When it comes to inspiring landscapes, it’s hard to beat a beautiful lake – there’s something about the sparkling waters, especially when combined with dramatic peaks, that creates an utterly picturesque and relaxing effect. This fact is no secret, meaning that the lakes of northern Italy are magnets for mass tourism when the weather is warmer. But away from the honeypots of Como, Garda and Maggiore, there’s a less-visited alternative with all the charm but without the crowds.
Rich in tradition, Lake Iseo, enriched with authentic food and fine wines, has nothing to envy to its bigger competitors. As well as being an ideal place for a peaceful break, it also offers exceptional opportunities for outdoor activities, with its tree-covered cliffs perfect for scenic hikes.
About 30 miles west of Lake Garda, Iseo sits midway between the cities of Brescia and Bergamo, and is neatly split in half between the two provinces. Franciacorta, one of Italy’s most renowned sparkling wine regions, kisses the southern tip of the lake, while to the north rise the mountains of Valle Camonica. It has everything.
The charm of Monte Isola
Europe’s largest lake island, Monte Isola, is a must-see for its charming villages, delicious food (lake fish and salami are specialties), and its off-the-beaten-path vibe, despite a small but thriving local community and long-standing web-generating industry. Rent a bike from Guizzetti (0039 3402308569; guizzettirentalbike.wordpress.com) near the ferry terminal in Peschiera Maraglio to explore the five-mile perimeter of the car-free island, hike to the Santuario di Ceriola at 600m or just relax swimming and a meal at a lakeside restaurant. The historic Castello Oldofredi (0039 030 986 9424; oldofrediresidence.it) is a lovely place to stay in Peschiera with an olive garden and terrace restaurant, while La Foresta (0039 030 988 6210; forestamontisola.it) is run by a fisherman and his family, has an excellent restaurant and 10 bedrooms overlooking the water.
On the other side of the island, La Canogola (0039 030 982 5310; canogola.it) serves typical specialties and offers basic accommodation and a waterfront garden in a delightfully tranquil setting.
Iseo and the South
The attractive historic center of the town of Iseo on the south shore of the lake has a number of piazzas where a colorful market is held every Tuesday and Friday and an interesting church complex, Sant’Andrea and San Silvestro. As well as the many waterfront restaurants, there are some good options down the side streets, such as Osteria Ca’ de Cindri (0039 030 982 1543; facebook.com/osteria.cadecindri) which has a particularly good wine list. West of Iseo, the pretty little port of Clusane has a wealth of quality traditional seafood restaurants, including the delightful 160-year-old Trattoria del Porto (0039 030 989014; alportoclusane.it) in a stone palazzo opposite the marina.
battlements and frescoes
About three miles north of Iseo, Sulzano has the main ferry stop to Monte Isola, while Marone, along with the island itself, is the main center for the production of high quality olive oil. In the hills above Marone, a footpath connects a group of so-called “earth pyramids” (odd pinnacles formed by erosion) and the nearby old-fashioned Trattoria Belvedere (0039 030 987205; tinyurl.com/2p95hb44) is the spot for delicious food and fabulous View over the lake.
Beyond the steep Corna Trentapassi promontory lies attractive Pisogne, where the 13th-century Torre del Vescovo tower (free to climb) stands in the waterfront piazza and impressive frescoes by Renaissance artist Romanino adorn the church of Santa Maria della Neve.
Roman Relics and Bond Connections
Even sheer cliffs give the western side of the lake a dramatic profile and provide training grounds for serious rock climbers. Lovere has an elegant waterfront and interesting sights such as the ornate interior of the Basilica di Santa Maria from 15 Sirena (0039 035 932920; tinyurl.com/yh39dchs) is a lovely spot for a meal. Another great place to eat is the romantic lakeside garden restaurant, Il Gabbiano (0039 035 938481; facebook.com/ristorsharegabbianopredore) in Predore, which is also home to a fascinating Roman spa archaeological site (free entry).
At the southwestern tip of the lake, Sarnico and Paratico are separated by a bridge over the Oglio River. Paratico is home to a working steam train from the 1930s (ferrovieturistiche.it/en/trenoblu), while the historic Riva shipyard just outside Sarnico continues to produce luxury motorboats and yachts featured in James Bond and other films.
head for the hills
The peat lakes of the Torbiere del Sebino Nature Reserve in the Franciacorta wine region south of Lake Iseo are home to waterfowl, including marsh harriers, purple herons and bitterns. There are hiding places for bird watchers and a circular walk starting at the Monastery of San Pietro in Lamosa, which has some interesting 15th and 16th century frescoes. The vine-covered Villa L’Albereta (0039 030 776 0550; www.albereta.it) is a wonderful place to stay or dine in Franciacorta.
North of Lake Iseo, Valle Camonica is famous for its amazing prehistoric rock carvings, delicious cheeses, imposing mountains and – in winter – good skiing. The pretty village of Bienno, 24 km north of the lake, is perfect for a short visit to the area with its craft workshops, old metalworking tradition and working water mill. Travel back in time at the Bar Antico (Piazza Roma), which lives up to its name, and enjoy tasty mountain specialties like cheese-stuffed gnocchi at La Caldera de Noscent (0039 0364 300474; facebook.com/ristorantelacaldera).
The flavors of Iseo
Saltwater fish such as perch, chub and tench feature on restaurant menus, sometimes as a filling for pasta, while Monte Isola’s tasty sardines (not really sardines, but allis shad), air-dried and preserved in oil, are usually a specialty and are usually served with polenta. The island also produces a lightly smoked salami, while the cheeses from Valle Camonica north of the lake, such as the savory Silter and smooth Rosa Camuna, are exceptional.
The Franciacorta region produces some of Italy’s best sparkling wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco grapes and in styles such as smooth Satèn, bold Riserva and fresh Pas Dosé. A good time to visit is September for the Festival del Franciacorta, when wineries host tastings, bike rides, picnics, and other events. However, most visitors are welcome all year round. Try small family-run wineries like Bosio (bosiofranciacorta.it), run by siblings Cesare and Laura Bosio, or nearby Bersi Serlini (bersiserlini.it).
Experiencing the lake from the water opens up a whole new perspective and while ferries are perfect for crossing the lake and reaching Monte Isola, a private boat trip allows you to stop for a swim, explore secluded coves and see private islands. The last date (September 10th) of the classical music festival Onde Musicali offers a rare opportunity to set foot on one of them, the Isola di Loreto. Nautica Bertelli (nauticabertelli.it) rents motor boats for self-drive or with a skipper, among other things.
To explore the water on your own, various windsurfing, canoeing and paddleboard centers such as Sportaction (sportaction.it) on the west coast and Sassabanek (sassabanek.com) in Iseo organize lessons and rentals, and there are numerous paddling or swimming spots .
Cyclists of all types and levels have many routes to choose from. The River Oglio cycle path, for example, leads from the mountainous Valle Camonica in the north, past the lake and south to the Franciacorta vineyards. For bike rentals, routes and accompanied rides see Iseo Bike (iseobike.com).
The options for hikers are endless, from easy walks to challenging hikes. The Antica Strada Valeriana runs along the eastern edge of the lake from Pilzone to Pisogne, passing the Zone erosion pyramids and other sights. On Monte Isola, the Santuario della Ceriola hill is a popular destination for hikers, while the circumnavigation route offers a good way to see the island without the climb. Predore is an ideal base for hiking in the hills south-west of the lake and one of the region’s top bases for rock climbers.
need to know
The nearest airport is in Bergamo and is served by Ryanair (ryanair.com) and EasyJet (easyjet.com).
The visitlakeiseo.info website offers a wealth of information, tips and links on everything from events and activities to accommodation and transport.
This article will be updated with the latest information.