Europe's coastlines and astounding beaches may get all the attention as summer comes, but the continent's lakes should not be overlooked. Italy boasts glamorous, mountain-ringed waters, Croatia offers up saltwater sensations and England is home to moody pastoral scenes. Whether you want to swim, SUP, cycle or chill out on the beach, Europe has a lake for every kind of adventure.

We asked our expert writers to share their favorite lakes for a holiday in Europe — here are 12 of the best. 

Lake Levico and Lake Caldonazzo, Italy

Recommended by Daniel James Clarke 

Trentino's legendary Lake Garda and cloud-defying Dolomites need little introduction. But hidden between these headliners is unsung Valsugana, harboring its pair of pristine rivals. Lake Levico (Lago di Levico), the smaller of the two, is a fjord-like fantasy: narrow, squeaky-clean waters flanked by sloping pines. Motorized water sports are prohibited, meaning the Blue Flag beach – Levico is one of Europe's warmest lakes – and shore-tracking paths are soundtracked solely by birdsong. Embrace the stillness and go SUPing, gliding over mirror-like waters and sunken treasure – chests of sparkling Trentodoc wine mature twenty meters below. Meet the characterful brothers behind these aquatic vinos at Cantina Romanese for a scuba-free vineyard tasting.

Adrenaline needed? Cross to neighboring Lake Caldonazzo (Lago di Caldonazzo), where world champion Tomas Degasperi leads exhilarating waterski lessons. Back on dry land, iron-rich thermal spas, a stargazing observatory and the open-air forested sculpture gallery Arte Sella await. Then there's all the food. Pizza, pasta and gelato are a given – lakeside Gelateria Bellavista is sweet-tooth heaven – but don't overlook the regional Italian-Austrian flavors, such as canederli, cheese-stuffed bread dumplings. The best part? Unlike Italy's upscale, mansion-lined lakes, Valsugana's camping grounds, agriturismos (farm stays) and wellness resorts accommodate all budgets.

A beautiful Italian town sits on the edge of Lake Garda, with mountains in the background.
Admire gorgeous towns like Malcesine on the bank of Italy's Lake Garda © Lukasz Szwaj / Shutterstock

Lake Garda, Italy

Recommended by Julia Buckley

It’s big enough to resemble the seaside, and is fringed by picture-perfect villages and dotted with archaeological sites: Lake Garda (Lago di Garda) is Italy in beautiful miniature. Its mild Mediterranean climate – the only one of Italy’s lakes to have one – means that fragrant lemon groves blossom by the shoreline, while hotels cling to the sunny cliffsides. There’s something for everyone here. Archaeology lovers will want to head to Sirmione, the snake-shaped peninsula jutting into the south of the lake, where there’s a Roman villa and spa on the waterfront; to go even further back in time, at the far north end, you’ll find the remains of 4,000-year-old huts at the tiny Lake Ledro, suspended in the mountains just behind the northwestern corner of Garda. 

Fans of more recent history will be fascinated by the Vittoriale degli Italiani, the outré home of the controversial early 20th-century writer Gabriele d’Annunzio – the sprawling grounds contain a warship in the garden. If you want to visit towns and villages, there’s stately Desenzano del Garda, and pretty Lazise and Limone sul Garda. Leading northwards from Limone is a walkway and cycle path cantilevered over the still water. Want to get closer? Rent a boat to zip around the lake at will.

A cable car rises with the massive Lake Constance in the background.
Admire Lake Constance from the Pfänderbahn cable car in Bregenz © andhal / Getty Images

Lake Constance; Germany, Austria and Switzerland 

Recommended by Luke Waterson

Central Europe’s second-largest freshwater body of water after Lake Geneva, Lake Constance laps at the borders of Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Its shores are encircled by a 260km cycle path that, combined with the use of cross-lake ferries, lets you experience all three countries in as little as a single day, making it one of the world’s most culturally fascinating lakes. 

Vibrant arts hub Bregenz is the toast of the Austrian lakeside, with a cable car climbing to the 1064m peak of Pfänder for the most dramatic lake overview. Around German Lake Constance, ogle Pfahlbaumuseum Unteruhldingen, an open-air museum featuring reconstructed ancient lake dwellings, or the hulking fortress of Burg Meersburg with its drawbridge and dungeons. You can also voyage to Mainau near Konstanz, a garden island that dazzles with its Mediterranean flowers, elaborate topiaries and a Baroque castle. Sojourn to Switzerland’s swathe of the lake, stopping in at picturesque settlements like medieval Stein am Rhein with its winsome half-timbered buildings. Just because it's rich in cultural experiences doesn’t mean the lake lacks in the delightful countryside: get away from it all by strolling vineyards near Meersburg or hiking hilly trails around Pfänder.

The light shines over the trees and water of Veliko Lake in Mljet.
Mljet's Veliko Jezero is a beautiful saltwater lake on the Croatian island © Lottie Davies/Lonely Planet

Malo Jezero and Veliko Jezero, Croatia

Recommended by John Garry 

Can't decide between lakeside or seafront? Consider Mljet – an island so enchanting Odysseus (of mythological fame) stayed for seven years. Homer's Odyssey credits the nymph Calypso for his extended stint, but we'd like to believe the island's two saltwater lakes did the trick – Malo Jezero (Little Lake) and Veliko Jezero (Big Lake). Take a boat trip on Veliko Jezero to Sveta Marija (St. Mary's Island), where a 12th-century Benedictine monastery rises from the blue, or rent a kayak to paddle the perimeter at your own pace.

The real treat, however, is jumping in the water. Mljet's lakes are warmer than the sea – particularly Malo Jezero. Dive deep enough and you can spot sea cucumbers, giant clams and the endemic Aurelia jellyfish – a harmless invertebrate. Both lakes line Mljet National Park – a 5400-hectare preserve thick with Aleppo pine and holm oak. Hiking the park makes a fine day trip from Dubrovnik (two hours away by ferry), but with a setting this seductive, you might wind up pulling an Odysseus. Plan on resting your head at the aptly named Hotel Odisej Mljet, which overlooks the Adriatic.

A beautiful church rises out of the trees in front of a lake with mountains in the background.
The Church of the Assumption is the most famous view of Slovenia's Lake Bled © Andrea Comi/Getty Images

Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

Recommended by Mark Baker 

Lakes tend to be drop-dead gorgeous or loads of fun to splash around in — but rarely both. Slovenia solves this problem nicely with two incredible lakes – Bled and Bohinj – just 25 km (15 miles) apart. With its dramatic alpine backdrop, Lake Bled is the looker, while larger Lake Bohinj, lined by kayak and SUP-rental outfits, is the fun one (but truth be told, it’s a beautiful body of water as well). 

Start your exploration with a walk around Lake Bled and a visit to grand Bled Castle. Hire a pletna, a wooden boat that resembles a Venetian gondola, and sail out to tiny, magical Bled Island. Before leaving, treat yourself to a piece of kremšnita, Bled’s legendary cream cake. The restaurant at Bled Castle makes a good one. Over at Lake Bohinj, in addition to swimming and kayaking, you can hike around the lake, rent bikes or even go horseback riding in the surrounding hills. Hotel Bohinj, a restored lodge at the lakeside hamlet of Ribčev Laz, is equal parts sumptuous and wacky, but spares no expense spoiling its guests. The chefs at Restaurant Triglav work wonders with locally sourced Bohinj trout, which diners often mistake for salmon because of the meat’s pinkish color.

People are relaxing and laying on the grass field reading a book or admiring the panoramic view.
Lac D'Annecy is the perfect place for cycling and scenery © Shutterstock / oliverdelahaye

Lac d’Annecy, France

Recommended by Kerry Walker 

One minute you’re gazing in wonder at the wild, snow-dusted French Alps, the next it’s as though you’ve been teleported to another time and place on the palm-rimmed, promenade-ribboned shores of Lac d’Annecy (Lake Annecy). A splash south of Geneva, this dazzler of a glacier-carved, spring-fed lake in Haute-Savoie is France’s third biggest and Europe’s purest (honestly, your bath water is no cleaner). 

The town of Annecy at the lake’s northern cusp is the springboard for exploring, and my, is it pretty. The Vieille Ville is bedtime story stuff, with trickling canals and pastel-painted houses harboring enticing bistros, cafes and patisseries. And the cake-topper of a medieval castle, once home to the counts of Geneva, has 360° views over the rooftops to the Massif des Bauges that will make you audibly sigh. Good food? Mais oui…. Annecy has a galaxy of gourmet restaurants including three-Michelin-starred Le Clos des Sens. After a romantic stint in town, head to the lake to walk, mountain bike, swim, row, stand-up paddleboard, paraglide or simply crash on one of the beaches. The under-the-radar mountains of Parc Naturel Régional du Massif des Bauges and 1000-year-old Château de Menthon-St-Bernard make easy, memorable day trips.

High-angle view of Verdon Gorge and Lake of Sainte-Croix.
France's Verdon Gorge and Lac Sainte-Croix make for astounding views © Romrodphoto / Shutterstock

Lac de Sainte-Croix, France

Recommended by Chrissie McClatchie 

Look at a map of Provence and you’ll find Lac de Sainte-Croix right at the center. The gateway to the dramatic Gorges du Verdon, aka the "Grand Canyon of Europe," this man-made lake is France’s third largest. Its beauty lies not only in the shock of opaque turquoise water or the activities that can be enjoyed from its sandy shores (swimming, boating, windsurfing, pedalo-ing, canoeing, kayaking and more), but also the magazine cover-pretty villages that surround it that include Moustiers-Saintes-Maries, which clings to a mountain five kilometers away from the water's edge and Sainte-Croix-du-Verdon. If everything had gone according to plan when they flooded the Salles Valley to create the body of water in the late 1960s, the latter would have become inhabitable. 

During the lavender season (mid-June to mid-July), combine a visit to Lac de Sainte-Croix with a day in the fields of the Plateau de Valensole, which starts a little bit further along the road north from Sainte-Croix-du-Verdon.

Light shines over the rustic hills above a lake in England's Lake District.
The scenery at Buttermere is the stuff of Lake District dreams © Justin Foulkes/Lonely Planet

Buttermere and Crummock Water, England

Recommended by Tom Hall

While neither are, strictly speaking, lakes — just look at their names — Buttermere and Crummock Water are the perfect places to experience the Lake District. Their remote-feeling location in the north of the national park, relative lack of facilities and distance from the park's big-name mountains (Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Great Gable) generally mean this is a quieter area than the busy south Lakes. And so much the better for anyone who does get here: the two bodies of water are fringed by towering mountains with only a few narrow lanes and dry stone-walled fields to suggest any man-made influence. 

Pack your walking boots to get the most out of being here. If you're arriving in Buttermere Valley via the steep twists of Honister Pass, access one of the best views in all of England by taking the short walk to the top of Fleetwith Pike from the Honister Slate Mine car park. Or if you’d prefer to remain at ground level, there’s an easy 4.2 mi / 6.7 km circular stroll around Buttermere. Both lakes are excellent for slightly chilly swims. However you spend a day — or more, if you come camping or stay at Buttermere YHA — here, a pint at the Fish Inn is the perfect sundowner. The 77 and 77A bus operate circular services for Buttermere Village from Keswick.

Explore related stories

456482477
Colourful setting sun at Wells-Next-the-sea on the North Norfolk coast.  Image shows people walking along the waters edge of an incoming tide starting to cover up the beach with the beach huts and forest in the background.
Colourful setting sun at Wells-Next-the-sea on the North Norfolk coast. Image shows people walking along the waters edge of an incoming tide starting to cover up the beach with the beach huts and forest in the background.

Activities

15 top things to do in East Anglia

Jul 19, 2024 • 7 min read