Best of the Italian Lakes
From Como to Orta, the best of the Italian lakes.
The lake region, which stretches from Piedmont to Lombardy
and the Veneto, has had a mythic quality for centuries. Ancient Roman writers,
including Pliny the Younger, were among the first to use the area as a summer
escape. They wrote lovingly about its shady plane-tree walks and flowery banks.
Today, its legendary reputation continues. Celebrities including George Clooney
and Richard Branson have owned villas on Como for more than 10 years, while
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi purchased a 30-room mansion on
Maggiore in 2008.
Little has changed in the past 50 years, though several
grand hotel openings (most recently the lavish Castadiva Resort, in Como) have
added to the lakes’ cachet. The main attractions, however, remain the simple,
authentic pleasures that travelers have appreciated since the days of the grand
tour. On the following pages, you’ll find the best of the region, from top
hotels and restaurants to little-known treasures, such as an 11th-century abbey
where monks have bottled home-brewed liqueurs for centuries.
Despite a high celeb quotient, Como, Italy’s most
sophisticated lake, embodies low-key glamour, history, and tradition. Its
30-mile-long western shoreline runs from the miniature sailing port of Cernobbio
through sleepy Laglio to Menaggio. On the eastern shore is the chic hillside
village of Bellagio, with its rainbow-colored villas; the old stone fishing
villages of Bellano and Varenna are popular with culture and nature buffs,
thanks to their medieval castles and elaborate Renaissance gardens.
Set along the southern banks of the Alps, Maggiore, Italy’s
second-largest lake, is the busiest and most untamed. The eastern, Lombard
shore is characterized by wild woodlands, but most travelers go to the western
side, where the village of Stresa is chock-full of artisanal shops. Close to
the Swiss border you’ll find the town of Cannobio, a labyrinth of cobblestoned
streets, medieval palazzi, and waterfront restaurants. Less than 10 miles west
of Maggiore, Lake Orta is only eight miles long and less than a mile wide. In
its main village, Orta san Giulio, the central stairway leads from the
ocher-and-cream-colored Santa Maria Assunta church to the lakeside Piazza Mario
Motta, which is lined with arcades and outdoor cafés.
Built by a powerful industrialist in 1879, the turreted
Villa Crespi is a moorish-style estate with original plasterwork ceilings,
four-poster beds, and damask draperies. The real draw, however, is the hotel’s
Michelin-starred restaurant, where chef-owner Antonino Cannavacciuolo, formerly of Capri’s Grand Hotel Quisisana, whips up such
creative dishes as buffalo mozzarella ice cream with tomato sauce and basil
Fringed by lemon groves, olive trees, and vineyards, Garda
is the balmiest of the lakes—and also the largest. Sailors and windsurfers come
for its breezy waters, while foodies are drawn to the award-winning olive oils
and Bardolino and Valpolicella wines. On the eastern shore, a cluster of small
villages (San Felice del Benaco; Gargnano) have glorious Roman ruins, villa
museums, and a clutch of upscale hotels, including historic Villa Feltrinelli.
Read on to find out what else Italy’s best lakes have to