Best things to do in Lake Garda
Welcome to our guide of things to do in Lake Garda! As we have lived by Lake Garda for over 10 years, we’ve decided to gather info on towns near Lake Garda, other Lake Garda must-sees and nice things to do!
Lake Garda is a world apart. It’s right in the middle of Northern Italy, shaped like a ladle reaching upwards into the mountains. Towns and villages on the lake shore enjoy a milder climate compared to the rest of the region – you’ll see lemon trees and olive groves, palm-fringed lakeside walks with a stunning backdrop of snowcapped mountains.
However, there are so many things to see on Lake Garda, that you’ll never find yourself wondering what to do. From windswept shores to wine-tasting and Roman ruins, from adventure activities to unique things to do like visiting poet D’Annunzio’s grandiose villa, the shores of Lake Garda will keep everyone happy.
The lake is only one hour away from Milan – by train you can easily get to Desenzano and Peschiera. From there, it’s easy to hop from one village to another by bus or ferry.
The best towns in Lake Garda for adventure lovers are Riva del Garda and Nago-Torbole, located along the northern shore of the lake. Both towns are recommended for sailing and cycling lovers – if you’re into rock climbing, your best bet would be travelling a couple extra miles inland to Arco, the best rock climbing location in Italy.
Another great place for adventure lovers is Tremosine, a unique ‘scattered town’ made of different hamlets scattered between the lake and surrounding mountains. Lots of adventure activities are available, including paragliding.
Couples or those in search of romantic atmospheres should visit either Limone, on the Lombardy shore, or Malcesine, just across the lake in Veneto. Both towns are really charming, with cobbled streets and cute lakeside restaurants.
Foodies and wine lovers should choose to make a day trip to Bardolino, close to a popular wine-growing region. The best places to visit for those in search of relax are Lazise and Sirmione, in the southern part of Lake Garda, where you’ll find two excellent thermal baths.
Last but not least, families! Generally speaking, all Lake Garda towns offer something to do for families – however, your best bet is probably Peschiera del Garda, close to two amazing amusement parks.
Let’s move on looking at things to do in Lake Garda, for nature, adventure and culture lovers, starting from the northern shore of the lake all the way to the south.
Southern and Western Lake Garda – Lombardy
Sirmione is one of the prettiest Lake Garda destinations. Set on a peninsula jutting into the lake, and beloved by writers and poets from Catullus to Tennyson and Joyce, Sirmione has that kind of Mediterranean atmosphere that will make you want to stay longer and longer.
History buffs will love Catullus family villa, so engulfed by the wilderness that it was once believed to be a complex of caves. Another sight that shouldn’t be missed is the Scaliger Castle, right on the lakeside, looking like a fairytale manor with its turrets and battlements.
DESENZANO DEL GARDA
Desenzano del Garda, the capital of Lake Garda. This charming little town is said to be Lake Garda’s hidden gem, but as the years has passed, Desenzano have become incredibly renowned and visited by tourists from all over the world. Here you can walk among the monuments and remains from Roman times, such as spending days in the many shopping malls that have been built up over the years.
The balmy evenings invite you to enjoy a glass of wine at one of the many cafes around the square, or stroll along the promenade and enjoy the spectacular views of the lake and mountain peaks.
After Desenzano del Garda, Salò is the second-largest town on the Lombardia shore of Lake Garda, famous for having been the headquarters of the Repubblica Sociale, the seat of the Fascist government at the end of World War II.
It’s worth a visit for its lakeside promenade, the longest in the entire Garda area, and for its 15th century Duomo di Sant’Annunziata, whose architecture is a hybrid between Gothic and Renaissance styles.
Literati and lovers of quirky sights will enjoy visiting the Vittoriale, poet D’Annunzio’s whimsical villa on the shores of Lake Garda, near Gardone Riviera on the western shore of the lake, just north of Salò.
The craziest thing to do on Lake Garda, though, has to be visiting military ship Puglia, lying on top of a hill among the trees in the gardens of the Vittoriale. It was donated to D’Annunzio, who had it taken apart and carried to his residence where it was reassembled on a hill, pointed symbolically towards the Adriatic sea.
LIMONE DEL GARDA
The secret of why Limone sul Garda is so special is in its name – its mild climate made it the ideal location to grow lemon trees, and all throughout the 19th century the town was surrounded by lemon groves. Nowadays, tourism is a much more important revenue source than lemon products, but you can still see lemon trees growing on terraces on the steep hillside just behind the town.
RIVA DEL GARDA
Lake Garda is so large, it changes dramatically from north to south. The southern shores are pretty and genteel, beloved by poets and writers throughout history, with beautiful villas and a quiet atmosphere. The northern shores become wilder as you move further into the Alps.
This area has been famous among adventurers and adrenaline-lovers for decades and the opportunities for adventure activities are endless, with parasailing, rock-climbing and windsurfing on offer amongst others.
Riva del Garda is the largest and most famous town in the northern part of the lake, and it is also the ideal base for GardaTrek, three loop trails of various length between lake and mountains. It is also close to some wonderful mountain bike trails of various length and difficulty, and it is also possible to do some pretty cool lake dives.
The historic centre of Riva del Garda is full of sights and attractions to enjoy on a rainy day like the MAG – Museo Alto Garda and Torre Apponale.
Eastern Lake Garda – Veneto
An unforgettable daytrip – take the cable car all the way to the top of Monte Altissimo, the tallest peak overlooking Lake Garda, where it’s possible to hike, enjoy a wonderful meal at the Rifugio Altissimo/Damiano Chiesa, or just take in the stunning views.
The cable car climbs over 1500 meters so the weather can be dramatically different – when we visited, it was sunny and warm in Malcesine on the lake shore, but it was chilly and windy at the cable car’s top station.
Near Malcesine you’ll also find the picturesque village of Cassone, home to the Aril River, the ‘world’s shortest river’ at only 175 meters long, and the spectacular Val di Sogno, a clear, secluded bay a short distance away from the city, where you’ll also find a pretty island and a wreck that divers can explore.
The best known sight in Malcesine is the Castello Scaligero, definitely one of the best things to do in Lake Garda for families. The castle is very well preserved and it includes the recently-renewed Museo di Storia Naturale (Natural History Museum), with lots of hands-on activities for little ones. It is also possible to explore the castle’s rooms, passageways and tunnels, and climb up to the tower.
Garda Town is actually what lent the lake its current name – before the 8th century AD, when the lake started being referred to as Garda, it was known as Benaco. The name Garda comes from the ancient German word warda, meaning ‘watch’, referring to the town’s castle which in the High Middle Ages was one of the strongest in the region.
Garda town is about 30 km south of Malcesine via the super-scenic Gardesana Orientale, a road connecting all the towns and villages on the lake shore.
Between Malcesine and Garda, the scenery changes from mountains to hills, and the atmosphere from Alpine becomes Mediterranean, while the weather remains warm year round. In Garda, it’s fun to explore the pretty medieval historic centre, which is also one of the best places for shopping – things to buy in Lake Garda include olive oil, wine, products made with Lake Garda lemons, and lots more delicious food at the weekly markets surrounding the lake.
Other Garda points of interest include the Madonna della Corona church, built almost right into the mountainside, and Punta San Vigilio, one of the most scenic and tranquil spots of all Lake Garda, with a nice beach and a park.
Wine lovers will definitely have the chance to taste Bardolino, the signature wine of the Garda region. The best wine tasting region is between the towns of Lazise and Bardolino on the Eastern shore – a wine-tasting day is a great idea, spent visiting cellar doors and tasting delicious Bardolino and Chiaretto, a local rosé variety.
Bardolino was already famous for its wine in Roman times, so it is no surprise that many activities in and around Bardolino are actually wine-related – there are dozens of wineries offering wine tastings at the cellar door, you can go on a wine tour by bicycle, join a combo wine tasting and village tour, or even visit a ‘wine museum’!
If you’re a die hard wine lover, try to visit Bardolino for the yearly ‘Festa dell’Uva’ harvest festival in late September/early October, or the ‘Palio del Chiaretto’, dedicated to rosé wine. Both festivals feature concerts, street food, firework displays and naturally lots and lots of wine!
Lazise is a good alternative to Bardolino for those interested in wine, and it also has the added benefit of being close to thermal lakes and springs, making it ideal for a relaxing break.
Just like Malcesine and Sirmione, Lazise is also home to a Castello Scaligero, with the same trademark swallow-tailed battlements and high towers. It is also worth visiting the former Customs House, built right on the lake – it was through this customs post that the Republic of Venice controlled trade over the lake for centuries.
Lazise is also a great place for shopping, with a colourful weekly market and lots of shops selling Garda wine, olive oil and leather goods.
PESCHIERA DEL GARDA
Peschiera del Garda is the largest town on the Veneto side of the lake, and a transport hub due to the presence of the railway station and of the motorway. For this reason, it may feel less ‘quaint’ than other places like Garda, Malcesine or even Riva del Garda to the north.
The town extends between the shore of Lake Garda and the river Mincio, connecting the lake to the Po river further south. The historic centre of Peschiera del Garda is surrounded by the pentagonal walls of the Fortress, one of the four fortresses protecting the Habsburg Empire, connected to the rest of the city by a pedestrian bridge.
Peschiera offers many more sights besides the famous Fortress, and visiting is is definitely one of the best things to do in Lake Garda. There are wonderful beaches including Braccobaldo Bau, one of the few Lake Garda beaches to accept dogs, the opportunity to go on boat tours to other Lake Garda towns like Riva, Desenzano, Salò, Sirmione and Lazise.
And naturally… Gardaland is just next door!
Best Lake Garda Street Markets
Besides food, the weekly street markets in all Lake Garda towns are a great place to buy leather products, shoes, clothes and other souvenirs.
Every day, there’s a market being held in one or more towns around the lake. You’ll find all sorts of products, from fresh fruit and vegetables to artisan cheeses and cured meats, entire stalls just selling olives and pickled goods, mobile trucks offering rotisserie chicken, and more.
Just remember street markets in Italy generally take place in the morning. They open as early as 7 am, and by lunchtime, they start unpacking. Some vendors may linger around until early afternoon, but by 2 or 3 pm generally they’re all gone. Don’t forget to visit in the morning to do your Lake Garda shopping at street markets!
Here is a list of the best Lake Garda street markets for each day of the week!
- Monday: Peschiera del Garda, Colombare di Sirmione
- Tuesday: Desenzano del Garda, Torbole (March/Sept, every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month), Limone (April/Dec), Arco (May/Oct)
- Wednesday: Riva del Garda (every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month), Arco (every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month), Gargnano, Lazise
- Thursday: Bardolino, Toscolano, Dro (not far from Arco)
- Friday: Riva del Garda, Garda, Lugana di Sirmione
- Saturday: Malcesine, Salò
- Sunday: Rivoltella di Desenzano