The other Italian lake district, offering tranquil escapes without the crowds

Trasimeno in northwestern Umbria is central Italy's largest lake
Trasimeno in northwestern Umbria is central Italy's largest lake - alamy

Italy has a generous sprinkling of scenic lakes to discover beyond the famous destinations of the north. Many, including lovely Lake Bracciano and Lake Bolsena in Lazio and Lake Trasimeno in Umbria, are concentrated around the heart of the country.

Each is ideal for a free-standing trip or as part of an itinerant holiday, and while each has its own appeal, all offer watersports and swimming, cycling and walking. If you enjoy a good castle, look no further – almost all of the handsome lakeside towns and picturesque villages have one, with gorgeous views across the water.

Fishing traditions are deep-rooted and local chefs make good use of the lake fish, with perch, tench, carp, whitefish and smelt commonly found on menus grilled, fried, with pasta or in soups. Roman and Umbrian specialities, including artichokes, porchetta, pecorino cheese and tasty pasta and pulse-based dishes are very much in evidence too and there’s an enticing selection of local wines.

While the lakes can get busy in mid-summer with city dwellers fleeing the heat, at other times they are peaceful oases. Here is my pick of the best:

Lake Bracciano

The smallest of the three lakes, with a roughly circular 22-mile circumference, Bracciano is just an hour by train from Rome and while daytrippers come from the capital, you can make it your base to enjoy peaceful lakeside evenings. The ancient Romans built villas by the lake which today is surrounded by wooded hills, olive groves and reed beds interspersed with sailing schools and campsites between the lake’s three main settlements.

Bracciano is just an hour by train from Rome
Bracciano is just an hour by train from Rome - alamy

On the northern shore is Trevignano Romano, a charming village with black cobblestoned lanes made from the local volcanic stone and Blue Flag-status for its beaches. The ruins of a 13th-century castle overlooking the lake are free to explore and reached by well-kept steps. Freshwater fish, home-made pasta and seasonal veg are among the specialities served at restaurants including the excellent Il Porticciolo, located in a secluded bay with a lakeside garden and shady pergola, a short stroll from the centre.

The lively town of Bracciano, on the western shore, clusters around the magnificent and imposing 15th-century Odescalchi Castle, often chosen by international stars as a wedding location. The castle’s impressive interiors host Renaissance art and richly decorated rooms, and lake views are spectacular from the towers. Just outside Bracciano, the collection at the Italian Air Force Museum includes numerous historic planes.

Anguillara Sabazia, on the southern shore, has a wide waterside promenade and a maze-like historic centre with remains from ancient Roman, medieval and Renaissance times and narrow streets opening onto striking panoramas over the lake. The town’s favourite veg – broccoletti – is celebrated at an annual festival: Broccoletti in Piazza (in 2024 it’s on April 14).

Lake Bolsena

Romantic scenery, pretty villages, beaches of black volcanic sand, colourful traditions and fine wines aged in ancient caves make Lake Bolsena remarkable. The lake, Europe’s largest of volcanic origin, lies in northern Lazio, within the Tuscia area, home to a dense concentration of evocative Etruscan sites.

Bolsena itself has an attractive stone-built centre sloping up to a majestic medieval castle and, a five-minute stroll beyond, the fascinating Poggio Moscini Etruscan-Roman site. The Corpus Domini festival, celebrated with intricate flower-petal designs through the centre (June 2, 2024) originated at the Santa Cristina basilica, which has atmospheric catacombs.

Bolsena has an attractive stone-built centre sloping up to a majestic medieval castle
Bolsena has an attractive stone-built centre sloping up to a majestic medieval castle - alamy

While Bolsena’s lakeside trattorias specialise in freshwater fish, the centre’s delis, Antica Norcineria Morelli and Retrogusto, are ideal for platters of local produce.

On the western shore are the appealing villages of Marta and Capodimonte, starting point for round-the-island boat trips, while towering over the southern shore is Montefiascone, a key waypoint on the Via Francigena pilgrims’ route to Rome.

Montefiascone’s highest point is its statuesque fortress, the town’s cathedral dome is a landmark visible for miles and San Flaviano has some stunning frescoes and hosts the tomb of Johannes Defuk, the 12th-century wine lover to thank for the curious name of Montefiascone’s celebrated white wine, ‘Est! Est!! Est!!!’ Try some at the Fiera del Vino festival (August 1-15, 2024), with a tasting on the panoramic terrace at family-run Stefanoni or with typical dishes at trattorias such as the simple Dante. Semi-aromatic red Aleatico is the speciality wine of the northern edge of the lake; Antonella Pacchiarotti, whose tiny, historic winery is in the village of Grotte di Castro, makes six different versions.

Lake Trasimeno

With a 36-mile perimeter followed by a cycle path, Trasimeno in northwestern Umbria is central Italy’s largest lake. On a promontory on the western shore, close to the Tuscan border, stands Castiglione del Lago, the main centre, with a variety of restaurants, including Slow Food-endorsed L’Acquario. As well as tasty fish dishes, try the speciality fagiolina del Trasimeno beans and smooth wines made with Trasimeno gamay, the local name for grenache.

Passignano sul Trasimeno, on the north-eastern shore, has a charming fishing village vibe
Passignano sul Trasimeno, on the north-eastern shore, has a charming fishing village vibe - alamy

For more of the area’s wines, book a tasting at the nearby Madrevite winery. Come if you can for the Trasimeno rosé festival, held during Castiglione’s annual tulip festival (April 25-May 1, 2024) or for the Castello di Vino event at Corciano (early October).

Castiglione’s highlight, the richly frescoed Renaissance Palazzo della Corgna, is linked by a 180m passageway to a medieval fortress overlooking the lake; views from the ramparts are spectacular. Passignano sul Trasimeno, on the north-eastern shore, has a charming fishing village vibe, and its own panoramic castle, while at San Feliciano the historic Cooperativa Pescatori del Trasimeno offers fishing trips and a lakefront restaurant. Ferries leave from here to Isola Polvese, one of the lake’s three islands, hosting an environmental research centre. Isola Maggiore is home to a tiny community and sights include a museum dedicated to the island’s lace-making tradition; ferries here from Tuoro sul Trasimeno take just ten minutes.

A lovely place to stay near Tuoro is Montemelino an award-winning olive oil and wine estate with attractive accommodation in converted stone farm buildings. Also exuding Umbria’s characteristic countryside charm is the Podere Marella winery which has a delightful, secluded self-catering five-bedroom stone farmhouse, surrounded by woodland and vines.