If you’re in Milan for Expo 2015 and planning to take a day trip out of the city, why not choose Lake Garda? Italy’s largest lake has a lot to offer – here are some ideas for things to do on Lake Garda, and previews on the #myaktivGarda blog tour we’ll join next weekend!
Things to do on Lake Garda
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.
I love Lake Garda. It’s the most diverse of Italy’s big lakes. It lacks the manicured beauty of Lake Como, the secretive feel of Lake Orta and the decadent atmosphere of Lake Maggiore. 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 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 on Lake Garda, for nature, adventure and culture lovers!
1) Active Garda – Torbole
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. In case you’re an adventure lover thinking about what to do on Lake Garda, Torbole is also the ideal base for GardaTrek, three loop trails of various length between lake and mountains.
Next week we’ll join the #myAktivGarda blog tour, organized by Ilenia of GardaMio and Aktivhotel Santalucia in the town of Torbole, right next to Riva del Garda, on the northern shore. The hotel is especially geared for adventure travellers, offering advice on walking and biking paths, and a spa to relax after a day outdoors.
In just three days, we’ll have the chance to go hiking, mountain-biking and sailing on the lake – three very different activities and a landscape that (weather permitting) will offer wonderful views. But the activity I’m looking forward to the most is actually a via ferrata. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a kind of cross between hiking and climbing – you climb over a mountainside making use of artificial support like handles, ladders and hanging bridges. We’ve done a via ferrata a couple of times before, but never over a lake!
2) Relaxing Garda – Sirmione
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 Sirmione Spa for hot springs and massage treatments!
3) Wine Garda – Bardolino
Wine lovers will 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.
4) Historical Garda – Gardone Riviera
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. 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 see on Lake Garda, though, has to be military ship Puglia, lying on top of a hill among the trees. 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.
5) Unexpected Garda – Tremosine
While researching this post, I was looking for ‘alternative’ things to see near Lake Garda. Everyone (well, at least in Italy and Germany) knows Sirmione and the Vittoriale, but I also wanted to talk about smaller, lesser-known places. Two places kept coming up; one is Torbole, our destination for next weekend, so I’m saving it for later.
The other is Tremosine, a beautiful village on the north-western side of the lake, developed on a small plateau above the lake. It’s an outdoor mecca, with opportunities for horse-riding, canyoning and kitesurfing. 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.
6) Garda for kids – Gardaland
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 31 – but I did love it as a child, and visited for about 5 years in a row.
If you are visiting Expo 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.