The beautiful lakeside towns around Lake Garda (Lago di Garda) have charmed foreign visitors for centuries. Even for the ancient Romans, the area was a luxury summer destination; in Sirmione and Desenzano you can visit ruins and mosaics that record their presence.
Lake Garda is located in the north-east of Italy, dividing the regions of Lombardy, the Veneto and Trentino Alto-Adige. The large lake is long and slim, stretching from north to south. The southern lakeshore is low, rolling land and fairly built-up. In contrast, the dramatic fjord-like northern end is surrounded by towering mountains and cliffs. Most of the lakeside towns are popular as holiday resorts; they differ in character but all are well-connected by boat services. More information on the various destinations can be read below.
Lake Garda holiday information
The towns around the lake, with the possible exception of workaday Peschiera, are all pretty, pleasant places to stay. If you’re faced with a dilemma choosing where to stay in the Lake Garda area, it’s advisable to consider what you may wish to do during your holiday. Most of your travelling is likely to be over the lake using one of the ferry services, or by road around the edge; either way, you could spend a lot of time travelling if you’re not handily located for your aims.
Lake Garda travel
Get to Lake Garda
Ryanair fly to Brescia Airport, located 20km from Brescia, which is convenient for Lake Garda. The airport, also known as Montichiari or Gabriele D’Annunzio Airport, is a tiny, quiet one in the countryside. There are buses into Brescia, stopping by the railway station. Trains run from Brescia to Desenzano del Garda roughly every half hour. The journey takes less than twenty minutes. The airport is quite near Lake Garda, so you may find it worthwhile to negotiate with a taxi driver and get to Desenzano, the nearest lakeshore town, that way. You may even be lucky, as we were a few years ago, and find a direct bus service (free) to Desenzano del Garda for tourists with pre-booked hotels in the town. Your hotel should be able to provide you with the best and latest advice on public transport, although you should be prepared for offers to arrange a ‘transfer’ – only accept this if the price seems reasonable.
From Verona there are frequent trains to Desenzano del Garda from Verona Porta Nuova Station. Trains run every half hour and the journey takes twenty minutes.Alternatively a direct bus runs from Verona to Garda, Riva, Malcesine and other resorts – see our links panel on the right for timetables.
When it comes to public transport, the most appealing option is to take the many ferries that sail around the lake. There are various types of boat – enough to keep children entertained – running the different routes. Times and ports of call aren’t always the most convenient – it’s best to visit one of the information/ticket kiosks (by the lakeside jetties) on arrival and pick up a timetable, so that you can plan your activities and outings around the ferry schedules (and ensure you never end up stranded). There are a few fast services, which cost more money. If you have a ‘regular’ ferry ticket or an all-day ticket, you can pay a supplement to travel on one of these speedy services.
Buses link the towns along the lakeshore with one another and with nearby destinations. Buses in the Verona area are run by Azienda Provinciale Trasporti Verona (APTV). In the summer they run special tourist services, such as a handy link from Riva via other lake towns to Venice. The latest information is available from the local tourist information offices and from the bus company websites listed on the right.
Lake Garda destination information
It’s hard to go wrong when choosing where to stay around Lake Garda. Here are brief descriptions of the principal lakeside towns:
Sirmione is on the southern shore of Lake Garda, a pretty town near the end of a long promontory. Sirmione’s most striking feature is its moated castle, the Rocca Scaligera. Sirmione’s narrow medieval streets bustle with colour and life; the tiny town is a very popular holiday destination, and the summer months bring crowds. The setting of the small town is beautiful; and was praised in earlier days by the Roman poet Catullus. At the very tip of the peninsula green lizards scuttle over the extensive remains of a grand Roman villa (once believed to be Catullus’s villa).
> More about Sirmione
Desenzano del Garda
Desenzano is primarily a practical destination. Transport is easy from Brescia Airport and by train from other parts of Italy. It’s easy to take a bus to Verona for day trips, and boat connections with other areas of Lake Garda are good, although it’s a long journey to Riva del Garda at the distant northern end of the lake. Desenzano is not as picture-book pretty as the lake’s smaller towns, and it has areas of modern development, but there is a lot in its favour. Around the harbour the streets are attractive, and from the castle up the hill (outdoor concerts in the summer) there’s a lovely view over the lake. Desenzano is more of a normal Italian town than a tourist toytown; in the evening you can join in the popular activity of promenading, the passeggiata. There are plenty of good restaurants, shops and busy bars. Recommended for those relying on public transport, those who want to see more of the area, and those who enjoy a realistic taste of Italian culture.
> More about Desenzano del Garda
Riva del Garda
Riva is at the northern end of Lake Garda, and is a pleasant tourist destination. The pretty public gardens by the waterfront have a quaint, middle-aged ‘resort’ air to them. The town is large enough to support a market and shops; although the lakeside area is packed mostly with gelaterie, cafes and restaurants aimed squarely at tourists. The waterfront is dominated by one of Garda’s fortresses, the Rocca, which contains the town’s museum. Steep wooded slopes tower above, with ruined towers emerging from the trees to tempt the energetic explorer. North of Riva, walking or driving excursions give access to some of the region’s most dramatic scenery. This includes a 287-ft waterfall at Varone, the remains of a Bronze Age settlement at Lake Ledro and the crags and fortifications of Castello d’Arco.
> More about Riva del Garda
On the western shore, Gardone Riviera is a pretty tourist resort with a peaceful waterfront promenade dotted with benches. Two of the area’s most interesting tourist attractions are situated here: Gabriele d’Annunzio’s eccentric home and the tropical Andre Heller Botanic Garden.
> More about Gardone Riviera
Malcesine is pretty, atmospheric, and packed with tourists. The town, on the eastern shore of Lake Garda, is charming, a maze of historic alleys, and the setting is excellent. A castle (open to the public, with great towers to climb) guards the waters, while mountain slopes rear up behind the clustered buildings. A cable-car takes you right up to the high grassy summit of the Monte Baldo ridge, where the air is fresh and cool, the views are stupendous, and you can refresh yourself at several cafe-restaurants. Walkers can begin high-level hikes here, while the lazier can return to Malcesine to browse in the gift shops or enjoy an ice cream.
> More about Malcesine
Garda walking experience
We took a boat to Garda (the town), and walked to Bardolino over the lakeside hill where a fortress once imprisoned a fair maiden of olden times. You can explore caves at the top, then descend along small roads towards Bardolino through rural olive groves and allotments, a real taste of the countryside.
Guides to Lake Garda
Lombardy and the Italian Lakes
The Cadogan guides to Italy are always interesting and entertaining. As well as the historical and cultural background, this book contains anecdotal gems and recommendations to enliven your holiday in the Lakes.
Italian Lakes: Insight Compact Guide
A convenient and practical guidebook with information about the Lake areas, and suggested tours.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Milan and the Lakes
The Dorling Kindersley travel guides are good for getting a visual overview of the area. Highly glossy and lavishly illustrated, they give you a good idea of what to see in the region. For more indepth practical details and background, you may wish to combine the guide with a more text-heavy book.
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