Close to the mountains and many of northern Italy’s greatest cities, Lake Garda has a range of accommodation to suit everyone, from modest pensions to upmarket villas
The largest of northern Italy’s great lakes is a world of its own. With a southern microclimate, it’s like a little sea, with little ports and little vessels and little storms that blow up from nowhere.
The southern end of Lake Garda broadens into two bays sheltered by the Sirmione peninsula in between; the north narrows fjord-like into a rocky cleft between high cliffs on the west and Monte Baldo on the east.
In high season, the tourists in the pretty lakeside towns can be wearisome. You could take to the water (the sailing is excellent), circumnavigating the lake in a passenger boat, or to the road, the Gardesana, which hugs the shore, with wonderful views. Or you could venture further afield. Lake Garda makes a great base for day trips, close to both Verona and the mountains and within reach of Vicenza, Mantua, Padua and Venice.
The pick of places to stay on Garda’s shores represents every genre of Italian hotel, from farm accommodation (agriturismo) and old-fashioned pensione to one of the most luxurious hotels in Europe. In between, there are excellent examples of a B&B, a restaurant with rooms, a resort hotel and Italy’s stock-in-trade, the privately owned villa that has been lovingly handed on through the generations.
Prices quoted are for a standard double room, including breakfast, in high season. Some hotels are closed from October till April; others for a shorter period during the winter.
Albergo Grifone, Sirmione
It might be one of the cheapest and most modest hotels in Sirmione, but the Grifone has one of the loveliest locations overlooking both lake and castle. Essentially it is a restaurant specialising in fish, with a mouth-watering selection of antipasti. It has an enticing tree-filled terrace with stunning views across the water, and a scrap of a beach. Rooms are simple but spotless. (£39)
Dimora Bolsone, Gardone Riviera
This unusual bed-and-breakfast might be remote, but it is surprisingly sophisticated. Raffaele Bonaspetti, an elegant, philosophical lawyer, bought the house (together with the hillside) as a 14th-century ruin some 20 years ago. With “the spirit of the place” in mind, he transformed both property and land, replanting the garden with olives, cypresses and laurels to satisfy his passion for trees. Every room in the house is different, beautifully decorated and filled with exquisite things. Breakfast is a delicious buffet, prepared by Raffaele’s wife Catia, and the views are magical. (£132)
Villa Fiordaliso, Gardone Riviera
A feature of Lake Garda is the many liberty-style villas built by wealthy Italians at the turn of the 20th century. One of the loveliest is Villa Fiordaliso, once occupied by Gabriele d’Annunzio and later by Claretta Petacci, Mussolini’s mistress. Inside, the intricately carved wood and marble work and the splendid gold and frescoed ceilings are the perfectly preserved remnants of another age. A magnificent Venetian-style staircase leads to seven cosseting bedrooms, three of which have their original furniture and decoration. The hotel’s heart, though, is its romantic Michelin-starred first-floor restaurant. The food here is exquisite (the chef has a penchant for little glass pots filled with delectable things) and beautifully presented, and the setting intimate. (£182)
Villa Giulia, Gargnano
Once a simple pensione, Villa Giulia is a beautiful, spacious house built over 100 years ago in Victorian style with gothic touches. Gardens and terraces run practically to the water’s edge, while inside, light, airy rooms lead off handsome corridors: a civilised sitting room with Victorian armchairs and a beautiful dining room with Murano chandeliers and gold walls. Bedrooms in the villa (preferable to those in the annexe and grounds) range from light and modern to large rooms with antiques, timbered ceilings and balconies overlooking the garden (which has a particularly lovely swimming pool) and Lake Garda. A second, simpler dining room opens on to a spacious terrace with gorgeous views. The food is excellent, and the owners, the Bombardelli family, who have been here for over 50 years, are delightful. (£197)
Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, Gargnano
This astonishing hotel makes even the most spoilt guests feel lucky to be there, and the most jaded feel soothed, relaxed and at home. Built in 1892, the historic pink and white villa was the summer residence of Italy’s wealthiest family, the Feltrinellis, and later sheltered Mussolini during the war. With much of the original furniture intact, it was superbly restored by American hotelier Bob Burns, no expense spared, and once more feels like the most arresting, opulent and luxurious private home you could hope to stay in. The suites, whether in the villa itself or the lakeside grounds, are eye-poppingly sumptuous, especially the bathrooms; the solicitous, welcoming staff are in droves. Wildly expensive, but worth it. (£808)
Bellevue San Lorenzo, Malcesine
Italian hotel prices are by no means the bargain they once were, but there are exceptions. Perched above the Gardesana road, overlooking the lake, the Bellevue San Lorenzo is a cut above its many similar competitors. Its core is a fine old villa, whose spacious grounds are filled with olive, cypress and magnolia trees and dotted with contemporary sculpture. There’s also a large pool and sun terrace and a fitness and beauty centre. The multi-lingual receptionists are hard-working and helpful, the food is more than acceptable, and the bedrooms are comfortable if unremarkable (best in the main villa). And the bill, when it comes, is a pleasant surprise. (£108, including breakfast and dinner, for two people.)
Gardesana, Torri del Benaco
It’s a real treat to tuck into the chef’s speciality fish soup on the delightful first-floor dining terrace of this long-established hotel and restaurant, in a plum position overlooking Torri’s pretty harbour and 14th-century castle. It makes the perfect vantage point for watching the boats come and go, and the changing colours of the lake. Corner rooms are best; balconies are a must. (£52)
Locanda San Vigilio, San Vigilio
If you are looking for somewhere exclusive but unflashy and low key, this small hotel on a lush peninsular, privately owned by Conte Agostino Guarienti, is the answer. It comprises a lakeside taverna, open to the public, and a 400-year-old inn, Locanda San Vigilio. Homely, yet sophisticated, with the intimacy of a well-worn country house, it has antiques and creaky wooden floors, a ceramic stove and sideboards displaying plates and bottles. You can eat in the cosy dining room, on a little arched veranda or under huge white umbrellas on the terrace. A delightful spot for the discriminating. (£196)
The closest airport to Lake Garda is Verona (Brescia), to which Ryanair flies daily for an average of £63.18 return.