Malcesine is a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Garda in northern Italy. It's a picturesque tourist resort with cobbled lanes and a castle, crammed between the blue lake waters and the massive mountain ridge behind, Monte Baldo. In the summer months Malcesine is a hive of innocent hedonism, packed with pottering holidaymakers gorging on ice cream and sunseekers draped along the lake shore. It's not all laziness, however, as the town's ferry connections to other lakeside resorts make it a good base for sightseeing and the cable-car running up to Monte Baldo is a magnet for cyclists, walkers and paragliders.
Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy, and Malcesine lies towards the narrow and mountainous northern end, often compared to a fiord. The town is situated at the edge of the Veneto region, in the province of Verona. 'Malcesine' is a good exercise in Italian pronunciation: the name is pronounced approximately MalCHESinay.
There are four principal tourist activities for visitors to Malcesine: wander the town's lanes; catch the boat to Riva, Limone or other lake resorts; take the cable-car up to the heights of Monte Baldo; eat ice creams. The town is a lovely place to stroll for an hour or so, with picturesque medieval lanes winding up the slope from the lake. There are pretty little squares, cafes and restaurants,
Malcesine's most striking feature as you approach over Lake Garda is its historic castle, the Castello Scaligero, which is also the town's main tourist attraction. The building takes its name from the della Scala family, who owned it and made alterations in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the castle was being used, restored and adapted for military purposes up until the nineteenth century. Nowadays as well as being a tourist sight, the castle is also a wedding venue. The battlemented fortress is open to the public as a museum, called the Museo Castello Scaligero. It takes a surprising amount of time to explore thoroughly, as it houses three small museums as well as temporary exhibitions. The smartest of these is a natural history museum with well-designed displays which should interest both adults and children (labelling is in Italian, English and German). There is also a room dedicated to the German writer Goethe, who visited Malcesine in 1786 and was suspected of spying when he sketched the castle, and an old-fashioned exhibition of local bits and pieces: boats, history and so on. There are great views from the ramparts and the chance to climb up the tower and gaze down at Malcesine's huddled rooftops. The castle is open every day with conveniently long opening hours (apart from winter months when it closes at 4pm). There's an entrance charge, with reductions for over-65s and children.
The second most important building in Malcesine is the fifteenth-century Palazzo dei Capitani, close to the harbour. This was the headquarters of the Venetian rulers of the area, the Capitani del Lago. It's grander than the town's other modest historical buildings, and although at the time of writing the building is closed for restoration, you can still wander through the entrance hallway and out to a very pretty lakeside garden. A lion of St. Mark painted on the wall is a fading reminder of the area's Venetian overlords.
To the south of town a pleasant lakeside promenade meanders past hotels, cafes and potential bathing spots to a little headland which boasts a couple of 'beach' establishments without real beach but with neat waterside lawns where you can hire a sunbed and parasol and relax with splendid lake views. There are plenty more bathing opportunities on the other side of town, where tiny pebbly beaches fill up with swimmers and sunbathers in the summer.
The main road around Lake Garda can make strolling along an unpleasant ordeal; however in Malcesine this isn't a problem as there is a path for cyclists and pedestrians running between the road and lake for some distance in either direction. If the sun isn't too hot, explorers can continue to the south past the picturesque 'sunbathing headland' as far as Cassone, a pretty little village which claims to have the world's shortest river. It also has a pretty, tiny harbour and a waterfront cafe-restaurant. The walk between Malcesine and Cassone, which takes around an hour, passes through the romantically-named Val di Sogno (Valley of Dreams), a scattered collection of villas and hotels, with a watersports station and plenty of peace for sunbathers. Look out for the grand villa on the green headland with gardens you can glimpse and even a little private cablecar. The walk passes two of Lake Garda's five islands: Isola dell'Olivo and Isola del Sogno.
Malcesine has a tourist information office close to the harbour, where you can pick up information, timetables and maps of the town and of the other lake resorts in the province. There is another seasonal office offering hotel information on the main street by the bus stop.
Food and drink
At any given moment, the majority of tourists in Malcesine seem to be seated and consuming food or drink. The little port is lined with cafes offering a wide range of hot or alcoholic drinks, freshly-squeezed fruit juice (spremuta) and tempting ice-cream concoctions. These are lovely afternoon places to relax and while away an hour. For more atmospheric evening drinks, stroll up the winding lanes to the town's three sociable squares, Piazza Turazza, Piazza Cavour and Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, each of which is tiny but contains a choice of places to sit, eat and drink. A few of the bars and restaurants in town put on cheesy live music in the tourist season, but others have a classier feel and in true Italian fashion you can relax and watch the evening promenade, the passeggiata, while sipping a glass of good wine.
The town is full of restaurants, most offering fairly typical tourist menus in Italian, German and English. The fare is standard: scan several menus if you want to find something more interesting. An enoteca offering inventive dishes of lake fish may not have a view or a lakeside terrace but could be a more interesting dinner destination. Eating out in Malcesine doesn't have to be expensive: there is typically a cover charge of a couple of euros, but dishes are reasonably priced - for example, €8 for a primo piatto pasta dish. In Italy there is no need to eat the traditional five course-meal - you can pick whatever suits your appetite and budget. House wine, by the quarter-, half- or full litre is quite cheap (generally more so than beer). There are quite a small shops selling pizza slices and similar snacks; not all are open late, however. If you want to prepare your own food, you'll find a couple of supermarkets on the main street above the old town.
Cableway to Monte Baldo
A cableway runs from Malcesine up to the high mountain ridge behind the town, Monte Baldo, climbing from 100m to 1760m. This is a great excursion, particularly on a hot day, as temperatures are lower and the breeze cooler than by the lake far below. In winter this is a base for mountain sports. Once the snows have melted, energetic walkers and mountain bikers equipped with maps will find challenging routes to enjoy, while the less athletic can stroll along easy paths. To the left (north) as you exit the cable-car station a panoramic path leads along the flower-strewn ridge to a lovely viewpoint about twenty minutes' easy walk away. In the other direction the footpath 651 is comfortable to follow for an hour to the south, with good views, attractive terrain and a choice of alternative paths. Those who don't fancy the exercise can still enjoy themselves at the cable-car station, where there is a terrace, a bar and a good-value self-service restaurant. Close by is another cafe-restaurant, while a third, with an alpine ambience plus sun loungers and a childrens' climbing frame, lies a short walk to the north on the way to the viewpoint.
The cable-cars get busy so you should be prepared for queues. 45-person capacity cars run up to a half-way station called San Michele. There's a restaurant here, road access (with a car park), and walks up or down the slopes. The cars which continue the journey up to Monte Baldo take 70 people and perform a slow rotation so all can enjoy the views over Lake Garda and up to the mountain. A return ticket from Malcesine to Monte Baldo costs €17, with reduced fares of €11 for over-65s and children (2008 prices). Cyclists should check the latest timetables as bicycles can only be transported at certain times.
Malcesine is on the main lakeside road, the Via Gardesana, which runs along the shores of the lake. Buses connect the lake resorts, including the 62/64 services run by ATV which travel all the way to Verona. To connect with Italy's railway network, you can catch this bus, which stops outside the railway stations in Peschiera del Garda and in Verona (Verona Porta Nuova Station). The journey to Verona takes an hour and three-quarters, and buses run approximately every half-hour (see our links panel for the ATV website with timetables; look under orari / extraurbani). Malcesine has a bus station (autostazione) which is really a lay-by on the main road uphill from the historic centre. Tickets can be bought at the bar alongside, and there is also a seasonal hotel information office here, where staff can provide directions to your hotel. The waterfront and heart of town are just two minutes' walk downhill.
Malcesine is one of the principal stops for the ferries which run up and down Lake Garda, but note that services are reduced in winter months. The other northern lake resorts - Limone, Riva del Garda and Torbole - are easy and relatively quick to reach, and you can buy a day ticket for this part of the lake. It takes a lot longer to travel down to the southern end of the lake - two hours to Desenzano on an expensive fast hydrofoil, and twice that on the normal slow boat. The services around the lake are run by Navigazione Lago di Garda, and there is a ticket kiosk alongside the jetty by Malcesine harbour. Other private companies run ferry services back and forth between Malcesine and Limone, on the far shore; they have advertising boards by the harbour.
The most convenient airports for Malcesine are Verona Villafranca Airport, and Brescia Airport. You can reach Malcesine by public transport from either airport, although Verona is rather easier. From Verona Airport, take a bus into Verona, then change to the ATV 62/64 bus service to Riva del Garda, stopping in Malcesine. From Brescia Airport you would need to take one of the two airport shuttle buses: either into Brescia (you would then need to take a bus or train to another lake resort such as Desenzano, then change to a bus or ferry for Malcesine) or to Verona (for the 62/64 service).
Much of Malcesine's holiday accommodation is strung along the lakeshore outside the heart of the town, and there is a useful 'Tourist Bus' service which runs along connecting the various little settlements which make up Malcesine. The service is seasonal, runs in the mornings and evenings, and costs €1 per trip at the time of writing. Up-to-date times and prices should be available in your hotel and the tourist information office.
The other lake resorts and Monte Baldo are the most obvious day trip destinations from Malcesine. Buses and ferries as described above are useful ways to travel around the lake. Verona makes a good day trip, and some ambitious tourists may wish to travel as far as Venice. To reach Venice you can either take the special seasonal bus run by ATV for daytrippers which leaves early in the morning and runs straight to Venice, or catch the regular ATV bus to Peschiera or Verona, from which stations there are direct trains to Venice. It's a long journey, though, and the two towns are more comfortably combined in a two-centre holiday. Padua and Vicenza both lie on the railway line between Verona and Venice, and these also make good stops on a touring holiday.
The historic centre of Malcesine is compact and made up of narrow lanes and old buildings. Consequently many hotels are located in more spacious surroundings outside the centre. When you are choosing a hotel, check its location and read past guests' comments. Some pleasant lakeside hotels are lovely for lounging on lawns, admiring views and swimming, but are quite a long walk from restaurants and ferries. Conversely, a town centre hotel will be convenient and lively but may also be noisier and more cramped. Generally speaking, half-board in Italy is best avoided. You are likely to be restricted for menu choice and mealtimes, and you'll miss the pleasures of trying out affordable local restaurants.