Beyond Gardaland, one of Europe’s biggest theme parks, Lake Garda for families has lots of other entertainment, with swimming beaches, boat rides, castles to explore, and a mountain top ride.
Kids rule on the shores of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. . They lap gelato cones and wolf down pizza at cafes in lakeside towns, ride the lake steamers and hydrofoils, learn to windsurf, and explore the castles and mountains that surround the lake.
While many families come to southern Lake Garda just for the theme parks – Gardaland, Caneva World Resort, Parco Acquatico Cavour and Parco Naturo Viva – there is a lot more to do than visit amusement parks that are much the same as those at home.
North of the lively town of Garda, and connected to it by a bike and walking path, the beautiful headland of Punta di San Vigilio is occupied by a luxury resort. But the beaches on either side are public. The best of these is Baia dell Sirene, one of the nicest places around the lake to go swimming, relax in a nearby café, or visit the nearby playgrounds.
Continuing north along the east shore, Malcésine will enchant the whole family with its winding cobbled streets that lead ever upward to a stone castle, where adults will appreciate the outstanding lake views while kids explore its ramparts. Rising sharply above Malcésine is the 6,000-plus-foot Monte Baldo, which everyone will enjoy “climbing” via state-of-the-art cable cars (funivia). The second stage of the ascent is in a large cabin that rotates so all passengers can see the 360-degree panorama unfolding.
Although it’s more crowded and chichi, Sirmione, on the southern shore, is also a must-see because of the tiny (by castle standards) 13th-century castle that guards its entrance with a drawbridge over a moat. Older children will appreciate the Grotte di Catullo on the end of the point, the remains of an extensive Roman villa from the first century BC. A modern museum provides an overview of how the ruins would have appeared. Younger kids will like the little train that runs between here and the center of town.
At neighboring Peschiera kids can walk the walls of La Rocca, a fort complex whose grass-topped walls form a bridge over the end of Peschiera’s harbor at the mouth of the river. Also on the walls is a playground, and below a little enclosed harbor is lined by cafes. La Vela is a good lunch or dinner stop—children are sure to feed their bread to the ducks in the water below.
Another moated castle sits beside the lake in Riva, at the far northern end. Inside are finds and interpretive displays on the prehistoric settlement here, as well as medieval armor. Teens can learn windsurfing at neighboring Torbole, and everyone will want to visit Cascata de Varone, one of Europe’s most dramatic waterfalls. It plunges out of a lake almost directly overhead, through a corkscrew tunnel it has carved in the rock.
The southern shore is dotted with campgrounds that are mini resorts, along with beaches, playgrounds, cafes, and watersports equipment for rent, and even modestly priced hotels have swimming pools. Camping Cappuccini in Peschiera del Garda www.camp-cappuccini.com has RV and tent sites, shelters, swimming pool, beaches, and sports facilities, although Americans used to spacious campgrounds may find European standards quite different, with tightly-spaced sites and little elbow room.
For more space, try the budget Hotel Villa Maria at Lazise, where an 11th-century castle guards the old town. The basic hotel is on the main road, a 5-minute walk from the pretty town center, with a children’s swimming pool complex next door that is free to hotel guests.
By Barbara Rogers