We decided on Lake Garda for the second week of our summer holiday because it appeared to tick all the boxes we want from a holiday. We love mountains, stunning scenery, hot weather and beaches and Lake Garda has them all!
It’s an incredibly popular tourist destination, particularly for families, and it’s a stunning region to visit with a huge amount to see and do.
We stayed for a week, which was nowhere near long enough to take in everything Lake Garda has to offer, but this was the second week of our holiday, the first of which we’d spent in the Swiss Alps and was an opportunity for us and the children to relax a bit after a week of climbing up and down mountains!
Getting to Lake Garda from the UK is easy with tons of flights to Verona or Brescia (the lake’s two nearest airports), but the problem for us as a family of six is the cost of flights plus car hire soon spiral out of control.
All the children are classed as adults by the airlines so six full-price seats, plus the fact we need to hire a seven-seater car, which is always hugely expensive, means just the cost of transport can be more than most people might want to spend on the whole holiday (i.e. the best part of £5k!)
So we decided we’d drive there, which was a pretty major undertaking, but we reckoned it was do-able, meant we’d save £thousands on flights and would mean we’d have our own car there – something that just opens up so many more opportunities on any holiday and which saved us very expensive car hire costs too.
Driving all the way to Italy isn’t for everyone, especially with four children in the back of the car! We did it in stages, driving for our first week to Switzerland before heading to Lake Garda. The journey back involved an overnight stop-off at Strasbourg.
Where we stayed
We spent a huge amount of time looking for accommodation around Lake Garda but really struggled to find something suitable for us. There’s no doubt there’s a huge amount of choice but we specifically wanted somewhere private with a private pool to ourselves.
The vast majority of the accommodation around the lake consists of apartments on shared complexes or campsites. There are villas, but they are typically extremely expensive and well and truly the preserve of the rich!
Even the apartments we found, which were pretty basic, were often the cost of a private villa in other parts of Europe. Lake Garda isn’t a cheap destination – but that’s for a good reason!
We decided to opt for an Airbnb villa rental which was in a village called Marcellise about 40-minutes’ drive from the southern lakeside towns. This was cheaper than any of the accommodation we could find closer to the lake, was far more spacious and luxurious and was private with its own private pool.
We were worried that staying away from the lake like this would be a problem but in fact by the end of the holiday we felt it had actually been beneficial.
The drive to the main lakeside towns was totally manageable and no problem at all – and we had the benefit of being able to stay away from big crowds of tourists that cram in to the small lakeside towns. If we were to go back to Lake Garda again, we would choose accommodation like this a little further away from the lake as we felt we got the best of both worlds.
- Read our review of our Airbnb holiday villa here
There are two distinct regions of Lake Garda with quite different feels to them, basically dividing in to the north and the south. The north is very rugged and mountainous; It’s a beautiful, stunning landscape but during our time here at least, there seemed to be a clear difference in the weather conditions between north and south.
We could sit on the beach in the boiling sun in the south and watch rain and thunderstorms just a few miles away in the north. It can also be quite windy towards the north of the lake – indeed it’s popular with windsurfers at that end.
Maybe these conditions aren’t normal but we could definitely tell the weather on the week we were there (which was early August) was less favourable in the mountainous north. But it could equally be argued that the views and scenery are all the more stunning at that end.
The southern end is flatter and more open and the larger lakeside towns and beaches are all at the southern end, which it appears is the more popular end with tourists.
Virtually all the places we visited around the southern end of the lake were very busy. Driving around and parking was a bit of a pain, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Just be prepared that if you’re visiting in summer, it’s a busy, popular destination and you’ll be among many thousands of other tourists all going to the same places you’ll be going. But there’s a reason for that – and it’s because it’s such a beautiful and impressive place to go!
A day on the beach at Lazise
Most of the beaches around Lake Garda aren’t what you might be used to at typical beach holiday resorts. There’s no ocean waves lashing the shores to form great expanses of sandy beach. It’s a calm fresh water lake – albeit a huge one – and the ‘beaches’ are typically small and either stony or consist of grass banks leading to stony areas that disappear in to the waters of the lake.
Quite a lot of the beaches around the lake are private, which you have to pay to visit, or are part of campsites which border the lake and are therefore only open to residents of those campsites.
The best beach we found was Lazise, towards the south-east of the lake. It’s a small town with a popular beach area, part of which is solely for campsite visitor use, but there’s a decent sized public area consisting of a large grass bank that makes for more comfortable sunbathing than the stony area.
Lazise beach appeared to us to be the closest to a full-on beach that you might expect at a seaside resort. It’s not huge by any means but we had plenty of space to spread ourselves out and have an enjoyable, relaxing day sunbathing, swimming and playing in the lake.
It was ideal for the children because the water was shallow and only deepened very gradually the further out you went, so they were perfectly safe splashing around and playing on their lilo – and the grass area where we sat was very close to the water’s edge so we could keep a close eye on them when we weren’t in the water too.
A few days later we returned to the lake, this time to Bardolino, which is a little further north than Lazise. The beach area we found there was similar to Lazise, with a large car park and footpath leading down to a stony beach on the water’s edge.
We wished we’d brought swimming shoes with us and, if you’re planning on going to any Lake Garda beach, we’d strongly advise you to invest in some of these, as the walk down to the water is pretty painful with the gravel and pebbles heated up by the burning summer sun!
The beach area we were one was fringed with grassy reeds which are apparently home to water snakes which swim around in the lake amongst the swimmers. At one point in the afternoon we heard a man shouting from in the lake: “AAAGH SNAKE, SNAKE!!”
No doubt it must be pretty alarming to come face to face with a swimming snake, particularly if it comes as a complete surprise to you. But apparently they are completely harmless and try to avoid swimmers at all costs and we never saw any ourselves.
There were various water sports and activities you can do around Bardolino, including hiring a pedalo boat or water-skiing or parasailing for the more adventurous.
There are many other beaches all around the lake, many of which are private and you have to pay to use. Perhaps the private beaches are less busy, maybe they’ve been man-made more sandy and are perhaps a bit more spacious and comfortable than the public areas.
But we don’t exactly have the budget to go paying to access private beaches – and the public areas at Lazise and Bardolino were perfectly good for us and are two great beaches on Lake Garda that we can certainly recommend!
Venice is not a part of Lake Garda but it is within relatively easy reach of the region, particularly so if you have a car. We decided to drive there for a day out and it took us just under two hours to get there from where we were staying on the outskirts of the lake region.
If you’re in this part of Italy and have never been to Venice, it’s well worth making the effort to travel there to experience what is one of the most unique towns anywhere in the world.
A separate post about our day in Venice is on its way soon but we can certainly say that if you’re staying near Lake Garda and fancy a trip a bit further afield, Venice is in easy reach and well worth making the journey.
After an exhausting day in Venice, we had a day by the pool at the villa recovering and then, the next day, headed to Sirmione, one of the most recognisable and popular landmarks on the lake.
Sirmione is an ancient town on a peninsula right at the southern-most point of the lake. A castle dominates the entrance to the town and there’s also the remains of a Roman villa.
We were able to drive to the outskirts of Sirmione, where there’s a huge car park (which incidentally was completely full and we were lucky enough to grab pretty much the last available space). From there, it’s a 10-minute walk towards the ‘gates’ of the old town itself.
Access to vehicles in to the town is restricted and it’s predominantly narrow cobbled streets lined with ancient buildings and shops, cafes and restaurants.
The day we visited was the day of the week where the weather turned bad and it absolutely poured with rain. We spent most of our time darting from one shop doorway to another and getting absolutely soaked in the process.
It’s a delightful and very unique place and, on a better weather day, you can tell that spending an afternoon wandering around the shops, having lunch, relaxing in a cafe or bar would be an extremely enjoyably spent day.
With the children in tow though, it might not necessarily be the highlight of their holiday. Once the novelty of looking around the gift shops and getting ice creams had worn off, they were getting bored and it’s fair to say there’s probably not a huge amount to entertain children of any age here for very long.
It’s also extremely packed with tourists all crammed tightly in to the narrow streets – even on a rainy day. We’ll always choose being out in nature over spending too much time in tourist towns whenever possible – and Lake Garda certainly has plenty of natural beauty that, if you’re like us, you may prefer to spend your time enjoying rather than shuffling around crowded streets.
But if you can tolerate the crowds (and the high prices for food and drink), Sirmione is still a sight worth seeing – but perhaps for half a day rather than a full day out.
As our visit was being hampered by unbelievably torrential rain, we cut the day short and headed back to the villa, via a brief stop off at neighbouring Desenzano, by which time the rain had cleared and the hot sun was back again, as always seems to be the case even on the rare bad weather days.
Desenzano del Garda
Sirmione and Desenzano del Garda seem to be the two big destination towns on the lake, so we headed here just for a couple of hours on the way home from Sirmione just to check it out.
It’s a more modern, stylish town with loads of designer shops and has a very up-market feel to it. It certainly feels like something of a playground for the rich and glamorous (two things we most certainly aren’t!)
There’s a marina from which you can take boat trips to various other towns across the lake and numerous waterside cafes and restaurants which, like Sirmione, felt very pricey to us and we ended up eating our packed lunch back at the car park!
Tourist-heavy towns like Sirmione and Desenzano aren’t our usual kind of thing so we didn’t hang around for long. That said though, they are both attractive destinations and if wandering around designer shops and chilling out in stylish coffee shops and restaurants with stunning views over the waterfront is your thing, then both towns are well worth a visit.
For me, “chilling out” and “shopping” are two words that don’t belong in the same sentence so as soon as we’d seen the main highlights and dodged 500 requests from Emma to buy every over-priced souvenir she found, we were out of there!
The whole Lake Garda region is incredibly popular with tourists and you can see why – it’s a beautiful, naturally stunning part of Italy, it’s within easy reach of other destinations like Milan, Verona and Venice and the towns and lakeside resorts are all attractive with a great atmosphere (if a bit busy during peak season).
We only had a week here and it wasn’t enough to get a complete experience of the whole region. We’d love to have spent more time exploring the mountainous northern region but we were hampered by a couple of days of unusually bad weather, which kept us in the flatter, drier southern end.
We enjoyed the fact our accommodation was slightly outside the immediate lake region itself, where prices were a bit lower and tourists were much fewer.
We also massively benefited from having a car, which let us visit further afield without needing to be reliant on public transport (and also meant we could stay further away from the lake and easily travel there when we wanted to).