Life is pretty tough when you are forced to choose which Italian lake to base your next cycling destination. First world problems?
There is something about the Italian lakes district that is alluring for cyclists.
So picture this. You roll out in the morning at a leisurely hour, stop for a quick espresso and pastry, then spend your day pedaling through charming villages, up and down rolling vine covered hills while gazing at the sparkling blue waters of your lake of choice. You wave to smiling Italian cyclists wearing white lycra calling out “Ciao Bella” as they roll on past. You stop for lunch at a local pizzeria that has been owned by the same family for generations, where you spend an hour or so whiling away the afternoon sipping on complimentary limoncello. Then you tootle back to your apartment, where you have a quick snooze, maybe a swim in the pool to wash away the fuzzy limoncello feeling then head on down the cobblestone streets for dinner followed by five scoops of gelato.
So good news - you can recreate this experience at pretty much any of the Italian lakes. However, unless you have limitless time and money, most of us have to choose one lake or the other to base ourselves.
So...today we tackle the age old question that has been plaguing cyclists for generations. Which of the northern Italian lakes is the best for cycling? Well sadly I’ve only been to a few of them (poor me - cue the violins) so I’m going to focus on two of the most popular - Lake Como and Lake Garda.
Pros: Classically beautiful scenery, diverse riding, historic for cyclists.
Cons: Touristy, the main road around the lake is very busy in Summer and on weekends.
Let's start with the jewel of the district. Lake Como has a glitzy reputation - it’s a place where movie stars own enormous villas, where you can dine in Michelin star restaurants or buy that 3000 Euro leather handbag you’ve been eyeing off (or you could buy some new wheels instead…). However as lovely as that all is, what is the draw for cyclists?
Lake Como is one of the most popular cycling destinations in Italy (and probably Europe) due to its diverse scenery of mountains, lakes and forests, it's refreshing climate, and most of all for its historical presence in the cycling world.
The quality of the roads around Lake Como are generally very good. The main road that goes around the lake can be quite busy with traffic, particularly around Bellagio, and it is very narrow with no shoulder in places, so you do need to be aware of this and ride safely. However as soon as you get off the main road into the hills, the traffic reduces and you will find the roads to be quiet, picturesque and a joy to ride.
In terms of cycling routes, Como has a bit of everything.
You can head off the main road from most of the towns and up into the hills which are forested and cool. There are a few loops you can do, allowing you to end back in your village for lunch.
We did a great loop out of Varenna. You head north 1km out of town and take the turnoff to Perledo. The road starts to climb gently above the lake and the views are magnificent. You cycle right past the Castello di Vezio which is well worth a visit (maybe out of lycra so you can really appreciate it) then head on up into the hills and loop your way back down to descend into Bellano. The road was virtually car free when we got into the hills and the views were simply breathtaking.
You can circumnavigate the entire perimeter of the lake - 160kms, which is relatively flat (there are a few undulating sections) which allows you to take in the whole diversity of the lake. There are a few tunnels, but you can avoid them by going on back roads.
A trip to Lake Como is not complete without a ride up to Ghisallo. Visiting the museum and the chapel of La Madonna del Ghisallo is a must do for every cyclist. The chapel pays homage to the patron saint of cycling, and this route is a regular in the Giro d’Italia.
FYI it’s not flat, so pack your climbing legs. Particularly if you decide to go up the Muro di Sormano. This climb is famous as one of the most severe of any road cycling race, with an average gradient of 17% and a maximum of 25%. It’s only 1700m in length, but it might be the most painful 1700m you’ve ever ridden. Ouch.
One plus for Como is it’s proximity to the other lakes in the Lombardy region. Those of you staying on the western shore can cycle the short distance over to Lake Lugano (30km to Lugano city from Mennagio) or south to Varese. The Varese region has been a base for many professional cyclists, including the Orica Greenedge team and is a beautiful part of the world for cycling. You could easily do a loop through Varese and return to Como in a day.
Aside from the rides, the towns in Lake Como are beautiful. The villages of Bellagio, Varenna and Mennagio are three of the most popular and all have great accommodation and restaurants. There are plenty of other smaller towns to stay in that are just as lovely and less touristy. We stayed in a small village about 10kms out of Bellagio up in the hills called Fagetto Lario which was lovely as it was had incredible views of the lake, but no one around.
I do suggest you take a look at the cycling routes around your village before you book your accommodation. You don’t want to have to spend every day cycling around the busy main road to get to the start of your ride.
Final conclusions: You will not be disappointed if you choose Lake Como as your cycling destination. It is diverse enough to be interesting, plus it’s a place that most people feel they need to tick off their bucket list.
Top restaurant pick: Al Veluu
Top accommodation pick: Casa Tulipano
Strava ride segments:
Madonna del Ghisallo: https://www.strava.com/activities/64013301#3472295948
Varenna loop: https://www.strava.com/activities/64013303#1213477658
Pros: Diverse riding, not as posh.
Cons: As it is so large you need to pick your accommodation wisely.
Lake Garda is the largest of all the northern Italian lakes. It offers something for everyone; located between the Alp and Dolomite mountain ranges, it enjoys diverse scenery ranging from low-lying countryside in the south to pine-covered cliffs to the north. There are many flat cycle trails around the lake and more complex paths further towards the mountains.
In all honesty, I prefer Lake Garda as a cycling destination to Lake Como. It is less glitzy, and just feels a little more real than Lake Como, less like a movie set.
Lake Garda literally has something for everyone. The south is flat and warm and much busier than the north. Sirmione is a amazing village on a thin strip of land that juts into the base of the lake. It’s well worth a lunch stop. If you are staying in one of the villages along the lake you can cycle the flat main road to Sirmione, have lunch then cycle back - or catch the ferry if you drink too much wine. There is a bike path for part of the journey, although it was quite slow. If you want to get down there quickly I’d suggest taking the main road. There are a few bike hotels located down the south that do rides each day around the lake.
The area around Bardolino on the eastern shore is magnificent. Bardolino is known for its wine and the surrounding hills are straight out of a Tuscan postcard. There are lots of fabulous wineries where you can pop in for lunch - take a look at my review on La Dacia here. You could also cycle all the way over to Verona if you wanted to check out the ancient city.
At the northern end of the lake are the high mountains. Stay up this end if you want to spend your days climbing. Riva del Garda is a lovely town with good access to some great cycling routes. There is also a great bike mechanic in Torbole (just outside Riva) who is based right next door to a cafe where you can get the best lemon gelato in the world! I spent a couple of hours here when my gear cable snapped. I wasn’t complaining.
We stayed in Malcesine, which is towards the north on the eastern shore. This location was great as we had access to the flatter rides in the south and the hillier rides in the north. You can also catch the ferry over to the western shore which has some lovely riding and towns too.
Malcesine gave us great access to Monte Baldo which is a ride highlight. We rode north towards Riva Del Garda, up the climb to Monte Baldo which has magnificent views (you feel like you are in the Alps) and circled back down to the lake. It was challenging, particularly as their was a landslide half way down the descent, causing us to take a very long route home while trying to outrun an oncoming storm... but it was lots of fun! It was particularly enjoyable seeing the look on my friend Dan's face when we stopped for lunch about 20kms out of our town. Dan had sadly had mis-calculated the distance home and thought we only had to climb the 1.5km back to our accommodation. He was outraged when he realised we had 20km to go!
There is a cable car from Malcesine up to Monte Baldo, so if you travelling with non-cycling friends you could meet them at the top for lunch. However take note: when I was there in 2014 the road up to the cable car was very steep and not suitable for road bikes (basically a goat track). So if you are planning to ride up and take the cable car back down to Malcesine, take this into account.
The villages around Lake Garda are simply beautiful. I highly recommend visiting Malcesine, Limone, Riva Del Garda, Tobole, Bardolino and Sirmione. All have beautiful old towns, great restaurants and a lively atmosphere on the lake. I’ve also heard Gardone Riviera is a beautiful village, but sadly we didn't’ get a chance to visit. Next time!
Final conclusions: I’d recommend Lake Garda for anyone who wants both challenging climbs as well as experiencing the serenity of the lake, and some wineries thrown in for good measure.
Top restaurant pick: Restaurant La Dacia
Top accommodation pick: Villa Mansarda
Strava ride segments:
Malcesine to Monte Baldo Loop: https://www.strava.com/activities/166462549#3871698651
Malcesine to Sirmione: https://www.strava.com/activities/166462514#16481019934
So all in all, you are not going to be disappointed if you choose either of these lakes. It comes down to personal taste really, and for me I like the relaxed vibe and diverse scenery of Lake Garda slightly more than the glamourous Lake Como. But I’m not a Prada kind of girl!
Images: Brandon Heng