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 granita.
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 offer.
Lake Como: Stay
An illuminated stone walkway welcomes guests to the Relais Regina Teodolinda (58 Via Vecchia Regina, Laglio; 39-031/400-031; relaisreginateodolinda.it; doubles from $286), an 1800’s villa with a 200-year-old garden overlooking Lake Como. The six suites are simple but stylish, with zebra-patterned rugs, white rafters, and stripped-down walls that reveal centuries of pastel paintwork.
The most prestigious of the waterfront hotels, the legendary Villa d’Este (40 Via Regina, Cernobbio; 39-031/3481; villadeste.it; doubles from $540) has attracted the international jet set since the 19th century. Along with 152 opulent rooms (silk brocade curtains; 16th-century frescoes), the property has 25 acres of parkland, just enough space for three restaurants, three pools, eight tennis courts, and a newly renovated spa.
Great Value At the contemporary Hotel Villa Stupenda (3 Via per Lecco, Bellano; 39-0341/810-386; villastupenda.it; doubles from $163), the understated suites look out onto Bellano harbor, where herons and cormorants gather. Inside, white Giorgetti armchairs and modular lamps are paired with original brickwork arches and exposed-beam ceilings. The only downside? A narrow road runs between the hotel and the lakeshore.
Lake Como: Eat
International A-listers frequent Navedano (Via Giuseppe Velzi, Como; 39-031/308-080; dinner for two $208), in a 19th-century windmill. Fresh flowers fill the intimate dining room year-round, and during summer, the outdoor veranda is surrounded by roses, orchids, and lemon trees. Order the bouquet di mare, a vast platter of steamed seafood with lemon juice and olive oil.
Every morning owner Cristian Ponzini sails out on Como to catch lavarello and other native fish to serve at his glass-walled Ristorante Silvio (12 Via Carcano, Bellagio; 39-031/950-322; dinner for two $91). Ponzini is one of the few who have fishing rights on the lake—a privilege that has been passed down through his family for generations.
For the best pizza in the area, head to the no-frills La Piazzetta (6 Piazza Roma, Argegno; 39-031/821-110; dinner for two $78), where a wood-fired stone oven turns out crunchy buckwheat thin-crust pies. Standout toppings include locally sourced Gorgonzola, fresh marinated tuna, and red Tropea onions.
Ettore Bocchia is one of the most experimental chefs in the region, incorporating molecular gastronomic techniques at Ristorante Mistral (1 Via Roma, Bellagio; 39-031/956-435; dinner for two $215). Besides the liquid-nitrogen-cooled guacamole ice cream, we love the ravioli stuffed with tender peacock breast.
Hot on Bocchia’s heels is up-and-coming chef Simone Raviscioni, who runs the kitchen at Pesa Vegia (7 Piazza G. Verdi, Bellano; 39-0341/810-306; dinner for two $105), housed in a pink villa. Don’t miss his spin on a classic tiramisu, made with siphon-sprayed mascarpone foam.
Lake Como: Shop
Como’s renowned olive oils are made by two principal suppliers. On the lake’s western shore, Vanini Osvaldo (10 Via Silvio Pellico, Lenno; 39-0344/55-127) is a family operation that has been producing fruity, full-flavored oils for more than 150 years. At Azienda Agricola Poppo (Frazione Biosio, Bellano; 39-0341/821-362), on the eastern side, the small-batch oil is known for its pungent, grassy flavor.
Shopping is a spiritual experience at Abbazia di Piona (Loc. Piona, Colico; 39-0341/940-331), an artisanal store run by monks in an 11th-century abbey. Almost everything here is made on site, from the limoncello and mandarin liqueur to beauty products such as beeswax soap.
For decades, tailors at the family-run Orefice (16 Via Regina, Cernobbio; 39-031/512-053) have created made-to-measure wool and linen suits for luminaries including Clark Gable and members of the European aristocracy.
Lake Como: Do
Twentieth-century Italian explorer Guido Monzino’s former residence turned museum, Villa del Balbianello (Via Comoedia, Lenno; 39-0344/56110), showcases his eclectic collection of artifacts, from pre-Columbian art to bearskins.
If you’re looking to play a round of golf, head to Menaggio e Cadenabbia Golf Club (54 Via Wyatt, Menaggio; 39-0344/32103), Italy’s second-oldest club, founded in 1907.
Lakes Orta and Maggiore: Stay
Great Value Ernest Hemingway used the Grand Hôtel des Iles Borromées (76 Corso Umberto I, Stresa; 39-0323/938-938; borromees.it; doubles from $221) as a setting in his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, and it’s no wonder—the property has been a landmark since the mid 1800’s. Inside, rooms are outfitted with richly patterned carpets and Empire-style furniture while a vast collection of Roman vases and decorative artifacts fills the spacious corridors.
Great Value Design buffs love the 12 rooms at Hotel Pironi (35 Via Marconi, Cannobio; 39-0323/70624; pironihotel.it; doubles from $182), where original frescoes and antiques are offset by modern fuchsia pillows and yellow lampshades. Downstairs, a vaulted wine cellar has been converted into a stylish bar with an impressive wine list.
Built by a powerful industrialist in 1879, the turreted Villa Crespi (18 Via G. Fava, Orta San Giulio; 39-0322/911-902; villacrespi.it; doubles from $325; dinner for two $221) 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 granita.
Great Value If you prefer a farmhouse to a 19th-century villa, check in to the family-run Agriturismo La Capuccina (19B Via Novara, Loc. La Capuccina, Cureggio; 39-0322/839-930; lacapuccina.it
Lakes Orta and Maggiore: Eat
The Michelin-starred Piccolo Lago (87 Via Filippo Turati, Verbania Fondotoce; 39-0323/586-792; dinner for two $208) is known for its Piedmontese specialties. What to order? The filetto di manzo, beef with goose-liver sauce and Sichuan pepper.
Located in a red-roofed villa, Ristorante Milano (2 Corso Zanitello, Verbania; 39-0323/556-816; dinner for two $182) has a dining room that’s remained unchanged since the 1850’s. The menu focuses on classics, from house-made ravioli filled with creamy ricotta to lavaret (whitefish) cooked in butter and sage.
On Maggiore’s pint-size Isola dei Pescatori, you’ll find the intimate Ristorante CasaBella (1 Via del Marinaio, Isola dei Pescatori; 39-0323/33471; dinner for two $97). Reserve a table in the cozy, wood-paneled dining room or on the rooftop terrace, which has views of the neighboring Isola Bella.
Lakes Orta and Maggiore: Shop
No seriously stylish house is complete without a steel-wire fruit basket by Fernando and Humberto Campana or a squirrel-shaped nutcracker by Andrea Branzi from iconic design firm Alessi (6 Via Privata Alessi, Crusinallo; 39-0323/868-648). The company’s only factory store in Italy offers deep discounts and is located just north of Orta.
Cashmere sweaters, blankets, and bolts of woolen fabrics fill the shelves at the outlet of Loro Piana (484 Via Novara, Romagnano Sesia; 39-0163/826-875).
An hour’s drive west, Lanificio Luigi Colombo (263 Via Novara, Romagnano Sesia; 39-0163/832-373) also sells cashmere pieces, such as cable-stitch cardigans.
For colorful Italian linen shirts and dresses, head to La Dispensa (10 Piazza Municipio, San Felice del Benaco; 39-0365/557-023).
Lakes Orta and Maggiore: Do
Hop a motorboat taxi (Piazza Mario Motta, Orta San Giulio; 39-333/605-0288; motoscafipubbliciorta.it; from $5 per person) to San Giulio Island and tour its ancient basilica.
Don’t miss the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso Ballaro (5 Via Santa Caterina, Leggiuno Varese; 39-0332/647-172), a 12th-century church perched on a rock 45 feet above the lake.
Lake Garda: Stay
The mansion of an aristocratic family in the 19th century (and, during World War II, Benito Mussolini), Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli (38-40 Via Rimembranza, Gargnano; 39-0365/798-000; villafeltrinelli.com; doubles from $1,170) resembles a private country manor. Its 21 suites pay homage to the Feltrinellis, with more than a thousand of their paintings and antiques on display. Also on site: a 500-label wine cellar and restaurant, a 52-foot wood-paneled yacht for trips along the lake, and an eight-acre Italian garden overlooking the water.
Cutting-edge design meets monastic austerity at the newly opened Villa Arcadio Hotel & Resort (2 Via Palazzina, Salò; 39-0365/42281; hotelvillaarcadio.it; doubles from $275), housed in a 13th-century former convent. White wooden rafters, stone walls, and contemporary artwork make up the interiors, but even more appealing is the hotel’s jasmine-covered outdoor terrace, which looks out on Garda’s palm-studded shores.
A beige-stone country farmhouse four miles from Garda, Locanda San Verolo (Loc. San Verolo, Costermano; 39-045/720-0930; sanverolo.it; doubles from $254) has 13 airy rooms with oak wardrobes and equestrian prints. In the low-lit, barrel-vaulted restaurant try the artichoke-filled ravioli, paired with San Verolo Prosecco from the neighboring vineyard.
Lake Garda: Eat
The seven tables at the Michelin-starred La Tortuga (5 Via XXIV Maggio, Gargnano; 39-0365/71251; dinner for two $185) are among the most highly sought after in the region, thanks to chef Maria Filippini’s deceptively simple dishes such as crisp perch tossed in yellow corn flour. Don’t expect a fussy affair—the plaster-walled dining room is intimate and low-key.
Locals gather for Sunday brunch at Ristorante Taverna Kus (14 Contrada Castello, San Zeno di Montagna; 39-045/728-5667; dinner for two $90), a hilltop tavern with outdoor tables set in a lush garden. On the menu: fresh ribbon pasta with goose ragù or, in season, the creamy chestnut soup.
For the best view of snowcapped Mount Baldo, head to Ristorante Osvaldo (5 Piazzale Marinai d’Italia, San Felice del Benaco; 39-0365/62108; dinner for two $156)—the most atmospheric way to reach the restaurant is by boat from Sirmione. You won’t go wrong with the freshly caught and barbecued lake fish, served beneath shady linden trees.
Lake Garda: Shop
Countess Maria Cristina Rizzardi personally oversees the wine production at her 550-year-old estate Guerrieri Rizzardi Azienda Agricola (4 Via Verdi, Bardolindo; 39-045/721-0028; tours by appointment). In summer, tastings of Bardolino, a dry red, and Chiaretto, a light pink rosé, are held in the kitchen garden of the lakeside family villa.
Dessert aficionados won’t want to miss Vassalli Pasticcerie (84/86 Via S. Carlo, Salò; 39-0365/20752), Salò’s foremost confectioner. Best buys: candied orange peel dipped in bitter dark chocolate and hazelnut torte.
Comincioli (10 Via Roma, Puegnago del Garda; 39-0365/651-141) produces the region’s only olive oil made exclusively from pulp; it has notes of almonds and artichoke.
Lake Garda: Do
Swing by Il Vittoriale degli Italiani (12 Via Vittoriale, Gardone Riviera; 39-0365/296-511), the former mansion of Italian poet and eccentric Gabriele D’Annunzio. The museum is filled with his personal journals and belongings, including first editions of his most popular books, untouched since his death in 1938.
Spend an afternoon hiking the grounds of Villa Borghese Cavazza, a Venetian neo-Gothic-style villa on the private island of Isola del Garda (Lake Garda; 39-0365/62294; isoladelgarda.com), accessible by vaporetto from Salò.
By Car: If you’re planning to lake-hop, consider renting a car at Milan Malpensa Airport. Or arrange to lease a vintage vehicle from Slow Drive (108 Via Marconi, Padenghe sul Garda; 39-338/978-5124; slowdrive.com; rentals from $325 a day). The lakes are within a three-hour drive of one another, from Orta in the west to Garda in the east.
By Boat: Alternatively, focus on one (or perhaps two) lakes and travel by boat. An efficient ferry service runs along the shores of the major lakes (navigazionelaghi.it), while Orta has motorboat taxis (motoscafipubbliciorta.it).
Valerie Waterhouse is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.