Mesmerizing clear waters, majestic mountains, flowers in bloom. . . Lake Garda is a sight to behold. The lake offers a dizzying variety of activities, including walking, biking, shopping, dining, drinking, and even theme parks! My guide, based on my most recent trip in June 2023, will help you prioritize where to visit and what to do during your time on Lake Garda.
It would take weeks to fully explore the whole lake. For a 2 day visit, I recommend focusing on southeastern Lake Garda, where you can visit a string of charming villages like Lazise and Bardolino, walk and bike along the lake, and take a swim. If you have 3 days, fit in a visit to Gardaland, Italy’s iconic amusement park.
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VISIT PICTURESQUE LAKESIDE VILLAGES
The southeastern shore of Lake Garda lies in the Verona province of the Veneto region, and is dotted with lovely villages one after the other. Going from south to north, I’ll focus on Peschiera del Garda, Lazise, Cisano, Bardolino and Garda. Cars are not allowed in the old town centers, which makes strolling and exploring them even more pleasant.
PESCHIERA DEL GARDA
Peschiera del Garda sits on the southeastern corner of Lake Garda. It was the first town we visited on the lake, and the aquamarine color of the water stopped us in our tracks. The town center sits a bit back from the lake on the other side of a road . . . inside a Venetian fortress!
Peschiera del Garda’s pentagon-shaped fortress, with its impressive ramparts and canals, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can take a walking tour, or even a boat tour to learn about the site’s rich history, from the ancient Romans to 16th century Republic of Venice. Take in the fortress ramparts, wander through the old town’s cobblestone streets brimming with shops, and you’ll come to the lovely Canale di Mezzo, a canal lined with restaurants and cafés.
Lazise is about 9.5 km north of Peschiera del Garda. As you approach by car from SR249, the main road, you’ll see the majestic Scaligero Castle and medieval walls that surround the town. To enter the town center you can pass through one of the old gateways in the ramparts, which feels like you’re entering a fairy tale castle.
Once inside the old town, you’re greeted by charming narrow streets bursting with colors. You have your pick of shops, cafés and restaurants, and there’s a magnificent, wide promenade along the water. Visit Porto Vecchio, or the Old Harbour, to feel like you are strolling along a canal in Venice.
This little jewel is actually an offshoot of Bardolino, which lies to the north. If you’re interested in olive oil and how it’s made, visit the local olive oil museum, which sits away from the lake on the SR249 road (it’s called Via Peschiera along this stretch).
Cisano was a strategic spot for us during our June 2023 trip because we discovered Cisano Bike Rent there, a great bike rental place next to a shaded, free parking lot and nice lakefront playground. Cisano became our base for exploring the area by bike.
Bardolino gives its name to two of the area’s high quality red wines, Bardolino Superiore DOCG and Bardolino DOC. This lovely town also boasts a ferris wheel right on the lake! The old town center is filled with boutiques and cafès for people watching.
More highlights include Bardolino’s long green stretch along the lakeside promenade, which has plenty of grass and shade. There is a large parking lot, and a multi-use park set away from the lake with a basketball court, outdoor workout apparatus, and a skate park.
Garda is yet another town that oozes with charm. It sits on a wide bay that hosts a harbor full of boats. Along the shore south of town there are beach clubs perched overlooking the water where you can rent umbrellas and beach chairs for the day and take advantage of the trendy bars.
SHOULD YOU VISIT A MARKET ON LAKE GARDA?
One morning every week each town has an outdoor market. It is packed with stands and people who flock to experience an Italian open air market, or mercato. There are clothes, jewelry, textiles, trinkets, leather goods, food and wine. Generally there are not many local crafts or handmade items.
If you like sweaty crowds, traffic and difficulty parking, you’ll be fine. Otherwise, plan your day so you’re far from town on market day, at least if you’re visiting in the late spring and summer. That goes whether you’re on foot, bike or by car.
The summer market schedule for the Lake Garda’s southeastern towns is:
ENJOY THE LAKE
When you see Lake Garda’s surreal light blue waters, you’ll probably want to jump right in like we did! But there are also plenty of activities to do on Lake Garda that don’t involve actually going in the water.
WALKING BY THE LAKE
Make sure to take advantage of the promenade that runs along the edge of the lake. It is the place to stroll and people watch, enjoy the lake’s stunning vistas, and literally smell the flowers. You can check out all the boats, and even get up close to ducks and swans.
There are families with strollers, groups of friends, elderly couples, and plenty of tourists taking it all in. Whether you like a leisurely passeggiata (stroll), a brisk power walk or a jog, you’ll be in good company.
Families with toddlers: be advised that parts of the lakeside promenade run right next to the water and have no barrier to keep you from falling in. There are also sections that run next to the road without a safety barrier. If your child hates their stroller (like mine did) and likes to walk, make sure to hold hands
So how do you get to the lakeside path? As you’re driving along SR249 (the main road that runs up the southeastern coast of the lake) it can be confusing as to how to actually get to the lake glistening in the distance, since the shore is so built up. Usually, you must park your car and then walk through town to get to the lake itself. Hotels and campgrounds on the lake have their own private lakeside access. Some exceptions are in Peschiera del Garda, the parking lot near Lido di Cisano, and north of Bardolino by Bardolino beach.
EATING AND DRINKING BY THE LAKE
When it’s time for meals or refreshments, you have your pick of places to eat and drink right on the water. In each of the towns there are restaurants and cafès with glorious front row Lake Garda views.
If you get thirsty on a walk or bike ride and between towns, you don’t have to look far to rest and refuel. Along the lakeside promenade, there are cafès where you can enjoy everything from a coffee to an aperitivo, as well as snacks, sandwiches, and even pasta.
Since it’s a vacation spot, you’ll see people enjoying drinks at all times of day, especially bright orange aperol spritzes. But make sure you have a lakeside aperitivo, or before dinner drink.
There are many DOC and DOCG wines produced around the lake, but specifically in this area are the wine zones of Bardolino Superiore DOCG and Bardolino DOC (reds), and Bianco di Custoza DOC (white). Look out for Amarone and Valpolicella as well. The land surrounding the entire lake is also a DOP extra virgin olive oil zone, where Olio Garda DOP is produced.
The majority of restaurant menus are geared towards an international tourist clientele. You’ll see a lot of dishes that feature seafood, which doesn’t come from the lake. Be on the lookout for local dishes. Usually wait staff appreciate when tourists are interested in local specialties, and are happy to point them out to you.
Keep in mind that even though most Italians eat dinner at about 8pm, restaurants on Lake Garda are usually packed for dinner at about 6:30 pm. The people having dinner at that time usually are not locals, but tourists from Germany, Holland, and other parts of northern Europe. To avoid the rush during high season, try having dinner out at Italian dinner time.
The promenade along the southeastern shore of Lake Garda is fabulous for biking at a leisurely pace while taking in the stunning lake views. I recommend it for older children, or kids who are experienced riders, because parts of the path run along the water with no safety barrier.
Even though plenty of serious cyclists use the path, be warned that if you want to go at a fast pace it can get very crowded and congested.
Make sure you know when market days are, because in Lazise for example, the market runs along the lakefront and the path is impassable.
There are plenty of bike rental places along the lake, as well as in the lakefront campgrounds. We were lucky to find Cisano Bike Rent, with friendly, attentive service and sturdy, well-maintained bikes. They had ebikes, city bikes, childrens bikes, baby seats, a trailer, bike locks, and helmets for our group of 3 adults and 5 children in June 2023.
A major perk of Cisano Bike Rent that it sits right in a shady parking lot on the lake in Cisano, so you don’t have to worry about where to park, or paying to park. If you’re not walking to your bike rental from your accommodation, or renting right at your accommodation, make sure that no matter where you rent bikes there’s free parking nearby.
Be on the lookout for fontanelle, or water fountains, where you can get a free drink of mountain water and fill up your water bottle.
SWIMMING AND SUNBATHING
The water in Lake Garda is clear and wonderfully refreshing, as only lake water can be. If you are looking for public beaches, options include a very small one just north of Lazise, and another just north of Garda.
However, don’t expect comfortable, wide sandy beaches: they are pebbly, which can be uncomfortable for hours of sunbathing. In fact, much of the shore on the southeastern coast is pebbly and/or rocky, and stays shallow quite far out. This can make wading out to swim uncomfortable for your feet.
As a result, for public places to swim where you don’t need to pay, I recommend the green stretch just north of Bardolino, which has plenty of grassy places to sunbathe, as well as some docks that go far out into the water.
You name it, Lake Garda’s got it: diving, windsurfing, sailing, kitesurfing, waterskiing and more. Along the shore many of the beach establishments rent out SUPs (stand up paddle boards) and pedalòs (paddle boats), and you’ll find small and large rental centers where you can go in person, but it’s always a good idea to call ahead for availability. If you have your heart set on parasailing, definitely book ahead of time.
In Bardolino, there’s Water Ski Center, which offers a variety of activities. For parasailing, in Lazise there are both Watersports Gardawake, and Fun 4 Holidays, that offer plenty of options for water sports.
There are many boat options if you’re looking to get from town to town, or just joyride on the lake. Lake Garda has a system of ferries that go between the picturesque lakeside villages I wrote about, as well as Sirmione and other towns that are well worth visiting. Before booking make sure you can bring your bike or car, if you need to transport them.
There are also companies that offer tours and cruises. It is also possible to rent motor boats and sailboats.
VISIT AN AMUSEMENT PARK
As if the natural beauty of Lake Garda weren’t enough, the southeastern area of the lake is home to amusement parks galore.
Gardaland is Italy’s biggest, and most famous amusement park. If you’re in the area for at least two days and are a big fan of roller coasters, don’t miss visiting Italy’s version of Six Flags! You’ll need to devote a whole day to the park, which is about a 10 minute drive northeast of Peschiera del Garda (and a 10 minute drive south of Lazise).
Read my Tips for visiting Gardaland.
If you’ll be visiting with kids when it’s hot, consider buying a combined ticket with Legoland Water Park, which is part of the Gardaland resort. Adults are only allowed if accompanying a child 14 or younger (and children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult). You’ll be glad for this fun place to cool off!
OTHER AMUSEMENT PARKS NEAR LAKE GARDA
Gardaland Sealife Acquarium
Yes, this aquarium has sharks!
Canevaworld Resort in Lazise has two exciting parks: Caneva Acquapark, full of water slides; and Movieland, a Hollywood themed park. Not only that, It’s also home to the Medieval Times restaurant and tournament show.
Parco Natura Viva
Have you always wanted to go on a safari? See lions, komodo dragons and more at Parco Natura Viva in Bussolengo, about a 15 minute drive southeast of Lazise.
Cavour Parco Acquatico
Cavour is a water park with pools and waterslides about a 20 minute drive south of Peschiera del Garda in Valeggio sul Mincio.
Want to climb through the trees? Jungle Adventure is an adventure park for adults, and children age 3 and up. It’s located 15 minutes from the lake in San Zeno di Montagna.
RIDE UP MOUNT BALDO
Though it’s outside of this article’s focus area, I can’t resist recommending the cable car ride up to the top of Mount Baldo. The bird’s eye views of the lake and surrounding mountains will take your breath away. The cable car, or funivia, leaves from Malcesine, another postcard perfect town which is at least a 35 minute drive north of Garda town. Especially if you’re visiting during the spring, keep in mind that temperatures will be lower on the top of the mountain, so come prepared!
VISIT A SPECIAL ITALIAN PARK
For an experience you can only have in Italy, head to the unique Parco Giardino Sigurtà. This expansive green oasis is located about 30 minutes south of Peschiera del Garda by car. It is rich in history as well as natural beauty, and includes flower gardens, green lawns, water gardens, and even a hedge labyrinth.
GETTING AROUND LAKE GARDA
DITCH YOUR CAR
My main advice for getting around the southeastern shore of Lake Garda: use your car as little as possible. Even though the SR249 road runs up the coast through the little towns I’ve recommended, it gets congested fast. Every evening at 6 pm there is bumper to bumper traffic SR249 between Lazise and Peschiera del Garda when Gardaland closes. Same goes for the areas leading into small towns in the morning on market days.
Driving is not allowed in the center of the old villages, which means you need to park right outside of town, if there are spaces left (arrive early in the day). Parking is expensive and hard to find during high season. Two places where you can park right near the lake are in Peschiera del Garda, and the parking lot near Lido di Cisano, and north of Bardolino by Bardolino beach.
Since the total walk from Peschiera del Garda to Garda town is over 19 km, exploring on foot is not the quickest way to get from town to town. Therefore, I’d recommend biking along the lake if you like cycling, taking a ferry from town to town, or taking the ferry but also walking between two of the towns that are close together, like Bardolino and Garda (about 3.5 km, at least a 45 minute walk).
WHERE TO STAY ON LAKE GARDA
The lake offers every possible kind of accommodation, from luxurious exclusive hotels to campgrounds. I can only recommend where I’ve stayed personally!
CAMPING BELLA ITALIA
This enormous campground complex on the lake in Peschiera del Garda has a variety of accommodation types, from onsite hotels, to bungalows, mobile homes, and campsites. What it lacks in local charm it makes up for with convenience, especially if you’re staying with kids. Camping Bella Italia has multiple restaurants, pools, and kids activities, and the grounds are well run and maintained by friendly staff.
Check out my suggestions for Towns to Stay in on Lake Garda.
GETTING TO LAKE GARDA
The nearest airport is Verona Catullo airport (VRN), which is about 21 km away from Peschiera del Garda (about a 20 minute drive or taxi ride.). There is train service from the airport to Peschiera del Garda Sirmione station. The other nearby airports, with distance from Peschiera del Garda, are:
- Milan Bergamo/Orio al Serio (BGY), 93 km
- Milan Linate (LIN), 136 km
- Venice Marco Polo (VCE), 145 km
- Treviso Sant’Angelo (TSF), 149 km
- Bologna Guglielmo Marconi (BLQ), 149 km
- Milan Malpensa (MXP), 177 km
Peschiera del Garda has direct train service from Milan’s central station, which can take as little as an hour if you take the high speed train. There is train service from Verona and Verona airport as well. The station is called Peschiera del Garda Sirmione, and it is about a 15 minute walk from the center of town.
Getting to Lake Garda towns is easy by car, however once you arrive, I recommend using your car as little as possible. Cars are not allowed in the town centers. The roads get clogged easily, and parking is an expensive hassle. Check my tips up above.
WHEN TO VISIT LAKE GARDA
I recommend visiting the lake in the spring, from April until June; or in the fall, in September or October. The summer in July and August is hot and very crowded, which is a deal-breaking combination for me. By visiting in the spring or fall months, you can take advantage of relatively warm temperatures and avoid peak crowds.