turin-France railway.

Further north lies the Valle d'Aosta, a large area with a distinct identity of its own. French is spoken here as well as Italian. Castles, pine forests and wooden chalets shelter in the shadows of high peaks including some of Europe's mightiest mountains: Gran Paradiso, Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa. Courmayeur is one of Italy's best and most glamorous ski resorts; offering masses of downhill skiing, ice-skating, cross-country skiing, cable-cars, chairlifts and helicopters. The resort lies at the foot of Mont Blanc, and caters for summer as well as winter skiing. Other good destinations in this area include Breuil-Cervinia, the spa town St Vincent, Pila and Cogne.

Over to the north-east of Italy are the Dolomites (Dolomiti), an extensive mountain range offering countless possibilities for winter sports and summer holidays. 12 different skiing areas are linked together to form the 'Dolomiti Superski' network. Resorts in this area include the popular Madonna di Campiglio and Cortina d'Ampezzo, one of the most well-known ski resorts in Italy.

Walking in the Lakes

Menaggio is situated halfway up Lake Como, on the western shore. The tourist information office can provide information about walks, and there are plenty of hiking possibilities in the surrounding area, or just across the narrow lake at Varenna.

Several buses a day run from Menaggio to Lugano (with its equally lovely waters) and from Menaggio up to the modern hill village of Breglia. From Breglia a well-signposted and popular route climbs up to Rifugio Menaggio in under two hours where there are fine views of the lake. A tougher extension continues to the summit of Monte Grona, with its big all-round panorama, including snow-clad Monte Rosa to the east. A much shorter walk also heads from Breglia through woods to the spectacularly sited chapel of San Domenico.

There is a steep walk of about two hours from Croce, from there you can either hike down a little alpine track to the lakeshore again via Griante which is the village connected to Cadenabbia and Tremezzo, or - for walkers who can cope with the challenge of a long day the domed summit of Monte di Tremezzo (1700 metres) awaits. Descent from this is long but easy, an old military road runs from just below this summit all the way down to the slopes above Argegno.

There is also a most beautiful little walk, well signposted from Griante, up alpine pastures - flowers and butterflies all the way - to the chapel of San Martino, high on a big ledge above the lake.

Try walking at Varenna, the walk leads up a mule path (signposted from the village) in under an hour to a ruined mediaeval castle perched right above the settlement. From there you can also walk on, contouring through woods and an olive grove, to the shortest river in Italy, Fiumelatte, which rushes from a cave a couple of hundred feet above the village of the same name. It takes an hour to get from the castle to this mysterious river.

Food and Wines of the Italian Lakes

The area around the lakes has its own very distinct cuisine. Short grain rice is used to make the very creamy and delicious Rissotto, which is served in a variety of ways, the saffron yellow Risotto alla Milanese is the most popular. Another bright yellow dish particular to the region, is Polenta, made from maize meal this is served as an accompaniment to many dishes. The region is also well known for the skill of its cheese makers, with the wonderful Gorganzola and Bel Paese, and the creamy sweet Mascarpone are some of the best known.

White wines Verdes, Rosseia, Merlot and Sangiovese.

Red wines Nebbiolo Doc, or Barbera, or Vespolina DOC.

History of the Italian Lakes

Lake Como

First discovered by the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago. Julius Caesar gave the lake the name Larius. Throughout history, artists, writers and actors have come to the lake for inspiration, and much great work has been completed there. In semi recent history (early 1800’s), Composer Franz Liszt completed his work called Dante Fantasia here, and Belini wrote his famous opera Norma. Austrians also controlled Como for a few decades in the 1700’s and 1800’s, but in 1859, it became part of the Kingdom of Italy.

Lake Maggiore

Most of the current settlements originated in the Middle Ages, when the lake was under the Della Torre, Visconti, the Borromeo and Habsburg families.

Methane was first discovered and isolated by Alessandro Volta as he analysed marsh gas from Lake Maggiore, between 1776 and 1778.

Lake Maggiore played a key part in the historical World War I novel A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. The two main characters of Heminway's moving story use the lake's access to Switzerland to escape members of the Italian Army.

Geography of the Italian Lakes

Lake Como - Lombardy

Max. length     46 km

Max. width      4.5 km

Surface area   146 km2

Max. depth      425 m

Lake Garda - Lombardy, Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige

Max. length     51.6 km

Max. width      16.7 km

Surface area   369.98 km2

Max. depth      346 m

Lake Maggiore - Piedmont, Lombardy

Max. length     64.37 km

Max. width      10 km

Surface area   212.5 km2

Max. depth      372 m

Getting To The Italian Lakes

Airports

Milan Malpensa, Bergamo or Verona

Brescia Airport, located 20 km from Brescia (and 52 km from Verona) is convenient for Lake Garda. There are a couple of different bus shuttle services to Brescia bus station.

Road

The A8 and A9 motorways link Milan to Lakes Como and Maggiore.

Lake Garda is reached by the A4 Motorway Serenissima (Milan-Venice – exit Peschiera del Garda) or by the A22 (Motorway Brennero - Modena – exit Rovereto or Affi ).

Train

Lake Como is on Italy's main railway network, and trains run from Milan to Como frequently, taking around 40 minutes. They depart from Milan's Stazione Centrale and Stazione Porta Garibaldi, and arrive at San Giovanni, Como's main station.

Lake Garda The main railway station is “Verona Porta Nuova”. Another one is Peschiera del Garda on the Milan - Venice line. Trains run from Brescia to Desenzano del Garda roughly every half hour. The journey takes less than twenty minutes. From Verona there are frequent trains to Desenzano del Garda from Verona Porta Nuova Station.

Lake Maggiore Stresa is on the Domodossola-Milan train line. It is possible to go to Locarno in Switzerland by train to Domodossola and then change trains. You can ferry back from Locarno to Stresa.

Boat

Lake Como Steamers, boats and buses serve all the main towns on Lake Como. A frequent boat service connects the central resorts, Lenno, Tremezzo, Villa Carlotta, Cadenabbia, Menaggio, Bellagio and Varenna, including a car ferry. A less frequent but faster boat travels the full length of the lake from Como (with stops at most of the above). Buses run approximately hourly all the way up the west coast from Como round to Colico at the north-east.

Lake Maggiore Ferries and Hydrofoils All the western shore towns are connected by ferry and regular boats also access the lake resorts and Villa Taranto.

Climate

Warm, dry summers 26-28 C and cold winters. 

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