Exploring Sirmione ★★
Perched on a promontory swathed in cypress and olive groves on the southernmost edge of Lake Garda, photogenic Sirmione has been a popular spot since the Romans first discovered hot springs here. Despite the onslaught of summer visitors, this historic town manages to retain its charm. Sirmione has lakeside promenades and pleasant beaches and is small enough for everything to be accessible on foot. It is chiefly famous for its thermal springs, castle, and northern Italy’s largest Roman ruins.
The moated, fortified Rocca Scaligera ★★ (tel. 030/916-468) was built on the peninsula’s narrowest point and today dominates the centro storico. Built in the late 13th century by the Della Scala family, who ruled Verona and many of the lands surrounding the lake, the castle is worth a visit for its sweeping courtyards, turreted towers, dungeons, and views across Lake Garda. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday 8:30am to 7:30pm, and from 8:30am to 2pm on Sundays; admission is 5€, ages 18 to 25 2.50€.
From the castle, it’s a 15-minute walk (or take the open-air tram from Piazza Piatti) along Via Vittorio Emanuele from the town center to the tip of Sirmione’s peninsula and the Grotte di Catullo ★★ (tel. 030/916-157), romantically placed ruins with views across the lake. Built around a.d. 150, the remains are thought to represent two sizeable aristocratic villas. A small museum of Roman artifacts from the site includes jewelry and mosaic fragments (Piazzale Orti Manara 4; 6€ adults, 3€ 18–25; free first Sun of month; opening times generally Apr–Sept Tues–Sat 8:30am–7:30pm, Sun 9:30am–6:30pm; Mar–Oct Tues–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 8:30am–2pm).
The massive amusement park Gardaland (www.gardaland.it; tel. 045/6449-777) is half an hour’s drive east of Sirmione at Castelnuovo del Garda. This huge resort includes two hotels and an aquarium and is generally thronged during school vacation periods, but if Disneyland-type places are your thing, you may want to check it out.
Exploring Riva del Garda ★
The northernmost settlement on Lake Garda is a thriving Italian town with medieval towers, Renaissance churches and palazzi, and narrow cobblestone streets where everyday business proceeds in its alluring way. Note that Riva del Garda becomes a cultural mecca in October, when the town hosts the international Lago di Garda Musica Festival (www.mrf-musicfestivals.com). If you want to see amateur choirs and orchestras perform classical music in magnificent villas and palazzos, with the lake as a breathtaking backdrop, make hotel reservations well in advance.Riva del Garda’s Old Town is pleasant, although it has only two notable historic attractions. The 13th-century Torre d’Apponale (2€, ages 16 and under free) in Piazza III Novembre is open in summer for visitors to climb its 165 steps for views across the lake. The town’s moated lakeside castle, La Rocca, now houses an unassuming civic museum (www.museoaltogarda.it; tel. 0464/573-869; 5€ adults, 3€ ages 15–26 and over 65, ages 14 and under free; open Tues-Sun 10am–6pm, typically closes Dec–Jan and sometimes Feb).
Exploring Gardone Riviera ★★
Halfway up the western shore of Lake Garda, this little resort—easily accessible by ferry or bus from Desenzano del Garda—offers visitors a gorgeous backdrop for a little relaxation. Oleanders dot the paved promenade, and the charming centro storico (Gardone Sopra) is filled with enticing bars and restaurants.
Uphill from Gardone Sopra, the Heller Garden (Via Roma 2; www.hellergarden.com; tel. 0336/410-877) is a tropical paradise founded by Arthur Hruska, a botanist who was also dentist to the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Hruska planted this botanical haven in the 1900s, and 8,000 rare palms, orchids, and tree ferns now thrive here, thanks to the town’s mild, sheltered climate. Today the gardens are curated by Austrian artist André Heller, whose sculptures can be found scattered among the water features, cacti, and bamboo copses. The garden is open March to October daily from 9am to 7pm; admission is 12€, 5€ for ages 6 to 11.
Gardone Riviera’s other highlight is the Vittoriale degli Italiani (Via Vittoriale 12; www.vittoriale.it; tel. 0365/296-511), the wildly ostentatious and bizarrely decorated villa home of Gabriele d’Annunzio, Italy’s most notorious poet and sometime war hero. He bought this hillside estate in 1921 and died here in 1936; a visit pays tribute to d’Annunzio’s hedonistic lifestyle rather than his fairly awful poetry. The claustrophobic rooms of this madcap mansion are stuffed with bric-a-brac and artifacts from his colorful life, including mementos of his long affair with actress Eleonora Duse. The patrol boat D’Annunzio commanded in World War I, a museum containing his biplane and photos, and the poet’s hilltop mausoleum are all found in the formal gardens that cascade down the hillside. The villa is open daily; in summer from 9am to 8pm and winter from 9am to 5pm. Admission ranges from 10€ to 16€, depending on which parts you visit. Children 6 and under enter for free, while there are special prices for those aged 7 to 18 and over 65.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.