One of the most attractive features of Italy’s northern region of Lombardy surrounding the regional capital of Milan, is the closeness of the many scenic lakes fed by melt-water from the Alpine glaciers. The milanesi love making day-trips, taking weekend breaks, or even enjoying full summer holidays on the shores of the lakes of which they are so rightly proud.
Arguably the best-known of these is Lake Como. A prestigious retreat since Roman times, its banks are lined with gardens, villas and palaces often chosen to host international conferences. Sailing, windsurfing and kite surfing are popular activities on Lake Como, and its efficient ferry system makes it easy to explore nearby towns and hiking paths.
Lake Como has so much to offer that we have dedicated a full special page to the lake and its surroundings.
GardaGarda is Italy’s largest lake at almost 150 square miles, and is fed by glaciers on the Dolomite mountains between Venice and Milan. Guests can access the lake’s five main and multiple smaller islands by ferry; on the largest, Isola di Garda, St Francis of Assisi founded a monastery in 1220. Intriguing towns border the lake in the three regions it touches: Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino Alto Adige. Visitors can experience the area through climbing, mountain biking and especially windsurfing, as the lake boasts strong and predictable wind patterns.
Some of the main attractions at Lake Garda include the ruins of a Roman spa, ancient villas and sulphur springs. Traditional wineries, olive groves and lemon houses allow visitors a look into the production and history of the local industries. The lake is also the setting for Italy’s best-known theme park, Gardaland, voted fifth-best in the world by Forbes magazine and visited by almost 3 million people annually.
Lake Garda’s two train stations are Desenzano and Peschiera, which are on the main line from Milan to Venice. The drive from Milan takes about one and a half hours.
MaggioreLake Maggiore (or Lake Verbano) lies among the scenic Alps, crossing the border between Lombardy and Switzerland’s Ticino canton. Exactly 40 miles long, the lake has five large and many smaller islands known for their charming gardens and fishing ports, which can be reached by ferry. Botanical gardens are a popular attraction here as the humid, subtropical climate means the area is home to many exotic plants.
Hiking and mountain biking are available around the lake, while skiing is favoured in the winter, and there are multiple look-out points offering spectacular panoramic views of the water and mountains. Ancient castles, fortresses and churches are also noted destinations.
Readers of Ernest Hemingway will recall the dramatic escape of the two protagonists of A Farewell to Arms by rowing-boat into Switzerland.
Multiple trains from Milan stop at Stresa, the main town on Lake Maggiore, or at Domodossola, a journey of around an hour.
Lago d’IseoLombardy’s fourth largest lake at just over 25 square miles, the Lago d’Iseo lies between Bergamo and Brescia, its crystal-clear water surrounded by lush green mountains. It is popular for fishing and water sports; on its western shore, the luxury boatyard Riva was founded in 1842. The lake’s only island is the location of the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Ceriola, set among fruit orchards and olive groves.
The lake was the scene in 2016 of a spectacular installation, Floating Piers by Bulgarian artist Christo, which attracted well over a million visitors.
The lakeside town of Iseo is less than 100 km by car from central Milan. By rail, the journey takes around two hours, with a change of train in Brescia.
LuganoLake Lugano also lies across the border of Italy and Switzerland, mid-way between Lakes Como and Maggiore. It offers exquisite views of the surrounding Alps. Although visitors are advised not to swim in the water due to pollution, Lake Lugano still offers many other activities around the shores such as fishing, boating, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and golfing.
The villages around the lake are rich in history and are filled with churches, art galleries, museums and gardens. The UNESCO Word Heritage site of Monte San Georgio lies just to the south of the lake.
Visitors can check out the music festivals and other cultural events that are hosted along the lake or explore its banks, known for having an abundance of fossils. The tiny Italian exclave of Campion d’Italia, entirely surrounded by the Swiss canton of Ticino, lies on the eastern shore and is probably best known for hosting Europe’s largest casino.
Express bus services connect Milan’s Malpensa Airport to Lugano, on the Swiss side of the border. Visitors by car take Autostrada A9 in the direction of Como-San Gottardo. exiting at Lugano Sud, a drive of less than 80 km from central Milan.
VareseLake Varese, in Varese province, offers beautiful mountain views and clear spring water. Visitors can hike among the forests of its main island, Isolino Virginia, and fish along the shorelines.
Bikes are available to rent, so guests can follow the many bike baths that circle the lake and weave through the forests. The lake is often the location of world canoeing and rowing championships. The vibrant city of Varese is known for its public observatory, parks, and art scene.
Travelling by the FS train to Varese from Milan’s Garibaldi Station takes up to an hour and a half, while the drive from Milan takes around one hour.
Lago d'OrtaLago d’Orta is the westernmost of the Lombardy pre-Alpine lakes; it lies between the provinces of Novara and Verbano, known for its scenic views and the charming, picturesque towns lining its shore. Friedrich Nietzsche and Piero Chiara both complimented the area on its beauty, and many poems have been written about its allure. Guests enjoy wandering the streets and enjoying the Romanesque and Baroque architecture.
Visitors can also explore the historical sites around the lake, such as the Sacro Monte, a winding path on the western shore up a mountain lined by twenty chapels, declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The lake’s only island hosts the Basilica of S. Giulio, where the saint is said to have slain dragons and serpents so that he could build his retreat in the 4th century.
It is easiest to reach Lago d’Orta by car taking A8, a drive of around one and a half hours.