With its alluring villages, blue-green waters, and mountainous backdrop, Lake Garda is a true holiday utopia. Whether you prefer outdoor adventure or relaxing on a sunny terrace with an Aperol spritz in hand, the shorelines of Italy’s grandest lake belong on your must-see list.
The dilemma, of course, is in deciding which villages to visit during your stay at Lake Garda.
While the northern region of the lake is nestled between scenic peaks that stretch to the nearby Dolomites, the southern end of Lago di Garda offers a Mediterranean vibe and remarkable history. So, from Riva to Sirmione, how do you plan your Lake Garda holiday?
The northern shores of Lake Garda are an outdoor-lover’s paradise.
Wind conditions are ideal for on-the-water activities like windsurfing and sailing, while endless hiking and cycling trails lead the way to incredible views over the lake and surrounding hilltops.
For the particularly courageous, paragliding is also a popular Lake Garda activity. Even if you prefer to keep your feet on solid ground, you can ride the Monte Baldo Funivia to the top, take a walk along the meadow trails, and watch as others take a running leap off the side of the mountain.
Prominent north-end villages include Riva del Garda (at the very top tip of the lake), Limone sul Garda (on the western shore) and Malcesine (on the eastern shore). The three towns are connected by frequent—and affordable—ferries, so it’s easy to base yourself in one and still visit the others if you’ve planned a few days to explore.
Riva del Garda
Riva del Garda is especially renowned for its prime windsurfing conditions, while Baroque churches, the 13th-century Apponale Tower, and 14th-century Palazzo Pretorio offer historic and cultural interest. As this is one of the lake’s liveliest villages, you’ll find plenty of shops, restaurants, and hotels to choose from in Riva.
Limone sul Garda
Limone sul Garda is a cozy, picturesque village perched along the rocky cliffs of Lake Garda’s northwestern shoreline. Limone boasts a beautiful harbor, colorful buildings lining the waterfront, and plenty of hiking opportunities if you’re keen on steep trails. Expect fewer shops and restaurants here, but Limone’s quiet charm is a lovely contrast to its position along what is arguably the most dramatic part of the lake.
Malcesine sits almost directly across the lake from Limone, with its imposing Scaliger castle overlooking the water. Sitting at the foot of Monte Baldo, this medieval village is filled with cobblestone alleys, artisan shops, and landscape views so memorable that even Goethe wrote about Malcesine in his 1816 book, The Italian Journey. The restaurant scene here is quite good, with a focus on locally sourced ingredients.
The southern end of Lake Garda, meanwhile, has an almost riviera-like ambience; with sweeping promenades and cypress trees lending coastal charm, especially when paired with the water that takes on an even more turquoise hue as the lake drifts out of the mountainous north and opens to its widest expanse.
Enjoying village life and discovering the region’s rich history are likely to be top-of-mind for this end of the lake.
While Sirmione tends to be the most popular locale thanks to its remarkable position at the tip of a four-kilometer-long peninsula, Salò (western shore) and Bardolino (eastern shore) are equally worthy candidates for your holiday stay.
As with the northern region, southern Lake Garda is actively linked by ferries and quite explorable.
Sirmione is true gem with its quaint village streets, 13th-century fortress, and the archaeological site of Grotte di Catullo. When you’re not admiring the breathtaking views from the fortress towers or strolling among ancient Roman ruins, you might relax in Sirimone’s thermal baths. You can anticipate slightly higher prices here due to the touristic sites and geographically exclusive nature of being located on a peninsula, but it’s an easy stroll into town and if you opt for the more budget-friendly accommodations closer to main the shore.
Salò lays claim to Lake Garda’s longest lakeside promenade (lungolago), which extends nearly three kilometers along the shore. Elegant piazzas, winding lanes, and welcoming cafes make Salò’s historic center an atmospheric delight. Adding another page to the area’s heavily storied past, Salò was also the short-lived seat of the Italian Social Republic from 1943 to 1945.
Bardolino, perhaps best-known for its wines, is host to the Festa dell’Uva e del Vino, an annual celebration of wine and harvest since 1929. Indeed, food and drink are taken seriously here. Bardolino is a former fishing village with romantic streets marked with remnants of 12th-century city walls, and Piazza Matteotti remains the center of activity.
Can’t decide? Explore both.
With a generous 160 kilometers of shoreline, Lake Garda is best enjoyed slowly. Time permitting, consider simply dividing your holiday between the northern and southern halves of the lake to enjoy the wonderful nuances of each.
Cliché as it sounds, there is no “wrong” choice when it comes to Garda. From stand-up paddleboarding to an olive oil museum, the natural beauty, rich history, and diverse array of activities ensure that this lake has something for everyone.
More time to spend in the area?
If you have more time on your hands, why not go on a day trip to explore the beautiful area around Lake Garda.
Whether you prefer visiting historical towns like Verona, strolling around the narow lanes of Venice or experiencing nature at its best in the Dolomites, Lake Garda has a prime position if you want to discover northern Italy. Among our favorite tours are these:
Lake Garda tourism resources
Given its vast size, Lake Garda spans three of northern Italy’s provinces: Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, and Lombardia.
Trentino-Alto Adige encompasses the lake’s northernmost villages, including Riva del Garda, Torbole sul Garda, and Nago.
Veneto spans much of the lake’s eastern shoreline and includes Bardolino, Brenzone sul Garda, Garda, Lazise, Malcesine, Peschiera del Garda, and Torri del Benaco, among others.
Lombardia covers the western shoreline and much of the southern part of Lake Garda, including Limone, Salò, Manerba, Desenzano, Bescia, Tremosine, Gargnano, Gardone Riviera, Sirmione, and more.
If you want to read up on Lake Garda before your holiday, take a look at this comprehensive Italian Lakes Guide, which also includes Lake Como and Lake Maggiore.
Have you been to Lake Garda? Do you prefer the north or the south region? Share your thoughts in the comments!