Welcome to Europe. Welcome to Italy. Welcome to Lake Garda. Welcome to Malcesine. Welcome. Just a couple of weeks ago in June 2022 I made a short trip to Italy. It was my first time at the beautiful Lake Garda in the very north of Italy, directly in front of the majestic Alps. The lake fills an enormous natural basin enclosed by mountains. Lake Garda is huge, in certain parts the lake is rather narrow but almost everywhere the huge flat surface feels more like a part of the ocean than a lake filled with beautifully clear freshwater. In the narrow parts of the lake the bottom is more than 300 m below the surface, in the wider areas the lake becomes more flat and the water is significantly warmer. Lake Garda is especially famous for its strong winds which blow from different directions at different times of day. These winds make the lake very attractive for all kind of sailors, windsurfers and of course kite surfers which are very impressive to watch from one of the big ferry boats connecting the most important villages around the lake.
1/160, f/20, ISO 200, 28 mm, Lumix DMC-GX8
For all kinds of tourists from the northern regions of Europe across the Alps Lake Garda often was their first stop in the beautiful south. Lake Garda felt like summer, like holiday, like vacation time. Especially people from Germany were attracted by the beauty and comfort of the lake, so they began to stay there and stopped to drive further south to the Mediterranean Sea. In many of the villages around the lake you can still find many locations with German speaking service staff and German menus even though Lake Garda today has become a place for tourists from all over the world.
Especially the west and also parts of the east shore are very narrow, the mountains are close, there’s just enough room for the main road surrounding the lake and for not much more. The road is very busy as it’s the only local connection from the north to the south. Of course this situation affects the tiny villages, the hotels along the shore and of course also the beaches. Let me say this here, the water of the lake is beautiful for swimming, the water is very clear and fresh and not too cold, especially during the summer months. But if you’re looking for a place to stay all day long and enjoy some kind of beach life, it’s maybe better to look elsewhere. The beaches are often tiny, very narrow, rocky or at best filled with gravel. It’s best to wear water shoes almost everywhere and maybe this fact explains a lot here. You can probably find the best conditions for swimming in the north and in the south of the lake, while the western and the eastern shore still have very scenic beaches but they are small and often come with some obstacles.
I came to Lake Garda mostly for sightseeing, so while options for swimming are always a nice thing to have it was not the main goal of this trip. During my time at Lake Garda I instead tried to explore the little villages around the lake. All the villages I saw still have very attractive medieval city centers even if these centers are very small, sometimes there’s only one little alley with picturesque old houses or there’s a lakeside promenade which is lovely to sit and eat or drink and to watch people go by. Definitely my favorite villages of the lake are Limone and Malcesine. Both sit almost next to each other on the two opposite shores of the lake, Limone sits on the western shore and Malcesine on the eastern one.
Limone’s name derives from the ancient cultivation of lemon trees in that area. Its footprint is tiny, the landscape is hilly and the little alleys are beautifully crooked. You can find gift shops with all kind of things branded with lemons everywhere within that little town. At the end of the village there’s a nice beach as well consisting of relatively fine gravel which makes going for a swim much easier.
Malcesine on the opposite shore is bigger but the streets of the inner city are equally marvelous and almost feel like a medieval dungeon. Everywhere are gift shops, shops for ice cream, cafes and restaurants. The pavement interestingly consists of very small, natural cobble stones which go together very well with the old surrounding houses. It’s a lovely, timeless feeling strolling through the narrow alleys. The big attraction of Malcesine is the Castello Scaligero, an old castle named for the della Scala family of Verona who ruled the whole region during the 13th and 14th centuries. The castle can be visited, especially interesting is the old tower with its beautiful view over the village and the whole lake. This is where I took the photo of this post. Also Malcesine is the starting point for trips up to Monte Baldo, the highest mountain in that area which rises 2218 m above sea level. A cable car starting in Malcesine can get you up to the ridge. It’s possible to walk south a few kilometers along that ridge.
Of course there are more beautiful villages around Lake Garda like Sirmione or Salo or even Garda but I’m still most fascinated by the two ones mentioned above. Also keep in mind that I didn’t have time to get a good idea of the northern villages and towns like Riva or Torbole. My understanding is that these towns are very well suited for sailing and other water sports but that’s just my first impression. If you have more time in that region a short trip to Verona and its old amphitheater is worth mentioning as well. Also you might consider a visit of Lake Iseo. Lake Iseo became famous in 2016 when Christo and Jeanne Claude established The Floating Piers art installation there.
In general my feeling is that the eastern shore of Lake Garda is more busy and crowded, there’s more space for hotels, larger villages and even theme parks. The western shore is still busy because of the main road around the lake but feels more dense, intimate and private.
I hope these notes can give you a quick summary of where to go and what to see at Lake Garda. Let me know if you plan a trip to this beautiful lake or maybe have already been there before.