Italy’s alpine lakes offer cyclists much more than scenic rides. The lake shores are dotted with beach parks, resorts, villas, quaint villages and Italian towns settled in Roman times. Ferries provide easy access to bike paths and panoramic views of the Alps. Lake Maggiore is the most westerly and is 43 miles long; Lake Lugano is about 22 miles and Lake Como with its inverted Y-shape, about 29 miles. Each lake has unique attractions. For more panoramic views, ride the funiculars in Lugano, which is in Switzerland but Italian in appearance and character. Read about a celebration traveler’s bike trip with Experience Plus in Italy: Lakes District.
ITALY: LAKES DISTRICT
Plan Your Trip. Flights from the U.S. arrive at the Malpensa Airport. Most European flights arrive at Linate Airport. The ALIBUS shuttle bus services the Malpensa airport. Reservations are required at least a day in advance
About phone numbers, if you are calling the numbers listed on websites and you are in Italy, leave off the +39. Summer temperatures range from the low 60 degrees to high 80 degrees.
Sign up for the Lakes District bike tour with Experience Plus. The bike company operates out of Colorado but has a headquarters in Italy. They use local guides and provide travel assistance for getting to the start of the bike tour. Each morning, a guide chalked the roadway and bike paths with large white arrows.
The second guide briefs you about the route and provides a daily sheet with helpful Italian lessons, usually on food, to help you acclimate to the customs. Italian coffee is a shot of espresso, which has less caffeine than a cup of American coffee, or a can of cola. Sandwiches are panini, filled with cheese and cold cuts (salumi). Fish is often presented whole, then the wait staff will debone it for you. Shrimp (gamberi) or scampi is often served in the shell with the head still on which you have to remove yourself.
Learn More. Visit Italy online for listings on sights in the Lakes District. Italy Tourism has information on art, culture, and historic sites around the lakes. Read about the Lakes District’s summer attractions. Pick up Francesca Romana Onofri’s book Italian Phrases For Dummies, and learn common words and phrases.
Buon viaggio Have a great trip.
DAY 1 Milan. Verbania-Intra.
Take the train from Milan to Verbania. Take the bus or taxi to Intra.
It takes 1.5 hours from Milan’s central train station, Milano Centrale to Intra-Verbania. On the Trenitalia website, enter Milano Centrale as departure and Verbania as arrival. The Verbania-Pallanza train station is 12 km from the village of Intra. Taxis cost €20. Buses are €1.90, available at the train station bar. The VCTO trasporti bus (final destination: Trobaso) stops on the Imbarcadero Vecchio across from Hotel Intra.
Milan Train Station. Milano Centrale
Piazza Duca D’Aosta, 1, Milan
+39 02 667 3511
Check into Hotel Intra on Lake Maggiore one night.
Intra Hotel, on the Lake Maggiore promenade, has comfortable rooms with private bathrooms. This lakeside resort town with its baroque and neoclassical architecture is popular in summer. Take a warm-up ride on the 20 km (12 miles) bike path along Lake Maggiore. It’s a short ferry ride to Stresa and the beautiful Borromean Islands where the aristocracy built villas in the 17th century.
Corso Mameli 133, Intra-Verbania
0323 58 1393 Sight
Have cheese & salumi at La Casera in Intra.
Enjoy the warm evening over a light dinner of artisanal cheese, cured meats and wines from Piedmont. The savory Prosciutto, dry cured ham, comes from the nearby mountain villages. Try the Bettelmatt cheese and Grasso d’Alpe Monscera cheese from the Alps. From the Piedmonte region, try the fresh goat cheese and the Blu al Vinsantom which is ripened in barrels of Vin Santo.
Piazza Ranzoni, 19, Verbania-Intra 0323 58 1123
DAY 2 Laveno. Luino.
Take the ferry across Lake Maggiore to Laveno. Ride the bike path to Luino.As you ferry to the lake’s east side, rnjoy views across Lake Maggiore to the high Alps. Lake Maggiore features in American writer Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell To Arms. The protagonist and his lover rowed across the Swiss border within the lake to escape Italian Carabinieri. The bike path crosses the medieval center of Luino, the site of Europe’s largest and oldest market. In 1541 King Charles V granted Luino the right to hold a market. The day’s ride is 30 km (18 mi).
Check into Camin Hotel Colmegna one night. Swim in Lake Maggiore.
This hotel on the sunny bay of Colmegna, has a small harbor, a private beach, and two grassy terraces with beach umbrellas and sun beds. It was originally a hunting lodge built in 1700 by hotelier Leopoldo Casnedi, who built the lakeside walk, tower, waterfall and a garden of rare plants from around the world. Ask for a room with a lake view on the top floor.
Camin Hotel Colmegna
Via A. Palazzi 1, Luino
0332 51 0855
Have dinner at Tiffany at the hotel.
Open to the lake breeze, Tiffany restaurant focuses on regional dishes. Order the lake fish: trout, pike, perch. For dessert, try the honey cake. The wine list offers some of Italy’s grand cru wines.
Via A. Palazzi, 1, 21016 Luino 0332 51 0855
DAY 3 Caslano. Lugano.
Bike from Luino to Lugano, Switzerland. Tour Alprose Chocolate Factory.
From Lake Maggiore, the bike ride to Lake Lugano is an easy ride into the Cuvia Valley and over a small pass into Val Ganna where we join a rails-to- trails path along the Tresa River to Switzerland. Right across the border is the Alprose Chocolate Museum, which has free tastings in its shop. The Swiss made several breakthroughs in the technique of chocolate processing despite being banned in 1722 as unfit for “virtuous citizens,” because of its reputation as an aphrodisiac. The day’s ride is 37 km (23 miles).
Alprose Chocolate Factory and Museum
Via Rompada 36, Caslano 6987, Switzerland
91 611 88 88
Check into Hotel International du Lac one night.
Opened in 1906 and continually upgraded, the hotel has an enviable location on the lake promenade. Travelers from all over the world know about the hotel. The shape and decor of the rooms vary so ask to see them. The rooms above the garden are quieter but lack the lakefront view. Spend time by the swimming pool and in the spacious reading lounge on the second floor. It feels more like a residence than a hotel.
Hotel International au Lac
Via Nassa 68, 6901 Lugano, Switzerland
91 922 75 41
Browse the shops, walk along the promenade, dine at a sidewalk cafe.
Overlooking Riforma Square, the Olimpia serves regional specialties of Ticino on its lovely sidewalk patio a few steps from the lake. Chef Roberto Galizz will introduce you to the pleasures of the Swiss-Italian table.
Piazza Riforma 1, 6900 Lugano
91 922 74 88
DAY 4 Varenna.
Bike from Lugano to Lake Como.
Unlike Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano, Lake Como is completely in Italy. Among the lake’s renowned villas are Villa d’Este in Cernobbio and Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo. Bike to Cernobbio then north along the west shore of Lake Como. The bike ride is 60km (37 miles).
Take the ferry to Varenna. Check into Hotel Royal Victoria two nights. Swim in Lake Como.
The Lake Como ferry service links the popular mid-lake villages (Menaggio, Bellagio, Varenna, and Cadenabbia). The Hotel Royal Victoria, a four star hotel on the enchanting historic plaza of Varenna, has several attractions. In the main plaza, visit the Villa Cipressi and the 17th century church. The Venini palace and Villa Monastero are also nearby. Enjoy a freshing swim in the lakefront pool or in the lake at the private wharf.
Hotel Royal Victoria
Piazza San Giorgio 2, 23829 Varenna
0341 81 5111
Have dinner at the hotel at Restaurant Gourmet.
The restaurant’s veranda overlooking the town of Bellagio is a beautiful spot to end the day. The menu offers typical national, international food and dishes typical of the lake, accompanied by the best Italian wines, with a focus on wine production of neighboring Valtellina.
Hotel Royal Victoria
DAY 5 Cernobbio.
Cruise Lake Como aboard the ferry to Cernobbio. Takes 2.5 hours.
A relaxing retreat for ancient Romans, Lake Como has remained a favorite holiday place. British author Aldous Huxley wrote that “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque.”Composer Franz Liszt suggested that “when you write the story of two happy lovers, let the story be set on the banks of Lake Como,” and Mark Twain remembers having “an afternoon’s pleasure excursion to this place, Bellagio.”
Dine at Veranda Restaurant at Villa d’Este. Tour the gardens. Tour Villa Erba and Cernobbio shops.
The dining room at Villa d’Este emanates centuries of gracious living. The menu is traditional Italian haute cuisine: lobster salad, sole dore and refreshing sorbet.
Built in 1568 for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, the villa is a fine example of architecture and landscaping. In 1615 the Sultan of Morocco visited the villa to see for himself its reported splendors. A 500-year old plane tree grows between the main building and the Queen’s pavilion. Over the centuries cardinals, sultans, queens, empresses, aristocrats, prime ministers have sat in its shade. The garden has Baroque and Romantic features: elaborate parterres, a perspective avenue which ascends from the Nymphaeum, a mosaic of thousands of polychrome pebbles.
Villa Erba was built between 1894 and 1898 was inherited by Carla Erba, who with her seven children, spent their holidays here. Villa Erba’s garden, between the mouths of two rivers is an English-style garden with massive trees; linden, hackberry, bald cypress, and plane trees. The box trees were pruned using the ancient art of topiary.
Via Regina, 40, 22012 Cernobbio
39 031 3481
Villa d’Este Gardens
Via 5 Giornate, 25, Cernobbio
031 34 2086
Largo Luchino Visconti, 4, 22012 Cernobbio
031 34 91
DAY 6 Bellagio. Lecco.
Ride the ferry to Bellagio. Bike along Lake Como to Lecco.
The Romans were the first to use Bellagio as a holiday resort. They planted olive and laurel trees, still in abundance. Plimy the Younger built Tragoedia, a villa of delights. on the Bellagio peninsula. Bike along the Lecco arm of Lake Como and up a short climb to Asso, then downhill to the Lago del Segrino bike path. Silk production in the Brianza region dates back to the Renaissance. Mulberry trees once dominated the countryside. The ride is 47 km (29 miles).
Check into Hotel Monastero del Lavello one night.
Friars once walked the stone corridors and the central courtyard of this twelfth century monastery, now a hotel with WiFi. At the adjacent church miraculous healings have occurred. Ask for a room overlooking the River Adda. The Lavello Monastery and its cloister have appeared in numerous films. Soak up the ambience in this one-of-a-kind setting.
Hotel Monastero del Lavello
Via Padri Serviti, 1, 23801 Calolziocorte (Lecco)
0341 81 5111
Have dinner at Osteria Marascia.
These recipes were passed down from grandfather Gianni, who hosted travelers coming to the River Adda and the Monastery. The restaurant is in converted farm buildings. Ravioli with cherry tomatoes and ricotta cheese ravioli di magro con pomodorini e ricotta stagionata and veal cutlet milanese cotoletta di vitello alla milanese.
Via Padri Serviti, 2, Calolziocorte
0341 64 4064
DAY 7 Bergamo.
Bike from Lecco to Bergamo.
Bike along the Adda River to the Leonardo da Vinci Ferry, propelled from one bank to the other by the river current. The final climb takes you to Medieval Bergamo on its hilltop, a sea of stone towers, domes red-tile roofs. The ride is 46 km (28 miles).
Leonardo da Vinci Ferry
Bergamo Alta (Medieval Bergamo)
Check into Gombit Hotel for one night.
A modern hotel built within the ancient walls, Gombit Hotel invited young artists to collaborate on art installations which fill the simple, linear space. The pleasures of design permeate the hotel. Furnishings throughout the hotel reference the linear geometry of the adjacent 13th-century stone tower, Torre del Gombito. Choosing among the 13 rooms, I suggest the ones on the fourth floor facing the park.
Via Mario Lupo 6, Bergamo
035 24 7009
Have an afternoon macchiato on Piazza Vecchia. Have dinner at Trattoria Sant’Ambroeus.
Located on Piazza Vecchia in an 11th century building, this restaurant has outdoor seating on the terrace, in the dining room or downstairs in the wine cellar. Try the cutlet with mushrooms and polenta, nodino con porcini e polenta, and the crispy prawns, code di gamberi croccanti.
Piazza Vecchia, 24100 Bergamo
035 23 7494
DAY 8 Bergamo. Milan Airport.
Visit the sights of Bergamo.
A wealth of treasures lie within Bergamo’s 16th century walls. Originally a Celtic settlement, in 49 BC, Bergamo became a large Roman town. At the Archaeological Civic Museum, a catwalk spans the Celtic and Roman foundations. Also visit the Accademia Carrara art gallery, the Colleoni Chapel and the Romanesque church Santa Maria Maggiore where composer Gaetano Donizetti received his musical training. Magnificent Venetian walls surround the old medieval city to fortify the city against Napoleon.
Museo Civico Archeologico Archaeological Civic Museum
Piazza Cittadella, 9, Bergamo
Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica
Piazza Duomo, 24129 Bergamo
Piazza del Duomo, Bergamo, Italy
Via Arena, 9, Bergamo
Piazza Giacomo Carrara, 82, 24121 Bergamo
Take the airport shuttle to Milan airport. Check into Sheraton Malpensa one night.
Have the front desk call a taxi to the bus station in the lower town. We boarded the shuttle at 5:20 p.m. and because we picked up more passengers, it took 2.5 hours to reach Milano Malpensa Airport. Most international flights leave in the morning, so we stayed at the Sheraton.
Via Furitetti 17, Bergamo
Aeroporto Malpensa 2000, Terminal 1, 21010 Ferno
DAY 9 Milan Airport. Frankfurt Airport.
Fly from Milan to Frankfurt to North American gateways.
It’s easy to catch a 6:45 a.m. flight if you stay at an airport hotel. I walked from Sheraton hotel to the terminal. I met my connecting flight in Frankfurt at 9:50 a.m. and after a 14-hour flight, arrived back in San Francisco.
Milan’s Malpensa Airport
—Text and photography by Donna Peck