Plan the ultimate escape to Italy's prettiest lake
Turquoise waters, picturesque towns and mild climates – it’s easy to see why people are naturally drawn to Lake Garda. Italy’s largest lake is a true slice of paradise, combining your typical Mediterranean flair with the dramatic backdrop of the Alps. Check out my guide on the best things to do in Lake Garda and plan the perfect holiday to this dream destination!
It’s easy to see why Irish holidaymakers have been fawning over Lake Garda for a long time. Not only is it insanely beautiful, it’s also got something for everyone. Doesn’t matter if you’re looking to keep active or simply want to chill out in the pretty town squares with a glass of wine in hand – Lake Garda is the place where you can kick back and live a bitta dolce vita. The north end of the lake feels much more ‘Alpine’, whereas the southern end of the lake with its palms and citrus trees definitely lends more of a Mediterranean air, and it’s exactly that diversity that really hooks you.
Lake Garda holidays from Ireland are always insanely popular, so I think a proper travel guide is well overdue! Join me on a little journey to this pearl in the Italian Alps and use my recommendations and tips to help plan the holiday of a lifetime.
Despite being situated in the Alps, it’s easy enough to get to Lake Garda. In fact there are several airports you can fly to that are within easy reach, all of which you can fly to directly to from Ireland.
Closest airports to Lake Garda:
The closest airport to Lake Garda is Verona, just 15km away from the lake – you can choose to fly from both Cork and Dublin. However if flying to Verona is looking a little too expensive, another alternative airport you could go for is Milan-Bergamo which is 80km away. Seeing as the route is operated by Ryanair it’s dead easy to find cheap flights, and it’s about a 50-minute drive from the airport.
Once you’ve landed in Italy it is possible to take the train to the southern coast of the lake, with both Desenzano del Garda and Peschiera del Garda having their own train station. But to truly experience everything Lake Garda has to offer, you definitely need to hire a car. Not only does this make the transfer from the airport much easier, it’ll also give you the complete freedom to explore all of the beautiful towns and villages along the shores.
If you’re looking to stay active on your holiday, you should make your way to the northern end of Lake Garda, whose steep valleys and Alpine landscapes offer plenty of activities. In fact you can pretty much do anything you could think of. On the water you can go kayaking, surfing or sailing, rafting, canoeing or diving, while the mountains invite you go to mountain biking, hiking or even abseiling. Group cycling tours are also really popular here as well.
The largest town in the north of Lake Garda is Riva del Garda, which is where you’ll also find the largest beach in Lake Garda and the Cascata Varone waterfalls. I definitely recommend heading on a little day trip to Arco, situated just a few kilometres north of Riva del Garda. The sheer limestone cliffs and castle ruins makes it especially attractive for rock climbersm, and you’ll come across dozens of them scaling the impressive rock formations. In fact, the Rock Master free-climbing championship takes place here from the 27th – 29th July, so if you’re in the area at the time be sure to pay a visit!
Malcesine – the pearl of Lake Garda
There are some towns in Lake Garda that you have to see. Malcesine is definitely one of them. With a picturesque harbour and the tower of Castello Scaligero overlooking the town, Malcesine perfectly encapsulates the magic of Lake Garda.
Malcesine is a very popular destination for tourists. Don’t let the crowds scare you off though – instead you should spend time strolling through the pretty streets and discover the quieter corners away from the masses. You’ll find some seriously gorgeous spots and picturesque streets that will wow you with their typical Italian flair.
I recommend doing a little tour of the castle, as it’s here where you’ll find the best views of the town and surrounding area – entry to the castle grounds costs €6 and you’ll also learn some interesting facts about the town. Keep your eyes peeled for a bust of the famous German poet Goethe, who was so enthralled by Italy during his time there that he went on to pen one of his most famous works, Italian Journey.
Malcesine lies at the foot of Monte Baldo. For €20 you can take a cable car up to the top of a 1,760-metre summit known as Tratto Spino and soak up some truly magnificent views of the lake. Even the journey up there is an experience. Once you’ve made it to the top, sit down in a quiet spot to let the views sink in, or head off on a little hike along the mountain ridge. Good shoes and warm layers are definitely a must when you’re going up here, as even when things are nice and summery down in Malcesine it can quickly get cold and blustery on the mountaintop. If you fancy warming yourselves up a little bit, you could always nip into one of the restaurants near the cable car station. Panoramic windows guarantee amazing views.
Craving some adrenaline? Why not go paragliding? Tratto Spino is a popular spot for this and you’ll find plenty of providers offering tours for both beginners and more experienced paragliders. You wont’t get a better view of Lake Garda!
Bardolino – a wine-lover’s paradise
Another destination well worth checking out in Lake Garda is the town of Bardolino, famed for its local wine. The vineyards in the hilly hinterlands produce a slightly fizze rosé, which you can try out in one of the many wine cellars dotted around the town. Wine-lovers should visit in early summer when the Palio del Chiaretto wine festival is in full swing by the lakefront promenade. Just get a bottle, sit down by the lake and let the amazing atmosphere sink in! Alternatively you could time your visit for the beginning of October to visit the other wine festival, Festa dell’Uva e del Vino, which is every bit as lively than its summer counterpart.
Heads up foodies! Located between the two towns of Bardolino and Lazise is the Museo dell’Olio, a museum dedicated to olive oil. You’ll learn all about the tradition that goes into the local manufacture of olive oil – no visit is complete without trying a few samples. As a great souvenir of your travels, bring back a bottle of olive oil for the folks back at home. Things don’t really get much more authentic or delicious than this.
While you’re there, you should pop over to the village of Lazise as well. Enjoy a tasty ice cream by the pretty harbour or go for a relaxing stroll through the old town. Countless restaurants all line the waterfront, so you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to going for a delicious dinner.
Insider’s tip: Torri del Benaco
If you ask someone what they think the most beautiful place in Lake Garda is, you’ll probably hear the name Torri del Benaco come up time and time again. As soon as you enter this little town, I’m certain you’ll be falling head over heels in love with it. Colourful townhouses by the waterfront, the mountain peaks reflected in the lake, blooming flowers everywhere you look – it definitely is a special little place and it’s a must during any visit to Lake Garda. If you want to fully enjoy Torri del Benaco without putting up with the crowds of summer tourists, come in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn. Less people means that you’re free to soak up the sights and sounds all at your own pace. Bellissimo!
Gardaland – fun for all the family
Planning a family holiday to Lake Garda? Then there’s one place you definitely need to check out. Gardaland, located in Castelnuovo del Garda at the southern end of the lake, is Italy’s largest theme park and draws in a whopping 2.7 million visitors each year. Spread across 46 hectares, there are almost 40 different attractions and rides that both young and old will adore. You’ve got your typical rollercoasters for all those adrenaline junkies out there, but there’s plenty to keep little guests entertained in the Fantasy section of the theme park. Park entry starts from €40.50 per person or €52 per person for a 2-day ticket. Tip: buy your tickets in advance online to save a few Euros on ticket prices!
Peschiera del Garda – a historic beauty
Just a few kilometres away from Gardaland is the village of Peschiera del Garda. If you love your history, you’ll love this place – its centre is home to gorgeous canals, old fortress remains and excavations of historic sites which date back to antiquity. There are also plenty of restaurants where you can sit down and enjoy a pizza with unspoiled views of Lake Garda or the Minico River. Down at the marina you can even hire your own boat and head out into the lake itself!
Guru tip: If you’re travelling around in the south of Lake Garda and you’re a bit of a self-confessed foodie, I recommend making a little detour to the small village of Valeggio sul Minico. Traditional businesses such as Al Castello produce gorgeous pasta varieties completely by hand. Their tortellini are especially delicious – there’s almost no end to the shapes and fillings on offer. The stylish restaurant Bue d’Oro is worth visiting too, it’s basically heaven for any and all lovers of Italian cuisine. After a delicious lunch you can pay a little visit to nearby Borghetto, whose historic cottages and houses will whisk you away to another time and place.
Another place in the south of the lake you definitely need to check out is Sirmione. The moats that defend the old castle separate the historic town from the mainland, meaning that the town is essentially on its own island. At the northernmost tip of the island you’ll find a lovely park with awesome views of the lake and the Grottoes of Catullus, the excavated remains of what was once a grand Roman villa.
The west of Lake Garda – Limone to Salò
Things are much more chilled out on the western shores of Lake Garda. With grand hotels dotted along the waterfront and countless sailboats silently gliding across the water, this is the place to be if you’re looking to enjoy some me-time. Here’s a quick overview of the best places to visit, going from north to south. Limone is a picturesque town nestled amongst sheer cliff faces and ancient citrus orchards, while just to the south is the peaceful village of Gargnano, which almost feels completely overlooked by tourists here. You’ll find some gorgeous restaurants and there are plenty of lovely walks you can do in the forests of the Alto Garda Bresciano National Park.
Further to the south is the elegant town of Salò, home to boutique shops and exclusive restaurants. There’s a magnificent promenade that backs onto the water and loads of restaurants serve some seriously mouthwatering seafood. Despite being such a pretty town it’s never overrun with tourists – in fact it’s a popular spot with the Italians themselves, making it feel much more authentic. Then there’s Isola del Garda, an island in the heart of the lake with a lush botanical garden with all sorts of fruit trees and flowers. Between April and October it’s possible to go for a 2-hour tour complete with a boat trip!
Day trip to Verona
The beauty of Verona inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo & Juliet. And it’s just a stone’s throw from Lake Garda! If you’re planning a longer stay in the region, be sure to pay this beauty a visit. The centre is filled to the brim with historic architecture, picturesque squares and winding streets that you could happily spend all day exploring. The hidden courtyards, stately fountains and major landmarks just add to the magic! The huge Roman amphitheatre is still used for open-air concerts and operas to this day – or you could pay a visit to Juliet’s House with your loved one. A popular location to pop the big question! ;)
Plan your holiday to Lake Garda
Even just writing this travel guide has got me wanting to pack my own suitcase and go! Anyone who’s been here before can definitely attest to the beauty and magic of this region, so if you’ve yet to experience it for yourself you’re seriously missing out. Seeing as it is such a popular destination I’m always looking out for cheap Lake Garda holidays from Ireland – you can find the most recent ones below:
Or perhaps you want to plan your own holiday? No worries, on my Hotel Finder you can research the best Lake Garda hotels and compare the cheapest deals. For cheap flights to Italy you can also have a little browse on my Flight Finder below.
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