Magic in the Italian Lake District

Expert Tips

The Italian Lake District, located in the Northern region of Lombardy, is a popular destination for travelers due to its stunning natural beauty, rich history, and diverse range of activities. This region encompasses several stunning alpine lakes, including Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, Lake Garda, and others. This area of Italy offers a rich cultural and historical heritage because it sits at the crossroads of trade routes. Wealthy and influential families have lived and vacationed there for centuries. Artists, too, flocked to this area of Italy, such as Goethe, Byron, Toscanini, Hesse, Paul Klee, and Hemingway.

I myself finally got there last fall with Alice, our social media manager. I only made it to one lake, but I can’t wait to return. That visit to Lake Como resulted in one of the most treasured days of my life. I’m not sure what’s in the air there or if there’s some magnetic, bewitching buried geo-force, and I experienced such an incredible feeling just being there. It’s been a compelling holiday destination literally since Roman times for a reason. The Lake District has a long history dating back to Roman times when the region was a popular retreat for wealthy citizens seeking escape from the heat of Rome.

I bought leather driving gloves that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life as a lasting memento of that extraordinary trip. And I picked up a bottle of their bespoke aromatic room spray to conjure the memories quickly whenever I need a dose of magic. (That last one won’t last as long; I spray it around A LOT.)  

I’m happy to be home right now, but IF I were to go somewhere this month (because I can’t wait to go back!) I’d choose the Italian Lake District. It’s magical, and here’s why you have to visit and all there is to do, see, smell, feel and taste! Including – weirdly – a statue of George Washington!

The culture of the Lake District is characterized by its mix of Italian and Alpine influences, with a strong focus on traditional arts, crafts, and cuisine. The Italian Lake District is known for its delicious local cuisine, which is heavily influenced by the area’s freshwater fish, olive oil, and wines. Visitors can indulge in traditional dishes such as risotto alla Milanese, cotolette alla Milanese, ossobuco and polenta. The region is also known for its wines, such as Franciacorta, a sparkling wine produced in the area, and Bardolino, a red wine grown on the shores of Lake Garda. Visitors can also enjoy the local olive oil and cheeses that the region is famous for.

The region is renowned for its picturesque villages and towns, many of which have been well-preserved and retain their original architecture and charm. Bellagio, located at the tip of the peninsula dividing Lake Como into two branches, is known as the “pearl of the lake” for its picturesque streets and beautiful villas. Varenna is a charming town located on the eastern shore of Lake Como, known for its colorful houses, beautiful gardens, and panoramic views. Menaggio is another town located on the western shore of Lake Como, known for its lively atmosphere and beautiful lake views.

The stunning natural beauty, including the sparkling waters of the lakes, rolling hills, and towering mountains, provide a breathtaking backdrop for outdoor activities and exploration.

In terms of history, the Lake District has a rich and fascinating heritage, with many historic sites and landmarks to explore, including medieval castles, historic churches and monasteries, and elegant villas and palaces. The region has also been associated with influential figures from across the centuries, including Roman emperors, medieval lords and ladies, Renaissance artists and intellectuals, and modern celebrities and politicians.

Overall, the Italian Lake District is a vibrant and diverse region that offers a rich cultural and historical experience for travelers. From its stunning natural beauty to its rich heritage and traditions, it is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in the history and culture of northern Italy.

Here are some of the highlights of the Italian Lake District for travelers:

Lake Como

Known for its picturesque towns, villas, and gardens, Lake Como is one of the region’s most popular and beautiful lakes. Visitors can take a boat tour to explore the lake, visit the Villa Carlotta, a beautiful 19th-century villa with a botanical garden, or take a cable car up to the village of Brunate for panoramic views of the lake. Some other famous villas that can be visited are Villa Balbianello and Villa del Balbianello. As our tour guide called them, other homes along the lake are Villa George Clooney, Villa Richard Branson, and Villa Gucci. Casino Royal and some of the Star Wars movies were filmed there too. The lake is also home to some beautiful towns like Bellagio, Varenna, and Menaggio, known for their charming streets, beautiful gardens, and panoramic views. The Como itself sits on the southern tip and was founded by Julius Caesar as a resort town and alpine fort in the First Century AD. Austria ruled over this area in the 1700s, and as a result, the area also offers a lively cafe culture.

Lake Garda

The largest lake in Italy, Lake Garda is between Venice and Milan and offers a wide range of visitor activities, such as swimming, sailing, windsurfing, and kite-surfing. Because it sits right at the edge of the Dolomites, the lake is also home to many picturesque towns and villages, such as Sirmione, Limone sul Garda, and Bardolino, known for their medieval castles, thermal baths, and wine production. Visitors can also take a boat trip to the towns of Desenzano and Peschiera, which offer a variety of shopping and dining options. Francis of Assisi founded his monastery on the largest island here, Isola del Garda, in 1220. Olive trees, hardy lemons, parasol pines, and the Canary Island Date Palm grow abundantly. This area is known for its winds which rush down the mountains in the morning and go back up at night; each of the winds has a different name! Don’t miss Sirmione to explore Scaligeri Castle, one of Italy’s most complete and well-preserved castles, and then take a trail to prehistoric rock art.

Lake Maggiore

Known for its mild climate, Lake Maggiore is a popular destination for nature lovers and garden enthusiasts. The shores are filled with camellias, azaleas, and verbena. In fact, the Roman name for this lake was Verbanus. Just 34 miles from Milan, visitors can take a boat trip to the Borromean Islands, where they can visit the famous Isola Bella palace and gardens, or take a cable car to the top of Monte Mottarone for panoramic views of the lake. You can also head to the village of Arona and climb inside the statue of Cardinal Borromeo. Look at the lake through his eyes—he was their patron saint. Some charming towns like Stresa and Arona can be visited for their beautiful promenades, lakeside views, and restaurants. In Arona, you can even climb inside a statue of Cardinal Borromeo and look at the lake through “his eyes.” Delight in the natural grottoes, and then explore 17th-century Pallazo Borromeo and its gardens. Two miles west of Cannobio, a market town near Switzerland, you can hike to the dramatic gorge and see the tumbling waterfall of Orrido di Sant ‘Anna.

Lake Orta

Lake Orta, the quieter little cousin of Lake Maggiore, is also in the Northern region of Piemonte. The lake shores are studded with picturesque villages and charming little harbors which tell the story of Lake Orta’s inhabitants, fishermen, and country folk of past times.

From the northern end of the village, the views fade out towards the Island of San Giulio while the southern end overlooks the calm countryside of the peninsula, which is home to both the UNESCO site of Sacro Monte and the village of Orta San Giulio.

The medieval walled village of Orta is as charming as ever for lovers of peace and tranquility and its mysterious, almost spiritual aura. Its dominated by its splendid Basilica leading to a beautiful path of 20 small chapels, each with a story of St Francis of Assisi. The promenade allows you to discover the life of St Francis of Assisi through elegantly austere renaissance architecture set in a magnificent pine wood park with gorgeous views over the stone-roofed village and lake.

As you walk back down, you can watch and observe the silent island of San Giulio across the river. A short boat ride, and you will be fascinated by the legends and stories of the island. Walk ’The Way of Silence’, which leads past ancient villas, walled gardens, wells, and little alleys going down to the lake’s calm waters. At intervals, the signposts of Mother Canopi, Abbess of the Mater Ecclesiae Benedictine, home to the 80 cloister nuns on the island, are placed in such a way that if one goes on the path in one way, they will read phrases about silence, undertaking it in another, they read phrases of meditation.

An island is a place of peace, silence, and meditation. The lake gives a mysterious, spiritual, and tranquil energy unlike any other place in the world.

Lake Iseo

This lake is known for its picturesque medieval towns, such as Iseo and Sulzano. The rock formations on view here are shaped like spires and topped by boulders. Locales refer to these rocks as “fairies of the forest.” The lake is home to many beautiful islands, such as Monte Isola, which is the largest lake island in Europe and can be visited by ferry. In the center of the Franciacorta wine region, you can enjoy some delicious sparkling wines and fresh dishes at any of the many local trattorias. Visitors can take a hike or bike ride around the island, which offers beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding mountains.

Lake Lugano

Lake Lugano is tucked near the Swiss border and is influenced by Swiss culture. And because of that, the cultures are a dynamic mix. More than a thousand types of exotic, flowering plants line the shores. In the town of Lugano, unexpectedly, is a statue of George Washington erected by a Swiss-Italian admirer in the 19th century. This statue overlooks the lake. The Chiesa di Santa Maria di Loreto church is not to be missed. There’s also an ancient olive grove near the lake called Sentiero dell’olivo which is extraordinary. This area is lovely to explore with hidden grottos.

If you want to experience the golden age of travel, I can’t think of a better place to go. You’ll never feel more alive. (Or as well fed). 

If you’re an epicure, we might recommend one place. If you love hiking, another. If you love medieval history, yet another. If you want romance, perhaps another. Or old world glamour 🙋🏻‍♀️ another. 

We like to get to know our clients so we can match them with the perfect hidden gem for their holiday. And we’ve got all the connections to make your stay extra special.  

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