The Italian lake district is a truly superb area to tour in your campervan or motorhome. The scenery is out of this world, the climate is perfect for vanlife, each town is more picturesque than the last and the food is to die for. This is our Italian Lakes guide – focusing on the hidden gems found deep within.
We’ve all heard of the big boys in town, lake Garda, lake Como, lake Maggiore. And yes, these spots are fantastic and are well worth a visit. We had a wonderful road trip to Garda and Como a few years ago.
But there are plenty of spots off the beaten track that are well worth a visit as we discovered this year.
And so in September 2020 with COVID shutting down most of France we decided to return to the watery north of Italy.
We spent a week in the Black Forest, Germany before heading back down to the Italian lakes for a week. But this time – we were going in search of hidden gems in the Italian Lakes.
Places we’d not heard of that were off the beaten track, and boy was it worth it!
Lago d’Orta & Orta San Guilio
We almost decided not to even write about Lago d’Orta and Orta San Giulio – we selfishly want to keep this place under the radar and a perfect secret.
But it is just too good not to share with you what is, and by no means are we exaggerating, our favourite place that we have visited in Western Europe so far. It’s that good!
A gorgeous, crystal clear lake with perfectly calm, and surprisingly warm water awaits you – ideal for a swim. We spent many days lounging on the shore, swimming in the warm summer water and jumping off of jetties here. This was truly the most relaxing place to unwind and de-stress.
The town itself is a quintessential old Italian town, narrow cobbled streets between tall, crumbling stone buildings, cafes and restaurants filled with locals. So far off the beaten track that English is barely spoken at all.
The town centre is traffic free save for servicing vehicles, so no squealing mopeds to disturb your afternoon siesta are to be found here.
There is a weekly market on Wednesday displaying fresh fruits and charcuterie, but seemed to mainly be made up of Italian clothing stalls. So if you’re after some fine Italian leather – check it out on a Wednesday.
Where to stay
There is an Area Sosta Camper just up the hill from the lake. Easily walk-able but it is a little steep so be prepared to work up a sweat.
This Sosta is nicely shaded to keep your van cooler during the summer, it’s completely free and even has a toilet block and rubbish bins. They do ask for a donation in the honesty box by the toilets before leaving. So we definitely recommend you help them out to keep places like this available.
There are only eight spaces (max 48 hours) on this Sosta so ensure you plan to arrive at an off peak time to get the best chance of a space. Check it out on park4night
Oddly enough, the Sosta is right underneath a small area with 17 chapels built together over a number of centuries. A bit weird but worth a quick explore. Plus there is a great view over the lake from the top.
Where to eat
Anywhere in the lakeside piazza in Orta San Guilio.
Our personal favourite was Pane e Vino – Enogastronomia for a liquid brunch and charcuterie board. These guys really know what they’re doing and have a great selection of food and an even better drinks list.
San Bernardino River
Next up on our Italian lakes guide it’s time to leave behind the lakes and head up into the mountains for a real adventure.
Fair warning, if you’re in a large motorhome then you’ll need nerves of steel and a good dose of luck.
These roads get properly steep and narrow with some insane drops right by the road. So we’d recommend hiring a car or moped if you want to explore the depths of the mountain ranges.
We headed up in our six meter van and were eventually defeated before our target destination by a long cave tunnel – and these are to be found all over this region.
Once you’ve successfully navigated up into the mountains you have a number of options.
There are some truly incredible hiking routes, in typical Italian fashion you’ll need to be a little brave to tackle some of the features. You will almost certainly find some routes blocked by signage warning you not to continue or neglected paths that have become impassable.
So plan accordingly and ensure you always have an escape plan.
We noticed on our adventure a number of tiny, half hidden routes down the hillside (read mountainside) dropping away steeply from the road towards the sound of running water.
After cautiously following one of them down, we emerged at the most beautiful river swimming spot. No tourists here, only a few excited locals enjoying their day off swimming and relaxing in the morning sun.
Our tip for finding these spots is to look on google maps and find the rivers that feed into the lakes. Then drive a few miles up a road that invariably runs along side it. Get out and explore on foot the old fashioned way – follow those tiny footpaths down to the riverside. The locals assured us the area was crisscrossed with spots just like this one.
Where to stay
Either head up into the mountains and try to find somewhere to wild camp or stay in the serviced Sosta in Pallanza. It’s fully serviced including hookup for 10 euros a night.
It’s only a short walk into town for an evening drink or meal as well which is most welcomed after a day exploring up in the mountains.
Where to eat
Lago Di Varese
A change of pace from the beautiful swimming spots we’ve discussed so far. This lake is not for swimming due to well established reed beds blocking jumping in access and algae to ruin it if you do manage to get in.
But it has its own charm and is well worth a visit and including in our Italian lakes guide.
You can cycle or walk around the lake – it’s around 30km so you best be feeling fit, especially in the heat of summer. There is bountiful wildlife to be found on and around the lake so ensure you bring your camera and binoculars to make the most of it.
There are a few rest stops around the lakes for a beer, ice cream or coffee (or all 3 in Simon’s case) and of course if 30km is too far, you can just do a there and back again distance of whatever you feel like.
We’ve been reliably informed that if fishing is your thing then you can catch some bass here – and no we don’t mean you’ll suddenly start boogieing to smooth jazz on the lakeside!
Where to stay
There is an ideal little Area Sosta just off from the lakeside that charges 50cents per hour. Pay when you leave via machine (so 24 hour if you need an early/late getaway). There is grey water emptying and optional EHU (extra cost) if required.
Where to eat
Vecchio Ottocento serves up delicious Italian Pizzas, large portions, excellent service in lovely surroundings at reasonable prices. We’d fully recommend an evening here.
So OK we’ve included lake Maggiore in the list, but more specifically we’ve included the area of Verbania. On the Western edge of Maggiore sits three towns, Pallanza, Intra and Suna. Well worth a day to walk between all three towns as they are all different and interesting in their own way.
In Pallanza you’ll find a lake shore strip with restaurants and cafes ready to serve up an Italian feast, cocktails and coffee as you sit and admire the lake. From here you can also take a lake cruise across to some of the other towns on the lake or visit the beautiful Villa Taranto Giardini Botanici gardens.
Intra has some nice back streets to wander around the boutiquey shops before refuelling on the busy main square – this town is complete with Italian chaos of locals shouting and frantic arm waving, screeching mopeds and the smell of fresh coffee lingers in the hot afternoon air. There is a fairly large harbour here to wander about and take in the sailing vessels and yachts.
Suna is the smallest and prettiest of the towns offering up narrow cobbled streets and small independent restaurants. Perfect for a lazy afternoon eating tapas and watching the world go by.
Where to stay
We’d recommend again the serviced sosta in Pallanza – fully serviced including hookup for 10 euros a night. It’s only a short walk into Pallanza – about 15 minutes.
Where to eat
Everywhere! You’ll find no shortage of options across these three towns, peruse menus as you explore during the day, check online reviews and return to your favourite for an evening meal.
Italian Lakes Guide Summary
Have you been to the Italian lakes in your campervan or motorhome?
What hidden gems did you discover and what stories do you have to tell? Have you visited any of the places above? We hope you enjoyed our Italian lakes guide. Let us know in the comments!