There’s no denying that Italy is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It makes a perfect destination for a scenic road trip, especially in iconic areas like Tuscany and northern Italy, and my one-week north Italy road trip itinerary will surely tick all the boxes for you.
Visiting this region is one of the best things to do in Italy for travelers who love charming small towns, picturesque views, excellent Italian drinks and food (the best food in the world!), and scenic hiking trails.
To help you make the most of your holidays on Lake Garda, Lake Como, and Lake Maggiore, here’s my full itinerary.
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NORTH ITALY ITINERARY SUMMARY AND MAP
Here’s a quick summary of my road trip in northern Italy (fly to and back from Milan, and pick up and return the car at the airport):
Day 2 – Lake Garda: Bardolino, Borghetto, and Peschiera del Garda.
Day 3 – Lake Garda: Tenno, Riva del Garda, and Malcesine.
Day 5 – Lake Como: Varenna and Bellagio (suggested hotel: 2 night at Villa Lucciola in Stresa, Lake Maggiore).
Day 6 – Lake Maggiore: Stresa and the Borromean Islands.
Day 7 – Lake Maggiore and Lake Orta: Cannobio and Orta San Giulio + flight back from Milan.
Click here to access the My Maps interactive map of this road trip.
NORTHERN ITALY ROAD TRIP ITINERARY – GENERAL TIPS AND NOTES
HIGHLY-RATED FULL-DAY TOURS IN THE AREA
If you want to change this itinerary a bit and visit some more places in northern Italy (while still basing yourself on the lakes and without driving), here are a few highly-rated day trips you might find interesting:
- A full-day tour from Lake Garda to Venice
- A full-day tour from Lake Garda to the Dolomites
- A full-day tour from Lake Garda to Verona
- Lake Garda full-day tour
- A half-day wine tasting tour from Lake Garda
We found a great one-week deal on Avis, but I always start by comparing multiple car rental companies’ prices on Rentalcars. You can browse the latest car rental deals here to find the best one for you.
I’ve planned a circular northern Italy road trip from Milan, so the starting point was the city’s airport. As for picking up the car, you need patience. The Italian guys working in those car rental companies (not only in Avis) can drive you nuts sometimes.
They work slowly and try to find problems instead of making this process easy for you, and it can be frustrating, so patience is key. On the other hand, returning the car went smoothly. Also, be sure to bring your driving license as well as an international driving permit.
Tip #1: Many car rental companies offer deals on one-week bookings, so sometimes it’s cheaper to have a car for 7 days instead of 6 (and even one hour beyond the six days counts as the seventh day).
Tip #2: If possible, go for a small car because you’ll be driving through the lakes’ narrow roads.
DRIVING IN NORTHERN ITALY
I know that driving in Italy can seem intimidating (thanks to the stereotype of crazy Italian drivers, which is sometimes true), but driving in northern Italy was actually okay for me.
On highways, they just go faster than you, and on the winding roads of the lakes, they usually honk to let you know that they’re about to pass you.
As long as you’re in the right lane, it really is fine (though you should always be extra cautious when driving in a foreign country).
WHEN TO VISIT NORTHERN ITALY
To enjoy the lakes without the crowds and have the most amazing weather, plan your trip in late spring or early fall.
OTHER THINGS TO KNOW
Parking (that doesn’t belong to your accommodation) is never free, so one of my biggest Italy travel tips would be to make sure you have spare change for the parking meters. You should also have some change for toll roads.
This north Italy travel itinerary also takes into consideration driving times; since the lakes are big and the roads are winding, moving between towns takes some time.
NORTH ITALY ROAD TRIP DAY 1 – GETTING TO LAKE GARDA
We picked up our car at Milan’s airport and hit the road at about 4:00 PM. We had landed three hours before, but the lines at the passport control and the car rental company were crazy, so our first day was only a half-day.
Our accommodation on Lake Garda was in the town of Tremosine Sul Garda, located on the western side of the lake (which is also home to one of the best motorcycling roads in Europe – Strada Della Forra).
Getting there from Milan took us about two hours, but the road got strikingly beautiful very quickly. After accommodating ourselves, our journey began.
WHERE TO STAY IN TREMOSINE SUL GARDA
I stayed at an apartment hotel called Hotel Residence Campi. Our apartment was spacious and clean, and we had some amazing views from the balcony.
The entire complex offers many facilities like a gym, mini-golf court, and a pool, but we haven’t used them. There’s also an on-site restaurant that offers great Italian food.
The downside of this accommodation is that the road leading to it is very steep and parts of it don’t have street lights. Its location might also be the reason the wifi was quite slow.
Other highly-rated accommodations in the area you might want to check out:
Mid-range: Located in Limone sul Garda (a few miles away from Tremosine), both Residence La Madonnina and Appartamenti Ca’ nei Vicoli offer fully equipped apartments (some with lake views) and free parking nearby. Also located in Limone sul Garda, the 3-star Garni Gianmartin offers spacious rooms with lake views, breakfast, an on-site bar, and free parking.
Luxury: Housed in a historical building in Limone sul Garda, the b&b Casa L’Andrunèl offers spacious rooms and suites for 2-3 people, an on-site restaurant, and free parking.
LIMONE SUL GARDA
I would have liked to see more of Limone Sul Garda in the daylight, but even when it got darker, it still looked like a postcard.
We took advantage of what was left of our day and spent some time eating dinner and strolling around town.
NORTH ITALY ROAD TRIP DAY 2 – SOUTHERN LAKE GARDA
Bardolino is one of the sweetest towns on Lake Garda, located on its southeastern shore.
Apart from its colorful streets, it is famous for its Thursday open-air market, a 1-km market stretching along the promenade. Amongst the different stalls, you can find local food and wines, souvenirs, and clothing.
In Bardolino, you can also book a wine tour and tasting at a local cellar.
Since Borghetto sits on the River Mincio (only a few km away from Lake Garda but not on the lake itself), it remains a hidden village that many travelers skip out on, and that’s why I loved this place.
It is a small village, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty. With ancient watermills, a medieval bridge, colorful houses, and the river passing through it, the charming Borghetto is well worth a visit.
If you’re looking for the best food in Italy, it’s also a fantastic place to devour local tortellini called Nodo d’Amore (translated to ‘Love Knot’ and connected to a legend about an impossible love story – perfect for those who love European myths and legends).
PESCHIERA DEL GARDA
Peschiera del Garda might seem like just another Italian town, but it has great historical importance.
Its Venetian defense walls are impressive and well-preserved works of the Venetian Republic, and they were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After spending some time exploring this town, we had the most amazing gelato at La Gelateria HomeMade (Via Rocca, 4). I recommend trying the Nutella-flavored gelato as it was heavenly!
NORTH ITALY ROAD TRIP DAY 3 – NORTHERN LAKE GARDA
I am obsessed with lakes, lagoons, seas, and oceans with dreamy colors. Luckily, not too far from the north shore of Lake Garda, hides this magical turquoise little lake.
To thoroughly enjoy it, try to visit Tenno in the morning for the best weather and before the crowds arrive.
BORGO MEDIEVALE DI CANALE DI TENNO AND CASTELLO DI TENNO
If you’re looking for hidden gems in Italy and you love medieval villages as much as I do, then Borgo Medievale di Canale di Tenno will steal your heart!
Only a few km away from Lake Tenno, you’ll find cobbled alleys, stone houses, and archways that will take you back in time.
Make another stop at Castello di Tenno (right next to the hotel and restaurant Antica Croce), a castle that hides a few more charming medieval alleys behind it.
I have to say that as tiny as these places are, they are seriously some of the most enchanting spots I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit.
Not too far from there, you can also visit the Varone Waterfall.
RIVA DEL GARDA
Riva del Garda is famous for being a perfect spot to enjoy all sorts of water sports, but it is also great for a casual stroll.
It has a few historical points of interest like Torre Apponale and Porta di San Michele, incredible views, and a vibrant yet laid-back atmosphere.
Of all the towns on Lake Garda, Malcesine has to be my favorite one. Of course, they are all colorful and beautiful, but Malcesine is off the charts!
You’ll inevitably fall in love with its port and maze of narrow cobbled streets filled with restaurants, cafes, and shops.
Go souvenir shopping, grab a cup of coffee or eat some gelato, and wander around to enjoy a pleasant afternoon in this magnificent place.
NORTH ITALY ROAD TRIP DAY 4 – LAKE GARDA’S PEARL
A week in northern Italy would not be complete without visiting Sirmione, one of the main reasons why Garda is one of the best lakes to visit in Italy.
Besides being a famous resort town and home to some of Lake Garda’s best thermal baths and water sports facilities, it’s full of enchanting alleys and stunning views, and also has a rich history.
The fortress dated back to the 13th century; the Grottoes of Catullus, the remains of an ancient Roman villa; the old churches; all of these prove that Sirmione is more than just another pretty town and why it’s called ‘the pearl of Lake Garda.’
Bonus tip: Challenge yourself, and try to pick a few gelato flavors out of 120 at Gelateria Mirkoz (Via Vittorio Emanuele, 26).
OPTIONAL: IL LEONE SHOPPING CENTER
Before continuing to our next accommodation on Lake Como, we made a stop at Il Leone Shopping Center, where we had some shopping time and a quick meal. I dedicated one day to Lake Como, but you can spend 1-2 extra days there.
NORTH ITALY ROAD TRIP DAY 5 – LAKE COMO
WHERE TO STAY IN LAKE COMO
You’ll find plenty of amazing places to stay in Lake Como, but it’s important to choose the right town for you.
We stayed at a bed & breakfast in a village called Dorio (which was very close to the famous and popular town of Varenna), but unfortunately, it is not available at the moment.
Here are other highly-rated places to stay in that area of Lake Como (not too far from Varenna):
B&B Valle dei Mulini: Located a 5-minute drive away from Varenna, this bed and breakfast offers double, triple, and quadruple rooms with lake or mountain views. You’ll also have access to a shared terrace and free private parking. See the latest prices here.
Being one of the most picturesque towns of Lake Como, Varenna is more than worth the visit.
I recommend getting here early in the morning before the crowds arrive. You’ll have Varenna all to yourself, and you’ll be able to explore it and photograph it quietly and without interruptions.
Extra tip: You can also hire a boat on Lake Como (in Varenna for example) if you want to see more of the lake without driving around it.
Being a popular tourist resort town and famous for its villas overlooking the lake, Bellagio has both a luxurious and cozy atmosphere. This bustling small town offers countless cafes, restaurants, and shops, flower-adorned alleyways, and perfect lake views.
We spent our afternoon and evening sitting on the waterfront and exploring its streets.
To finish off our visit to Bellagio, we had a great dinner at the rooftop restaurant Bilacus (
From there, we continued our journey to our accommodation near Stresa on Lake Maggiore, which is not only a part of Italy – it’s also one of the best lakes to visit in Switzerland.
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NORTH ITALY ROAD TRIP DAY 6 – LAKE MAGGIORE
WHERE TO STAY ON LAKE MAGGIORE
We stayed at an apartment in Stresa, but apart from the incredible lake views, our stay could have been much better.
Stresa itself is still a good place to find accommodation on Lake Maggiore, so here are a few highly-rated options to consider:
Villa Lucciola: This B&B offers fully equipped and spacious apartments for 2-6 people, free private parking, and garden & lake views. Read all the reviews and browse the latest prices here.
THE BORROMEAN ISLANDS – ISOLA BELLA, ISOLA MADRE, AND ISOLA DEI PESCATORI
The Borromean Islands are a must-visit when you only have 1 week in northern Italy. They are a group of islands and islets near the town of Stresa. Their name comes from the Borromeo family, which started owning them in the 16th century.
The three islands that are open for visits are:
Once a deserted piece of rock, Isola Bella has become home to a luxury Baroque summer palace and impressive wide gardens where you’ll also see some white peacocks wandering around.
Touring the palace and gardens along with the surrounding lake views provided some enchanting and memorable moments. The admission is €18, but if also visit the palace and gardens of Isola Madre, you can buy a combo ticket for €25.
This is the largest of the islands and is also known for its palace and gardens which date back to the 16th-19th centuries.
After paying for the entrance to the palace and gardens on Isola Bella which were magnificent, we decided not to spend money to enter the gardens at Isola Madre, so our stop there was unnecessary.
The admission is €15, but if also visit the palace and gardens of Isola Bella, you can buy a combo ticket for €25.
ISOLA DEI PESCATORI (OR ISOLA SUPERIORE)
As tiny as this island is, it houses quite a few hotels, shops, and restaurants. It is charming and picturesque and makes a nice extra stop.
Getting there: The access to the islands is by ferry/boat. You can either book a hop-on hop-off boat tour (that doesn’t include tickets to the palaces), book a package of a boat transfer + entrance to the palaces, or purchase ferry tickets directly at Stresa’s ferry terminal (like I did) and get your palace tickets at the ticket offices on the islands.
Alternatively, you can book a Borromean Islands day trip from the town of Cannobio.
Visiting season: The islands are open to the public from March to October. You don’t have to visit all three islands, and you can buy tickets according to your preferences.
After a long day of island hopping, we spent a couple of hours walking the beautiful streets of Stresa’s city center.
Like all towns in the Italian lake district, Stresa also flaunts its cobbled streets, cute shops, and little cafes and restaurants. However, each town has its unique flavor and rhythm.
Not too far from Stresa, you can also visit the gorgeous Botanical Gardens of Villa Taranto, which are open to the public from mid-March to October.
Read more about northern Italy:
- Is Turin worth visiting?
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NORTH ITALY ROAD TRIP DAY 7 – LAKE MAGGIORE AND LAKE ORTA
We had some spare time on our northern Italy itinerary, so we decided to visit two unique places before heading back to Milan to return the car.
Cannobio sits on Lake Maggiore in the Piedmont region, quite close to Italy’s border with Switzerland. After wandering a bit through its streets, we walked along the colorful promenade, enjoying both the breeze and the views around us.
Bonus tip: Stop at Pasticceria Castello (Via Francesco Magistris, 30) for the perfect little tiramisu (and other delicious Italian desserts)!
ORTA SAN GIULIO
Sitting on Lake Orta, Orta San Giulio is a small medieval town you do not want to miss in the region of Piedmont. Besides its undeniable beauty, it has a relaxed and authentic vibe that will make you want to stay forever.
It also overlooks the Island of San Giulio, a cute little island whose main attraction is the Basilica di San Giulio. We have not visited the island, but it is accessible by boat.
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