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Want to escape the crowds of Lake Como and Garda? Head to these underrated Italian lakes instead

Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, 2020.
Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, 2020. Copyright Andrea Carlo Martinez
Copyright Andrea Carlo Martinez
By Andrea Carlo
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While Lake Como and Garda get all the attention, here are seven Italian lakes that fly under the radar.

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Italy's lakes have a firm place in our collective imagination as the epitome of luxury: dreamscapes peppered with yachts, ivy-clad villas and picturesque fishing villages, all crowned with the snow-capped Alps in the background.

But when push comes to shove, most people can only name two: Lake Como, Hollywood's very own European enclave with its never-ending array of celebrity-owned waterfront manors; and Lake Garda, whose sprawling beaches and Mediterranean microclimate have made it an obvious tourist favourite.

As summer approaches, Euronews Travel looks at a few other lakes dotted around the Italian peninsula that are sure not to disappoint - and may offer some welcome respite from the tourist crowds.

Lake Maggiore’s Borromean Islands, 2020.
Lake Maggiore’s Borromean Islands, 2020.Gianluca Colombi / Flickr

7. Lake Maggiore: Botanic gardens and Art Nouveau hotels

The lesser-known of the three great northern Italian lakes, Lake Maggiore is not entirely off the radar - it received over 1 million visitors last year - but it's often overlooked by tourists heading to the nearby Lake Como. Which is a shame, since it bursts with the vibrant colours and nostalgic charm of its flower-lined lakeside promenades.

Straddling the border of Italy and Switzerland, Lake Maggiore's real showstopper is its set of three main islands, historically owned by the Borromeo family - one of Italy's most powerful noble dynasties.

Its biggest island, Isola Madre, seems like the product of Agatha Christie's own imagination - a botanical garden filled with tropical plants. The second, Isola Bella, boasts the palatial family home, its terraced grounds peppered with fountains, Baroque grottos and peacocks. 

The entire complex was built as a gift from Borromeo Prince Charles Ill to his wife Isabella in 1632 (prospective husbands, take note). Finally, the nearby fisherman's isle (Isola dei Pescatori) hosts a village which still has a small, but active community of 57.

Over in the mainland town of Stresa, the Borromeo family’s guests could lounge in style in its array of grand hotels. A Belle Époque resort, Stresa's Art Nouveau grandeur is Hollywoodian, and it once hosted the likes of Hemingway and Rockefeller. Nowadays, it attracts a less lofty clientele, but it's still draped in the vestiges of its glorious past.

Beyond Stresa’s aristocratic elegance, Lake Maggiore is not short on other charming sites to visit: from the mediaeval fortress of Arona (Rocca di Angera) to Belgirate's hilltop 11th century monastery, and even a mock-Dutch village built in the 1960s. The adjacent Lake Mergozzo is also an added treat for those of a sportier inclination - a pocket-size lake whose unspoilt beauty and tranquillity make it perfect for a kayak excursion and hiking.

Lake Maggiore is most easily reachable from Milan, particularly Malpensa Airport which is a 40-minute drive from its southern tip. Trains also run from the city's central station to lakeside towns like Arona, Stresa and Verbania.

Lake Orta, 2022.
Lake Orta, 2022.Andrea Carlo Martinez

6. Lake Orta: Island monasteries and UNESCO World Heritage sites

Moving 20 or so kilometres west of Lake Maggiore and its opulent glamour, things take a holier turn in Lake Orta, a smaller nearby lake nestled between pre-Alps.

Peaceful and contemplative in its beauty, it’s understandable why the lake - also known as Cusio - was favoured as a spot for spiritual devotion

The lake’s main feature is an island topped with a vast mediaeval monastic complex: it’s the Basilica of San Giulio, which hosts an active community of Benedictine nuns that has been running for over a thousand years. Visitors are called to silence upon strolling around its narrow alleyways - it’s known as the ‘Island of Silence’.

Above the lake’s main town, Orta San Giulio, also lies one of northern Italy’s most important pilgrimage sites: the Sacro Monte, a UNESCO-protected series of Baroque cavalries scattered across the region. The portico of the main chapel offers an unparalleled panorama of the lake.

Lake Orta is a little more remote than Maggiore, but it’s worth the extra effort. The lakeside town of Omegna can be reached by Milan in roughly two-and-a-half hours with a mid-journey change.

Lake Resia.
Lake Resia.Mattia, Flickr

5. Lake Resia/Reschensee: The sunken village in the middle of the Alps

Deep within the valleys of northern Italy’s German-speaking Südtirol/Alto-Adige region, visitors can stumble across a small lake encircled by Alpine forests, from whose turquoise waters emerges a mediaeval bell tower.

It’s a surrealist painting come to life, an Atlantis-like vision that seems almost too improbable to be real.

And yet this is Lake Resia (Reschensee in German), one of Italy’s most idiosyncratic and beautiful spots - whose history, alas, is far less pretty.

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Located a few kilometres from the Austrian border, Resia - in spite of its natural appearance - is an artificial lake dating back to 1950, when residents were forcibly displaced to make way for a reservoir.

In the middle of what is now the 6 km long, 1 km wide body of water was the village of Curon, whose only surviving building is its Romanesque church tower dating back to 1357.

Despite its unfortunate past, Resia’s enigmatic charm is undeniable, and myths swirl around the lake and its tower. Legend has it that its church bells can still be heard ringing in the depths of winter, when the water is frozen over.

Resia’s mysterious aura is such that it has even received Netflix treatment, being the backdrop of the 2020 supernatural drama ‘Curon’.

Lake Iseo, 2019.
Lake Iseo, 2019.Karlheinz Klingbeil / Flickr

4. Lake Iseo: Pastoral charm and mountain-top churches

A stone’s throw from the hilltop city of Bergamo, Lake Iseo is in something of a blind spot - halfway between Lake Como and Lake Garda, and consequently overshadowed by the two.

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Lake Iseo is not as instantly impressive as its aforementioned siblings, lacking the same sweeping setting and iconic landmarks. But what it lacks in grandeur, it makes up for with its understated, bucolic charm. As attested by French author George Sand, “There’s nothing grand in Lake Iseo’s appearance, [but] its surroundings are as sweet and fresh as one of Virgil’s pastoral poems.”

When in Iseo, visit the village of Lovere, with its pastel-coloured houses and cobblestone streets. Then, take a ferry and head to the Monte Isola - a mountain protruding from the middle of the lake, on top of which lies an 18th-century church, the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Ceriola.

Iseo makes for a perfect getaway when needing a breather from the headier pleasures of Milan or Venice, offering a rural vision of lake life that contrasts with its more touristy, overcrowded peers.

A view from the gardens of Lake Albano’s Apostolic Palace, 2022.
A view from the gardens of Lake Albano’s Apostolic Palace, 2022.Andrea Carlo Martinez

3. Lake Albano: The summer retreat of emperors and Popes

Few places can lay claim to having the Pope’s own blessing, but central Italy's Lake Albano just happens to be one of them.

Located inside a former volcanic crater in the outskirts of Rome, the lake has been a summer getaway for Pontiffs for over 400 years.

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But its status as a haunt of the Roman elite dates back to antiquity, when emperor Domitian built his own villa in the 1st century AD.

The lake's scenic main village, Castel Gandolfo, hosts the Papal Apostolic Palace, whose Renaissance gardens are open to the public and boast spectacular lakeside views.

Besides its natural and architectural delights, Lake Albano is a glutton's dream. One of the local specialties is ‘porchetta’ (roasted pork belly), which can be eaten in a sandwich, as a main dish, or as part of an aperitivo ‘tagliere’ (charcuterie board) in restaurants in the lakeside town of Ariccia.

Lake Albano is a 40-minute train ride from Rome, one that will set you back a mere €2.10. As a long line of Popes can attest, it's the perfect day trip away from The Eternal City when its chaos gets a little too maddening.

Lake Trasimeno, 2014.
Lake Trasimeno, 2014.Volodymyr Vlasenko / Wikimedia Commons

2. Lake Trasimeno: A rustic getaway for fishing aficionados

Tucked away in the land of rolling hills and mediaeval fortresses known as Umbria, Lake Trasimeno rarely makes it onto tourist’s itineraries.

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It’s rustic and remote, lacking the glitz of the northern lakes or the Vatican seal of approval afforded to Albano.

Yet, it’s a joy to behold, and not a small one either: clocking in at a surface area of 128 square kilometres, it’s almost the same size as Lake Como.

In spite of its significant size, Trasimeno feels cosy and intimate. It’s surrounded by hayfields, castle ruins, and small villages that have remained largely untouched since the Middle Ages - notable examples include Passignano sul Lago and the fortified Castiglione del Lago.

Its waters often appear murky, but they remain highly clean, swimmable and home to countless fish, making it the perfect spot to catch pike and carp. And given Umbria’s status as a gourmet’s paradise, you can enjoy its many specialties, from black truffle to the lake’s own catch of the day.

Lake Fusaro, 8 December 2014.
Lake Fusaro, 8 December 2014.Nicola / Flickr

1. Phlegraean Fields: Volcanic waters and ancient ruins

The southern region of Campania, home to Naples and beloved resorts such as Amalfi, Positano, Capri and Ischia, is more typically renowned for its craggy coastline and crystalline seawater than any of its inland geography.

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But tourists should not eschew its set of rather unique lakes, part of the volcanic caldera known as the Phlegraean Fields, 20 to 30 kilometres west of Naples.

An important site since ancient Greek and Roman times, the Phlegraean Fields’ lakes boast a plethora of archaeological sites and natural parks. Lake Avernus, its biggest, has the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, the Roman god with the power to shapeshift. The lake itself seems to shapeshift too: back in 2022, it left locals and geologists baffled after its waters turned pink, a result of its algae.

The nearby Lake Fusaro is also distinct for its rather mysteriously located floating villa - the Casina Vanvitelliana. It makes for a unique sunset photo op for anyone wanting to steer clear of the region’s more clichéd landscapes.

As an active volcanic site, quakes and eruptions can happen here at any time. The last was almost 500 years ago, although scientists warn that things are rumbling underneath the surface. That may be enough to deter those prone to doomsaying, but the mayor of the local town of Bacoli wants to reassure tourists that the region is safe.

Whether his words prove to be true or not, what’s the joy in travelling without the slightest tinge of fear? And as the Fields are known for their excellent grape production, any anxieties can be quelled with a fine selection of local wines.

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