With a landscape speckled by grand hotels, luxuriant gardens and sparkling water stretching off into the distance, the Italian Lakes provide the quintessential summer holiday destination. A fashionable retreat since Roman times, then a staging post for 18th-century grand tourists, the region remains a summer playground for northern Italians and pleasure-seeking Brits alike.
Scattered across Lombardy, and straddling the borders of the Piedmont and Veneto regions, the most popular lakes (from west to east) are Lake Orta, Lake Maggiore, Lake Lugano (roughly two-thirds of which is in Switzerland), Lake Como, Lake Iseo and Lake Garda.
Small – at least in comparison to its neighbour Lake Maggiore – and chic Lake Orta is perhaps the most enchanting and most exclusive option. Surrounded by rolling hills and wooded forests, with the pretty Isola di San Giulio a short boat ride away from the charming medieval village of the same name, it's a wonderfully romantic spot.
Meanwhile, with the Alps providing a backdrop and a set of beautiful islands – the Isole Borromee – pricking its tranquil waters, Lake Maggiore has a grandeur the other lakes find hard to match. Stresa is its main hub: a graceful little town that has relied on tourism since 1906, when the tunnelling of the Simplon Pass allowed trains from north of the Alps to arrive.
At its western and eastern limits, Lake Lugano winds into Italian territory proper. However, the main focus of the lake is glittering Lugano itself, the largest city in Italian-speaking Switzerland. Here a five-day open-air jazz festival ( estivaljazz.ch; free) is held every summer, this year from 24 June-2 July.
Eastwards lies Lake Como, which delivers perhaps the most emblematic experience in the region. Light planes fly overhead, speedboats whizz by, and ferries criss-cross the water, yet the lake has not completely succumbed to tourism. Como's elegant shops, cafés and restaurants are frequented by more locals than tourists, while villages such as Varenna and Menaggio retain an authentic and laid back charm. Bellagio is one of the most popular villages, yet it still remains one of the north of Italy's most delightful spots, with a beautiful promenade and plenty of fin-de-siècle hotels. If you only have time to visit one lake, Como should be your choice.
As the largest of the lakes, Lake Garda has a bit of everything. Its faded charm, historic hotels, and Michelin-starred restaurants appeal to affluent travellers, while its water sports, beaches such as Punta San Vigilio, and theme parks including Gardaland (00 39 045 64 49 777; gardaland.it; €36) attract families. Sirmione, on a slender peninsula, has traffic-free streets, a striking castle called Rocca Scaligera (00 39 030 916 468; €4), and Roman ruins Grotte di Catullo (00 39 030 916 157; €5).
Salò, a genteel village skirting a gorgeous bay lined with elegant buildings, palatial Art Nouveau villas, and boats bobbing on glassy water, boasts an elegant lakeside promenade, while Gardone Riviera has refined hotels and restaurants and loads of lake atmosphere. There, the ostentatious Il Vittoriale (00 39 0365 296 511; vittoriale.it; from €8) a villa once owned by Italy's eccentric poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, has lavish gardens. Devotees return year after year to Gargnano, once a centre for Franciscan monks, now a place to relax on the beach.
Beyond, low-key Lake Iseo, with its picturesque waterside promenades, pretty squares and plenty of camping, is the least tourist-driven of the lakes, making it alluring, particularly for walkers. Inntravel (01653 617002; inntravel.co.uk), offers a "Secret Lake Iseo" independent walking holiday from £775 per person, based on two sharing, including six nights' accommodation with dinner, bed and breakfast at four-star hotels, two picnics, walking maps/route notes and luggage transfers. Flights and transfers are not included.
Lara Dunston is the author of the Footprint Travel Guide to Italian Lakes. To receive a 50 per cent discount (excl P&P) off any Footprint Italian guidebook, visit footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde11 in the coupon code at checkout. Valid until the end of July.
Getting there and around
Milan's Malpensa airport is just 15km from Lake Maggiore, and well placed for access to the western lakes. It is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) from Heathrow; by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Luton, Gatwick and Edinburgh; and by Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Birmingham and Manchester.
Orio al Serio airport, south-east of Bergamo, is a good gateway to Como, Iseo and Garda. It is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Liverpool, East Midlands, Bristol, Prestwick and Stansted; and Jet2 (Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Leeds/Bradford.
Lakes Iseo and Garda can be accessed from Verona's airport at Villafranca, which is served by BA and easyJet from Gatwick; by Ryanair from Stansted; by Bmibaby from East Midlands; and by Flybe from Southampton.
Buses run from Malpensa to Stresa, Como, Lugano and other destinations, and trains and buses criss-cross the region. See www.trasporti.regione. lombardia.it for train, bus and boat timetables. To get the most out of your stay, rent a car. Try Sixt ( sixt.com), based at Malpensa and Orio al Serio airports, or Maggiore ( maggiore.it) from Malpensa, Orio al Serio or Verona airports.
Just outside Como, the lavish Villa d'Este (00 39 031 3481; villadeste.it) at Cernobbio is one of the most majestic of all the lakes' hotels, with sprawling lawns and a prime location at the shore. The 16th-century building has hosted plenty of famous faces, including King Edward VII and Giuseppe Verdi, and the character-filled rooms are romantically idiosyncratic. Alfred Hitchcock even filmed scenes for The Pleasure Garden in its grounds. Doubles from €570, including breakfast.
The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (00 39 031 950 216; villaserbelloni.com) at Bellagio, is a handsome old place which exudes atmosphere, from the gilt-edged mirrors and high ceilings dripping with chandeliers to the gigantic lakeside swimming pool. Doubles from €385, including breakfast.
There's a fine restaurant and a spa at Grand Hotel Fasano (00 39 036 5290220; ghf.it) at Gardone Riviera. Here you'll also find gardens, and lake-view doubles from €320, including breakfast.
Nearby, in a pretty pink neo-classical building, Villa Fiordaliso (00 39 036 520158; villafiordaliso.it) is the lake's most romantic hotel, with only five suites, starting at €350 including breakfast, with lake views. Bragging rights go to the sumptuous "Claretta" suite (from €700 with breakfast), named after Mussolini's mistress who stayed here in 1944 for some time.
Cheaper alternatives include charismatic alberghi in the centre of historic towns, such as Locanda Agli Angeli (00 39 036 5 20991; agliangeli.com) in Gardone Riviera which has doubles with breakfast from €80, and Albergo Del Duca in Como (00 39 031 264 859; albergodelduca.it) which has doubles from €90; as well as holiday apartments (try homeaway.co.uk); agroturismi, rural accommodation on a farm or vineyard (see loveitaly.co.uk and agriturist.it for ideas); and holiday parks (see topcampings.it).
Exploring the lakes
Driving around the lakes is a real delight, with stops for picnics, strolls through ornate gardens and antique-filled interiors of sumptuous public villas to enjoy.
On Lake Como, the finest stops are Villa del Balbianello (00 39 0344 56110; fondoambiente.it; €11) at Lenno, famous for its elaborate terraced gardens; Villa Carlotta (00 39 0344 40405; villacarlotta.it; €8.50) which extends over 17 acres at Tremezzo; and Villa Monastero (00 39 0341 295450; villamonastero.eu; €5), at Varenna.
The government-operated water transport services on all the lakes make zipping between towns and villages a breeze. On Lake Como there are frequent ferry services (00 39 031 579 211; navigazionelaghi.it) between Como and Bellagio, Menaggio, Varenna and Bellano on several boats, from fast catamaran to slow ferries. Most carry cars, so you can travel around the lake on land, then cruise across to the other side. During summer, there are daily excursions around the lake, along with themed cruises (from €15).
You can rent easy-to-drive speedboats along with water skis, wake boards and wet suits, from one hour to one week, from a number of marinas and docks around all the lakes. On Lake Como, try Newton Rent-a-boat (00 39 380 843 5253; rentland.it) which has motorboats starting at €65 per hour to €1,125 for six days.
If you prefer not to get behind a wheel at all, Archers Direct (0844 573 4806; archersdirect.co.uk) offers an eight-day "Magic of the Italian Lakes" tour by bus, from £689 including flights from the UK to Malpensa, taking in Lake Como, Bellagio, Lake Garda, Sirmione, Verona, Lake Iseo and Lake Maggiore.
Como, with its waterfront promenade, leafy parks, gelaterie, and romantic views of Lake Como, makes an excellent base for enjoying the lake, but it's a fabulous city to visit in its own right, with a labyrinthine centro storico, chic shopping, and a lively restaurant scene. The monumental marble cathedral Il Duomo (00 39 031 265 244; free) is Como's main attraction. Started in 1396, though not actually finished until 1740, it blends Gothic and Renaissance styles.
Bang in the middle of all the lakes, between Lake Como and Lake Iseo, Bergamo, with its medieval walled upper city or città alta is beguiling. The tangle of cobblestone streets of the tiny centro storico are a treat to explore, but the greatest pleasure is probably to be gained by the town's local gastronomic specialities, which include cured meats and cheeses, best sampled from wooden platters generously piled high at Al Donizetti (00 39 035 242 661; donizetti.it).
Close to Lake Garda, Verona is undoubtedly the region's most romantic city, with elegant squares, frescoed buildings, a perfectly preserved Roman arena, and a splendid red brick crenellated castle, the Castelvecchio (00 39 045 806 2611; €6), home to the Museum of Castelvecchio, which holds a superlative collection of paintings, sculptures, textiles, costumes, jewellery, ceramics, metalwork and weapons.
Brescia is the nearest town to Lake Iseo, and contains elegant palazzi and lovely piazzas that rarely get crowded with tourists, even during the peak summer period. It's also conveniently located on the Milan-Verona train line.
The compelling towns of Cremona and Mantua are underrated gems that make great escapes. In Cremona, a centre of violin and viola making since the 16th century, the air is filled with classical music and the sounds of fine stringed instruments being handcrafted. Learn more about the Stradivari violin at the Museo Stradivariano and the Collezione Gli Archi, all part of the Museo Civica Ala Ponzone (00 39 0372 407269; combined ticket €10).
The compact city of Mantua, stunningly set on a peninsula surrounded by small man-made lakes, is home to impressive 12th-century fortresses, the highlight of which is the colossal Castello di San Giorgio and Palazzo Ducale (00 39 041 2411897; mantovaducale.it; €6.50). Aim for the beautifully restored frescos of the Gonzaga family painted by Andrea Mantegna from 1465-74 in the Camera degli Sposi, "the bedroom of the wedded couple", which is considered to be one of the artist's greatest works.
Make a beeline for enchanting Lake Orta and Villa Crespi (00 39 0322 911902; hotelvillacrespi.it). If you rubbed your eyes in disbelief when you first saw the flamboyant Moorish-themed building, the cuisine of chef Tonino Cannavacciuolo, above, will have you repeating the gesture when each dish arrives. This two-star chef's 10-course tasting menu is €140 per person, and there's a lighter and equally delicious five-course menu for €88.
At Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Michelin-starred chef Ettore Bocchia watches over two restaurants, but the one you want is Mistral (00 39 031 956435; ristorante-mistral.com), where Bocchia spreads his gastronomic wings. Bocchia isn't afraid of flashy presentation and experimental cuisine, but Mediterranean flavours are firmly on the plate. The seven-course degustation menu is €120 per person.
Simpler delights are available at Lake Maggiore, where Cannobio has a host of al fresco cafés, and many excellent gelaterie. For the best homemade gelato try Gelateria Bar La Piazza (00 39 03237 0496) on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II or Gelatiere Di Zaccheo Dario (00 39 03237 1090) on Via Magistris.
Lake Maggiore is the best for picnics. Stresa has delicious shops where you can fill your hamper with cheeses, cold cuts and grilled vegetables. Buy a hot chicken from Gastronomia da Piero di Belli Lorenzo (00 39 03233 1934) on Via Anna Maria Bolongaro and visit Salumeria Musso di Bianchetti Augusto (00 39 03233 0402) at 1 Via Mazzini for the best selection of regional salamis. Stresa also boasts brilliant bakeries.