The lake region, which stretches from Piedmont to Lombardy and the Veneto, has had a mythic quality for centuries. Ancient Roman writers, including Pliny the Younger, were among the first to use the area as a summer escape. They wrote lovingly about its shady plane-tree walks and flowery banks. Today, its legendary reputation continues. Celebrities including George Clooney and Richard Branson have owned villas on Como for more than 10 years, while Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi purchased a 30-room mansion on Maggiore in 2008.
Little has changed in the past 50 years, though several grand hotel openings (most recently the lavish Castadiva Resort, in Como) have added to the lakes’ cachet. The main attractions, however, remain the simple, authentic pleasures that travelers have appreciated since the days of the grand tour.
Despite a high celeb quotient, Como, Italy’s most sophisticated lake, embodies low-key glamour, history, and tradition. Its 30-mile-long western shoreline runs from the miniature sailing port of Cernobbio through sleepy Laglio to Menaggio. On the eastern shore is the chic hillside village of Bellagio, with its rainbow-colored villas; the old stone fishing villages of Bellano and Varenna are popular with culture and nature buffs, thanks to their medieval castles and elaborate Renaissance gardens.
Set along the southern banks of the Alps, Maggiore, Italy’s second-largest lake, is the busiest and most untamed. The eastern, Lombard shore is characterized by wild woodlands, but most travelers go to the western side, where the village of Stresa is chock-full of artisanal shops. Close to the Swiss border you’ll find the town of Cannobio, a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets, medieval palazzi, and waterfront restaurants. Less than 10 miles west of Maggiore, Lake Orta is only eight miles long and less than a mile wide. In its main village, Orta san Giulio, the central stairway leads from the ocher-and-cream-colored Santa Maria Assunta church to the lakeside Piazza Mario Motta, which is lined with arcades and outdoor cafés.
Built by a powerful industrialist in 1879, the turreted Villa Crespi is a moorish-style estate with original plasterwork ceilings, four-poster beds, and damask draperies. The real draw, however, is the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, where chef-owner Antonino Cannavacciuolo, formerly of Capri’s Grand Hotel Quisisana, whips up such creative dishes as buffalo mozzarella ice cream with tomato sauce and basil granita.
Fringed by lemon groves, olive trees, and vineyards, Garda is the balmiest of the lakes — and also the largest. Sailors and windsurfers come for its breezy waters, while foodies are drawn to the award-winning olive oils and Bardolino and Valpolicella wines. On the eastern shore, a cluster of small villages (San Felice del Benaco; Gargnano) have glorious Roman ruins, villa museums, and a clutch of upscale hotels, including historic Villa Feltrinelli.