Vacation Like a VIP on Italy’s Lake Garda

Discover why this picturesque jewel is one of the jet set's best-kept secrets.

WORDS Catherine Sabino
May / June 2018

Photography Colin Dutton

When George Clooney bought a villa on Lake Como a little over 15 years ago, he helped reinvigorate an area that had slipped off the jet-set radar. The Northern Italian resort, known for its stunning scenery and palatial waterside properties, regained some of its old buzz, and prices climbed as steeply as the lake’s surrounding hills.

While Como remains a popular destination for the rich, more and more travelers—Bradley Cooper among them—are shifting their gaze toward a lesser-known jewel: Lake Garda, easily accessible from Milan and Venice and every bit as scenic and seductive as its sister region to the west (it was used as a backdrop in last year’s Oscar-nominated Call Me by Your Name, and in the opening scenes of the James Bond film Quantum of Solace).

Garda’s lakefront is dotted with lovely villages and lavish properties, ranging in style from the neoclassical Villa Bettoni to the modernist Villa Eden Gardone. Another attraction is the food, which draws on the traditions of three Italian regions, and the wineries that dot the hilly countryside adjacent to the lake. Garda’s reliably breezy waters, meanwhile, attract sailing enthusiasts from around the world.

“You can visit a different town on the lake every day. Each is beautiful, with its own characteristics and way of life.”

“Garda reminds me of the sea because of its width,” says Alberta Cavazza, whose family owns and manages the 10-mile-wide lake’s largest island, Isola del Garda, an idyllic spot with a neo-Gothic villa and a cypress- and citrus-lined Italianate garden. To the north of Isola, in Riva del Garda, you’ll find the Fraglia Vela Riva sailing club, where stars like America’s Cup champ Russell Coutts have raced or trained, and the site of regattas and competitions from spring to early fall.

The area’s sports activities are not confined to the water, however. Each May, Italy’s famous Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile classic-car race, threads through the towns of Desenzano del Garda and Sirmione. Mountain bikers have more than 600 miles of paths to choose from, and there are abundant trekking and Nordic walking trails of varying difficulty, the majority with knockout views.

The lake has been drawing visitors since Roman times, and over the years Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo, Laurence Olivier, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce have all stopped here.

“Churchill came to paint,” says Bartolomeo Guarienti, whose family has owned the splendid Locanda San Vigilio, perched on a peninsula on Garda’s eastern shore, for more than 500 years. Guarienti, whose great-grandfather was king of Italy, recalls as a boy seeing Britain’s Prince Charles come for a visit. The Prince of Wales spent some of his holiday behind an easel, joining a long line of artists—Gustav Klimt and John Singer Sargent among them—who have sought to capture the area’s beauty.

In Sirmione, on the lake’s southern shore, you’ll experience classic sun-kissed Italy—palm trees line the waterfront and bougainvillea spills from the window boxes of pastel houses (the town is also the location of the Grotto of Catullus, an important Roman ruin). The mountains become larger and more rugged the farther north you go.

“You can visit a different town on the lake every day,” says Christina Ambrose, an executive with Lemon Tree Rentals, a U.K.-based group with a collection of properties on the lake. “Each is beautiful, with its own characteristics and way of life.”

Garda’s cultural and architectural diversity is due in large part to its geography. “For a long time, we were at the western border of the Venetian Republic and the southern border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” says winemaker Giuseppe Rizzardi, “so the influence of many different cultures is strong.”      

The area’s regional overlap—Lombardy, Trentino and Veneto all touch the lake—also makes for a rich culinary scene. In Riva del Garda, for instance, the food can evoke the area’s Habsburg past (think dumpling soups, spaetzle and strudels, along with the polenta and risotto).

Recently, local chefs have been casting their nets a little wider. The buzzy Ristorante Rose Salò serves a Peruvian dish, salmerino ceviche, and one based on a Korean recipe (even the classics come with a twist, like the sweet potato gnocchi or spaghettoni with apricots and lake sardines). At Le Gemme di Artemisia, a tiny restaurant in Albisano di Torri del Benaco, Andrea Messini and Lara Perotti whip up imaginative offerings like marinated sea bass carpaccio with fresh tomato terrine and basil ice cream, or ravioli made with mascarpone and licorice. At Vecchia Malcesine, a popular restaurant in one of the lake’s most photogenic towns, owner and chef Leandro Luppi draws from local traditions and produce to create artful plates. “Tradition is the basis from which I start,” he says. “Thanks to this knowledge I can create innovative dishes, but it is the excellent raw materials that give true inspiration—the meat from Monte Baldo, the lake fish, wild mountain herbs, and oil from our precious olive groves.”

The richness of the local ingredients was a key point for Giuliano Hazan, son of Italian culinary legend Marcella Hazan, when he opened his cooking school near Garda. He conducts classes twice a year at the 16th-century Villa della Torre in Valpolicella wine country, alongside Marilisa Allegrini of Allegrini wines. “We take students on field trips to producers who are passionate, some fanatically so, about what they are making,” Hazan says, citing a grain producer who processes rice with mortar and pestle, 17th-century-style.

A robust wine culture flourishes in the hills flanking Garda. Helmed by families whose ties to the area reach back centuries, the wineries produce reds like amarone, Bardolino and valpolicella, as well as rosés and whites. At Zeni winery, fifth-generation vintner Elena Zeni is excited about the release of a new amphora-aged chiaretto (the type of rosé made here). “Lake Garda’s mild climate and the morainic hills, with their sandy and pebbly soils, define the character of the wines,” says Giuseppe Rizzardi, who runs the Guerrieri Rizzardi winery with his brother, Agostino, and mother, Countess Maria Cristina Loredan Rizzardi. The countess cites the cru Tacchetto Bardolino as among her favorites. “Due to its terroir, it is probably our ultimate expression of Bardolino,” she says.

 Garda offers many such “ultimate expressions,” and luxury hotels pamper without pause. For example, the lavish Villa Feltrinelli has a garden with more than 20,000 flowers to “welcome spring,” says general manager Markus Odermatt. Before taking in the floral abundance, guests need not waste time unpacking (personal services are available); they can go directly to the lake, an Aperol Spritz in hand. Not surprisingly, Churchill, who stayed here during a Garda sojourn, “admired the villa,” says Odermatt. Even so, the British leader did have one quibble. “Once he discovered Mussolini had slept in his suite, he asked to change rooms.”

Where to Stay

Villa Feltrinelli (Gargnano)

A neo-Gothic mansion favored by celebrities overlooking the lake.

Locanda San Vigilio (Punta San Vigilio)

For more than 500 years, this intimate hotel has drawn some of history’s biggest names.

Villa Eden Gardone (Gardone Riviera)

A sleek, modern resort with lodging designed by starchitect Matteo Thun.

Lemon Tree Rentals

Specializing in luxe villas and apartments on Lake Garda. 

Where to Eat

Le Gemme di Artemisia (Albisano di Torri del Benaco)

An intimate restaurant with special tasting menus in a hillside villa on the lake.

Ristorante Rose Salò (Salò)

Innovative fare with Garda-area ingredients.

Vecchia Malcesine (Malcesine)

Chef/owner Leandro Luppi’s creative takes on the classics.

Get to know Lake Garda

Cooking courses

Giuliano Hazan’s classes are held twice a year at the Villa della Torre in Fumane in the heart of Valpolicella country. 

Photography classes

Aperture Tours offers private one-on-one photography lessons in Lake Garda. 


More Italy related features

Divine Taste in Socks

For a mere $15, you too can sport a bit of papal

Bologna is big on pasta

Some see it as “the Disneyland of pasta,” The Sleek Fico Eataly World draws foodies to Bologna

My Travel Tales: Yara Shahidi

The Grown-ish actress shares her fondest travel memories

Super Tuscan

After 25 generations, the Antinori sisters are the first women to oversee their family’s venerable wine empire.

More Destinations

Local Takes: Miami

Preserving Palm Beach

Neighborhood Watch: San Francisco's Chinatown

The Easy Chic of Harbour Island