I grew up in Alaska where many people claim it’s the most beautiful place in the world.
Well, I disagree.
Once you visit Lake Como or Lake Garda, it’s hard to imagine anywhere more beautiful than this slice of heaven.
But maybe you’re strapped for time and have to pick one or the other.
So, which lake should you visit?
I’ve been to both lakes MANY times, exploring as much as possible. I have also stayed in many different towns around both lakes, so I have different perspectives on the different areas.
In this article, I will break down the pros and cons of each lake. And while they share many similarities, they are quite different.
And if you don’t have time to read it all, just know that you can’t make a wrong decision here. Both lakes are absolutely fantastic. The most breathtaking spots to visit are North Lake Garda (Malcesine, Limone, Riva del Garda) and the central area of Lake Como (Varenna, Bellagio).
Lake Garda vs Lake Como
To start off, let’s highlight some of the high-level differences between these lakes.
Lake Garda is more sporty. It’s famous for windsurfing and you see that a lot here. The mountains are more dramatic in the north, and the towns are often wedged into cliffsides in these mountains.
Lake Garda is also a much larger lake. It’s the largest lake in Italy and one of the largest in Western Europe. Compared to Lake Como, it’s over twice the size at 143 square miles.
This means it takes longer to get to other areas around the lake. Lake Garda gets a lot of tourists at the height of summer travel, which takes away from the lovely towns and overall experience.
Lake Como feels more romantic and Italian. Perhaps it’s because of the villas dotted around the lake, or that more couples come here, but it really feels romantic. It can also be less touristy in many of the towns. This may be surprising if you’re an American and reading this since Lake Como is typically what you hear (thanks George!).
But for Europeans, Lake Garda is the more popular spot, especially among Germans. Most menus at restaurants on Lake Garda are in German, English, and Italian whereas on Lake Como they’re mostly in just Italian or Italian and English.
Can You Visit Both Lakes?
The fastest route between the lakes takes about 2 hours, with the beautiful town of Bergamo in between (a place I also recommend visiting if you have time).
If you have four days to explore, then yes, you could get a taste of both lakes.
But if you’re visiting in high season and plan to drive, you could end up spending more time in your car rather than exploring the lake. These lakes get really crowded, especially between June to early September.
So with just a few days, I recommend picking one lake to explore (and preferably use the ferry system).
It also boils down to your travel style. For example, we have young kids with us, so we’d rather plant ourselves in one spot and ferry around one lake.
However, if you love to go, go, go, and see it all, then you can get a taste of both of these lakes in just a few days.
Location of Each Lake
Before we dive into the finer details, one of the main factors that I think should drive your decision is your location and itinerary. Since you are likely traveling with limited time, I would suggest visiting the lake that best suits your travel itinerary.
- If you plan to visit France and Switzerland, I recommend Lake Como as it’s closer.
- If you are flying into Milan, Lake Como is a 1-hour train ride away.
- If you are flying into Venice or plan to head to eastern Austria, then I recommend Lake Garda.
Lake Garda vs Lake Como
Best for Sporty Activities
Winner: Lake Garda
If you love having activities to do on vacation, then you are in for a treat! Both lakes have tons of options, but Lake Garda gets the edge here.
The north of the lake is where it’s at for sporty activities. Here, notably at Torbole, you can sign up for windsurfing lessons. Or you can plan a hike up Monte Baldo from Malcesine. Many people also mountain bike down Monte Baldo! There’s a cable car that can take you to the top to then ride down.
Between Bardolino and Lazise is a 5.5-mile cycling and running trail that goes through four towns. This tour is perfect to get a taste of this lovely trail.
But there are also many other hiking options around the lake. If you plan to hike, the only place I’d avoid is the southern end of Lake Garda as it gets relatively flat.
While Lake Como also offers water sports, it is better known for its serene atmosphere, making it ideal for leisurely boat rides and fishing. Hiking and golfing are popular land-based activities.
Still, there are some great hiking options.
One of my favorite hikes starts in the town of Como and ends in Brunate, a town high up on the mountain. You can then continue to Voltiano Lighthouse, the highest point in the area. If you don’t want such a long trip, you can take the funicular to Brunate and then hike from there. Varenna has a lovely short hike up to a castle from town.
Best for Leisurely Activities
There’s no winner here, as both places are equally perfect for a leisurely vacation.
On either lake, you can wake up, stop at a cafe, and spend your day strolling the winding streets or taking the ferry to another beautiful village.
You could easily spend an afternoon having drinks while enjoying breathtaking views of the lake.
Since Lake Como is smaller, it’s a bit easier to ferry around the lake. Don’t get me wrong, it still takes a while to get from place to place, but it’s not as much as on Lake Garda. If strolling from town to town is your idea of a perfect day, then Lake Como might be a better fit.
Best for Resorts
Each lake has a mix of resorts but you’ll find that Lake Garda is more family-friendly while Lake Como is more luxurious, generally speaking.
The shores of Lake Garda are lined with a wide range of resorts catering to different budgets and preferences. You’ll find luxurious spa resorts as well as family-friendly options.
Overall there are many more family options on Lake Garda, and the prices are reasonable for what you get. If you want to wake up and enjoy mountain views in the pool, there are plenty of options in Limone (like this one!).
For a perfect affordable spot in Malcesine, I recommend the Hotel Dolomiti. I love that it’s central but on a quieter street, and you still have a pool!
Lake Como is known for its upscale resorts and boutique hotels. It’s preferred for couples and luxury travelers (or people like me who sometimes want a taste of luxury).
I would love to stay at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo and sip Aperol spritz right on the lakeshores.
For a complete luxury experience, the Boutique Hotel Passalacqua is one of the newest and best hotels on the lake. It was recently voted one of the Best 50 Hotels in the World too. Even if you don’t plan on booking here, it’s worth a look!
Verdict: If you’re looking for a variety of resorts, Lake Garda offers more options. However, for high-end luxury, Lake Como is the place to be.
Best for Villas
Winner: Lake Como
There’s no way around it, Lake Como is easily the winner when it comes to villas.
Lake Como is famous for its historic villas, with over 50 villas around the lakeshores.
Some of the top villas include:
- Villa Monastero (Varenna)
- Villa Balbianello (Casino Royale was filmed here)
- Villa Erba (Cernobbio)
- Villa Cipressi (Varenna)
Best for Beaches
Winner: Lake Garda
There aren’t a ton of sandy beaches at either lake, but there are many options to swim from shore. Many areas have ladders or some sort of access to the water. So although there aren’t a plethora of beaches, there are many options to swim from shore.
Many people state the water quality isn’t great at either lake. I swam in both lakes multiple times and was fine, but swim at your own risk and be sure to rinse off afterward.
Around Lake Garda, you’ll find more sandy beach options than Lake Como.
Limone has a large sandy beach area that gets tons of sun throughout the day.
Malcesine has a few beach options including Campagnola and Navene. They’re both made of pebbles and stones, so be sure to bring your water shoes. And there are other rocky areas to lounge in the sun or take a dip.
Torbole sul Garda has a large pebbly beach on the north end. If you’d rather be active, you can sign up for beginner kitesurfing or windsurfing lessons.
Many of the beach options on Lake Como aren’t sandy beaches but instead an area with a drop-off or steps where you can swim.
There are a few public pebbly beaches. Bellano has a large beach that we enjoyed one afternoon.
The town of Como has a small sandy beach area, but it’s usually taken over by swans. There are some hotels and homes that have private beach areas.
Both lakes are beautiful, so you really can’t make a wrong choice here.
On Lake Garda, the Northern side of the lake is much more striking with the Alpine mountains, making it the best choice if you want beautiful scenery.
Around Lake Como it’s really quite beautiful everywhere, however, I recommend staying around the middle of the lake for the best views. Here you have Bellagio, Varenna, and Menaggio. The lake splits into two sections heading south at this juncture, so you have plenty of mountainous areas surrounding you.
From Menaggio, you can also spot snow-capped mountains on a clear day while enjoying a stroll with palm trees (winter/shoulder season only).
Best For Foodies
If you’re foodies like us, there are plenty of great options on both lakes. I was happily surprised to find there are many Michelin-star restaurants on both lakes.
There’s a lovely restaurant in Varenna called Osteria Quatro Pass. There are only about five tables inside and the food is fantastic.
Another great spot is located in Brunate, above the town of Lake Como. To get there, take the funicular that runs every 30 minutes to the top, then walk a few minutes to reach the restaurant.
We went to this restaurant multiple times over the years, and each time is just as good as the last.
Tips for Families
Best For Strollers
Winner: Lake Garda
If you have young children and need a place that’s stroller-friendly, pay particular attention to this section, as many of the towns along these lakes are super hilly with stairs. I give Lake Garda the edge here as there are more towns that are stroller-friendly.
The town of Como on the lake is the best spot for a stroller on Lake Como. There’s a large old town area that you could spend a few days exploring. The biggest downside to Como is that it’s on the southernmost part of the lake, so it takes a while to get to the center via ferry. Of course, driving is also an option.
When we went we stayed in Como. I liked that there was plenty to do.
However, if you prefer somewhere quiet and with a beach, Bellano up north is a good option.
It is hilly, so if you stay out of the small main town area you will need a carrier or to haul your stroller. But there are some fun things for kids. There’s an incredible gorge here, Orrido di Bellano, that’s tucked away just a few minutes from town. Bellano also has a good-sized beach, which isn’t the norm around the lake.
If you want to stay in the north, Riva del Garda is a great option for small kids. The entire old town is walkable with nearly zero stairs to navigate. You could stay right in the old town and have quick access to the ferry.
There’s also 2.5-mile paved walking path between Riva del Garda and the town of Torbole.
Further south there’s a small quiet town called Bardolino. What I love about this town is that there’s a large pedestrian (and cycle) path that goes all the way to Lazise. The entire route crosses 4 towns and is about 5 1/2 miles each way.
Within Bardolino, most of the old town area is stroller-friendly.
Sirmione at the southern end of the lake is flat and stroller-friendly as well.
I would avoid Malcesine and Limone if you plan to use a stroller. Both toMalcesine has some stairs but more importantly, the pedestrian walking areas are made of these large rocks not suitable for a stroller. I don’t even enjoy walking on them, so it would be miserable on a stroller (lots and lots of bumps!). I did this when my son was 4 months old and wished we’d stayed somewhere more flat.
Limone is hilly and has many stairs. There are also many large rocks used for the pedestrian walking area too.
Whether you have young kiddos or older children, Gardaland is a fun resort and theme park loaded with things to do.
Located just southeast of Lake Garda, this massive resort and waterpark nearly touches the lake shores. The closest town is Peschiera del Garda but can easily be accessed from the other towns on the southern end of the lake.
Gardaland has a park area with rollercoasters, water rides (even one on the Colorado River), Peppa Pig Land, and a brand new Jumanji-themed area. There’s a large Sealife aquarium area and also a mini Legoland with many rides too. It’s a fun place for everyone, and definitely something you should add to your list while at Lake Garda!
Top Towns to Visit Near Each Lake
From Lake Como
From Lake Como, you’re close to the large cities of Milan and Turin (where I studied abroad!). Lake Como is MUCH closer to Switzerland. In fact, the town of Como is only about 20 minutes from the Swiss border.
For an absolutely epic drive, I recommend doing the Spluga Pass from Lake Como. It’s known as one of the most thrilling drives in Europe.
The drive starts once you head north of the lake and start climbing the mountain. This pass is NOT for the faint of heart. There are many hairpin turns and steep grades, taking you higher and higher until you reach the summit.
From Lake Garda
From Bardolino on Lake Garda, Verona is just a 35-minute drive away. Venice is about a 90-minute drive and you can also take the train.
Smaller towns including Padua, Bolzano, and Bassano del Grappa are closer to Lake Garda.
If you’re coming from Austria, Lake Garda is closer and has a more direct route.
The striking Dolomites are closer to Lake Garda as well.
There are wine regions all over Northern Italy. My favorites are Barolo, Barbera d’Alba, and Barbera d’Asti wines located south of Turin. Valpolicella is another excellent wine in the Veneto region that skirts Lake Garda.
When Is the Best Time of Year to Visit the Lakes?
We visited both lakes many times over the years and mostly stuck to the shoulder season each time we visited. These months included April (Lake Como was so quiet!), May, September, and October.
While my personal experience is limited to the shoulder season, I believe this is the best time to visit.
I prefer shoulder season because you don’t have the massive crowds that you hear about during the high season of June – August. The weather is also more mild between April to May and starting in September.
Even with cooler temps, I found it to be quite pleasant as the average temperatures range from 50 to 70+ Fahrenheit. We even went swimming in Bellano on the beach in September (the water is still quite warm from peak temperatures in July and August).
In the winter months, it can get quite cold with temperatures hovering in the high 30’s to 40’s (F). The surrounding mountaintops get dusted with snow, but it’s rare to snow on the lake. Even so, I imagine a winter trip to the Christmas markets around the lake would be quite magical.