Mention Italy’s Lake District and most people will think of the northern glacial lakes—Lake Maggiore, Lake Garda, and of course Lake Como. Their glitzy reputation as a playground for the rich and famous draws lots of visitors, especially in the summer months. Its gorgeous scenery draws more than 6 million visitors a year, putting it in the top 10 tourist destinations in Italy. But, central Italy also has an unsung lakes district that is easily accessible and well worth exploring. The three lakes may not have the dramatic alpine backdrop of the northern ones, but they do have a placid ambiance and splendor all of their own.
Lake Trasimeno is the fourth largest lake in Italy, sitting in Umbria at the Tuscan border. It’s laced with waterfront towns and castles, surrounded by sunflower fields and farmland. Three islands shimmer alluringly in the water, and ferries will take you to two of them for lunch or exploring. Lake Como may have George Clooney, but Lake Trasimeno has George Lucas, who lives in Passignano. (Okay, that may not be a fair comparison.)
To the south in the Lazio region is Lake Bolsena, an elliptical crater that is the largest volcanic lake in Europe. A trio of towns sits on the shore and most of the waterfront is undeveloped. The medieval town of Bolsena preserves its antique atmosphere above the lake, while Capodimonte is a mini-version of it, perched prettily on a low promontory. Then there’s Lake Bracciano, another volcanic-formed gem to the south of Lake Bolsena, and just an hour from Rome.
While Lake Trasimeno can seem brooding and Lake Bolsena a tad sedate, Lake Bracciano embodies the best lake experience to me, combining beaches, waterfront paths, intriguing towns, and water sports. It also offers year-round livability as well as affordability, with a milder climate than the northern lakes.
Lake Bracciano is just an hour from Rome but is a tranquil world away. Not so tranquil as to be dull, mind you, but placid. The only motors allowed are those of the ferries that connect the three lakeside towns. All other boats, including the fishermen, have to paddle. This ensures not only a peaceful ambiance but a safer environment for kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders who don’t have to contend with jet skis or motor boats.
Laidback Lakeside Living
While Como is hectic and pricy, Lake Bracciano is a lesser known, laidback alternative. The lake is certainly smaller, but ferries ply the water among the three towns. An evening out could be a boat trip to Trevignano Romano for sunset drinks and dinner, or a train ride into Rome for a meal and a show. Frequent rail and bus connections whisk you to Rome in an hour for all the cultural events and offerings of the capital city whenever you might like. By day you could paddle a canoe, enjoy a swim, windsurf, or go fishing. Lakeside promenades are dotted with shady plane trees, perfect for a stroll or bike ride, with some cafes strung about to enjoy a drink with a water view.
The Towns on Lake Bracciano
Three towns grace the shore of Lake Bracciano. On the south side of the lake are Bracciano and Anguillara Sabazia, while on the north side is teensy Trevignano Romano. Bracciano with its imposing 15th century castle sits above the lake and has a bustling feel. The town keeps a pleasant time-worn appeal, and the Odescalchi Castle frequently draws celebrity guests and weddings (Tom Cruise was married here). Because of its position on the hill, views are spectacular, especially from the upper Belvedere della Sentinella. It takes a bit more effort to enjoy the lake, as you have to descend to the waterfront, but there is more than a mile of expansive beach and easy access to water sports here. Rent a pedal boat, sailboat or canoe, or just grab an umbrella and chair and lounge with a book. With plenty of restaurants, cafes, wine bars and shops, it is a pleasant small city with the train station right in town.
Anguillara Sabazia is a stunning sight sitting on its lakeside promontory. The old town streets meander from the quay up the hillside providing a pleasant ascent to the castle ramparts amidst flower-box studded stone streets. From the upper piazza, lake views extend in breathtaking clarity, while to the right the medieval gateway still beckons into the streets of the old town. Beyond, towards Rome, the new town spreads out in suburb style, popular with commuting Romans who live near the Anguillara train station, but come into town for lake fun on the weekends.
Anguillara is big enough to provide all the daily services and amusements you need while retaining a small town feel and appeal with a sense of community. Lakeside restaurants and cafes are perfect for lingering and enjoying the sunshine, but old town eateries attract locals out for a pizza or a traditional trattoria meal at affordable prices. You can still enjoy a pizza and a beer for less than $12 here. Folks still stroll with arms linked, around the old town and along the shore. Life here is about a sane pace and simple pleasures, with a jaunt to the city whenever you want something more.
Outdoors sports are popular, with cyclists circling the lake, and walkers take to the country paths of the protected regional nature park right at the town’s doorstep. The tiny undeveloped Lake Martignano attracts those in the know for a swim, and trails lead off into the green-covered hills.
Lake Bracciano doesn’t just boast proximity to Rome, though. It’s also less than an hour from the Mediterranean Sea, and is at the gateway to Tuscia, the ancient Etruscan land where timeless places like Sutria, Vetralla, and Viterbo (and many more) offer endless exploration opportunities. So, while the northern lakes are surrounded by alpine peaks, the central lakes are ensconced amidst the rolling hills and classic hill towns we all love about Italy. In short, you’ll have abundant nature, beautiful countryside, ancient archeological sites, the Mediterranean coast, intriguing towns, and city life all in easy reach. It’s a wonder this central lakes district isn’t more popular, but its lack of crowds makes it all the more appealing.