Italy's northern region of Lombardy is home to some of the country's most beautiful lakes, each with its own charm and type of habitué. So do as the Milanesi and Veronese do when they want a break from the city and escape to these breathtaking spots for some rest and relaxation.
You’ll never run out of edifying things to see around Garda. Italy’s largest lake covers a very grand total of 150 square miles, bordering three distinct regions – Lombardy, Trentino Alto-Adige and the Veneto. There are five main islands – each with multiple dinkier islets – to explore by ferry. There's reliable wind-surfing conditions, wooded biking tracks and vertiginous rock climbing if you're feeling energetic, as well as a wealth of waterside restaurants where you can soak up the stunning scenery.
The most famous Italian lake getaway, and with very good reason, Lake Como has long attracted luminaries the calibre of Kennedys and Clooneys. A short zoom up the road from Milan, Como’s famously exquisite lakefront properties and dark wood speedboats are all very well if you’re a holidaying oligarch. But for the rest of us, the ancient rustic villages of Nesso, Torno and Laglio, set against the majestic backdrop of the Italian alps, promise lungfuls of fresh air, flawless fish – and lashings of good old-fashioned sun-soaked dolce vita.
Also shared with Switzerland, Maggiore presents a more stately, classic countenance – thanks largely to the fact it came to prominence as a destination during La Belle Époque. So the architecture is very dainty and proper – for example, Isola Madre, one of its islands, is dominated by a gorgeous palace ringed by acres of groomed English-style landscape gardens. Tropical foliage does very nicely here, thanks to the humid subtropical climate, and Ernest Hemingway, no less, saw fit to set the climactic scene from A Farewell To Arms on this very lake. Somehow, it’s still making waves.
Substantially less famous than Garda or Como – and more peaceful for it – Lago d’Iseo is ringed by dramatic mountains, themselves carpeted in lush dense forest. To the south, the impossibly pretty Torbiere del Sebin, a nature reserve. Just up north stretches the Valle Camonica, famed for its Stone Age rock carvings. Set sail for the island of Monte Isola, climb past the picture-perfect jumble of fishing hamlets, and the heavenly Santuario della Ceriola church is a true sanctuary. But keep it to yourself, eh?
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Straddling the border between Italy and neighbouring Switzerland, Lake Lugano has a distinctly Alpine vibe about it. But there’s more than just good looks. During summer time, music festivals boom across the placid water, and the geographical curiosity of Campion d’Italia – an Italian enclave hemmed in on all sides by Switzerland – is on hand if you feel like a flutter at Europe’s largest casino. The Lugano shoreline is also renowned by fossil hunters – the only ones who have a bone to pick around here.
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Outdoorsy types flock to Lake Varese for its romantic mountain setting and dense, hilly forests – ideal for strapping on a pair of sturdy boots and taking a good old-fashioned hike. Alternatively, you can rent a bike from almost any village and take off along endless miles of secret trails, though there's enough culture in the town of Varese itself – galleries and impeccably maintained gardens – to keep your spirits sated. The lake itself is a haven for watersports, with world rowing and canoeing world championships hosted frequently. Plenty to float your boat here, then.
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Lake Orta is the Milanese cognoscenti’s best kept secret. They even nickname it ‘Cinderella’ – as in, an unsung beauty compared with its more popular sister lakes. The towns are peaceful, spiritual and religious – the main attraction is the Benedictine monastery on the island – and the busiest it ever gets is during the annual poetry festival. For a holy overview, climb the Sacro Monte – a winding path up a mountain lined by no fewer than twenty chapels, and a UNESCO world heritage site. Truly divine.
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