Italy’s Enamouring Lakes
Treasure tradition or be bold and contemporary. We offer two contrasting styles on this trip through northern Italy.
- Admiring one of the world’s most powerful works of art in Milan, da Vinci’s The Last Supper
- Discovering Orta, the enchanting Italian lake the Milanese like to keep to themselves
- Taking private boats between the picturesque towns and villages that hug the shorelines of lakes Como and Garda
- Marvelling at impossibly elegant villas shrouded in rhododendrons and azaleas
- Eating fresh-from-the-lagoon fish in the waterside restaurants of colourful Burano
The Italian lakes have attracted tourists since the days of the Grand Tour, when they became the playgrounds for wealthy Europeans during the 17th and 18th centuries. This journey through the lakes from Milan to Venice offers you a choice of accommodation styles at each stop along the way. Go traditional and elegant at some of Italy’s finest historic hotels, or put a modern twist on lakeside luxury and stay somewhere more contemporary.
An 11-day self-drive journey through northern Italy from Milan to Venice, with stops at lakes Orta, Como and Garda.
Those looking to recapture the romance of the Grand Tour, or who simply have a love for cinematic scenery and Italian art and culture.
When to go:
April to June and September and October are some of our favourite months for an Italian interlude, when the weather is sunny without being stifling, and the crushing crowds of July and August are not yet upon you.
DAY 1: MILAN
Start your journey in Milan, Italy’s financial and style capital, home to both the stock exchange and the country’s most renowned fashion houses. Be sure to swing by the impressive gothic duomo, a fairy tale structure of spires, statues and intricately detailed carvings. On a smaller scale, but no less impactful, is da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which you’ll find tucked away in the humble church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Famed for its use of light and perspective, the Renaissance masterpiece is understandably one of Milan’s biggest draws; booking a tour in advance is highly recommended.
Traditional Vs Contemporary
If it’s traditional Milanese opulence you’re after, look no further than Palazzo Parigi; the lobby alone is a sweeping statement of veined marble, imperious busts, mosaic flooring and elaborately framed artwork. Rooms have private balconies with views of the city, and the Moroccan-styled spa is as good as you’ll find in a city hotel.
Armani Hotel Milano
The Armani Hotel Milano is modern Milanese to a tee, its 95 rooms minimalist in design but rich in textures and materials, just as you’d expect from one of the world’s leading fashion houses. If you like what you see, much of it can be bought in the Armani Casa shop across the road.
DAYS 2-3: LAKE ORTA
The first stop on your tour of Italy’s great lakes is lesser-known Orta, a romantic little lake as soulful as it is pretty. Despite being popular in the 19th century with the likes of Nietzsche, Byron and Balzac, Orta remains remarkably low on tourists. Those in on the secret head by boat to Isola San Giulio, an enchanting island in the middle of the lake, home to a single restaurant and a Benedictine monastery with parts dating back to the 12th century. Or they wander the narrow streets of Orta San Giulio – all faded elegance and ochre charm – before climbing Sacro Monte, the hill behind the town, for spectacular views across the whole splendid scene.
Traditional Vs Contemporary
Villa Crespi, clasped in greenery and overlooking the lake, offers Moorish palatial refinement and an interior that gleams with marble. Its eight suites and six rooms are no less a feast for the eyes. They’re all individually decorated, and aside from the modern necessities, are soaked in 19th century styling. Add a gourmet restaurant with two Michelin stars and a wine list with over 1,800 labels, and it’s easy to see why fans are so devoted.
In stark contrast to Crespi, Casa Fantini provides a contemporary twist on lakeside living. Tucked away on the western shore of the lake in the quiet village of Pella, the look here is one of bare stone walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, designer furnishings and open-plan spaces. You’ll find a sleek lap pool in the garden, and with only 11 rooms, there’s an intimate, homely atmosphere.
DAYS 4-5: LAKE COMO
Lago di Como is perhaps the best known of Italy’s great lakes, and for good reason. Its glittering shore and historic villas have been a place of respite for the high at heel since the 17th century. Bellagio, the lake’s principal town, is one of the prettiest in Europe. Though not quite the exclusive address it once was, bands still play by the lake beneath the stars, and the riot of gardens and lush flowers bring a distinctly Italian air to a setting that could otherwise by Switzerland. This is a landscape, after all, that inspired Verdi, Rossini and Bellini. When you see it you’ll know why.
Traditional Vs Contemporary
Grand Hotel Tremezzo
Dating back to 1910, the family-owned Grand Hotel Tremezzo is one of the oldest luxury hotels on Lake Como, and offers panoramic views of the lake, Bellagio and the Grigne Mountains. The hotel is as grand as the name suggests, boasting elegant Art Nouveau interiors, 12 acres of surrounding parkland, a plethora of dining options, a spa and fitness centre, and two outdoor pools, including one that floats majestically on the lake itself.
A far cry from centuries-old architecture, Il Sereno is a modern marvel of stone, wood, bronze and copper that rises several stories above Como’s eastern shore. There’s neither a room nor space here without breathtaking lake views, perhaps the best of which are from the 60-foot infinity pool, the largest on the lake. Other standout features include the Michelin-starred restaurant, a tour-de-force of regional Italian produce, and the two custom-made Riva boats, available for guests to use.
DAYS 6-7: LAKE GARDA
Garda is the largest of Italy’s lakes and for many the most beautiful. Both of our suggested hotels here afford wonderful lake views, but if you can tear yourself away, a number of attractions are worth visiting in the area, including Rocca Scaligera, a 13th century fairy-tale castle almost entirely surrounded by the deep-blue waters of the lake. The armour-plated peaks of the Dolomites, a walker’s delight, are also within striking distance, as are several of the region’s top vineyards, including Soave, Bardolino and Valpolicella.
Traditional Vs Contemporary
Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli
A stay at Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, set in immaculate grounds on the lakeshore, a short walk from the quiet town of Gargnano, feels more like visiting a friend in their grand country home than it does a stay at a hotel, albeit a friend that caters fastidiously to your every whim. Michelin-star meals are served whenever and wherever you want, be it in the garden, the wine cellar or the formal dining room. Twenty elegant rooms are spread across the main villa and four cottages, while a croquet lawn, heated outdoor pool and water limousines round out the facilities.
Lefay Resort & Spa Lago di Garda
If you’re looking to escape, detox or recharge, you can’t do much better than Lefay, a secluded mountaintop spa retreat set in 27 acres of woods and olive groves with breathtaking views down onto Lake Garda. The resort has won scores of awards for its outstanding spa, which includes six saunas, a salt lake, infinity pool, hammam, five relaxation areas, indoor and outdoor saltwater pools and 21 treatment rooms. After all that, the two restaurants, cigar lounge and spacious, modern rooms – all with lake views – just feel like a bonus.
DAYS 8-11: VENICE
Succumb to the romance of la dolce vita as you end your road trip in one of Italy’s most captivating cities. Despite its increasing popularity, Venice never loses its ability to enchant. The Grand Canal, the city’s two-mile aquatic thoroughfare, is lined with hundreds of weather-worn Byzantine and Gothic palazzi and is abuzz with canal life. St Mark’s Basilica, the Bridge of Sighs and the Doge’s Palace may well be crowded but should still not be missed. For something a little quieter, head out to the islands of Burano, known for its brightly coloured fishermen’s houses and waterside seafood restaurants, and Murano, famous for its long tradition of glass-making.
Traditional Vs Contemporary
A walk through Ca’Sagredo is like a walk through a living museum. The walls and ceilings of the 15th century palazzo are festooned with paintings and magnificent frescoes by Venetian artists. Two marble cherubs guard the entrance to the 18th century staircase. A ceiling painting by Tiepolo embellishes the breakfast room. And the ballroom is graced by Murano chandeliers, beautiful terrazzo floors and the Sagredo coat of arms. No wonder the whole building has been declared a National Monument.
Epitomise modern travelling by renting your own apartment in the centre of Venice. We recommend the two- and four-bedroom apartments in Palazzo Ca’nova, a 17th century Renaissance palazzo at the mouth of Venice’s Grand Canal, not far from the glorious Piazza San Marco and across from the Punta della Dogana museum, where the Pinault contemporary art collection can be seen.
If you've more time...
This trip could easily be extended with stops at lakes Iseo and Maggiore. The former is quieter and shut in by soaring mountains; the latter is known for its clear blue waters and the beautiful Borromean Islands, which play host to the Borromean family’s grand Baroque palaces, elaborate gardens and botanical collections. Or you could include a stop at fair Verona. The city may be the setting for three of Shakespeare’s plays, but there’s more to see than just Juliet’s balcony. Try catching a performance of Verdi’s Aida, performed by a cast of hundreds at one of the world’s most iconic opera houses, the former Roman amphitheatre, Arena di Verona.
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Just back from
Palazzo Avino, Italy
Bailey Robinson writer Harriet Whiting visited serene hotel Palazzo Avino in hilltop Ravello for mist-shrouded views and Italian glamour.
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