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Lake Garda: what to see, drink, eat and do

Torbole Sul Garda (Garda Dolomiti AG)
Torbole Sul Garda (Garda Dolomiti AG)

Delicious food, gorgeous views, wine-tasting galore: Lake Garda has it all.

Scratch thoughts of this only being the playground of the super-rich (though Tom Cruise, Drew Barrymore and the Beckhams have all visited in their time). Lake Garda, nestled in the foothills of the Dolomites and surrounded on all sides by steep hills, is only a forty minute drive from Verona, and it’s simply bursting at the seams with things to do, luxurious hotels to relax in and tiny cantinas where you can sample local olive oil and wine. In short, it’s a bit of a hidden gem – and here’s our guide for making the most of your time there.

What to see

First things first: it would be criminal not to see at least some of atmospheric medieval villages and towns this area is famous for. There’s Garda itself – a sweet town with a lovely long waterfront – but visits to the slightly more atmospheric medieval walled fortress towns of Torre del Benaco, Malcesine and Lacize are also a must. Do also make time to see Borghetto: a tiny village that straddles the river Mincio on the lake’s south side. Boasting rickety houses, three old mills and a reputation for excellent tortellini, it’s the ideal lunchtime spot.

If you fancy more of a day out, the mazy streets of Sirmione are home to some of the best food in the area as well as some archaeological treasures. Surrounded by thick walls and crowned with the imposing Scaligero Castle, the town is perched on the edge of a peninsula and looks like something straight out of a fairytale. Needless to say, a stroll through the historic centre (packed to bursting with churches, naturally) is well worth a few hours of your time, and for history buffs, the Roman ruins of the Grotte di Catullo are also nearby.

Canale Di Tenno Garda (Garda Dolomiti AG)
Canale Di Tenno Garda (Garda Dolomiti AG)

If you’re staying in the north, then the brightly coloured houses of Riva del Garda are also definitely worth a visit (as is neighbouring Torbole Sul Garda). Though it has a tiny historic city centre, there’s nevertheless loads of things to do here – including climbing the Torre Apponale, riding the funicular to the spectacular views of Bastione de Riva or even biking the Old Ponale Road. And definitely make time to visit the nearby village of Canale di Tenno, which has atmosphere in spades.

Keen for some views? Garda also has those in bucketloads: ride the cable car up to Monte Baldo for a panoramic view of the entire lake, or, for those looking for something slightly less touristy, how about a hike to Punta Larici? The path is steep and definitely not for inexperienced hikers, but you’ll be amply rewarded.

What to do

Is there any better place in the world for a wine tasting than Italy? For those looking to slake their thirst, a visit to Zeni is a must.

A local producer, Zeni is both a wine shop and a tasting mecca: those who fancy a taste can avail themselves of the cantina’s free wine samples on the top floor, but the wine cellar is where the real magic happens. There, you can sit among barrels of the vineyard’s wines and taste four (or indeed more) of their vintages from €37.40 a person, paired (should you wish) with a delicious food platter. And don’t forget to try their signature Amarone: slightly bitter red wine – a specialty of the region – that goes perfectly with dark chocolate. Be warned, though: you need to book in advance.

Wine tasting not your thing? An olive oil tasting is also a must, especially as Lake Garda olive oil is renowned throughout Italy for its delicate flavour. In addition to the olive oil museum in Bardolino (why not; it does also do tastings), there are loads of local cantinas to visit; our suggestions would be Venturelli near Raffa, which offers tours of their mill (plus tastings) from €15; Malcesine on the north-east coast of the lake, which boasts a lovely little museum as well as a well-stocked shop, or Agririva near Simione, which offers tastings from €15.

Lake Garda being as long and narrow as it is, it also takes a surprisingly long time to drive around. Solve that problem by catching a ferry across the lake: it stops at pretty much every major town and costs €9.80 for a one way ticket (find more information here).

Olive harvesting in Garda Dolomiti (Garda Dolomiti AG)
Olive harvesting in Garda Dolomiti (Garda Dolomiti AG)

And finally, round out your trip with a spot of sunbathing or swimming at one of Garda’s many famous beaches. Top of the list is Baia delle Sirene (otherwise known as Mermaid Bay: a gorgeous beach set among olive groves on the lake’s west side, but Jamaica Beach in Sirmione, Spiaggia d’Oro in Lacize and Baia Bianca Beach in Manerba (which boasts the best sandy spot on the lake) are all good for kicking back and doing a bit of holiday reading in the sun.

What to eat and drink

This being Italy, there is literally no shortage of excellent places to satiate your hunger for a slice of la dolce vita. The cobblestoned villages and towns that dot the lake’s edges are the perfect place to sip an Aperol (expect to pay between €4-6 for one, which is expensive by Italian standards but still considerably cheaper than London), while the abundance of tiny tables by the lakeside offer everything from pizza to spaghetti alle vongole.

That said, we’d be remiss if we didn’t pick out a few highlights. Top of the list would have to be Ristorante Il Girasole in Sirmione, which offers perhaps some of the best food anywhere on the lake for around €50pp. It specialises in Italian food, done well: think creamy cacio e pepe topped with truffles, surprisingly good breadsticks and prosecco to die for (as well as an unexpectedly delightful complimentary dessert).

The view from Cape of Senses hotel in Lake Garda (Jacopo Salvi)
The view from Cape of Senses hotel in Lake Garda (Jacopo Salvi)

Another excellent shout is Restel de Fer in the northmost part of the lake: Riva de Garda, which offers tasting menus for €65pp. A family-owned inn, it oozes countryside chic: think hand-woven rugs, old leather armchairs and outdoor seating areas garlanded by grape vines. The food is just as good as you would expect: smoked hams, locally-caught Garda trout and veal with truffles.

In the mood to splash out? Vecchia Malcesine has to be on the list. Nestled in the hills that ring the lake, it’s one of the best restaurants in the entire area and boasts an excellent €95, seven-course tasting menu that focusses either on earth or sea-based ingredients – both are equally sublime. The restaurant offers signature dishes (classics, done well) or the more intriguing Psicodishes (experimental food, taken to the extreme) which should give you some kind of idea about how fun a dining experience this is. Tuck in and enjoy.

And if you’re in the mood for fish (who isn’t?) then there’s no better place than La Goccia, which specialises in just that. Come for the seafood carpaccio, stay for the spaghetti tossed with razor clams – and of course, it’s all served with lashings of local wine.

Where to stay

Cape of Senses Terrace (Jacopo Salvi)
Cape of Senses Terrace (Jacopo Salvi)

For those in need of some real pampering, there’s no better place to be than Cape of Senses. A brand-new, five-star hotel (it opened in July 2023) perched on the hills above Garda town, Cape of Senses offers truly stunning vistas that are complemented by the hotel’s gorgeously landscaped gardens, dotted with olive trees.

The rooms themselves are simple but well thought-out: think super-comfortable beds, power-showers and views of the lake through floor to ceiling windows, plus an outdoor space in which to relax and sip Italian wine as the sun goes down (if the open-air restaurant or terrace don’t take your fancy).

This place is all about relaxation. Start your day in the morning with a meditation session and massage; segue in the evening to a wine-tasting the hotel organises with a local vineyard. Even better, there’s a fully-furnished spa, complete with gym, several saunas and an infinity pool that is especially jaw-dropping (and Insta-worthy) at sunset. Given that it’s adults-only and offers a minimum stay of three nights, it’s the perfect place to relax, unwind, and soak in the blissful silence (rooms start from around £416 per night for 2 people including breakfast).

The rooftop pool suite at Cape of Senses (Jacopo Salvi)
The rooftop pool suite at Cape of Senses (Jacopo Salvi)

If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to a stay, don’t worry: Lake Garda abounds with hotels, many of which include spas. For those looking to marry budget with luxury, then try the Hotel Continental Thermae and Spa (where rooms start from around £160), which is located near the gorgeous medieval town of Sirmione – yes, it’s a chain, but it’s well-located and offers pools galore to soak away the summer heat – or indeed Grand Hotel Fasano, a former hunting lodge which perches right on the west shores of the lake and boasts some excellent food (rooms start from £250 a night).

Alternately, if you’re looking for something with a touch more Italian charm, then Hotel du Lac, situated on the west of the lake (near the charming village of Gargnano) has it in spades: think small, family-run and bursting with 1920s and 30s-era décor, and prices from £110 a night.