Lake Garda: The Largest Lake in Italy

Lake Garda is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Italy and is the largest lake in the country, located in the provinces of Trentino, Brescia and Verona.

Lake Garda Stats

Lake NameLake Garda
Surface area354.810
Maximum depth346.0
Average depth72.8
Lake typeNatural freshwater lake
Catchment area2222.60
IslandsIsola del Garda, Isola San Biagio
Shore length167.70
Residence time6169.3
Average discharge48.436


The northern part of the lake is narrower, being located in a depression which creeps in the Northeast-Southwest direction within the Alps. The tallest peaks of the lake basin are the Presanella Peak with an altitude of 3556 meters and the Adamello Peak with an altitude of 3554 meters. The Garda Lake catchment area is composed of 4 main areas: the eastern part (1040 km2), the western part (500 km2), lake surface (370 km2) and the plain (200 km2).

Large amphitheater moraines and circles with hilly, swampy areas can be found south of the lake. These moraines were formed during the Gunz, Mindel, Riss and Wurm Ice Ages.
Garda Lake is home to many islands, of which the largest is Isola del Garda. Isola San Biagio, also known as Isola dei Conigli (meaning the island of the rabbits) can be found to the south. These two islands are located in the western part of the lake, just offshore of San Felice del Benaco. Isola dell’ Olivo, Isola di Sogno and Isola di Trimelone are the other larger islands of Garda Lake.  


The Sarca River is the most important tributary out of the 25 inflows that arrive to the Garda Lake. It flows in right next to the town of Torbole. Other major inflows are the Ponale, Magnone, Toscolano and Aril Rivers, of which the latter is the shortest river in Italy and one of the shortest in the World. The lake’s only outlet is the Mincio River, which is controlled through the lock of Salionze. The modest outlet generates a somewhat static condition of Garda, meaning that its waters remain in the lake for an average of 26.8 years. Two other dams control the lake’s waterflow, the Valvestino and the Ledro.

The Boiola is the best-known underwater tributary of Garda Lake, originating in the depths of Mount Baldo, where rain water is collected 800 meters above sea level. From there the waters take a trip of nearly 20 years to an altitude of 2,100 meters above sea level, gaining minerals and an increase in temperature up to 69OC. This is called hyperthermal mineral water and it is bacteriologically pure.

Lake Garda can be divided into 2 main parts. The Northern basin takes up approximately 93% of the lake’s total surface and has a maximum depth of 346 meters, whilst the Eastern Basin has a maximum depth of merely 79 meters. Seiches are a characteristic phenomenon governing Garda Lake, which are sudden rises of the water level, caused by a sudden drop of air pressure. This event usually happens when the lake is calm. The minimum water temperature on the lake’s surface during winter is 6OC, and the maximum during the month of August is 27OC.

Geology and Seismology

Many theories exist regarding the process of formation of the Garda Lake area and the basin. Hypotheses include glacial excavation, rift valley, central area of a syncline, depression angle faults and river valleys to be the cause of the apparition of the basin. Scientists have found that the oldest formations in the basin are from the Late Triassic period.

Specialists proclaim that the lakes of the region, the Garda, Maggiore, Como and Iseo all have an elongated shape oriented from North to South, are all limited by cliffs and their background consists of a cryptodepression. This means that these lakes have a common origin. A few theories suggest that the lakes occupy sunken areas because of the existence of 2 separate systems of subparallel faults, however there is no evidence as of yet to this at Lake Garda.

The bedrock of these Italian subalpine lakes can be found several hundred meters below the sea’s current level, suggesting that the origin of the pit comes from the erosion of rivers which occurred during the drop in level of the Mediterranean Sea approximately 5.5 million years ago.

Structural geologists have found that the Alps are dominated by the movement of two main plates: the Eurasian and the African plates. The Eurasian plate first began approaching the African plate in the Late Cretaceous, and formed the Alps once they collided, characterized by a structure in large blankets of coverage. These blankets stop south of the Insubric Line, which basically represents the border between the Alps and Southern Alps. The Southern Alps are actually the northernmost part of the African continental margin.

The section of the Insubric line which covers the Garda Lake area is called the Guidicarie line, boasting a similar bend as Mount Baldo. The Ballino Garda line cuts the lake into two. The first section is characterized by tectonic disturbances, whilst the second by large thrusts of hard carbonate rocks lying on soft rocks.

Garda Lake area is known for its seismologic activity. The oldest earthquake in living memory dates back to 243 when a strong earthquake shook the town of Benaco, which disappeared shortly after, due to a flood. Other major earthquakes have been documented in the 15th, 18th and 19th century. The most recent one occurred on the 24th of November 2004, which caused damage to a couple of buildings on the lakeshore.

Climate and Winds

The area boasts a particular mild climate, enhancing the growth of Mediterranean plants. Average winter temperature ranges between 12 and 18OC, whilst in the summer it’s between 24 and 30OC. Garda is oriented from North to South towards the Po Valley. The wind Peler governs the area, blowing from the first hours of the night, strengthening with the sunrise, and then dying off at around noon.

The wind Montins blows from the direction of Mount Baldo to Bardolino and Peschiera, whilst the Traersu blows toward Brescia Moniga and Manerba. The Bailiff is a dominant cold wind during Spring and Autumn.

Flora and Fauna

Because of its pleasant climate, trees like the chestnut, walnut, olive tree, vine and citruses thrive in the Garda Lake area. Mount Baldo has been celebrated since ancient times as the “Garden of Europe”, referring to its rich flora and outstanding number of endemic species. Numerous thermophilic species can be found at lower altitudes, including holm oaks and laurels. Between 400 and 1000 meters ash, hackberry and hazelnut govern the area, whilst between 1000-1700 meters beech trees can be found. Alpine vegetation takes over at altitudes above 1700 meters like pines, low conifers and rhododendrons.

By the lakeshore the Veronese bank is often referred to as the Riviera of Olives, whilst the Brescia side is known as the Riviera of Lemons. Plenty of waterbirds also contribute to the liveliness of the Garda Lake, among which one can mention mallard and gadwall ducks, mergansers, herons, coots and swans.

A total of 25 species live in the lake’s waters. The only endemic fish is the carp, which because of massive overfishing, competition from introduced species like Salmonidae and Coregonus, and pollution is in risk of extinction. The Salmo Carpio has been introduced to a number of other lakes around the World, but unsuccessfully.

Bleak, eel, brown trout, carp, pike and shad are among other native species. The pollen, bluegill, largemouth bass and the perch are non-indigenous species. The Garda Lake trout can grow up to 50 centimeters, live in depths of 100-200 meters and feeds on zooplankton and bottom-dwelling crustaceans.

Local Agriculture

The area has been known for its vine cultivation since ancient times. The Retico wine was actually a favorite of Emperor Augustus. The wines of Garda from the Verona side are still valuable and sophisticated, boasting a lovely red color, a delicate aroma and a pleasant taste.

Olives are another popular “byproduct” of the region, since the climate is ideal. Mountains protect them from the cold winds, whilst the lake gives them a vital source of heat. The most common varieties of olive trees, such aas Gargna, Casaliva, Miol can be found on the western shore of the lake, while the Raza and Favarol grow on the eastern side. The Olio del Garda is a famous extra-virgin olive oil of excellent quality.

Citrus trees are mostly cultivated on the Brescia side of the lake, including lemons, limes, oranges, mandarins and bergamots. The citrus cultivation has been flourishing since the late 15th century.

Important Historic Facts

Archaeologists have discovered artifacts (flint tools) which prove that the Lake Garda area has been inhabited as early as in the Mid Paleolithic. Signs of old camps on the slopes of the Baldo and Stivo can be dated back to the Upper Paleolithic. The most populated area during the Mesolithic was around the Baldo area, mainly because of the large quantities of flint that could be found there. During the Bronze Age numerous clusters of houses on stilts could be found around the lake. Even in the prehistoric period the Lake Garda region was an important meeting point of various populations.

In 225 BC the area was ruled by a three-party alliance which consisted of Cenomani, Venetians and Romans. The Romanization of the territory took place between the 1st and 2nd century BC. During that time important Roman roads were built in the area such as the Via Gallica, connecting Milan with Verona Peschiera and Via Claudia Augusta, joining the plain with the northernmost territories. The Battle of Lake Benacus took place in 268, during which the Romans defeated the Alemanni on the shores of the lake, banishing the Germanic tribes from Northern Italy. The Roman presence during this time is strongly suggested by remains of settlements and villas.

After the Roman Empire collapsed the lake area constituted a passageway to several Barbarian tribes. The first Germanic people arriving in the region were the Lombards, which inhabited the eastern and southern shores of the lake. During the Lombard supremacy the final steps of Christianization were completed. This process started a couple of centuries before by San Vigilio and San Zeno. Lake Garda stood on the border of 3 powerful duchies during that time, Verona, Brescia and Trento, and was also the hub of a major commercial and military communications network.

At the start of the 11th century however, the towns along the lakeshore started to develop a differentiated policy than what the 3 major centers of influence stood for, achieving increased autonomy. During the next century many of them became free communities, boasting a strong sense of community amongst themselves as well as social awareness. Between the 13th and 14th century a whole system of defensive constructions and fortifications were constructed on the eastern shore of Garda Lake. One of them, the Seraglio remained virtually intact until the mid-19th century, when it was partially dismantled.

In 1378 the whole Garda Lake region was under Visconti rule. In 1405 the eastern shores went into the hands of the Venetian Republic, whilst the western bank was a conflict zone. The Visconti lost Brescia (the whole western part) to Venice in 1426, and after this until the 18th century the Garda Lake area wasn’t affected by conflicts or wars. In 1701 the War of Spanish Succession took place between the Spanish and the French, who chose the Brescia Valley as their base in their quest to halt the descent of imperial troops.

The lake was one of the many sites of the Napoleon wars. In 1796 it witnessed the collision of France and Austria, but all the while the Venetian Republic kept a neutral status. Verona then arranged expeditions against the main hubs occupied by French troops, but were soon forced to retreat because they were defeated. Following the Treaty of Campo Formio, signed on the 17th October by both sides, the French went to the southwestern banks of Garda Lake, whilst the Austrians occupied the northeastern part.

In 1800 the lake was included in the new Cisalpine Republic, which later became the Italian Republic, and the Kingdom of Italy, all which were under French dominance at the time. After Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated in 1815, the so-called Restoration began, which involved restoring the power to the absolute rulers of the Ancien Regime. The Congress of Vienna determined not to reconstitute the Republic of Venice, thus the region was governed by Austria.

After this decision there were three major attempts, wars aiming to win independence. During the first Salo rebelled against the Austrian rule. The Austrians, after the advance of the Piedmontese troops, were forced to withdraw to the line of the Mincio River. In 1859 during the second War of Independence Giuseppe Garibaldi displaced its troops to the Brescia Valley, but the Italian troops were unable to sink the ruling Austrian ship on the Garda Lake before leaving Salo. During the Battle of Solferino in the same year the allied French Army, together with the Sardinian Army won against the Austrian Rule, putting Garda Lake on the border between Italy and Austria. During the Third War of Independence Veneto was given to the Kingdom of Italy, even though Garibaldi’s troops suffered defeat during the invasion of Trentino. The northern part of the lake, however, still belonged to Austria.

Battles of World War I were fought near the lake, north of the massif of Monte Baldo. The first aerial bombardment hit the town of Riva del Garda on the 23rd of July 1915. Other attacks hit numerous towns during the next 6 months, including Malcesine, Desenzano, Nago and Torbole.

After the birth of the Italian Social Republic during World War II the German command took office in Limone. On the 10th of October 1943 Benito Mussolini arrived to Gargaro, whilst the Ministry of Defense was housed in Desenzano and the Foreign Ministry, as well as the Ministry of Popular Culture were based in Salo. Mussolini only left his base in Limone on the 18th of April 1945 to move to Milan. A couple of towns were bombarded in 1944 on the Verona side of the lake.


During the Roman governance the lake was referred to as Benace. The name Garda Lake has only appeared since the Middle Ages and is said to be of Germanic origin, dating back to the Germanic presence of the 6th and 7th centuries. On documents dating back to the 8th century the lake is already called Garda, originating from the word “warda”, which means “place of guard” or “place of observation”. The name “Benacus” is probably of Celtic origin, since the word “bennacus” is comparable to the Irish “bennach”, which means “horned”, referring to the peninsula of Sirmione.

Navigation and Transportation

The very first steamboat, which was a wooden boat carrying goods and passengers, was launched in 1827 on Garda Lake. The boat was used for 10 years, after which it was replaced by a steamer. Two additional boats were launched in 1885 with a capacity of 300 passengers each. In 1903 they launched the Zanardelli which had an astonishing capacity of 800 passengers. Navigation on Garda Lake was militarized during World War I. The first hydrofoil service was launched on the lake after World War II, in 1958.

Today private motorboats can only be operated 300 meters away from the lakeshore, except in Sirmione and the gulfs of Salo, Manerba and at Isola del Garda, where it’s allowed beyond 150 meters. Motorboats are strictly forbidden on the Trentino side of the lake. The maximum speed which boats can take up during the day is 20 knots, whilst it’s merely 5 knots during the night.

The lake can be found right at the middle of four important centers, Verona, Mantua, Trento and Brescia, thus making it easily accessible from the main highways. It can also be reached by public transport routes, secured by regular bus fares. Garda Lake is also directly accessible by regular trains of the Milan-Venice railway. The two main stations can be found in Desenzano-Sirmione and Peschiera. The lake area is served by the nearby airport of Verona, which was used by the Royal Air Force in World War II and became a civilian airport in the 1960s.

For getting around at Garda Lake, you can choose between ferry services or buses, of which the latter are a faster alternative. Although ferry services exist, they are often infrequent ones, connecting large towns of the eastern and western shores. There’s an express ferry running daily from Riva/Reiff to Peschiera, but which doesn’t allow any bicycles on. There are 5 daily bus fares on the eastern coast between Verona and Garda Lake. Another daily route exists between Riva/Reiff Rovereto/Rofreit and Trento/Trient. There’s also a regular bus service on the western coast between Desenzano and Salo.

Tourism and Leisure

The Garda Lake area has been a popular destination ever since the Roman Times when numerous villas were constructed along its shores serving as holiday homes. Sirmione was the most privileged and most visited place on the lake’s banks, due to its sulfur springs. During the Renaissance a number of villas were built in the northwestern side of the lake, which quickly became a popular tourist area for the elite. Tourism, in the modern conception of the term developed in the 19th century. Exception from this rule is the Verona side of the lake, where tourism only started blooming in the 1930s.

Today it is one of the most popular holiday destinations, for Italians and foreigners alike. People come here from all over the world to enjoy the beaches and sports opportunities Garda Lake has to offer. The Andre Hellers Botanical Gardens of Gardone Riviera, the Arboretum of Arco and the Forra di Tremosine are just some of the most visited nature sites around Lake Garda.

The towns on the lake’s banks are very beautiful. Sirmione is an ancient, fortified town south of the lake, home of the Vigilio and Catullo Spa Complexes, along with numerous restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels and shops. The 13th century Scaliger castle is also a popular attraction, along with the sulphur springs at the tip of the Sirmione peninsula, known for its extraordinary healing waters.

The Archaeological Museum of Sirmione, the Archaeology and History Museum of Salo, the Garibaldi Museum of Ledro, the Archaeological Museum of Giovanni Rambotti in Desenzano del Garda and the Castle Museum of Torri del Benaco are a couple of the most sought-after expositions of the Garda area. The Cathedral of Salo, the Chiesa di San Pier d’Afrino of Gargano, the Church of San Bartolomeo in Valvestino and the Madonna delle Neve Church in Puegnano are a few of the most popular religious sites.

Tourists can admire the view over Garda Lake from the top of Mount Baldo, which can be accessible through a cable car ride which starts in Malcesine. The theme parks located close to the lake also attract a number of tourists. The most famous one is Gardaland, but Canevaworld with its film and waterpark, the wildlife-themed Parco Natura Viva and the green oasis called Sigurta Park are also popular recreational facilities.

Lake Garda Map