Italian Lakes See And Do
Piazza del Duomo
Tel: 39 031 265 244
Two thousand years of Como history are depicted on the delightfully crowded facade of this 14th-century cathedral. You'll see sculptures of the usual saints and martyrs, but the best placement is given to Como's most famous sons: Ancient Roman scholars Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger flank the main door. Inside the Duomo are an intricately carved wooden altarpiece from 1492 and a series of 16th-century tapestries designed by Baroque masters including Alessandro Allori and Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The cathedral's dome was added in 1744 by the noted Sicilian architect Filippo Juvarra.
Open daily 7:30 am to noon and 3 to 7 pm.
1 Parco Pasquale Maulini
Tel: 39 0323 866 141
Everyone knows that Italy makes some of the best high-design housewares in the world, but few people realize that the top names are based in this unassuming town at the northern tip of Lake Orta. The 19th-century artisan traditions that grew into firms such as Alessi and Legnoart have inspired enough local pride to merit a museum and exhibition space. The museum displays some of the best-known pieces, from Bialetti's classic octagonal hourglass stovetop espresso-maker to the curvaceous and whimsical designs created for Alessi, Calderoni, and Lagostina by Richard Sapper, Philippe Starck, and Robert Graves. Located at the north end of town, it is tricky to find—the driveway slopes steeply down off a traffic roundabout at the north edge of Omegna—but worth the search. There's also a fantastic shop on-site selling items from the brands on view in the museum, including some discounted overstock and clearance models.
Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 am to12:30 pm and 2:30 to 6 pm, Sundays 2:30 to 6 pm.
Piazzale Orti Manara/Via Catullo
Tel: 39 030 916 157
These first-century B.C. ruins in Sirmione are what's left of an ancient Roman private estate. The well-preserved complex, romantically overgrown with groves of olives, covers five acres of prime real estate at the very tip of the Sirmione peninsula. It's called "grottoes" not because of the caves welling with natural hot springs underneath but because the lower palace rooms seemed like underground caves to the 15th-century explorers who rediscovered them. You can tour these passageways (some of which retain decorative stuccos) with a guide, but it's also nice to wander the grounds at random, seeing how the low walls and bits of mosaic sketch out the ancient floor plan. Pack a picnic to enjoy lunch under the olives, with a view of the lake all around and birdsong carried on the ever-present breeze.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays from 8:30 am to 7 pm March to October and Tuesdays through Sundays 8:30 am to 5 pm November to February.
Tel: 39 0365 296 511
The life of Gabriele D'Annunzio, Italy's favorite poet-adventurer, was as flamboyant as the kitschy Art Nouveau villa where he spent his final days. During World War I he became something of a rogue war hero, dashing off on glorious campaigns quite against the wishes of his superiors. He flew his own biplane over Vienna in 1918 to prove it could be invaded, and in 1919 raised a private army to conquer part of Yugoslavia. He held the territory for 17 months and became a national hero, despite the fact that the Italian government desperately wanted him to withdraw so they could complete peace negotiations. In an attempt to distract D'Annunzio and silence his criticisms of the Fascist regime, Mussolini gave the poet this lakeside villa. He lived here from 1921 until his death in 1936, carrying on an affair with Eleonora Duse (the A-list actress of her day), and creating a personal war museum. The required guided tours are in Italian, but the cluttered, quirky rooms are worth it—especially in summer, when the villa puts on concerts and plays.
Grounds open daily 8:30 am to 8 pm April 1 to September 30, villa tours Tuesdays through Sundays 9:30 am to 7 pm, Museum of War open Thursdays through Tuesdays 9:30 am to 7 pm.
Grounds open daily 9 am to 5 pm October 1 to March 31, villa tours Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am to 1 pm and 2 to 5 pm, Museum of War open Thursdays through Tuesdays 9 am to 1 pm and 2 to 5 pm.
Orta San Giulio
Tel: 39 0322 905 163
The "capital" of Lake Orta is little more than the medieval village of Orta San Giulio. The town's cobblestone streets and main square are charming, but the lake's biggest draw is Isola di San Giulio. Located just a short boat ride from the mainland, the islet is packed with picturesque buildings, including the basilica of San Giulio. According to a local legend (which carries shades of St. Patrick), Giulio surfed over to the island on his miraculously stiffened cloak, drove out the snakes that plagued it, and began building the greatest of the many churches he founded. The basilica contains frescoes from the 14th and 16th centuries and two carved likenesses of the saint in medieval Rambo poses—leaning on his sword on the Romanesque pulpit and engaged in battle with mythological beasts on a wall relief.
Basilica di San Giulio open Mondays 11 am to 12:15 pm, Tuesdays through Sundays 9:30 am to 12:15 pm and 2 to 6 pm. Open 2 pm to 6 pm in summer and 2 to 7 pm in winter.
Tel: 39 0323 30 556
The Borromeo clan has controlled much of the Maggiore region since Renaissance times and still owns most of the land on this trio of islands off the shore of Stresa. The rambling Borromeo Palace on Isola Bella ("Beautiful Island") is the showpiece, packed with Murano chandeliers, 16th-century Flemish tapestries, antique musical instruments, and Renaissance-era family tombs. The art collection includes masters such as Titian, Giordano, Zuccarelli, Jacopo da Bassano, and Giovanni Paolo Pannini. Make time to stroll the terraced formal gardens rimmed by statue-lined balustrades where you can strut along with the white peacocks.
The Borromeo Villa on Isola Madre ("Mother Island") is less impressive than the palace but has a more comfortable, lived-in feel. It's also more quirky. The mediocre baroque paintings and antiques are accompanied by weird mannequins dressed in Borromeo livery and an odd collection of puppet theater sets. A more extensive aviary collection populates the surrounding botanical gardens, including not only peacocks but also pheasants and rare roosters, and parrots and doves fluttering in cages. Pick up a map at the ticket desk that will lead you along the paths of azaleas, rhododendrons, and camellias, plus Europe's largest Kashmir cypress.
The third island in the group, the Isola dei Pescatori ("Isle of the Fishermen"), does not have a grand palace. Instead you will see some quaint village houses that are actually not owned by the Borromeos, plus the Hotel Verbano.
Borromeo Palace and Borromeo Villa open daily 9:30 am to 5:30 pm late March to late October.
Como is the most beautiful of the Italian lakes. The touristy-yet-delightful town of Bellagio, located where the main body of water meets its eastern Lecco branch, and Varenna, on the rugged eastern shore, both merit visits. Explore the lake by boattravel is effortless and the views are ever-changing. The voyage from Varenna in the east to Menaggio in the west by way of Bellagio displays all three arms of the lake in a slowly shifting choreography of water and mountains.
Garda's biggest selling point is its balmy climate: The lake acts as a gigantic solar panel; a ring of mountains stores the heat while winds help keep temperatures bearable. Around Lake Garda, places to visit include Sirmione, a green and peaceful headland covered in olive trees and cypresses; Punta Portese marks one end of the Riviera Bresciana, Garda's small-scale version of the Côte d'Azur, which takes in the towns of Salò and Gardone Riviera. Farther up the western shore is Gargnano, a perfect little port town. Between Bardolino and Peschiera is the Gardaland amusement park, the largest in Italy.
Little Iseo is perhaps the prettiest of all the lakes (if you ignore the quarry that mars part of the western shore). The small towns dotted along the coast have some modest landmarks worth exploring. You can knock them all off in a single day, including driving time. In Lovere, the Palazzo Taldini houses a gallery displaying works by Old Masters such as Jacopo Bellini, Tintoretto, and Tiepolo. The Santa Maria della Neve church in nearby Pisogne is filled with 16th-century frescoes by Romanino. The rocky terrain is best seen from the weirdly eroded pinnacle outside the town of Zone. If you're staying at I Due Roccoli, however, you'll have time to take a boat over to explore Monte Isola, a mountainous island rising from the middle of the lake with a half-dozen tiny fishing villages specked along its forested slopes.
Despite its stately bearing, grand hotels, formal gardens, and fringe of mountains, Maggiore is not highly rated by the lake cognoscenti. To unlock the lake's charm, explore its picturesque and busy central parts and southern reaches by boat, using the extensive network of ferries for short visits before retiring to its calmer shores. One of the most popular attractions is Rocco Borromeo castle in Angera on the southeastern shore. Don't miss the tiny Santa Caterina del Sasso, a wonderful church that seems to grow out of the mountainside.
Soft morning mists are a way of life on this pocket-size lake, just eight miles long and under two miles wide. Orta has a single, must-stay base town of Orta San Giulio, with cream-colored houses roofed with thick slate tiles as well as unforgettable views of Isola di San Giulio (the resident island). A lakeside central square, Piazza Motta, is overlooked by the Palazotto, a frescoed 16th-century building borne up by the stilts of a cozy loggia. Tourist tackiness is almost absent; instead, there are several delicatessens, an antiquarian bookstore, a shop specializing in period jewelry, and an excellent wine barthe cozy Enoteca Re di Coppe at Piazza Motta 32.
Via alla Rocca
Tel: 39 0331 931 300
This glowering Lombard castle was started in the 700s, though most of what you see was rebuilt between the 12th and 14th centuries by the Visconti dynasty of Milan. It was passed to the Borromeo family in 1449, who now open it to the public in part to show off their dolls. Yes, dolls. The collection is amazing, with more than 1,000 pieces going back to the 1200s, including dolls from medieval Japan and European mechanical puppets from the 1870s to 1920s. Even if you are not a fan of figurines, the castle itself is worth the trip. The great hall's stupendous frescoes were painted sometime between the late 13th and early 14th centuries to glorify the Visconti. Climb the central keep's tower for a view that sweeps over the grapevines in the inner courtyard to the lake snaking its way up into the foothills, framed by the snowy peaks of the Alps.
Open daily 9 am to 5:30 pm, mid-March to mid-October.
A local 13th-century merchant, drowning during a shipwreck on Lake Maggiore, prayed to St. Catherine of Alexandria for help. She came through, and he dutifully built a chapel dedicated to his savior saint on a sheer rock wall above the deepest, most treacherous part of the lake. Over the centuries it grew into a hermitage, hanging spectacularly from the cliff side. The facade and walls contain a collage of frescoes dating from the 13th to 19th centuries (when the ruling Austrians suppressed the monastery). The building fell into disrepair until the 1980s, when the government stepped in and removed graffiti, rehabbed the frescoes, and invited a community of Dominicans to reinhabit the premises. The monks now do a brisk business selling beauty products, honeys, and liqueurs to tourists who brave the many steps down and around the cliff side to admire the brilliant lake views.
Open April through October daily 8:30 am to noon and 2:30 to 6 pm; March, daily 9 am to noon and 2 to 5 pm; November through February weekends 9 am to noon and 2 to 5 pm.
2 Via Regina
Tel: 39 0344 40 405
This Baroque villa built in 1743 is best known for its art, a magnificent collection that includes neoclassical sculptures by Canova and Tadolini as well as Romantic paintings like Francesco Hayez's Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet. The botanical gardens are spectacular: 17 acres planted with more than 500 exotic species including camellia, laurel, rhododendron, papyrus, bamboo, bananas, citrus trees, and more than 150 varieties of azalea.
Open daily 9 am to 6 pm March 15 through 31 and April to September, and all October from 9 am to noon and 2 to 4:30 pm.
Meet at information office on Piazza della Chiesa
Tel: 39 031 951 555
Villa Serbelloni is a Renaissance villa built in the 15th century and surrounded by dense woodlands and gardens. The property's summer villa down by the lake has been converted into the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, and the rest of the vast estate belongs to the Rockefeller Foundation. Unless you apply for one of the foundation's monthlong grants for scholars, you can't get into the main villa up on the hill, but you can tour the grounds and extensive gardens twice daily in summer. If you want to actually get inside one of the grand homes, pair this with a visit to the Villa Melzi, on the other end of Bellagio. This neoclassical building was the home of Francesco Melzi d'Eril, Napoléon's man in Italy (Lungolario Manzoni; 39-0339-457-3838; www.giardinidivillamelzi.it). It is also surrounded by ornate gardens that include a man-made lake, exotic trees and tropical plants, and, beside the Moorish-style Kaffehaus, the statue of Dante and Beatrice that inspired Liszt's Dante Sonata.
Villa Serbelloni garden tours Tuesday to Sunday at 11 am and 3:30 pm April to early November.
Villa Melzi open daily 9 am to 6 pm, April 1 to October 30.
Riva del Garda and Torbole
Water sports fans flock to the northern end of Lake Garda Riva in the summer, when stiff morning winds combine with afternoon gusts to turn it into a mecca for windsurfing and sailing. Many shops rent equipment by the hour or the day and will arrange for lessons. In the town of Riva del Garda, try Sailing Du Lac (44 Viale Rovereto; 39-0464-552-453; www.sailingdulac.com) or Pier Windsurf (2 Loc. Gola; 39-0464-550-928; www.pierwindsurf.it). In Torbole, the best places are Surf Segana (19 Lungolago dei Pini; 39-0464-505-963; www.surfsegnana.it) and Conca Windsurf (6 Lungolago Verona; 39-0464-548-192; www.windsurfconca.com). If you are there in the spring and fall, when the winds are lighter, you can also rent rowboats and pedal boats by the beach next to the castle.