Lake Garda is a mighty competitor to the title of most beautiful day-trip you can do from Milan. It is the largest lake in Italy, extremely popular with tourists and locals alike for its idyllic towns and crystalline waters.
There are countless spots to visit but you will spend a great day and get a taste of the best of Lake Garda's beauty if you follow this itinerary:
Milan > Desenzano del Garda > Sirmione > Peschiera/Desenzano del Garda > Milan
Access to Sirmione is not easy, as you don't have a direct rail connection and the buses from Desenzano run an absurdly infrequent schedule. And yet, the town is packed full of visitors, so do not underestimate the ferry queues! And lastly, bring a hat, as the harbor where you'll be standing in line before boarding is open, without any shade.
Desenzano del Garda
Between 0h51' and 1h22' away from Milan, the area around Desenzano del Garda has been a vacation spot since the first century, due to its proximity to Verona, one of the largest (Ancient) Roman cities. You'll walk through picturesque streets and squares with cafés, bars, and shops before reaching the harbor after only 1km.
Located on the tip of a "finger" that goes into the lake, there are few places as charming as Sirmione. Its fame is long-standing, going so far back as the Latin poet Catullus (c. 84 – c. 54 BC) praising its beauty.
It is a quick and cheap ferry ride from Desenzano, only 20 minutes away and costing €3 (one-way). Although you cannot buy the tickets online, you can check the timetable here.
If you go by car, prepare to struggle to find parking. Been there, done that and only managed to park 3km away from the old town. Not fun, and I definitely do not recommend.
But taking the ferry, you'll arrive directly in the old town, at its main square, Piazza Carducci.
Whichever way you choose, half the fun of Sirmione is getting lost on the small streets and stroll along the waterline. But the main points of interest are:
- Rocca Scaligera (Scaligero Castle) is a fortress with a moat that dominates the old town. Building started at 1277 and it's one of the most well-preserved castles in Italy.
- Grotte di Catullo (Grottoes of Catullus) is only 1km away from the Castle and contains the ruins of two Roman villas from the 1st century. Although it's unlikely that Catullus lived in this exact location, he most certainly had a villa in the area.
Peschiera del Garda
(an alternative to Desenzano del Garda)
After visiting Sirmione, you'll have to choose where to go to catch your train back to Milan.
If you don't want to return to Desenzano, you could take the ferry to Peschiera del Garda and quickly visit another city on this day trip. Check the ferry timetable here, as the times vary according to the season.
From there, you can hop on a train and reach Milano Centrale in between 0h57' and 1h36', roughly the same journey time from Desenzano.