Lake Garda is the largest of the Italian lakes with a surface area of 369.98 km²; situated in the North of Italy, it is about 25 miles from the city of Verona and its international airport.
In summer, tourists flock to the lake to top up their sun tan on one of the numerous beaches and explore the villages dotted all along the coast with castles, churches and lake-side villas framed against the mountains in the background.
Garda, the village which gives the lake its name, has some interesting buildings like the Captains’ Palace in the main square, Palazzo Pincini-Carlotti and Villa Albertini (a private residence not open to the public).
Climbing to the top of the Rock that stands 300 meters above the village, there is the opportunity to visit St.George Hermitage, a Carmelite monastery.From here, the magnificent view of the lake stretches to the neighbouring villages of Bardolino, Cisano and Lazise on one side to the peninsula of San Vigilio on the other, a location which counts among its visitors Winston Churchill, Lawrence Olivier and in recent years HRH Prince Charles.
As the coastal road gets really busy in peak season (April to October) the best way to explore this vast lake is by boat: a number of ferries, hydrofoils and privately owned boats travel around the lake stopping at all the main villages.
Every village has its own character and identity, catering for a diverse clientele with accommodation including luxury hotels, cosy Bed and Breakfasts and a number of campsites for budget-conscious visitors.
Malcesine on the north,is famous for its castle and a rotating cable-car that goes up to Monte Baldo from where there are a number of hiking opportunities and stunning views of the lake.
It takes about 20 minutes to reach the upper station of the cable car and a short walk to get to the view points. With the lake on one side and the alpine landscape on the other (including some camera-friendly cows and alpacas), a few hours up here will make for a nice break from the beach.
From Malcesine a car ferry goes across the lake to Limone (Italian for lemon); another picture-perfect village with luxury hotels and a busy lakefront promenade dotted with cafes and restaurants. Driving south of Limone the villages of Gardone Riviera, Salo’ and Desenzano can be visited.
Not far from Malcesine, Torbole is very popular with windsurfers and kite-surfers as, due to the narrowness of this part of the lake and the closeness to the mountains, it is always windy in this area. It was also here that the car chase of the opening scene of 007 Quantum of Solace was filmed.
A holiday on Lake Garda will offer the opportunity for a number of activities in and around the lake: from paragliding to scuba-diving to shopping for Italian shoes, leather and designer clothes and accessories.
For the children Gardaland, the biggest amusement park in Italy, can be found on the shores of the lake near the village of Peschiera del Garda; a free shuttle bus connects the park with the railway station.
The village of Sirmione with its imposing castle and thermal baths is also nearby.Driving inland, near Pastrengo, there is a Safari Park where animals are roaming free and can be viewed from the safety of a car…beware of the cheeky monkeys!
In the evenings, the choice for dinner is endless: from pizzerias to gourmet restaurants proudly serving dishes using products locally sourced. Due to the mild climate, vineyards and olive groves found all around the lake make the area a focal point for the production of olive oil and world renowned wines like Chiaretto and Bardolino, celebrated every year in October after the grape harvest is over.Many wine producers in the area offer wine tasting sessions where local cheeses and cold meats are usually also offered.
From Lake Garda day trips are easily arranged to other famous Italian cities nearby: Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, is less than an hour away and from there it is just over an hour by train to Venice; Milan is also easily reachable and in recent years with low-cost airlines gaining popularity, the airport of Bergamo, not far from Milan has become an important hub for visitors to this part of Italy.
For mountain lovers, the scenic Dolomites mountain range is a coach ride away, offering breathtaking views and plenty of chances for hiking, climbing or just sit, relax and indulge in some authentic Italian ice-cream before travelling back to Lake Garda and laze by the pool or on the beach.
For people who wants to explore more of the lake, in summer the private Isola del Garda is open to the public for tours of its villa and gardens. Another place not to be missed on a trip to Lake Garda is the church of Madonna della Corona in the village of Spiazzi; the sanctuary can be reached on foot from the village on a road with beautiful sculptures depicting the Via Crucis. This important pilgrimage site is in a spectacular location on the side of a rock and many devotees reach the church through the Scala Santa (Holy Steps) climbing on their knees.
Although the area around the lake is very quiet off-season and locals “reclaim” their villages, a visit during late November and December will give a chance to sample the Christmas atmosphere: villages decked with Christmas decorations and “German Markets” selling trinkets and hearty food accompanied by a glass of mulled wine to warm the body and soul. Spectacular fireworks displays on the lake on New Year’s Eve and bonfires to “exorcise” the old year on the 6th of January, make sure that tourists that venture in the area during these months are entertained before a new season starts again.