Lake Garda offers everything a family needs to have fun and be active. The largest lake in Italy, it is 32 miles long and up to 10 miles wide. A typical glacial lake, Garda is quite deep: over 1100 feet at its maximum depth.
The lake’s history is both ancient and battle-ridden. Known as Lake Becanus to the Romans, the Battle of Lake Benacus was fought in 268 AD. Led by Emperor Claudius, the Romans vanquished two Germanic tribes. Over the next 1000 years, the Milanese and Venetians also fought many battles here, gaining and losing control of the region.
In more modern times, Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army fought the Austrians in the Battle of Rivoli (1797), along the eastern shores of the lake. The outnumbered French army eventually claimed victory, losing 2200 troops to Austria’s 8000 casualties.
In the mid-19th Century, battles fought here by Napoleon III led to Italian unification, but were so horrific they also led to the creation of the Geneva Convention and the formation of the Red Cross. Even the 20th Century proved turbulent, with Mussolini establishing his villa in the lake town of Salò as the capital of Italy for the last two years of World War II (1943-45).
We’re going to work our way around the lake, starting at Castelnuevo del Garda with the area’s most famous man-made attraction, Gardaland. Opened in July 1975, the amusement park includes Gardaland, Gardaland Sea-Life, and the Gardaland Hotel. The complex attracts nearly 3 million visitors every year, making it among the 10 largest such venues in the world.
Imagine that Pinocchio dropped acid and re-designed Disneyland, but left all the theme areas the same: magic kingdoms and fantasies, pirates, the Wild West, and rides. Now imagine the same long lines – and the premium tickets by which you could skip those lines. Voila! Gardaland.
To be honest, we haven’t been there. The reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites indicate that kids love it, just as much as they love Disneyland. And, the amenities seem to stack up to be pretty much the same, too. Have fun!
By the way, we take ferries around the lake. The boats leave at regular times and cover the key towns. Some ferries are locals, others expresses. Learn more here.
The first stop on the ferry is Sirmione, which sits at the tip of the peninsula on the lake’s southern shore. The town is truly ancient – going back about 7,500 years, to 5000-6000 BC.
Sirmione also has Roman roots (4th-5th Century AD), becoming a fortified strong point defending the southern shore of the lake. The fortified defenses continued with the 13th Century building of the Scaliger Castle (Castello Scaligero), the central point in the city today.
We all enjoyed walking through and learning about the castle. As you would expect, the views from the top were both amazing and strategically important – especially if you are trying to protect the town from invaders. Here’s Noah’s take on both the castle and the town:
It was really cool – after climbing up and down the castle steps, we walked around the town and stopped for pizza before the crowds filled up the restaurants. Mom let me have an Orangina, while she and Dad each had a beer. Dad let me taste his beer. I like orange soda better.
Our next stop is Limone sul Garda, on the upper western shore. The town is noted for two things: the prodigious size and quantity of the lemons grown there (hence, limone), and the advanced age of its residents: Thanks to a genetic mutation that increases the level of high density cholesterol (HDL), there are many people here over the age of 100.
There are plenty of shops selling lemons and lemon products, other forms of local produce, jewelry, leather goods, and souvenirs. Good family-style food is easy to find, as is gelato. There is even some street theater, keeping kids amused and providing parents with photo opportunities. (Sorry, Noah!)
Unless you want to stay here, Limone is best visited as we did – by boat. Since there is only one road in and out of town, driving can be limiting. (There wasn’t even a road until 1932.) Also, many of the lake’s attractions are far to the south, or on the eastern shore. (Note to windsurfers and kitesurfers: This may be your town!)
North of Limone is Riva del Garda, which is more of a residential town than a tourist destination. It’s worth a stop on the ferry for a stroll, as it sits right under the mountains and shows architectural and culinary signs of its Austrian heritage. We have friends who live here and love not having to deal much with tourists.
Finally, we’re heading to our home base on the lake: Malcesine. On the eastern shore, its first recorded inhabitants were Etruscans dating to around 500 BC. After 15 BC, the area came under the control of the Roman Empire.
Malcesine’s most prominent landmark is the Castello Scaligero, which has 13th-century fortifications and an older medieval tower. Like the castle of Sirmione described previously, it is named for the della Scala family of Verona, rulers of the region in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The biggest attraction is the nearby Monte Baldo mountain range and funicular (the cable car in the top photo) that takes you to the top (7,277 feet). The Peace Trail, one of Europe’s great hiking (and old military) trails, leads over the range and through the Lastoni Selva Pezzi Nature Reserve.
The town itself is a rather quaint lakeside village, with boating, windsurfing and other water sports. There are the usual shops and trattorias, with plenty of greenspace in which tired family members can relax and take a nap. (Yes, that’s Noah on the right.) The kids will also like to watch the ferries and speedboats come and go, and enjoy some gelato, pizza, and fritte. (A nice cold beer would go well about now, too.)
Where to Stay
We enjoyed staying in Malcesine at the Park Hotel Querceto. It is not in town, but rather on the mountainside up toward Mount Baldo. The views of the lake are spectacular. (My photo at the top of this page was taken from the hotel, as was the nighttime shot of Limone sul Garda on the right.)
We took the convenient and low-cost bus to and from town, and then hopped on and off the ferry. The funicular to Mount Baldo also stops right by the hotel. You could use it to commute into town, but we didn’t think of it at the time.
Views from the room were great. The staff was very attentive, breakfasts were quite good and dinner was good, but not great. (Noah did love the food, as it was kid-friendly and there was plenty of it. Desserts also made a big impression on him.) Speaking of kids, the pool is lovely and there is a large, well-equipped playground next to the dining area.
Where to Eat
It’s hard to believe, but you don’t come to this part of Italy for the food. The word I would use to describe it is “uninspiring”. Part of the reason is that the German/Austrian historical and touristic influences push the local cuisine toward a more Continental, rather than pure Italian, style. It’s not that the food isn’t good, it’s simply not what you would expect. (Note: The German beers you can get here are outstanding!)
How to Get There
Renting a car is certainly a viable option. We chose not to do so, and instead hired a driver who brought us here from Milan. We walked, took the bus, and hopped on the ferry for most of our trips around the lake. We then hired a driver to take us the short distance to Verona, where we took the train to Venice.
What to Do
- Paragliding, windsurfing, kitesurfing, boating
- Funicular (cableway up to Mount Baldo)
- Lake ferries
- Gardaland (including tickets)
Masthead photo: Morning in Malcesine, Lake Garda (Bob)