The ultimate guide to Garda Trentino, Italy

Garda Trentino has one remarkable surprise in store for visitors: what looks like a tiny Mediterranean-style oasis skirting Italy’s largest lake also lies at the foot of the mighty Alps…

Gareth Clark
01 October 2019
Arco Castle (Daniele Lira)

Where is Garda Trentino?

Riva del Garda’s city centre (Roberto Vuilleumier)

Garda Trentino, or Lake Garda, is in northern Italy, on the uppermost tip of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. Its main centre is the town of Riva del Garda, which is only home to around 18,000 people. Verona is only around 85km away, with Milan, Venezia and the Dolomites all within easy reach. 

A geographical quirk means that, despite lying high in Italy’s mountainous north, the area’s climate is mild enough to spy olive groves, vineyards and lemon trees by the roadside. Yet tilt your head up and, for all the beaches and windsurfers out on the water, you’ll realise you’re on the fringes of the Alps.

Where is Garda Trentino?

Why should you visit Garda Trentino?

Why should you visit Garda Trentino? (Matias Capizzano/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

It’s a region that rewards exploration. Small towns and medieval villages skirt the peaks and lakes, with some surprisingly easy-going walking among its trails. Wander 13th-century castles and wartime relics of a time when this area was the fraught border between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then relax on the pebble shores of central town Riva del Garda, drifting on an SUP out on the water or with a glass of local Nosiola wine in hand.

Then there’s the mountains themselves. Up in the crags you’ll find Garda Trentino at its rawest, whether clinging to an overhang, leaping off a waterfall on a canyoning trip or scrambling the via ferrata that vein the slopes. The area is quick to up the adrenaline stakes when needed, but at its heart it’s a quiet slice of Italy, far removed from, say, the urban hustle of Milan, which lies just two hours away by train.

Walk the Ponale Trail (Roberto Vuilleumier/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

 

Five top things to do around Lake Garda

Climbing in Garda Trentino (Giampaolo Calzà/Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

1. Walk the Ponale Trail

(Giampaolo Calzà /Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

With more than 600km of trails veining Garda Trentino, the area isn’t short of a walk or two. Short hikes like the 4km Busatte-Tempesta route, which loops Lake Garda’s half-coast, ascending 400 iron steps for fine views that sweep down over the water. But when it comes to icons, the Ponale Trail stands alone.

It’s not a hard walk – and at just 3.1km it only takes around 1.5 hours – but it’s a piece of the lake’s history. The trail follows the old Ponale Road, which connects Riva del Garda and the Ledro Valley. This route was made redundant some 20 years ago, when a tunnel was burrowed through the rock; now it’s a favourite of walkers and cyclists as it rises high above the lake below.

It’s not just views, though. At the second and third tunnels you’ll spy the remains of the Tagliata del Ponale, a mid-20th-century fortification built under Austro-Hungarian rule and hewn into the rock. Its trenches and tunnels crawl up to old outposts overlooking the lake, and are usually off-limits except for sporadic tours, so time your visit right. 

Wind, water, sail and stones in Garda Trentino (Roberto Vuilleumier/ Garda Trentino S.P. A.)

Did you know? 

 The walk to Tempesta crosses what used to be the Italian border, back when much of Garda Trentino was owned by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Get a taste of Garda (Just Visual/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

2. Climb the walls (literally)

Canale di Tenno

Lake Garda is well known among the climbing community, who tend to cluster in the town of Arco, where you’ll find plenty of guides, climbing schools and tall tales of brave ascents told in local bars. The region has almost 30 crags and more than 600 routes, from simple bouldering to multi-pitch climbs, with the Sarca Valley offering true Alpine conditions. But it’s all about finding your level.    

A good way in are the via ferrata – or iron road – routes that have steel cables affixed to the rock so that climbers can attach themselves. As well as a number of guides to show you the basics, these routes range from the beginner-friendly 1.2km climb up the east wall of Mount Colodri, to some other far more difficult yet spectacular routes. 

Then there’s canyoning, which goes slightly more off-piste. Combining climbing and swimming, centres take visitors out into the gorges of Ledro Valley to clamber, splash and battle the torrents of the Palvico and Rio Nero. Hurl yourself off waterfalls, abseil sheer walls and bum-slide down rocks in this most grown-up of natural jungle gyms.

Riva del Garda (Roberto Vuilleumier/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

Did you know?

The annual Rock Master festival takes place on the walls around Arco. This competition brings together some of the best climbers in the world, including former winner – and a regular on these mountains – Adam Ondra, the ambassador for Garda Trentino.   

Garda Trentino in Spring (Roberto Vuilleumier/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

3. Cycle the many mountainous routes 

Garda Trentino in winter (Fabio Staropoli/Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

 

Cycle routes weave the hills, roads and valleys around Lake Garda, with perhaps the most anticipated new addition being Garda by Bike track, which will traverse three different regions. There’s even the yearly Bike Festival, which draws some 45,000 visitors in late spring, luring road and mountain bike enthusiasts alike.

Variety is the key here. From three-hour road routes skimming the forests of Concei in the Ledro Valley, to MTB trails bouncing dirt tracks and muddy hillsides across Mount Velo, there’s plenty of choice. But for an easy pedal through scenery that rarely stops to let you catch your breath, , the cycle path starting in Torbole sul Garda is a great beginning. 

This cycle path stretches 24km between Torbole sul Garda, following the Sarca River upstream, and links up with plenty of MTB routes along the way, taking you past banks lined with oleanders and olive trees as the rushing waters narrate your journey. Best of all, there’s not a car to be seen. Alternatively, you can save your legs by swapping your mountain bike for an e-bike during this EMTB event. 

What’s the weather like in Garda Trentino? ? (Roberto Vuilleumier/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

Did you know? 

Christmas sees winter markets take over the villages of Garda Trentino, with Arco, Riva del Garda and Canale di Tenno in particular filled with stalls dishing up local specialities and lit up by evening light shows.   

How to get to Garda Trentino (Daniele Lira/ Garda Trentino S.P.A.)

4. Wind, water, sail and stones

For all the towering crags and peaks that surround it, Garda’s pellucid waters and pebble shores resemble more Mediterranean coast than Alpine outpost. The tree-shaded stony beaches of the northern side of Lake Garda or the grassy shores and mountain lake of Tenno are ideal for resting up between adventures.  

Then it’s time to get out on the water. Strong winds make Lake Garda a popular windsurfing and sailing centre, with over 100 races and regattas held across the year. Despite the conditions, waves rarely get too high, so it’s ideal for beginners, too. Or simply just grab an SUP or canoe and paddle the coves etched into Garda’s corner’s.

There’s even good diving to be found here, especially in winter when the water is clearer. Drift down to depths of around 15m to glimpse the sunken Christ statue off the shores of Riva del Garda or the remains of a Second World War tank, while the inlets of Tempesta are ideal for finding your flippers in the shallows.

Did you know? 

The highest peak in the Garda Mountains is Monte Altissimo di Nago, which reaches 2,079m at its summit.

5. Get a taste of Garda

Any exploration of the Garda Trentino region will unearth plenty of delicacies. River waters leap with fresh trout and whitefish, roadsides are lined with olive groves and a mix of Alpine, Mediterranean and Italian influences create some unique dishes. Mop these up with a crust of bread and the world’s most northerly olive oil (the local variety is Casaliva), before finishing with a glass of sweet Vino Santa made from the locally grown Nosiola grape.    

 Typical dishes are the carne salada, an iconic local carpaccio of veal beef sliced to within a hair’s breadth, sprinkled with pepper and parmesan and accompanied by fasoi (beans). Follow that with a bowl of strangolapreti, spinach dumplings made from stale bread that allegedly dates back to the mid-1500s, when Trentino’s priests would devour this dish hungrily until they choked (its name translates as strangled priest).

From thick, deep-flavoured honeys and Mount Baldo saffron, to a wealth of cheeses and dairy straight from the pasture, slow foods, grappas and wines, the region is rich in flavours. Be sure to stick around for the Garda con Gusto Gourmet Experience food festival in November, when a host of Michelin-starred chefs descend on Riva del Garda. This year, the festival will be running from the first to the third of November. 

Did you know? 

Garda Trentino’s olive oil is made from the world’s most northerly grown olives (the local variety is Casaliva), farmed close to the 46th parallel. 

 

Ideas for taking a day trip 

Discover the countryside villages

Day trips to the villages, castles and lakes of Garda Trentino reveal another side to the region, away from the adrenaline of its mountainsides.

The medieval village of Canale di Tenno dates from the 13th century, yet it fell on hard times in the 1960s when it was all but abandoned. It was a group of artists that became the locals’ saviour, founding a getaway for creatives who paid for their room and board by leaving sketches and paintings. Their old house is now a gallery, and just wandering the village’s low arches and cobbles makes you grateful for what might have been so easily lost.

For more medieval wonders, Drena lies just 15km from Lake Garda, and has a rather beautiful castle overlooking the Sarca Valley. Dating from the 12th century, it is surrounded by chestnut forests (and famed for its sweet chestnuts) and the walk all the way to Malgo Campo is one of the most serene in the area.

Torbole sul Garda is also well worth exploring and this blustery part of the lake is popular with windsurfers. Try your hand at the watersport or take a stroll through the town instead, pausing to appreciate the picturesque harbour.

From Torbole sul Garda, you can walk north to reach the rock-top town of Nago (described by Goethe in his Italian Journey). Visit its cliff-side Penede castle for sweeping views across the mossy mountains and the glassy surface of the lake.

Finish in Dro, a traditional village south of the Paganella peak. Its stone doorways, towers and arches speak to its medieval origins, while churches and Roman bridges set the scene for a stroll into the natural reserve of stony marocche. A gloriously peaceful escape from the world.  

     

Tour the old town centres

It is said that Riva del Garda is the pearl of Lake Garda, and while it makes for a laid-back base for escapes out on the water, its centre is just as enticing.

Scattered with relics of the past, take time to explore sites like the Apponale, a 13th-century watchtower gazing out over the port and piazza, or the Palazzo Pretorio, which was built just as Venetian rule faded in the area. Prize of place, however, goes to the Roca, a one-time fortress, palace and barracks that now hosts the city’s excellent museum.       

Away from Riva del Garda, relics of the area’s rule under the Austro-Hungarian Empire scatter the land. Arco is especially rich in these, and was where Archduke Albrecht von Habsburg built his winter residence and lavished his great wealth on the town’s villas, palace and arboretum. The town’s history goes back much further, however, and its rock-top castle is one of the finest in the area, with a simply stunning view above Garda Trentino and home to many events throughout the year.

 

When is the best time to go to Garda Trentino? 

Spring sees the hiking/cycling trails and mountains start to fill up, as wildflower-strewn walks and a host of festivals burst onto the scene. Summer is when the lake waters seem ever more appealing,with regattas, windsurfers and beach dwellers taking over. Autumn is a good time for walking, food and wine, and when the local vineyards yield their harvest, while winter sees a bounty of Christmas markets take over the lake.

What’s the weather like in Garda Trentino? 

Garda Trentino has a sub-Mediterranean climate. Mild winters (bottoming out around 6ºC) and warm summers topping 27ºC at their peak greet visitors to this Alpine outpost. Lake Garda can be windy, which makes it ideal for sailing. It has two main breezes: the morning Peler, which blows north to south, and the afternoon Ora, which blows in from the south.   

How to get to Garda Trentino

The nearest airports to Riva del Garda are Verona-Villafranca Valerio Catullo Airport (85km) and Orio al Serio Bergamo Airport (130km), where rental cars can easily be hired. Alternatively, Rovereto (20km) is the closest railway station and is two hours from Milan. 

Essential information

Currency: Euro (€), currently €1.09 to the UK£.
Language: Italian (but most people can speak German and English) 
Useful websites: Visit the Garda Trentino website for lots of useful information. Click here for information on outdoor activities. Find local accommodation options here

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