Welcome to our ULTIMATE guide of things to do in Lake Garda! After having visited Lake Garda countless times over the last few years, we’ve decided to gather all we know in this massive post, including info on towns near Lake Garda, other Lake Garda must-sees and the most unusual (and fun) things to do in Lake Garda!
Introducing Lake Garda Towns and Must-Sees
Lake Garda is a world apart. It’s right in the middle of Northern Italy, shaped like a ladle reaching upwards into the mountains. Towns and villages on the lake shore enjoy a milder climate compared to the rest of the region – you’ll see lemon trees and olive groves, palm-fringed lakeside walks with a stunning backdrop of snowcapped mountains.
However, there are so many things to see on Lake Garda, that you’ll never find yourself wondering what to do. From windswept shores to wine-tasting and Roman ruins, from adventure activities to unique things to do like visiting poet D’Annunzio’s grandiose villa, the shores of Lake Garda will keep everyone happy.
The lake is only one hour away from Milan – by train you can easily get to Desenzano and Peschiera, on the southern shore. From there, it’s easy to hop from one village to another by bus or ferry.
Here are some ideas on things to do in Lake Garda, for nature, adventure and culture lovers, starting from the northern shore of the lake (because it’s my favourite!) all the way to the south.
Meanwhile, here is a selection of the BEST Lake Garda tours!
- Verona Full Day Tour from Lake Garda
- Dolomites Full Day Tour from Lake Garda
- Venice Full Day Tour from Lake Garda
- Peschiera to Borghetto Bike Tour
- Valpolicella Wine Tour from Lake Garda
- Lake Garda 2 Hour Guided Trike Tour
- Full Day Lake Garda Tour by Bus and Boat
- Lake Garda Market Tour and Cooking Class
Northern Lake Garda – Trentino
1) Riva del Garda
Lake Garda is so large, it changes dramatically from north to south. The southern shores are pretty and genteel, beloved by poets and writers throughout history, with beautiful villas and a quiet atmosphere. The northern shores become wilder as you move further into the Alps.
This area has been famous among adventurers and adrenaline-lovers for decades and the opportunities for adventure activities are endless, with parasailing, rock-climbing and windsurfing on offer amongst others.
Riva del Garda is the largest and most famous town in the northern part of the lake, and it is also the ideal base for GardaTrek, three loop trails of various length between lake and mountains. It is also close to some wonderful mountain bike trails of various length and difficulty, and it is also possible to do some pretty cool lake dives.
The historic centre of Riva del Garda is full of sights and attractions to enjoy on a rainy day like the MAG – Museo Alto Garda and Torre Apponale. Here is our complete guide to Riva del Garda if you want to know more!
Where to stay in Riva del Garda – Hotel Luise, a stunning four-star lakefront property with travel-themed rooms. Don’t miss the ‘Psychological Aperitivo’ every Thursday, with a mixologist creating a unique drink on the basis of your personality.
2) Torbole sul Garda
Torbole sul Garda is right next toor to Riva, and it is a common alternative for those wanting to stay on the northern shores of the lake for an adventure-filled holiday.
It’s in a wonderful location for scenic hikes like that to Valletta Santa Lucia, a scenic valley with a cool past – the Venetians fleet crossed it to carry their ships by hand from the Adige River in 1439 to the northern shores of the lake, surprising the Milanese fleet and eventually defeating them in battle.
Another beautiful hike near Torbole is the Sentiero Busatte-Tempesta, definitely one of the best things to do in Lake Garda! This 5 km path connecting the two hamlets of the same name is suspended between mountain and lake, crossing rocky sections with metal stairs and walkways bolted to the rock.
Torbole is also a great place for sailing and windsurfing, and it’s connected to Riva del Garda by a lakeside promenade/cycle path.
Where to stay in Torbole sul Garda – Aktivhotel Santalucia, the ideal hotel for adventure travellers, offering advice on walking and biking paths, and a spa to relax after a day outdoors.
The town of Arco is not actually on the shore of Lake Garda, being located a little further inland along the Sarca River. However, Arco is so close to Riva and Torbole that it is also considered a Lake Garda town, and visiting it is definitely a good idea for adventurers looking for things to do in Lake Garda.
Arco is worth a visit for its pretty historic centre and famous castle, overlooking the whole of the Alto Garda valley. Those staying in Riva or Torbole can easily reach Arco following the Sarca cycle path, which also continues further inland up to the village of Dro and Sarche, surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery.
Yet, Arco’s main claim to fame is that of being Italy’s best rock climbing destination. Near Arco there are hundreds of climbing routes spread between various falesie (crags) including multi-pitch routes of varying difficulty levels. It’s also possible to visit the famous Rockmaster stadium, one of the locations of the rock climbing world championships – and you can even climb there!
Check out our Arco climbing post if you want to know more!
Where to stay in Arco – ParkHotel il Vigneto, perfect for climbers with a gym, swimming pool and wellness centre located in the hotel, and lots of tips on where to climb for beginners and veteran rock climbers!
Eastern Lake Garda – Veneto
Malcesine is probably the most beautiful of all Lake Garda towns, but it’s also worth a visit for another reason – taking the cable car all the way to the top of Monte Altissimo, the tallest peak overlooking Lake Garda, where it’s possible to hike, enjoy a wonderful meal at the Rifugio Altissimo/Damiano Chiesa, or just take in the stunning views.
The cable car climbs over 1500 meters so the weather can be dramatically different – when we visited, it was sunny and warm in Malcesine on the lake shore, but it was chilly and windy at the cable car’s top station.
Near Malcesine you’ll also find the picturesque village of Cassone, home to the Aril River, the ‘world’s shortest river’ at only 175 meters long, and the spectacular Val di Sogno, a clear, secluded bay a short distance away from the city, where you’ll also find a pretty island and a wreck that divers can explore.
The best known sight in Malcesine is the Castello Scaligero, definitely one of the best things to do in Lake Garda for families. The castle is very well preserved and it includes the recently-renewed Museo di Storia Naturale (Natural History Museum), with lots of hands-on activities for little ones. It is also possible to explore the castle’s rooms, passageways and tunnels, and climb up to the tower.
If you’re looking for a great vantage point to take pictures of the Castello Scaligero, you’ll need to get out on the lake – there are sailing tours available, or you can just hop on the Malcesine-Riva del Garda ferry!
Where to stay in Malcesine – Bellevue San Lorenzo, a Belle Epoque villa turned boutique hotel, with beautiful lake views (hence the name!) and top amenities, including a spa and outdoor pool.
5) Garda (The Town)
Yes, I know, this is confusing – there’s a town called Garda on the shores of Lake Garda. This town is actually what lent the lake its current name – before the 8th century AD, when the lake started being referred to as Garda, it was known as Benaco. The name Garda comes from the ancient German word warda, meaning ‘watch’, referring to the town’s castle which in the High Middle Ages was one of the strongest in the region.
Garda town is about 30 km south of Malcesine via the super-scenic Gardesana Orientale, a road connecting all the towns and villages on the lake shore.
Between Malcesine and Garda, the scenery changes from mountains to hills, and the atmosphere from Alpine becomes Mediterranean, while the weather remains warm year round. In Garda, it’s fun to explore the pretty medieval historic centre, which is also one of the best places for shopping – things to buy in Lake Garda include olive oil, wine, products made with Lake Garda lemons, and lots more delicious food at the weekly markets surrounding the lake.
Other Garda points of interest include the Madonna della Corona church, built almost right into the mountainside, and Punta San Vigilio, one of the most scenic and tranquil spots of all Lake Garda, with a nice beach and a park.
Where to stay in Garda – Sky Pool Hotel Sole Garda, which is worth a visit just for its amazing panoramic terrace with infinity pool!
Wine lovers will definitely have the chance to taste Bardolino, the signature wine of the Garda region. The best wine tasting region is between the towns of Lazise and Bardolino on the Eastern shore – a wine-tasting day is a great idea, spent visiting cellar doors and tasting delicious Bardolino and Chiaretto, a local rosé variety.
Bardolino was already famous for its wine in Roman times, so it is no surprise that many activities in and around Bardolino are actually wine-related – there are dozens of wineries offering wine tastings at the cellar door, you can go on a wine tour by bicycle, join a combo wine tasting and village tour, or even visit a ‘wine museum’!
If you’re a die hard wine lover, try to visit Bardolino for the yearly ‘Festa dell’Uva’ harvest festival in late September/early October, or the ‘Palio del Chiaretto’, dedicated to rosé wine. Both festivals feature concerts, street food, firework displays and naturally lots and lots of wine!
Where to stay in Bardolino – Parc Hotel Gritti, a classic luxury hotel offering great value for money with rooms to be had for as little as €80!
Lazise is a good alternative to Bardolino for those interested in wine, and it also has the added benefit of being close to thermal lakes and springs, making it ideal for a relaxing break.
Just like Malcesine and Sirmione, Lazise is also home to a Castello Scaligero, with the same trademark swallow-tailed battlements and high towers. It is also worth visiting the former Customs House, built right on the lake – it was through this customs post that the Republic of Venice controlled trade over the lake for centuries.
Lazise is also a great place for shopping, with a colourful weekly market and lots of shops selling Garda wine, olive oil and leather goods.
Where to stay in Lazise – Villa dei Cedri, one of Italy’s best known historical spa hotels, with access to indoor and outdoor thermal pools and accommodation in charming 19th century surrounds.
8) Peschiera del Garda
Peschiera is the largest town on the Veneto side of the lake, and a transport hub due to the presence of the railway station and of the motorway. For this reason, it may feel less ‘quaint’ than other places like Garda, Malcesine or even Riva del Garda to the north.
The town extends between the shore of Lake Garda and the river Mincio, connecting the lake to the Po river further south. The historic centre of Peschiera del Garda is surrounded by the pentagonal walls of the Fortress, one of the four fortresses protecting the Habsburg Empire, connected to the rest of the city by a pedestrian bridge.
Peschiera offers many more sights besides the famous Fortress, and visiting is is definitely one of the best things to do in Lake Garda. There are wonderful beaches including Braccobaldo Bau, one of the few Lake Garda beaches to accept dogs, the opportunity to go on boat tours to other Lake Garda towns like Riva, Desenzano, Salò, Sirmione and Lazise.
And naturally… Gardaland is just next door!
Where to stay in Peschiera – Enjoy Garda, a sleek, modern 4-star hotel with a large garden and outdoor pool
I was in two minds on whether or not to include this. Gardaland is an amusement park, with some hair-rising rides, cartoon parades and the like. Not my cup of tea at 35 – but I did love it as a child, and visited for about 5 years in a row.
If you are visiting Lake Garda or Milan with children and you want to treat them to a day out that is just about them, Gardaland is a great choice, with rides and attraction for all ages. Try to avoid visiting during school holidays (June-September) though, as it’s overrun with teenagers and queues can be hours at a time. They’ll certainly remember it as their favourite thing to do in Lake Garda!
Where to stay near Gardaland – Gardaland Hotel is Gardaland’s very own hotel, with themed rooms, characters running around, and lots of magic for children and grown ups alike. This is your traditional amusement park hotel, like those found in Disney parks.
Gardaland Magic Hotel is a little more upmarket and secluded, with only 128 themed rooms and a ‘magical’ theme throughout.
Southern and Western Lake Garda – Lombardia
If you fancy something a little more relaxing than climbing mountains, opt for Sirmione, one of the prettiest Lake Garda destinations. Set on a peninsula jutting into the lake, and beloved by writers and poets from Catullus to Tennyson and Joyce, Sirmione has that kind of Mediterranean atmosphere that will make you want to stay longer and longer.
History buffs will love Catullus family villa, so engulfed by the wilderness that it was once believed to be a complex of caves. Another sight that shouldn’t be missed is the Scaliger Castle, right on the lakeside, looking like a fairytale manor with its turrets and battlements.
The centre of Sirmione village can be overrun with tourists in summer, but visit in the off-season or head out to the beach for a swim in the turquoise lake waters, and you’re likely to have the place to yourself.
If you’re after some old-fashioned relaxing, head to Aquaria Thermal SPA for hot springs and massage treatments!
Where to stay in Sirmione – Grand Hotel Terme, for a luxurious stay with access to the Spa! Truly the best way to relax on Lake Garda!
Desenzano is the largest Lake Garda town. Similarly to Peschiera, it may lack that ‘charming Italian village’ feel, but it’s actually a great choice for a base if you want to explore places like Verona and Mantua, besides enjoying all the many things to do in Lake Garda.
There’s a railway stop in Desenzano, lots of buses connecting the town to Sirmione and beyond, and ferries heading to the four corners of the lake. However, Desenzano is also worth spending a day or two – there’s an archaeological museum, housing a Bronze Age plough, a Castle also nicknamed ‘la Terrazza sul Garda’ for its scenic views from the tower, a picturesque port and even a Roman Villa.
Where to stay in Desenzano – Castello Belvedere, a charming hotel in a 17th century castle a short distance from the centre of Desenzano, offering great value with rooms starting at €67!
After Desenzano, Salò is the second-largest town on the Lombardia shore of Lake Garda, famous for having been the headquarters of the Repubblica Sociale, the seat of the Fascist government at the end of World War II.
It’s worth a visit for its lakeside promenade, the longest in the entire Garda area, and for its 15th century Duomo di Sant’Annunziata, whose architecture is a hybrid between Gothic and Renaissance styles.
Near Salò, there are also many hiking opportunities along the paths of the Alto Garda Bresciano park, while those wanting to relax can head to Rimbalzello beach, where you can choose between chilling in sun loungers, swimming or playing a variety of sports.
Where to stay in Salò – Hotel Spiaggia d’Oro Charme & Boutique, relaxed lakeside hotel with outdoor pools and landscaped gardens, away from the centre of the city and perfect for a relaxing stay.
13) Gardone Riviera/Vittoriale degli Italiani
Literati and lovers of quirky sights will enjoy visiting the Vittoriale, poet D’Annunzio’s whimsical villa on the shores of Lake Garda, near Gardone Riviera on the western shore of the lake, just north of Salò.
I visited the villa years ago, during a school trip, but I remember being amazed by the eclectic furniture and crazy exhibits on show. One room is decorated like a Bedouin tent, an Art Deco dining room comes complete with a gilded turtle on the table, and another room had a plane propellor hanging from the ceiling.
The craziest thing to do on Lake Garda, though, has to be visiting military ship Puglia, lying on top of a hill among the trees in the gardens of the Vittoriale. It was donated to D’Annunzio, who had it taken apart and carried to his residence where it was reassembled on a hill, pointed symbolically towards the Adriatic sea.
Where to stay in Gardone Riviera – Grand Hotel Gardone, an elegant 19th century hotel to make you feel as if you travelled back to the time of the ‘Grand Tour’, when Lake Garda was already a popular tourist destination.
Gargnano is probably the prettiest town on the Lombardia shore of Lake Garda, with a photogenic curved promenade and lots more sights and activities – don’t miss it, visiting Gargnano should be included in your things to do in Lake Garda list!
Whether you reach it from the north or the south, if you’re driving you’ll probably reach Gargnano via the Gardesana Occidentale, a scenic lakeside road connecting towns and villages on the shore. It is indeed a stunning drive, but be very, very careful of the traffic lights around Gargnano – many have cameras!
There’s a lot to see and do around Gargnano – you can stay at Villa Feltrinelli, Mussolini’s lakeside home now turned into a luxury hotel, hike the surrounding mountains, and enjoy sailing and other water sports. You can also visit Limonaia La Malora, one of the oldest Lake Garda lemon groves, run by a father and son team.
Where to stay in Gargnano – Lefay Resort & SPA, an eco-sustainable property with a focus on wellbeing, a spa, and scenic lake views. This is probably my favourite Lake Garda hotel, so don’t miss it!
Tremosine is also known as ‘the town that doesn’t exist’ – it’s not one town, but a collection of nineteen hamlets on the north-western side of Lake Garda, developed on a small plateau.
The largest of the hamlets is Pieve di Tremosine, with a spectacular hanging piazza overlooking the lake. Another popular thing to see near Tremosine is the Strada della Forra, a scenic road crossing a canyon and connecting Pieve to the lake shore – the road was featured in a 007 movie, and in many car commercials.
Tremosine an outdoor mecca, with opportunities for horse-riding, canyoning and kitesurfing in addition to hiking and cycling, two of the most popular things to do in Lake Garda. From Tremosine, it is also possible to reach Passo Nota, starting point for hikes on the surrounding mountains, especially interesting for history lovers as it’s possible to visit WW1 trenches and battlefields.
Where to stay in Tremosine – Hotel Le Balze Aktiv, a family friendly property in a scenic location, with a focus on outdoor activities and wellbeing.
16) Limone sul Garda
The secret of why Limone is so special is in its name – its mild climate made it the ideal location to grow lemon trees, and all throughout the 19th century the town was surrounded by lemon groves. Nowadays, tourism is a much more important revenue source than lemon products, but you can still see lemon trees growing on terraces on the steep hillside just behind the town.
Limone also has a scenic historic centre and lakeside promenade – but at this stage, I’m sure you’ll have realised that pretty much every Lake Garda town has them! What makes Limone unique, though, is the new cycle path, built in a scenic position hanging over the lake. If you like cycling and views, you can’t miss adding the Limone cycle path to your list of things to do in Lake Garda!
Where to stay in Limone sul Garda – Park Hotel Imperial, the best luxury property in town!
Things to Buy in Lake Garda
First things first – make sure you have an empty bag to take home with you all the cool things to buy in Lake Garda!
Let’s start with food products. As we’ve seen, Lake Garda is a wine area, with lots of cellars and wineries around Lazise and Bardolino. The most iconic varieties are Chiaretto, Bardolino and Garda Classico, so make sure you try them all!
The northern shore of Lake Garda is also an olive-growing region – near Riva del Garda you’ll find 46° Parallelo, the northernmost olive oil producer in the world! Omkafe near Arco is a wonderful local coffee roastery, and another great place to get presents for wine-loving friends.
If you have a car, you could also buy some freshwater fish from the lake, or some meat products such as carne salada, cured beef typical of the Garda area which is delicious both fresh or cooked.
Besides food, the weekly street markets in all Lake Garda towns are a great place to buy leather products, shoes, clothes and other souvenirs. Every day, there’s a market being held somewhere – Mondays in Sirmione, Tuesday in Desenzano, Wednesday in Lazise, Thursday in Bardolino, Friday in Garda, and Saturday in Malcesine!
How to Get to Lake Garda
- By Plane – the closest airport to Lake Garda is Verona (VRN), followed by Milan Bergamo (BGY). Travel time depends on where exactly in Lake Garda you need to go.
- By Train – the Milan/Venice railway line travels along the southern side of Lake Garda, with stops in Desenzano and Peschiera del Garda. From there, it’s easy to hop on local buses to reach most Lake Garda towns. If you’re planning to visit Riva del Garda, Torbole or Malcesine, it’s probably better to take the train to Rovereto on the railway line heading to Austria and Germany via Trento, and continue by bus.
- By Car – the A4 railway runs along the south of the lake, following a similar route to the railway. You can exit at Brescia Est, Desenzano, Sirmione and Peschiera if you’re planning to visit the southern half of the lake and then continue on secondary roads, or connect with the A22 and exit at Rovereto Sud for northern towns like Riva and Torbole.