From medieval towns to modern theme parks, windsurfing to wine tasting, I’ve got the best things to do in Lake Garda, as well as day trips to Italy’s nearby cities.
It is no surprise that holidays in Lake Garda are so popular. Italy’s largest lake has stunning scenery, over 50 villages and towns to explore, and it provides easy access to some of Italy’s most iconic cities. It is a place I wanted to write about many times, but it has been over 12 years since my last visit – I need to go back! However, travel journalist Kevin Flanagan visited recently, and offered to help me write this Lake Garda travel guide. He has compiled the top things to do in Lake Garda along with top tips to help you make the most of your visit.
About Lake Garda
As a travel writer with 30 years of experience, Lake Garda is a place I would recommend to just about anyone, says Kevin Flanagan. Be they young or old, married or single, with or without family. Why? First and foremost, Lake Garda is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Set at the base of the soaring Italian Alps, and carved out of the mountains by gigantic glaciers in the last ice age, it offers breathtaking views wherever you are on the lake. It also has its own micro-climate, making it welcoming and warm during the summer months. But it also experiences cooling winds that flow over the lake during the day. And it is these same winds that make the lake a sailing and watersports paradise.
Many visit Lake Garda for peace and serenity, while others love exploring its medieval towns, and let’s not forget it is Mecca for active travellers and families too.
There are many great things to do in Lake Garda to suit all types of travellers – here are my top ten.
1. See Sirmione
If you only have time to visit one place on Lake Garda, make it Sirmione. This medieval town is situated on a long, narrow peninsula on the southern tip of the lake, and is arguably the most beautiful town in Lake Garda.
Sirmione boasts a stunning 13th-century castle that looks straight out of a Disney fairytale. Scaligero Castle is one of Italy’s best preserved castles, and one of the top things to do in Lake Garda. You can take a tour of the castle and enjoy beautiful views from its towers.
You will simply love exploring Sirmione’s pretty streets, but if time allows take time to enjoy a cruise around the peninsula too.
See cruise here
Top Tip: Sirmione is very busy during the summer months – my advice is to get there early before the crowds arrive.
2. Visit more of Lake Garda’s pretty towns by boat
While Sirmione get’s most of the headlines, there are many more towns in Lake Garda that you should visit. Traffic on the main road around the lake can be quite heavy during the peak summer months, so visiting by boat is a much more enjoyable experience. There are regular ferries from most towns, or you can choose private boat tours.
We stayed in the small but beautiful town of Limone on the western banks of the lake and spent many hours walking around. Jewellers and shops are filled with sparkles and beautiful designs. And best of all – what the region is famous for – the leather goods sold in classy shops. From designer bags to hip wallets, and travelling cases to sharp leather jackets.
The sights and sounds are enthralling, from the grocery shops with the ever-present display of lemons, to the designer bags with that unique Italian leather smell.
Riva del Garda is located on the northern tip of Lake Garda and is a must-visit. This pretty town has a historic centre with colourful buildings, pretty piazzas and medieval towers.
You can walk along the lake to nearby Torbole (5km), or if time allows hike the Old Ponale Road, which brings you through tunnels and fortifications of the first World War. It is one of the regions most popular hiking trails and offers stunning views over the lake.
The small town of Malcesine is another popular place to visit, and many say it is the one of prettiest towns in Lake Garda. It is famous for its 13th century castle, which you can climb, but it is worth a visit for its colourful cobbled streets, choice of beaches and for being the town where you access the cable car to Monte Baldo.
3. Ride the cable car to Monte Baldo
The cable car to Monte Baldo is a great way to see the lake from above – it rises to 1800 metres in minutes. You will see many paragliders jumping off the top of the mountain – it is a remarkable sight.
You can simply go for the ride and enjoy the views, or join in some of the many outdoor activities available including hiking or mountain biking. The ticket price is €25 return, but you can also chose to go one way and hike or bike back down the mountain.
4. On yer bike
If mountain biking on Monte Baldo is not for you, then the long awaited Lake Garda cycle path might well be. The 140km path is not due to be completed until 2026, but parts of it have been opened already, including the 2km scenic path from Capo Reamol to Limone.
There are specially designed tracks that join many towns along the lake’s coast, and we saw a wide variety of people using bikes to enjoy the views.
There are cycle hire shops in every lakeside town providing a range of bikes for everyone from kids to adults. E-bikes are particularly helpful if you want assistance going up the steeper mountain tracks. Prices start from around €15 day hire for a push bike, double that if you want an e-bike, and for the more adventurous there is a range of mountain bikes to take on the more hilly, rugged terrain.
This two-hour e-bike tour is a popular choice and priced at only €55. You are led by a local guide through vineyards and olive groves to a local winery. Cured meat, local cheese, and bread await, along with a selection of wine to toast the end of the ride.
5. Take your pick from the wide selection of watersports in Lake Garda
When it comes to activities, Lake Garda is best known for its watersports. Not only are the waters of the lake crystal clear, they are, in my experience, not too cold. There are watersports centres in most towns with lessons and equipment readily available for hire.
I took my two grandkids on the lake in a pedalo and at around €10 per hour it is great value, says Kevin. The hire comes with life jackets which are mandatory for kids. The surface of Lake Garda is generally smooth, the only disturbance coming from passing boats and ferries.
You also have to watch out for areas with heavy use of water skis and racing yachts. But if you stay close to the shore, you can have a ball. Our pedalo had a slide which the kids loved.
SUP or Canoeing are the best and calmest ways to discover all the hidden nooks and crannies of the coastline. I tried this and loved getting up close and personal with the coves and cliffs that surround Lake Garda. There are schools and rental shops abound.
Why is Lake Garda so good for watersports?
The Lake Garda basin enjoys two types of wind every day. The strongest wind, the Pelèr, blows when the sun’s rays hit the west coast of the Lake. It is usually 20 knots but can reach up to 30 knots – a dream for watersports enthusiasts. The Ora or south wind makes its presence felt in the afternoon – the change due to the heating up of the waters of the lake. Indeed, it is no coincidence that many elite teams specialising in water sports choose Lake Garda to train in.
These thermal winds make the lake an ideal destination for sailing, kitesurfing and windsurfing. There are sailing clubs and surf schools in just about every lakeside town, offering courses for beginners/kids to advanced.
There are also many international regattas, the most famous being the Centomiglia freshwater sailing regatta which is held in September every year. Nago-Torbole is Mecca for windsurfers, while Malibu Beach or Campione del Garda in the north of the lake are the best places to try kitesurfing.
Not many know that Lake Garda is a haven for scuba diving, with caves, boat wrecks and even the remains of WWII tanks on the bottom of a lake, which, at its deepest, is a staggering 346 metres.
Spring and autumn are the best time to try scuba diving as the waters are clear of summer algae. Porto San Nicolo and the Sirmione peninsula attract serious divers but beginners can learn here as well.
6. Do something different in Lake Garda
A two-hour Guided Trike tour, where you drive a three-seater motorbike into hillside villages away from the tourist crowds, looks like a unique thing to do in Lake Garda!
Some tours bring you over the same roads that James Bond covered in the spectacular Quantum of Solace movie. This experience is suitable for licensed drivers over 21 and passengers over the age of six.
Thrillseekers will love Canyoning in the mountains north of the lake. Experienced guides lead groups from beginners to advanced up gorges, across swaying suspension bridges and down dizzying, roaring waterfalls – this is not for the faint-hearted! Trentino Climb are specialists who look after people of all abilities.
No trip to Lake Garda would be complete without trying some local food and wine. Lake Garda’s microclimate makes it perfect for producing great quality wine, and this two-hour wine tour to the vineyards in Lazise is a lovely way to appreciate it.
Day trips from Lake Garda
Lake Garda is just over two hours from Milan and Venice, and only an hour from Verona – so if you are looking for a holiday where you can get out and explore some more of Italy, then Lake Garda is the perfect choice.
7. Visit Verona
A day trip to Verona from Lake Garda is simply a must-do! Verona was made famous by Shakespeare as the setting for his great love story Romeo & Juliet. You can even see Juliet’s famous balcony (though no one is quite sure if it is the original!)
What is not in doubt is the magnificent 1st-century Roman amphitheatre, Arena Di Veroni, that now hosts great operas, ballet performances and rock and pop shows.
Radiohead has appeared here, while Peter Gabriel is headlining this year. One show not to miss is their spectacular version of Aida, complete with exotic live animals. It is a perennial bestseller so make sure to secure tickets in advance.
Not withstanding the above, Verona is a beautiful city with attractive shops and cafes lining its historical streets, it is a pleasure to explore.
There are buses available to Verona from many towns, and depending on where you are staying the drive time can be anything from 30 – 90 minutes. Alternatively why not book a full day guided tour from just €55.
8. Explore Venice
In my humble opinion, Venice is the most beautiful city in the world and worthy of a place on everyone’s bucket list. And even if a day trip seems too short to take in the wonders of the Dodge Palace, the Grand Canal and more, it will only whet your appetite and encourage you to come back!
There are many ways to enjoy a day trip to Venice from Lake Garda. You can catch the train to Venice from Peschiera del Garda or else enjoy a full day excursion with pick up from most towns in Lake Garda from just €82 per person.
9. Bring the kids to Gardaland
Gardaland is one of the best theme parks in Europe. There are 40 attractions to keep kids of all ages entertained, including thrilling rollercoasters for teens, as well as Peppa Pig World, Kung Fu Panda Academy, Legoland and Sea Life for younger children. There are also water rides here – perfect to cool the family down on a hot Italian summer’s day.
Gardaland is one of the top things to do in Lake Garda for families, and is one of the reasons Garda is such a popular choice for family holidays in Italy.
Free things to do in Lake Garda
10. Enjoy La Dolce Vita!
Italians have an exceptional attitude to life, summed up by this immortal phrase La Dolce Vita, meaning the sweetness of life. In Lake Garda, you can indulge in La Dolce Vita all day and all night long, says Kevin!
I went with my two grandkids Kuba (8) and Maya (6) and when I asked them what they most enjoyed about the lake, they said simply, “Just walking around!” I know exactly what they mean.
Each town on the lake has its old churches, beautiful squares, shops to die for and a range of bars and restaurants to suit all tastes. More importantly, each town has a promenade where you can simply walk, take in the spectacular views and enjoy the world-famous gelato or ice cream.
If you want to enjoy La Dolce Vita on Lake Garda, simply find a coffee shop or bar that faces the lake and sit sipping an espresso in the morning, or an Aperol Spritz in the afternoon and watch the world pass by, while the mountains soar over the ever-present lake.
Lake Garda really is so beautiful that it literally takes the eyes out of your head. And it is never boring. From watching the ferries disgorging locals and visitors alike, to the buskers and musicians filling the air with song, to waiters bustling about taking orders, to kids playing catch while retirees watch on, hands resting on their walking sticks.
The sun, the water, and the laughter all combine to give one a great slice of La Dolce Vita. And one more thing – it costs no more than a coffee or a drink!
Swimming in Lake Garda is glorious, fun and free! The water in the summer is a bracing 23C. As people here say ‘You get into the water to cool off!’ There are many promenades and beaches where you can enter the water.
My favourite is in the town of Garda itself, which has a long, sandy beach. A wooden promontory extends into the lake, offering a vantage point for those brave enough to jump off.
It may only be four meters high but it felt more like forty as I stood waiting my turn on the edge. But when you hit the water and came up shouting with joy you know it was worth it! (Six-year-old Maya tried it and was reduced to a quivering silence for half an hour after!)
Top Tip: Be careful as many places have shingles with rough stones as you enter, so suitable footwear for the feet is recommended. The water can become deep very quickly, so caution is required.
Lake Garda literally has something for everyone. From water sports to day trips, ionic medieval cities to mountain treks. And all set against the most beautiful views in the world. But best of all it has that unique Italian welcome. That smell of Italy. That taste of espresso and gelato. Visit Lake Garda. I guarantee you’ll have the time of your life!
How to get to Lake Garda:
Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly directly from Dublin to Verona, which is the closest airport to Lake Garda, 30 – 60 minutes depending on the resort you are staying. There are also flights to Milan Bergamo airport from Knock and Cork which is just a 75 – 90 minute drive from Lake Garda.
I hope my travel guide to Lake Garda will help you with your travel plans and that my top things to do in Lake Garda will enhance your holiday experience in this beautiful part of Italy.
While every effort is made to ensure accuracy, prices and attractions are subject to change. Some of the links in this post contain affiliate links, where I receive a small commission if a booking is made, but at no additional cost to you.